Barbara Liss is a concrete artist who creates surprisingly expressive and emotional pieces out of a medium that most people wouldn’t imagine capable of yielding such beauty. Her renowned works are featured throughout Montana and beyond. Each piece that she coaxes into existence conveys its own unique personality and expressiveness, delighting and inspiring. She creates her lifelike sculptures in the Hamilton-based Montana Bliss Artworks, which she owns and which features her work, along with that of other fine artists.
It’s been a while since our last interview, so perhaps you can start by again telling us the story of what prompted your interest in concrete as a means of artistic expression.
Concrete is a medium I am familiar with from using it to mortar rock walls in my garden. When I was inspired to create art for my garden, I chose the medium I had at hand, which had been well tested in Montana’s outdoor environment.
We see that you are currently working on a pandemic series of concrete sculptures. What can you tell us about this series?
This series represents what we are experiencing during the pandemic, such as extra time for those not able to work. My piece titled “Isolation” has more detail than usual as a result of my having more time. The second piece, “Corona,” reflects the scientific view of the virus, how it looks under a microscope and uses those details as ornamentation. “COVID,” the third piece in the series, has a steampunk detail incorporating a historic raft dog and hand-forged horseshoe nails. A carved pattern on the surface forms the number nineteen. The final piece in the series, “Protection,” features a face mask representing the masks being made by all those willing to sew and donate them to medical facilities. The hands are holding soap for the essential procedure of frequent hand washing.
The sculpted faces that you create capture a surprising amount of emotion. Has the world situation and working in self-isolation had any effect on the emotionality of your sculptures?
I use the emotions people are feeling to create messages in the series called “Healing and Rebirth.” Medusa is a Greek word meaning to guard or protect, and so Medusa is the inspiration behind this series because the concept of “guarding and protecting” is so crucial during this time. “Healing” is the first piece in the series, with her beautiful snakes leading us to rebirth. The second piece is titled “Protector,”and features the ancient symbol of the Greek god of medicine and healing: a snake-entwined staff known as the Rod of Asclepius. Our medical professionals are the most admired people at this time.“Guardian,” the third piece in the series, features an ouroboros, which is an ancient symbol depicting a
serpent eating its own tail, symbolizing wholeness and infinity. The snakes on all the pieces represent wisdom, to get us through these difficult times.
We understand that you have been staying very busy. What are some of the highlights of the past year?
Over the past year, I have focused on creating series, as they provide an opportunity to say more on a subject than individual pieces. A collector purchased an eight-piece series titled “Precious Firewood.” This series featured different types of wood gathered as firewood. Each piece identified the type of wood and where it had been gathered. I continue to add to that series as it is a way to incorporate nature in my organic concrete sculptures. Some of them now feature sticks upon which I have painted patterns.
The New Year inspired the series “Ringing in 2020” using antique bells I had collected. In each piece, the bells can still be rung to appreciate their varied tones. “Ringing in the Year,” “Ringing in the Decade,” and “Ringing in the Century” comprise this series.
I was also honored to be included in the National Sculpture Society’s online exhibition, “Creating in Self Isolation - Works in Progress.”
The unique series-a-year that you are offering to non-profits sounds fascinating. Please tell us more about that.
I appreciate non-profit organizations and how they enrich our communities with all that they do. I’m donating a series a year to different non-profits which have a community space where they can display them. I want to create experiences that the organizations’ volunteers and patrons alike will enjoy.
Can you tell us more about the series that you placed at the botanical garden in Camarillo, California?
The series is titled “Sounds of Silence,” and features shells from Florida brought to Montana by Virginia Vinal while visiting her mother. I incorporated them into my art pieces, and they are now experiencing ocean breezes in the Pleasant Valley Historical Society’s botanical garden in Camarillo, California. The messages are contained in their names: “Did you hear what I Heard,” “SHHH,” and, “I Heard that Before.” Those shells have been on quite the journey!
Where do you see your artistic expression taking you over the next few years?
I will continue to focus on creating new series. My next project will be incorporating antique tools that I have been collecting and will feature craftsmen using the tools of their trades. Experimenting with new products to add to my concrete medium is always a fun way to create new finishes and new ways of manipulating a challenging medium.
Things that inspire me are seasons of the year, the environment, social issues, and treasures that I find along the way. My figurative sculptures are expressive of all these things.
All my series can be viewed on my website at www.montanablissartworks.com