Woodworker creates ‘gnarly’ reliquaries that hold precious secrets

Mon, 05/17/2021 - 11:45am

    ROCKLAND—Trees talk; scientists have been telling us that for years. But what you didn’t know is that they are particularly good at speaking to artists.

    Roger Barry, a woodworker and artist, whose work is currently showing at Art Space Gallery in Rockland, has a connection to trees that goes back to his great-grandfather, the publisher of The Lumberman’s Actuary, a book of tables figuring lumber costs. Both his grandfather and father worked in the lumber milling business and it’s from his father, that Barry learned the craft of woodworking.

    “I grew up hanging around my father’s shop,” said Barry. “He was a woodworker, sculptor, and architect.”

    Barry went on to earn his BFA in wood sculpture in 1975. He makes sculptures and wooden lighting fixtures and furnishings but it’s his ornately carved boxes, what he calls “reliquaries,” that seem to display the deepest connection he has to trees.

    “Most people think that a reliquary means a container for ancient bones, but it means anything that you find precious,” he said.

    A glimpse into his childhood reveals his love for special boxes.

    “When I was a kid about nine years old, my brother gave me a box that he didn’t want anymore and I kept precious things in it, such as concert tickets, or little things people gave me over the years,” he said. “And every now and then I go back and look at those things— a little historical perspective of my life.”

    One of four boxes on display at Art Space is called “Deep Woods Reliquary,” which seems inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien or something Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger might have dreamed up.

    “Yes, that one is kind of ominous, but I’m not trying to be scary,” he said. “Sometimes trees are gnarly like that.”

    There’s a lot of movement in this piece constructed of walnut and cherry with its gnarled roots and branches intersecting like a nest of snakes. But it’s not something Barry consciously sought to create.

    “I had absolutely no concept when I started on that box of where I was going with it,” he said. “It was a culmination of all the carving I’d done prior to that box with some parts of boxes that I made before incorporated into this one.”

    Texturally, he infused some elements into it just for visual interest, such as the sections that looked honeycombed from woodpeckers. And in another reliquary, he fused hammered copper leaves onto the box using a sanding disc to gauge out divots.

    Combining the functional with the sublime is what Barry does with these reliquaries. Some that he makes, contain intricate mechanisms.

    Professing his life-long intrigue with secret locks, he said: “Again, when I was a child, I was really into making mechanical things. When you opened my bedroom door, a mechanical arm would throw a wad of paper at you, which my parents weren’t too happy about, as I’d nailed the device to the floor. But, really the reason for the reliquary is to keep your secret precious things to yourself so in some of them, will have a secret button, that only you will know how to open the box.”

    His work can be found at Art Space in Rockland and at The Center Street Gallery in Bath this summer. Visit his website at rogerbarry.net

    Kay Stephens can be reached at news@penbaypilot.com