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Steve Barr's work combines the practical with the intricate

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FARMINGTON — Steve Barr is a native of the East Coast, but he has lived in many places around the country. He arrived in San Juan County a little less than five years ago when his wife Vicki, who works for the Bureau of Land Management, was transferred here from Panaca, Nevada.

The last two stops have made a sizable impression on Barr, who gave up the construction business several years ago to devote himself to woodworking. He professes to be fascinated with the geography — and geometry — of the Southwest. Both elements are strongly represented in his work, including his "Adventures in Wood: Contemporary Craftsmanship by Steven Barr" exhibition opening this weekend at the Farmington Museum at Gateway Park.

"Anything that comes toward me, I suck in," Barr said earlier this week while sitting at a table in his studio at his home north of Aztec. "If I like it, I keep it. I'm usually grabbing influences from all over."

It's safe to say that Barr has been heavily influenced by the indigenous art, and landscapes, of the Colorado Plateau since his arrival here. The artist works with wood in various ways — creating finely crafted furniture, boxes, cutting boards, wall sconces, lamps and other objects both large and small — but his new show is notable for its pieces that reflect Barr's interest in Native weavings and petroglyphs, and demonstrate his desire to translate many of the creative techniques they require to his chosen medium.

Barr calls his petroglyph adaptations stratoglyphs and said the name came to him during a conversation with his wife after he had spent several months searching for an adequate moniker for them. It took him even longer to refine the process for creating them.

"I'm really pleased with the stratoglyphs, but they're hard," he said. "They're a challenge. I'm a practical person, and they're not a particularly practical creation."

Barr's practicality manifests itself in his creation of furniture, cutting boards and lamps — everyday, useful objects — but that doesn't mean they should be dismissed as utilitarian work. Even his most straightforward and sturdy pieces contain delicate, intricate features that are often the result of days, if not weeks, of experimentation on Barr's part.

When he walked away from his construction business and devoted himself full time to woodworking, Barr said it took him six months to finally produce a piece to his satisfaction. The meticulous nature of his work requires great patience, something he said he inherited from his father, a model ship builder.

Barr said he doesn't consider what he's learned about woodworking to be proprietary information and is happy to share it with anyone willing to listen. He figures the amount of effort required to master the techniques he has developed are enough to discourage most people from trying to reproduce his work.

"I'm not afraid to talk to anyone about anything," he said, smiling. "If people want to know, I'm more than happy to talk about it."

Farmington Museum curator Jeffrey Richardson said the museum has featured Barr's work several times in the past in group shows, and he noticed it was always popular with collectors.

"The fact that it sells was an indicator to me that this is an artist who really resonates with the public," Richardson said, explaining why he chose to offer Barr a solo show at the museum, Barr's first since moving to the Farmington area.

Barr's willingness to share his knowledge is another reason Richardson wanted to showcase his work at the museum.

"It's an opportunity for us to feature a local artist, but it's really an educational show," he said.

An unusual feature of the exhibition is that the museum is setting up stations where visitors will be able to see Barr's work in various states of assembly, and touch and examine the wood with magnifying glasses. Such opportunities for visitors to put their hands on a work of art normally are forbidden in a museum or gallery setting, but Richardson thought Barr's work lends itself well to that tactile interaction.

"Here's an example where you can touch it," he said, explaining that the museum usually spends a lot of time educating visitors about the harm that can be done to a piece — through acid from fingertips or simply wearing down the features of a sculpture — by their physical contact with it. "In this case, they'll be able to feel the different grains, from raw to sanded to finished. So they'll feel how wood feels at its various stages of refinement."

Barr has no reservations about allowing museum visitors to come into physical contact with his work.

"My attitude is, you're supposed to touch it," he said. "It's furniture. I pride myself on my finishing, textures and angles."

Indeed, much of Barr's work practically begs to be touched, something he understands as well as anyone after shaping and refining the wood himself.

"It's a sensual experience," he said. "It's not just the eyes. It's a physical experience, as it should be."

An opening reception for Barr's show will take place from 5 to 7 p.m. June 21 at the museum, 3041 E. Main St. The exhibition remains on display through Aug. 31. Admission is free. Call 505-599-1174.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610.

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