The Stuff of Life: Becca Barnet and Michelle Jewell
You may know them as Sisal & Tow and Finkelstein’s Center, but the beauties behind these businesses are, respectively, Becca Barnet and Michelle Jewell.
They create for clients. Barnet is a taxidermist and also does artistic projects on the side, like creating a life-like turtle or faux deer meat for a natural history museum display. Jewell hand makes one-of-a-kind soft toys—think a ballerina hippopotamus or bunny in a purple polka-dot dress.
Barnet, as a taxidermist, brings animals back to life, and Jewell, as a toymaker, brings animals to life.
The pair first worked together at the City Gallery at Waterfront Park in 2012, and then transformed the stage at the Charleston Music Hall for a Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art benefit in 2014. Now, in March, the two are joining forces for a dual show at Redux Contemporary Art Center.
Barnet reflects on their upcoming exhibition, “I do commission work mostly. Somebody has a vision and I help them execute it or somebody wants their ‘blank’ stuffed, and I do it. Michelle’s making things for people, designing them and marketing them as a product. They’re handmade. I think it’s interesting, because we’ll take the same skill sets and ideas and apply them to something that isn’t commission work. It’s a representation of our craft that no one has asked us for. It’s stuff that’s coming out of our own brains, which will be fun because no one ever really gets to see that.”
Redux is a space that typically exhibits contemporary artists from all over the United States, which makes these two locals excited for the opportunity to fill its walls. Barnet says, “I’m super honored to be able to do this, because I know so many local artists who don’t get a chance to utilize that space, and I believe in Redux’s mission and think it’s a huge necessity in Charleston. It will be showing during SEWE [Southeastern Wildlife Exposition], and I’m excited to have people come to Redux that otherwise wouldn’t, because they see that animal art is hanging.”
Jewell adds, “Redux is a maker’s space, and I think that we both fit into that really well.”
The show has been a year in the making, and started with the two friends just getting together and discussing what kept artistically sticking in their brains. “We realized they were mostly all animals—that’s just kind of what we do—and we also realized that a lot of the animals were, first, babies and, second, reddish babies.” As in, a baby goat, a baby fox, and a baby chick that were all gifted to Barnet, “because people just kind of send me dead animals all the time.”
So came the show’s name, Rufous, meaning reddish-brown in color, and the tagline, “The Stuff of Life.”
Taxidermy and making stuffed animals are, not shockingly, comparable, so it’s always intrigued Barnet and Jewell that their processes are so similar, but the resulting art so different. Barnet will use vintage taxidermy, which is most like stuffed-animal-making, to reanimate five moles for the show, and these moles are evolving into a real joint effort. Jewell’s Brittany Spaniel killed them in her backyard, so, as a good colleague, she stuck them in the freezer to give to Barnet for Rufous.
How to vintage taxidermy a mole is as follows: first, skin the animal out, then salt the skin dry, rehydrate with lemon juice, create a clay ball for its head, stuff with cotton balls, and then hand sew it shut.
Other collaborative efforts will include Barnet and Jewell taking on the same task, like “create a fox,” and seeing just how unique they’ll both be. Barnet adds, “The fox will exist in the same size and shaped box, but we’re not going to see what the other one’s doing. It will look like a diptych—it will go together, but it will not go together.”
Some pieces will be individually created and others will be collaborative efforts between the two artists, but all will employ an air of whimsy. They want to show the comedy in the art, like flying fish, bird heads for nipples, and clothed moles. Because you can be a serious artist without being so serious.
Jewell says, “There are a lot of galleries in Charleston where that art is available, if that’s what you want, but we wanted to do something less formal that fit our personalities.”
Barnet concludes, “Basically what it comes down to is you’re going to want to come see this show, because there’ll be a dress—on a chicken.”
Rufous: The Stuff of Life
On view at Redux Contemporary Art Center
February 12 – March 28, 2015
words: Elizabeth Bowers