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Lora Barnhiser: In Her Own Words
Mar, 09, 2021
Lora Barnhiser: In Her Own Words
One person’s trash is another person’s treasure, right? Local artist Lora Barnhiser certainly thinks so. She finds purpose in discarded or unwanted scraps of wood, lovingly and painstakingly up-cycling them using wood burning and watercolors to create small works of art packed with meaning and care. Her single wooden “misfits,” often tiny enough to fit in the palm of your hand, are a wonderful way to keep moonscapes, desert views, and soothing abstractions with you, in your pocket, at all times.
A desert transplant for a decade now, Lora studied art at Bowling Green State University School of Art before moving to Phoenix. A working artist, she’s also an art educator for Tolleson Union High School District, an opportunity that allows her to work with students from both Tolleson Union High and University High. We recently caught up with Lora to learn about what inspires her, how her practice has shifted through the years, and some larger projects she has on the horizon.
Here’s Lora Barnhiser, in her own words.
“I consider myself an artistic-style nomad.”
Lora Barnhiser. Image courtesy of the artist.
PhxArt: Where are you from, and when did you know you wanted to be an artist?
Lora Barnhiser: I was raised in a small town in Ohio and grew up in the woods. My love of nature was curated in our 10 wooded acres that contained a pond for swimming and skating, hills for hiking and sledding, and lots and lots of plant, animal, and bug life.
My first artistic twitch came in fourth grade. In art class, we were handed some charcoal, and my squirrel won the praises of everyone at my little table. I had never been acknowledged for anything positive in school prior to that. It felt good, and I was hooked! Then in high school, art was usually the only class where I didn’t feel lost, and that’s when I knew it would be in my future.
PhxArt: What are the primary media you work in?
Barnhiser: There was a period where I was creating jewelry from leather scraps. I started longing to include artwork on the pieces themselves and began using a wood-burning tool to draw images on the surface of the leather. At the time, a student of mine brought me a gift: unwanted scraps of wood from a nearby furniture factory. So I decided to try my wood-burning tool on what it was intended for. Next, I added some watercolor, and voila—my longest standing chosen media! Generally, I hop from one medium to the other, but I’ve been hooked on this use of repurposed wood for about five years. It keeps the wood from the landfill, it comes to me in all shapes, sizes, and porosity, and it’s free! I am often inspired by the shape, size, or color of a piece; usually, aside from some sanding, I paint on pieces that are in the same state in which I received them.
Lora Barnhiser, Monument Valley Moonscape, 2020. Acrylic on vintage cupboard door. Image courtesy of the artist.
PhxArt: What do you like to depict in your art, and why? How does the desert landscape influence your work?
Barnhiser: I find the shape of southwestern rock formations and cacti intriguing. Many of them are full of curves and interesting lines, so both subjects tend to appear often in my work. Pattern and texture are also recurring themes. Sometimes, however, I have a screwball idea or two. If you ask me this question in another month, I’ll likely have different answers. I consider myself an artistic-style nomad.
I’ve never been able to settle on any particular genre of art. Some days I work in abstraction, others I create more illustrative pieces, and occasionally I work in a realistic style. I attribute this to my teaching. I’m responsible for demonstrating to students multiple styles and techniques, and I find that I enjoy them all.
Lora Barnhiser, Bubbles and Flies, 2020. Watercolor, ink, and pyrography on rescued wood. Image courtesy of the artist.
PhxArt: Tell us more about your commitment to teaching art. How did that passion begin?
Barnhiser: The art educators whom I’ve had in my life—one of them being my father—have sincerely influenced my own teaching and career as an artist. I can still occasionally hear their voices as I move my brush or swing a hammer.
Ironically, I never set out to be an art teacher; it fell into my lap after I took a job at a Boys and Girls Club in Toledo. The title of the position was “Art Instructor” and was the only thing in the help-wanted ads referring to art. It was there in an after-school program that I discovered how much I love to share my passion for creating. Since then, I’ve had the pleasure of teaching students of various ages, races, and socioeconomic circumstances. It has really helped me grow as a human being.
Lora Barnhiser, Encroachment, 2019. Watercolor, ink, and pyrography on rescued wood. Image courtesy of the artist.
PhxArt: How has the nature of your artistic practice changed over the years?
Barnhiser: Not long ago, my husband and I struggled with infertility, followed by four pregnancy losses. Those were rough years, and art was there to help me through it. It was an easy escape and helped focus my grief and frustrations on something positive. Soon, I had too much work piling up and decided it was time to get it out into the world. I honestly, never thought I would be an artist that makes work for others. Up to that point, I had only created things for school, myself, and family.
I currently create art as a practice of self-care. I now understand that it helps me stay centered. I also enjoy that it allows me to interact with other artists, art-minded people, customers, and clients. I’m a very socially driven person.
PhxArt: What’s something you’re currently working on or have recently exhibited?
Barnhiser: Lately, I have returned to an old design friend: black on white. I’ve always enjoyed the challenge of just using the two colors because with so few choices, you need to make sure your application counts! I also enjoy using strong contrasting and angular design elements in juxtaposition with softer watercolor images. I’ve been exploring these ideas on small pieces of rescued wood. One piece—Bubbles and Flies–is currently on view through June at the FoundRe for Artlink’s 21st Annual Juried Exhibition. I also make my work available on my website whenever possible.
Lora Barnhiser, Small Prickly Pear, 2019. Acrylic, watercolor, and ink on rescued wood. Image courtesy of the artist.
PhxArt: What can our community expect to see next from you?
Barnhiser: I’ve been working on small scraps of wood for so long that I started itching to work bigger. Not long ago, I happened upon some beautiful white vintage cabinet doors that someone had set out for trash. I set to work laying down some black and white patterns and immediately felt satisfied. These pieces have given me a drive to continue doing bigger works.
I have also just recently begun to create murals in black-and-white style and hope to forge ahead with that. One mural can be found in the Coronado Historic District just south of Whittier Elementary. The most recent is part of the Phoenix Mural Project and can be found along the Grand Canal about a block east of 7th Street.
Lora Barnhiser, Superstition Silence, 2020. Mural. Image courtesy of the artist.
We’re curious how creatives are navigating the time of coronavirus. Lora Barnhiser shares what’s giving her life as a creative during quarantine.
Barnhiser: My COVID life has been very twin toddler oriented. My boys are at an age when everything is new and interesting but also cause for breakdowns and tantrums. It’s a very exciting and frustrating thing to be around when there’s really no where to “escape.” I have made a few pieces that have been influenced by my time with them these past few months. One in particular contains bubbles and flies, which were discoveries of wonder and, for a period of time, were blurted out at random points throughout our day. A memory that I now have from this time happens to be visually documented.
Lora Barnhiser, @Desert Oasis, 2020. Watercolor on rescued wood. Image courtesy of the artist.