Jewelry designer Dolores Barrett creates pendants and earrings in out-of-this-world shapes and colors that bring to mind Mad Men, Shag paintings and the design sensibilities of the early 1960s. Her medium is fused glass (vastly different from its closest cousin, blown glass), and one look at these creations — handcrafted beads, scent bottles in fascinating shapes, fused glass orbs in vibrant colors and the wearable dioramas she calls Small Worlds — and her skill and talent as a glass artist become crystal clear.
Daughter of the Atomic Age
Barrett grew up in the 1960s in Camarillo, the daughter of a naval base manager at Port Hueneme. “He was forward thinking,” Barrett says of her father. “He loved technology. He was the first one to get a computer.”
She inherited his appreciation for innovation, and fully embraced the era’s love affair with space, technology and the future. “The whole mid-century Modernism thing, the architecture — it’s cool,” she says. “But it was more the attitude, the optimism behind it, that was so attractive.” It’s no surprise, then, that so much of her work emulates the motifs and palette that characterized the Atomic Age. From geometric shapes to block patterns to bright blues, greens and yellows, the designs that decorated Barrett’s childhood inform her work.
“I wasn’t an artist,” Barrett says of her younger years. “I loved making stuff. I loved making interesting things.” Hands-on, slightly experimental, building things from scratch — this type of creative tinkering inspired Barrett more than the fine arts. She recalls taking a traditional art class and finding it “utterly boring.” But give her some tools and an idea, and she’d run with it.
“The first thing I ever sewed was my wedding dress,” she says with a laugh. “I got a very complicated Vogue pattern, went to the fabric district in L.A. and made my dress.” She stayed
up until 3 a.m. the day of her wedding to finish her veil. “Everything I’ve ever done has been in that vein.”
Barrett is an insatiable researcher, spending hours on the computer, studying her art and new approaches to it. “The Internet is the greatest thing to happen to creativity!” she exclaims. “Everything I’ve learned to do, I’ve learned off the Internet.”
One of her core philosophies is, “I can do that.” Armed with an idea and a cyber-education, she’ll jump feet first into a new process. Fusing glass in a kiln, creating her own molds, Autocad, silicone casting, microwelding — she’s up for anything.
She says that looking across disciplines has been tremendously beneficial to her work. “You look beyond your box,” she explains. “You can find all kinds of stuff that you can use or jerry-rig or repurpose. It’s having that kind of curiosity and desire to make those cross-references between disciplines and technologies. It leads to innovation.”
From Pianos to Pups
Barrett’s first love was not art, but music: She plays piano, has a degree in conducting from UCSB, was a choir conductor at her church and performed with the Ventura County Master Chorale. Tiles she saw and admired on a trip to Portugal brought her into the art studio.
“I wanted a tile mural in my kitchen,” Barrett recalls. While she would ultimately hire a Portuguese artist to do the work, she was inspired to try it herself. Researching the process on the Internet, she got sidetracked by the art of china painting. She went to a portrait painting convention in 1999, and noticed a shop selling dog items. One thing led to another, and Barrett found herself painting dog portraits.
“That got me started in the art world,” she says.
Her skill was good enough that she’d do portraits for dog shows, and she started getting commissions (for both canines and humans) as well.
Through the Looking Glass
At another conference in 2002, she discovered dichroic glass, which displays different colors based on the changing light. She again turned to the Internet to explore this shiny new object, and starting working with it.
After selling a few dichroic glass pendants on eBay, she expanded her line (which now includes pendants, earrings, rings, scent bottles and beads), selling the items in gift shops and on the wholesale market. Today Barrett’s work can be found in museum stores and galleries across the nation, including the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery in Washington, D. C.
Her greatest success thus far has been with a design inspired by both her mid-century Modern roots, and the Pantheon of Ancient Rome. In a documentary on the History Channel she learned about the hole in the top of the Pantheon, the oculus, which made a perfect circle of light that moves with the sun. “That would be so cool in glass,” she thought to herself.
So she created a fused glass orb pendant with a perfectly round hole through which a layer of dichroic glass can be glimpsed. These space-age discs are beautiful and ever-changing, reflecting different colors depending on how the light hits.
“It pulled me into the black zone,” she says of her very popular design. “What is so attractive is that [the orbs] have dimension, they have mystery, and they interact and change with the light.”
It’s a Small World
Barrett’s latest passion is Small World. In these wearable diorama pendants, Barrett creates tableaux in glass and peoples them with tiny railroad figures. “I’ve always loved miniatures and small things,” Barrett says. “This was a natural progression.” She is giving free reign to her imagination with this series. “I want to do some wild ones,” she says. “I have these weird ideas.”
Art, craft, experimentation, technology and innovation — they all get wrapped up in one pretty package for Barrett. “What makes jewelry not just jewelry?” she likes to ask in her work. “What it represents now, and all throughout history — these are the things I’m learning.”
Learn more about Dolores Barrett at barrettart.net.