Barbara Warden

by Dana Kester-McCabe

Milton Delaware artist, Barbara Warden, turned to drawing as her primary medium having previously concentrated on the fiber arts, specifically quilting. Her expressionistic drawings are rich with texture and movement.

Barbara Warden earned a master of fine arts at the University of Maryland. She was living in Washington D.C. and starting to make a career as a painter when a divorce diverted her attentions toward more lucrative work to help support her family. She worked for the next two decades for nonprofit groups that advocated for workers, consumers, children, and families. She eventually remarried and began splitting her time between the Mid-Atlantic region and the Bitter Root Valley in Montana. Once her children were out of school she heard once again the calling to make art.

Barbara is now one of the artists at the Studios on Walnut in Milton, Delaware. That is where she and I met a few months ago and this is what she told me about reviving her creative pursuits.

Barbara Warden:
“I decided, you know what? It’s time to go back to my studio. But I didn’t want to go back as a painter because I had been away so long. And, I just really felt I didn’t know if I could get back into it as a painter. And my husband suggested “Why don’t you look at fabric and become a quilter?”

“And I was such a snob about it. I said: “Why would I become a quilter?” All I could think of was blue haired ladies sitting around and quilting. But a friend of mine had a quilting shop in Montana. And I looked at the fabric and I realized that is what I really could do, because I love color. So I started quilting.”

“As a matter of fact the first and only class I took was for 8 to 10-year-old girls because that was the only class being offered. And this was still in the Montana in the Bitter Root Valley. So I took the class, and I just practiced and practiced. So I worked for a dozen years as a quilter. I did a lot of shows. And then I decided to go back to drawing.”

“So in 2012 I set aside the quilting, for the most part. I still commissions rather than building up an inventory. And so I went back to my drawing.”

Barbara says that the catalog for a drawing show at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington D.C. gave her just what she needed to commit to drawing as her primary medium.

Barbara Warden:
“The curator selected his drawings, some well known artists, some not so well known. But in the introduction he said drawings can be preparatory for a painting or sculpture. They can stand on their own as a finished work of art. And when I saw that I thought that is really where I belong in my wor. When it’s finished it’s finished and it’s a stand-alone piece of art.”

Barbara decided that she wanted a change from the brilliant and diverse color palette of her quilts and she wanted to create something much more instinctual. She wanted the act of making art to be an exploration unfettered by the constraints of planning them ahead of time.

Barbara Warden:
“So when I went back to drawing I said I didn’t want to use a lot of color. I really wanted to go back to just black and white. I wanted it to be as spare as possible. And I also wanted there to be a disjuncture. This was fiber in color and this was drawing on paper. And I only use paper. Occasionally I will use leather because I really do like leather. But it’s mostly paper and that’s a kind of fiber. But it’s different than the fiber I use.”

“I’m a great believer in automatic drawing. And automatic drawing I think began with the Dadaist in the early 20th century in France. And then a number of Americans picked it up later on. And one of them was Elsworth Kelly who I’ve always admired. But there were other artists, out on the West coast, and in New York, who were also experimenting with automatic drawing. And I had work briefly with an artist in California named Lee Mullican. And Lee simply put materials out on the table and said “Have at it.”

“There were five or six of us that would sit down in the evening at his studio in Santa Monica. And um, I never gave up the idea of automatic drawing. So when I would start a drawing I would close my eyes, at random, pick up a drawing tool, whatever it was and start drawing. And if I had to do I would erase it. Those were my abrasions on the surface. Pick up another tool, work with it.”

“But it was very much random, very gestural, sometimes more linear and defined. SO I wanted to work with a lot of materials in a lot of different ways. And that is pretty much what I have done. I start with a gesture and I end up with a resolution I think. Set it aside and go on to the next one.”

Barbara’s work is inspired by nature but it is an expression of it not an attempt to capture its likeness. Her drawings are rich with texture and movement. She recently finished up an ambitious yearlong project that portrayed her reactions to a place that inspires her.

Barbara Warden:
“I decided if I was going to draw again it wasn’t going to be piecemeal. And the only way I could do it and be disciplined about was to do a drawing a day. So I decided on the format, that it would be small drawings: 5 by 7, 7 by 9. And I looked at books that I have whether it was Arshile Gorky or women artists like Jay DeFeo, um, Elizabeth Murray, just to see the dimensions they used. So I said ok small enough is 5 by 7, 8 by 10. Those are legitimate dimensions for a work of art. But then I wanted to have a large drawing as anchors of each section. So there are very large drawings that are individual anchors for 11 or 12 series that I worked on.”

“I was part of a group show at the Biggs Museum. After that show was over I talked to the curator Ryan Grover. I took him a whole stack of drawings to show him the direction I was going. And he said, a few months later after I showed him another stack of drawings “I’ll give you a date.”

“So, the whole focus originated with the years I spent in Montana. Because there is a beautiful valley south of Missoula called the Bitter Root Valley. We spent six months there and six months back in Lewes, back and forth. And my husband is form Montana. So I would hike, and I found a wonderful group of hikers and mountaineers. And we would hike and climb and it was wonderful. So, that became my focus for the 365 days. The first set of drawings in the first month was stone. Then came ice. Then came rain. Wind. Restless ground. Uh, light, echo, memory. And I really just wanted one word, and if I could get just one syllable that would be even better.”

“So that became the focus. Every step along the way I would talk to Ryan. I would ask questions. He gave answers. He would ask questions. I gave answers. And it just worked out very well. It was a good working relationship and it still is.”

“So I wound up when I went to the Biggs Museum, with 481 drawings. [Laughs] I know. I couldn’t believe it. And Ryan said to me: “Do you know what you have done?” I said “No, tell me.” He said “The total is 481 drawings.”

“And the Biggs has been wonderful in supporting what I have done. And Ryan Grover is an excellent curator. It’s been a terrific experience.”

Barbara’s show at the Biggs Museum in Dover, Delaware was a big success. Her drawing, Memory Wall: Echo from her 365 series was juried into the September exhibit at The Art League in Alexandria Virginia, at the Torpedo Factory. And, her drawing Restless Ground VII was recently chosen to hang in Delaware Senator Chris Coons' office.