Success, on a Small Scale

Smaller than Stuart Little: Sculptor Jason Barnett alongside a creation
Daniel Corrigan

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."

Once finished, he sends the wax figure, carefully wrapped, to the company, which in turn ships the figures off to China, where molds are fabricated out of plaster in a process known as "slip casting." In the best cases the mold maker can get the full form in two halves; in other instances, more than two molds might be necessary to cover the full figure. Multiples are produced in ceramic, and paint is applied by hand. Some months later, the items appear in stores across the U.S. and Canada, and Barnett receives a complimentary copy that he promptly stores away with the rest of them.

Whereas Barnett once was excited when he would come across samples of his work in a Disney or Warner Bros. store, now, he says, the novelty has worn off: "I don't even remember what I do." One of his recent pieces is a small replica of the Ronald McDonald House, still carefully kept in its packaging on top of his coffee table. It is a Christmas-tree ornament, about two inches by three, with painted yellow brick with a green shingle roof. There are various chimneys and decorative turrets that Barnett carefully sculpted, as well as a few minuscule trees around the house, painted green and white by someone in China. Beneath the house is a wire that attaches to a string of Christmas lights so the windows will light up. I understood why he wouldn't feel the need to show off such a thing; in fact, I couldn't help but wonder exactly why, charity aside, someone would buy it.


It may be easy to question the aesthetic worth of the figurine, yet items like this have demonstrated a lingering appeal. Samples of small humanoid figures made of clay and terra cotta have been found in ruins of many early prehistoric societies. The excavated palace of Minos on Crete, for instance, was teeming with them, as were all the ancient coastal cities along the Aegean in present-day Turkey and Greece. There were so many that entire museums were built just to house collections of them. What role these objects played in these societies is a subject of speculation. Most forms resemble humans in only a very general way, and they appear to be too common to represent holy objects. Were they children's toys? Cherished relics of dead ancestors? Or perhaps just knickknacks intended for trade around commercial holidays?

More pertinent to today's manifestation of the form are the fine porcelain figures that first developed in China about six hundred years ago. Collected and commissioned by the rich, these porcelain figurines were made by master crafters who spent great care and time on each individual piece, sculpting and firing, then painting each by hand. These creations depicted the opulence of the ruling class, and were lavishly colored and gilded. Eventually, as with many art forms of the Orient, these porcelains became faddish among the European aristocracy in the 17th and 18th Centuries. Craftsmen in France, Italy, and elsewhere learned the Chinese techniques, and soon the elite were buying up innumerable rococo-style porcelains.

What the rich own, as always, soon became attractive to everyone else. And so cheaper versions of small sculptures among a rising middle class led to the development of industrialized mass-production facsimiles of the high-art form. Factories were developed in the 19th Century that could use cheaper molding materials, and make large numbers of identical ceramic forms off the same molds. At the same time, factories began churning out inexpensive versions of fine embroidered and woven cloths. From the name of these cheap printed cloths, "chintz," comes a word we might aptly apply to the cheap ceramic figurines, "chintzy." By the 20th Century, figurines of some sort could be found in just about every household in Europe and America.  

In contemporary America, meanwhile, the concept has metastasized into something particular to our media-driven culture. In the mid-1970s and early 1980s, companies such as Franklin Mint, the Bradford House, and Department 56 began making ceramic items and using modern direct-marketing techniques to sell them to a vast audience. Key to their success, perhaps, is the way they've tapped into popular culture by depicting such popular icons as Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, Scarlett O'Hara, various cartoon characters, and recently--controversially--Princess Diana, among many others. These companies do well for themselves: Last year, for instance, the Franklin Mint took in around $750 million in sales, according to their Web site. That Princess Diana dolls found in hundreds of thousands of homes would have no intrinsic, or "collectible," value seems readily obvious. That people continue to buy them attests to their deep and longstanding appeal.

"The giftware industry is a multibillion-dollar industry," Barnett says. He is reluctant to discuss what tiny fraction of this fortune he earns through his labors--figurine companies are quite secretive--though he will say that the work pays enough to support him. And fills enough hours to preclude his working on original pieces.

Barnett's personal preferences lean toward realist work in the mode of Frederick Hart, an artist who died in 1999 and was eulogized in the New York Times around Christmastime by Thomas Wolfe. Best known for his creation of three ragtag soldier figures for the National Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C., Hart was mostly ignored by the art establishment. Wolfe, who called Hart "America's greatest sculptor," seemed to take personal umbrage that the artist was so ignored.

Barnett lights up at mention of this artist's name. "We're both from the same town in South Carolina, actually," Barnett says--that being a small river town named Conway in tobacco-growing country. Both artists fled as soon as they could: Hart to New York; Barnett here. Incidentally, though Hart was unknown in the art world, he was hardly poorer for it. He eventually patented a process of making clear acrylic resin casts of his sculptures, and he sold more than $100 million worth of icily realistic, two-foot sculptures in gift galleries around the world.

"Traditional classical training is not respected in art schools now," Barnett says. "That's a great shame. The great abstract artists all had classical training. Now we have a generation of artists taught abstract styles with no classical basis. Hart was a truly classically trained artist. And yet, some of his forms in clothes and drapery were amazing abstract forms. Modern art is all galvanized shapes stuck out in the woods." Barnett shakes his head. "It's a shame."

I mention that being the kind of artist he is, Barnett probably won't be gracing the halls of the Walker Art Center, or any similar gallery, anytime soon. Nor is he likely to celebrate a fat stipend from any of the granting institutions around town. This doesn't seem to faze Barnett. He has ambitions of his own. He can see himself establishing his own studio someday at a site away from his home and perhaps hiring a few workers that he might teach to ply this art form. Barnett sees himself competing on a larger scale in creating giftware items for more companies. Then, at last, he imagines himself doing more work for himself, and perhaps competing for public commissions--taking his skills and talents beyond the three-inch realm.

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