“I like taking something considered hard and cold and making it soft and warm and inviting,” says T Barny of his uniquely approachable, alluring, sensuous sculptures. “They’re meant to be touched. You don’t get the full experience if you’re not touching them.”
One of the few sculptors out there who actually encourages people to embrace his work—literally—T Barny creates his uniquely kinetic curvilinear shapes out of stone. Sometimes bronze, sometimes wood, sometimes steel (and even ice and water), but mostly stone. And usually with a diamond-tipped chainsaw. He’s been doing so professionally for over 35 years; ever since his first commissioned piece in 1979, while still a student at the Rhode Island School of Design.
Born and in raised in San Francisco, to a stockbroker father and a musician mother, T Barny cycled his way through several different universities—The Ohio State University, Denison University, Stanford University, Brown University, and RISD (from which he received his BFA in 1980), studying everything from architecture and landscape architecture to sculpture and semiotics.
Along the way, he learned from Marilyn Poeppelmeyer “Hook” at Denison, Arnold Prince at RISD, Dale Chihuly (who called him “a frustrated glassblower carving stone”), and California artist Royce Meyer. At RISD, where he ran the foundry and worked as a teacher’s assistant, he could only use hand tools, which didn’t move fast enough. So he moved on to power tools.
The stone, though, always seemed to beckon.
“I have a stone addiction,” says Barny, who is well-known for his stone Mobius strips and trefoils (or Celtic knots, which he tries to make at least one of every year). From third grade science class onwards, T Barny hasn’t been able to escape the single face and edge of the Mobius. “It’s been with me ever since,” he says. “It’s the continuity of life and death. What goes around comes around.”
He fashions these archetypal abstract designs as he cuts into the stone—without a plan, without sketching anything out ahead of time. “I study the block, I feel the stone, and I remove what doesn’t look or feel right,” he explains. “The stone whispers to me—How about a hole here? Or here. And then I must start drilling out a hole where it tells me to.”
It’s a method that led to plenty of broken pieces early on, but by now is almost intuitive. And not at all repetitive—partly because of his recently completed goal of carving on 200 kinds of stone from 42 different countries. “You’re taking away as opposed to adding, and you can’t put it back—but every stone works differently,” he says. And every piece has its unique features and appeal—even if they all brandish the same distinctively Mobius band. “I’ve pushed the material farther than most of my peers. To the point where the stone is translucent. I tend to like translucent stone.”
And when there’s no more material to remove—the piece is done. “God made the rock,” he says. “I make it accessible. They are beautiful.”
He’s been showing with Hunter Kirkland for the last 12 years. “Nancy’s gallery is a great find,” he says. “She’s a great gallerist. When she does shows, it’s uncluttered. She presents more like a home than just a gallery.”
An environment where T Barny’s sculpture is both art and Art.
When he showed his pieces at San Francisco’s Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired some years ago, most of the non-impaired didn’t dare touch the sculptures. “But the blind people,” he recalls, “would touch them. And they got this big smile on their faces when they realized there was one continuous edge to follow, which touched me the most.”
He went with the T early on so he could put his name on the bottom of the sculpture. “Sort of like Christo—a name that’s just one name,” he says. And he’s both coy and playful about what the T actually means. “It could be for trouble. Or tender. Or,” he says, becoming just a bit more serious, “it could be for touchable.”