Success, on a Small Scale

While some monumental artists starve, Jason Barnett carves out a creative niche in the figurine business

The two sculptural figures are exuberant. One, a man in a black tuxedo, leans over another, a woman in a pink dress. His right hand supports her back, and his left hand flies upward, holding a green bottle of Champagne. The woman, meanwhile, kicks up her left leg in wild abandon, the flesh of her thigh underneath her skirt meaty and curvy and suggestive, her head tossed back. And while both of the faces on the figures are a bit on the blank side, and not so stunningly rendered as some sculptures I have seen, there is something quite distinctive about the pair. Their sculptor, 28-year-old St. Paul artist Jason Barnett, holds them in the palm of his hand, each figure standing a little under three inches in height.

Barnett makes such sculptures in a tiny studio located at the back of his home on a quiet, residential stretch of St. Paul's Dayton Avenue, and he has done so for the past seven years. A freelance production artist for several local and international companies in the giftware and "collectible" industry, Barnett has fashioned a modestly lucrative, if obscure, career for himself since coming to the city in 1993. Barnett, a native of South Carolina, hadn't imagined professional success for himself back when he was at Gustavus Adolphus studying under sculptors Paul Granlund and Stan Shetka, and majoring in what he jokingly called "unemployment." Yet upon arriving in town a few months after graduation, he was almost immediately snapped up by a local art studio.

"There are a lot of companies [that make this kind] of international art in the Twin Cities," Barnett explains at his home studio on a recent snowy Wednesday. As we talk, we look at a few samples of his work--small figurines, Christmas-tree ornaments, tiny houses and buildings, all made of porcelain or some cheaper kind of ceramic. "No one knows about it. It's not really publicized. I was shocked. It was fascinating to find out, and encouraging."

Though Barnett's studio is a functional and bright room above the kitchen, the trappings of the artistic life are in scant supply. The walls and ceiling are unfinished, and only a light curtain hangs over the wall of windows. On a small coffee table rest a few boxed samples of his work. It is with some constant embarrassment that the warm-faced, dark-haired artist even takes me through his home. He spends a few stray moments pointing out the house's half-finished renovation projects, thereby bringing attention to them--a kind of punctilious artistic temperament that must serve him well in his craft. Even his actual work desk in his studio is quite humble by ordinary artistic standards. This cheap, metal-framed table of perhaps two by four feet holds only a small number of items: a lamp, a stand supporting a handful of tools such as files, knives, rasps, calipers, and a sharpened jeweler's screwdriver for close detail; a few blocks of a hard green jeweler's wax that he uses to make the figures; a drill-like implement for grinding; a small jeweler's heating tool similar to a wood-burner for melting the wax; and a few other objects.

Barnett describes putting together his commissioned pieces as a sometimes tricky process. Often, each creation is supposed to fit together with other elements in order to make larger sets. Such is the case with the two tiny dancers, just one component in a set of New Year's revelers placed in a Times Square-like setting with buildings and a faux tower that was commissioned for the New Year by Department 56, the well-established Eden Prairie company that produces ubiquitous holiday lines. As with other sculptors, Barnett spends a lot of time laboring to give the figures some amount of realism, even though they are so tiny, and to make them fit together. In a given year, Barnett sculpts 16 pieces or so for companies whose ranks include Department 56, along with VEE Corp, the Franklin Mint, and many other smaller companies. These outfits then either sell the items themselves through direct mail or through their own corporate stores, or they send the items to clients that have commissioned the work, such as Warner Bros., Disney, and the Minnesota Science Museum.

Barnett says that on average he works about 50 hours a week. Overall, the labor is detail-oriented and rather unchanging. To start, a company sends a detailed schematic of what they are looking to have sculpted. Barnett points to one such diagram clipped just above his desk. There are five or six drawings each of two figures, from various angles and in various sizes. The simple ink line sketches have typically been made by someone at the company; at least two versions are reproduced at the exact size the company requires, and several others will be reproduced at a larger size, to show the detail.

With the precise size in mind, Barnett then cuts a basic form out of a raw block of wax using a band saw that he keeps in his basement. "From there, I whittle at it," he says, pointing to his various tools, mostly adapted from wood carvers' and jewelers' implements. Often, he takes exact measurements against the original drawing using calipers. Occasionally, if he feels he has carved away too much somewhere, he will add wax back onto the figure using the small burning tool. The green wax is hard, yet has good smoothing qualities so that he can easily clean up any irregularity in his forms. Each project takes as much time as it takes. "You have to be patient and slow," he says. "And you have to have steady hands. It takes a long time to develop the patience and skills to pull this off."

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