A walk on the wild side

Tami Barry is a living example of her own explosive art. With her elfin features, dancer’s movements, exuberant laughter and two-toned hairdo, she seems to have jumped right off the dizzily colorful surface of her work — a melange of candyland swirls, postmodern test patterns and lyrical composition applied to recycled furniture, glassware and shoes — really, anything that catches her fancy.

Barry originally aimed for a career in theater. Trained as a dancer, singer and actress, she paid her dues in NYC Off-Broadway productions and in the theaters of Tampa, Fla., her hometown.

But her stage career abruptly detoured in 1987, when a devastating car accident broke just about every bone in her body and left Barry confined to a wheelchair for nearly two years.

“After the accident, I thought, ‘What can I do to make me happy while I’m in this stinking chair?'” remembers Barry. To stem her restlessness, she returned to a childhood fascination with art, starting with the hand-painted T-shirts, jackets and other wearable art so popular in the late ’80s. When this fad inevitably waned, the resourceful artist turned her energies in a new direction.

Barry had never really cared for the static results achieved with pencil or pen. Rather, she craved a new dimension — one saturated with color and replete with the satisfaction of tactile creation. Eventually, she settled on the kind of paint used in those kit-designed puffy sweatshirts, developing a technique that gives her own surfaces an alluring sculptural quality that demands to be touched.

Her first piece was a hand-painted high chair for her young child. Since then, she has enlivened bed frames, coffee tables, kitchen chairs, sideboards and any other “canvas” that can’t get up and walk away.

To realize her playful mosaics on furniture, Barry painstakingly applies thousands of dots of paint in close succession to achieve the pattern she desires. The total effect — which often includes her characteristic laughing-sun faces, cavorting glyph-people, polka dots, checkerboards and Aztec geometrics — is reminiscent of the flamboyant ’60s-era psychedelic graphics of Peter Max.

But her designs also seem influenced by more recent graphic artists: picture an electric Mary Engelbreit (she of the cheerful, gingham-clad moppets) — on speed. Barry, however, reveals that her true inspiration comes from modernists Joan Miro, Frida Kahlo, Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring.

Says Barry, “I like simple shape and form because I really like juxtaposing colors. I think it’s more pleasing to the eye.”

Her glassware receives a variation of the technique. Instead of the 3-D, Seurat-inspired pointillism applied to the furniture, Barry uses a double-layered brush technique to decorate her vessels.

The items are then fired, making these pieces — as seemingly delicate as the Venetian blown glass of the last century — dishwasher- and microwave-safe.

Barry’s painted shoes represent this talented woman’s Millennium-maniac side. Scooping up old ’60s and ’70s-era footwear at any available tag sale or flea market, Barry applies the same brush technique used on her glassware (with some adjustments for shoe surfaces), creating whimsical, mind-blowing wearable art that’s straight out of Oz.

There’s no place like Asheville’s River District for cutting-edge local work — and that’s where you’ll find Barry’s studio (166 W. Haywood St.). So stroll by June 24 and slip on a few ideas of your own.

Asheville’s River District hosts its third annual Sunset Studio Stroll Saturday, June 24 from 4 to 8 p.m. The event offers local art patrons and interested onlookers a rare opportunity to visit working artists in their own studios, getting up-close and personal with the eclectic community of folks who make their living down by the railroad tracks.

More than 70 artists will participate this year, including painters, potters, woodworkers, fiber artists, metalsmiths, printmakers and sculptors. Also featured is a new artistic enterprise that involves diverting wood waste from landfills — and you won’t believe the results. In the same vein, MAGIC Gardens will stage a plant sale in the district that same evening.

Pottery and glass-blowing demonstrations, a raffle, food vendors, live entertainment and a chance to purchase artists’ work on-site round out this summer event.

The River District arts community began to blossom about 10 years ago, when artists looking for affordable work space started transforming dilapidated but expansive warehouses into creative environments.

In just a decade, the community — located just west of downtown Asheville — has grown to include some of the most talented and diverse artists in the region.

The Odyssey Center for the Ceramic Arts (236 Clingman Ave.) was a pioneer in the golden arts triangle formed by Clingman Avenue and Roberts Street. Today, with a growing business that includes year-round classes open to the community and the internationally recognized Highwater Clays — a subsidiary that produces, sells and distributes bulk clay around the world — the Odyssey Center is recognized as one of the pre-eminent venues of its kind in the region.

As such, it serves as an unofficial hub for this rapidly growing arts mecca, helping to organize and promote the annual event.

To get to the District, head south on Biltmore Avenue. At the light past the French Broad Food Co-op, turn right onto Hilliard Avenue. Proceed through five traffic lights. At the sixth light, turn left onto Clingman and follow the signs. Look for the yellow flags identifying participating studios. (For strollers’ convenience, a shuttle bus from Pack Square to the River District will be available.)

For more info, call 285-0210.

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