Artists enter into the art world in various, and sometimes unique ways. Ceramic artist Shawna N.M. Barnes falls into the latter category. While she’d always enjoyed various forms of artistic expression; drawing, painting, polymer clay modeling, and others, it wasn’t until becoming disabled in 2011 that she was able to achieve a long desired dream and attend her first pottery class. That class turned out to be both a beginning and an end. It was the beginning of her journey into a form of expression that fulfilled her like no other, that allowed her to speak out against and speak for causes that she’s passionate about, that put forth and presented her ideals while providing emotional and physical relief from injuries past. It would also be the beginning of the end of her search for how to release the anger and annoyance as well as the love and passion she feels for the world around her. While it cannot be said that ceramics saved her, it did reinvigorate her in immeasurable ways.
Like many people, the only constant in Shawna’s life has been change. She was born in Iowa as the oldest of 6 girls into a military family and as any person born into those circumstances can attest, moving to a new location on a regular basis became a part of life. While not all moves are directly attributed to her early home life, in 33 years she’s lived in Iowa, Germany, Ohio, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, Maine multiple times, South Carolina, Arizona, Missouri, Texas, Georgia, and Iraq. In 2015, she and her husband finally found a place to call home in a lovely rural community in Knox, Maine.
After receiving a medical retirement from the Army, where she was a medic, Shawna attempted to retrain but was unable to do so successfully due to the recently (2017) diagnosed likely culprit - a neuromuscular autoimmune disease called Myasthenia Gravis - that had cut her military career short. For years she’d wanted to take a pottery class and finding a studio located a short distance from her now husbands home, she quickly made an appointment to attend. She was hooked within 10 minutes. She began by learning to throw on the wheel but as her health continued to decline and she lost much of the strength and ability to use her legs, her business was born by making small trinkets and handmade goods both at the studio when she could attend and at a small desk in a spare room in the apartment her and her husband shared. While she began playing with the idea of producing some smaller sculptures, it wasn’t until she moved to northern Maine that her focus began to shift from trinkets and hand built dinner ware to large statement pieces.
On the days when she can’t physically work with clay, Shawna uses that time to study her craft the best way she can - getting involved in discussions with other artists, reading about techniques through books and online, watching YouTube videos in an effort to improve her skills, acquiring background knowledge for her upcoming sculptures, and connecting with people through the use of social media. Many of the techniques Shawna utilizes have been discovered through trial and error; as an independent/solo artist, there is no one around to point out mistakes as they happen or correct small issues before they become big ones. While this limits her to a certain extent, Shawna is of the belief that it also affords her some unique opportunities because it removes the pressure that can come from having a teacher who likes things done in a certain way. It also enables her to discover or create a different way of accomplishing things; a necessity as a result of her disabilities.
In many if not most art forms, the development of the piece comes from the artist’s perspective. Experiences, emotions, and preferences are all brought into play as the creator looks to both express themselves while at the same time making a connection to those who are viewing it. Shawna’s statement pieces are aimed at doing just that. Because she’s a medically retired, disabled veteran, she’s uniquely involved in the issues within that community. PTSD and veteran suicide for example, are major drivers for the pieces she produces. . However, she doesn’t just limit herself to the issues facing veterans. In 2017 she began work on a series of sculptures that are inspired by animals of war. She invests time into researching specific jobs animals had during a variety of wars/conflicts ensuring that the piece is as accurate as possible while still allowing for artistic interpretation. Shawna attempts to create artwork that can create pathways for the exchange of ideas and perhaps the cultivation of change, foster a desire to learn more by the integration of history and art, and to inspire others. While these may seem like lofty goals, to her there is nothing profound in wanting to use your voice to make the world a better place.
While Shawna has made great strides in her art, she realizes she’s only scratched the surface on her education and skill development. However, while she may be limited in resources, this does not mean she’s unable to improve.
In 2012 she was involved in her first group exhibition as a member of the Veterans Arts and Crafts Group at the Time Gallery in Portland Maine. Since that inaugural show, Shawna has continued to push her boundaries. Each year she works hard to ensure that the next year she has art in one more show than the previous. Her hard work is paying off. In 2015, she had work in two shows, four in 2016, and four for 2017 (as of September).
To have her work displayed has been a great point of pride for Shawna. Knowing where she started and the work and dedication it’s taken to get to where she is now, is one of the main factors that continues her desire for improvement. That is not the only place her pride is derived from however. She also feels a great desire to not just complete show quality work, but to design and manufacture pieces that people want to display in their homes and thus far it’s a goal that’s been achieved. When asked about how they felt about the custom piece they received, Madison Rising bassist Tom DiPietro says,
“Now that the piece has been in my home for about 6 months, I feel that it is a constant reminder of a strong, loving bond that two people share, and the piece constantly provides opportunities for quiet reflection over this positive bond through its attention to detail, color choices, and high visual appeal.”
Mr. DiPietro went on further when asked about what others think of the piece,
“The art has elicited reactions of love and appreciation from my girlfriend, as it has enabled her to visualize our supportive bond in a more profound way then what mere words can express due to the endless possibilities for creative expression that art in itself can provide; in color, in shape, in texture, in concept, and in a myriad of other ways. Shawna delivered in spades with her detailed and purposeful creation of this piece.”
Reading her feedback from other clients on social media and from customer survey’s goes on to highlight the responses from Mr. DiPietro. While she is a developing artist, knowing that she’s on the right path with her work continues to drive her motivation.
Shawna N.M. Barnes has lived life as a teen mother, college student, traveler, soldier, and now as a "differently-abled" entrepreneur and artist. Her vast life experience at a young age provides her with a unique opportunity to use art in a magical way. Not to simply provide income for herself and family and not to try and make a name for herself simply because of her talent but instead to reach out to people, to start conversations, to make us question our own beliefs. Art, unlike other mediums, has a way to reach inside us and provoke a response unlike anything else. What a piece may mean or symbolize to one person, may evoke the opposite response in another and that’s the beauty of it. This is what Shawna Barnes hopes to capture and if her current works and ideas are any indication, she’s well on her way to achieving it.