An artistic storyteller, John Barber fell into the art world ironically after leaving VCU’s art school. “I figured out who I didn’t want to be. So I went down to Texas and fell into a job doing museum work, welding for exhibits.” While it was not the path he originally envisioned, it evolved into a successful 45 year career, creating unique exhibitions for major museums.
In his free time, John began creating large aquatic creatures with sheet metal which became quite popular throughout Texas. “Of course at this time we had a hurricane which wiped out my studio. Houston was getting too big and flooding all the time.” Not long after, John made the choice to move to Virginia and partnered with his brother to build a house. “So now I'm sitting pretty, but I did have to sell a lot of my equipment when I downsized. That’s when I discovered copper, because it used less tools and I could still add a lot of details.”
John was drawn to copper because of its versatility and history. “This art form is over 5,000 years old. Copper brought us out of the Stone Age. It made me realize that everything, on the atomic scale, is very similar.” With his subject matter, John likes to tell stories and often draws from anthropology, and connections to his own life. “When I was in Texas I learned so much about petroleum and fossils. The little creatures they would discover in the formations before uncovering oil were absolutely fascinating under a microscope.” Next he plans to travel back in time to ancient Egypt, creating artworks based on Egyptian history and mythology.
Driven by a creative impulse throughout his life, John says “I feel as though I live in three dimensions while others live in only two. When I’m working on my art, I’m not aware of time or my surroundings, and it energizes me.”
John Barber is a metal sculptor working in carbon steel. He has a degree in sculpture from Virginia Commonwealth University, and he’s worked with metal his entire career. He has made his living in the field of museum exhibit work over the last 30 years working as exhibit artist, designer, shop supervisor, and project manager His clients have included several natural history museums, zoos, aquariums, and children’s museums.
Around Houston, Texas, you can see John’s work at the Museum of Natural Science. In 1974, he designed and built the armature for the huge Diplodocus dinosaur skeleton now residing in the new Dino Hall. He is also the official “dino duster,” coming in quarterly to dust all the dinosaurs in the hall using a specially-modified air compressor to clean the delicate pieces.
In 2006 he spent the year as an artist-in-residence at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft, perfecting his fish sculptures and educating the public about his love for craft.
John has maintained his own studio where he has produced custom-made furniture, fixtures, museum mounts, and, of course, his fish sculptures. He taught a basic welding class for over 17 years in which more than 3,500 students have learned basic welding techniques. The metal fish are made from sheet metal that is plasma-cut, hammered, and welded. Glass eyes are applied, and the fish is completed with artist acrylics or a patina finish.
John Barber Studios was located in Houston for over 20 years, and in April 2018 moved to Richmond, Virginia.