Sculptor Carves Out Her Own Niche in Turlock
by Dana Koster
If you saw Titia Barnett-Gudde’s corner-lot home from the outside, you might not think anything of it.
The yard is under construction, pathways and grass torn up to reveal hard-packed soil, and one whole side of the house is flanked by rocks that sprawl across the space where a lawn would ordinarily be. Here and there, cacti and succulents sprout up from the rocks, giving visitors the feeling of walking through a desert rather than a Stanislaus County suburb.
Look closer, though, and you’ll see that not all of these cacti are organic – several of the larger ones have actually been molded from rich red clay, squat oval creations adorned with spikes and flagella by Barnett-Gudde’s expert hands. Clay, it turns out, that Barnett-Gudde mixes herself in her backyard art studio and then fires in her own giant kiln.
A native of the Netherlands, Barnett-Gudde has shared this Turlock home with her husband, John Barnett, for over 20 years. The pair, both artists, met in Italy when Barnett-Gudde was finishing up her last year at the Academy of Fine Arts in Amsterdam. “He was there for half a year in Italy and I used to carve there in marble every summer,” she says in her lilting accent. “I came to the United States with him when I was 36. It must have been real love,” she adds with a laugh.
For over a decade, the pair taught in the arts at California State University, Stanislaus. Though they’ve both retired or moved on to other projects, there’s evidence of this life of art all over their property – metal and clay sculptures nestle amongst a yurt and chicken coop in the large backyard, or sit on pedestals in the brightly-lit living room. The eyes of three African grey parrots seem to follow you when you walk through the sitting room, staring out from the interior of a 3D painting by one of Barnett-Gudde’s former students.
Everywhere you look, there’s a splash of vibrant color or a rich texture. Most of this art is inspired by the natural world, evidenced in Barnett’s giant metal castings of tree bark or cracks in the mud, and in Barnett-Gudde’s cactus sculptures, which are a commentary on water conservation.
“There are a lot of things in nature that you just don’t see when you’re walking past,” Barnett-Gudde explains as she gestures to a plaster casting on the wall. With its geometric cross-hatch pattern, the piece looks futuristic, almost otherworldly, but in fact it’s a plaster casting her husband John made from a downed palm tree. “You wouldn’t know that there’s all this intricate weaving in a tree.”
When it comes to her own work, Barnett-Gudde says she is taken by shape and texture. Her work is often a response to her world, both her physical surroundings and the people and events that dominate that landscape. “When my son was in Iraq, I made things like this,” she says, pointing to a grouping of five small, evocatively-textured oblong clay sculptures that rest in a planter in her backyard. “They’re sarcophagi for our heroes. My idea was to do as many textures as there were people who had died during that time, because that is your fear, of course, when your kid is out there.”
Currently, her cactus sculptures are her main artistic focus, a way to channel her frustration over the current drought and what she views as a society-wide mismanagement of water resources. Her work on her yard, transforming it from grass and flowers to stones and desert plants, is an extension of this same impulse. “There have been droughts since I’ve been here in Turlock, really severe ones, but not as bad, I think, as this one that’s coming,” Barnett-Gudde says. “I just want to use nature in a good way. I have a son, he has a little daughter – how much is already spoiled on the earth? We have to leave something.”
Barnett-Gudde has shown her artwork in multiple countries and at venues all over the state of California, including the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento. Her sculptures are currently on display at the Carnegie Arts Center in Turlock.