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NMSU professor emerita to receive Governor's Award for Excellence in Art

Release Date: 17 Nov 2022
NMSU professor emerita to receive Governor's Award for Excellence in Art

Julia Barello recently completed an art installation at a cancer center in North Carolina. Her large-scale art works are massive ­– some as much as 36 feet long and six feet high. But installations like this are among a wide variety of works she created over the past 30 years as a New Mexico artist.

Barello, New Mexico State University art professor emerita, is among eight artists who will receive the 2022 Governor's Award for Excellence in Art at an event on Sunday, Nov. 20 at Turner Caroll Gallery's "Container" in Santa Fe. The following week, the honored artists will create an exhibition to go up in the Governor's Gallery at the Roundhouse, which will remain on display through the 2023 New Mexico legislative session.

“New Mexico is proud to be the home of incredibly talented artists that bring our state’s unique culture to the rest of world,” said Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. “This year’s recipients are consummate professionals in their respective media, and I congratulate them on joining the ranks of this esteemed group.”

The awards, now in their 48th year, were created to celebrate the important role of artists in New Mexico. Barello is honored by the recognition for her work. She recently retired from NMSU as a professor and department head, but as a professor emerita, she retains a studio at the university for the next two years.

She has continued to produce large-scale works, such as the installation in November for the University of North Carolina's Rex Cancer Center in Raleigh, North Carolina.

"I like to say I've retired from NMSU so I can return to the studio," Barello said. "I had a month to make this huge piece for the Rex Cancer Center and now I have these two other projects on the West Coast that I'm working on."

How did Barello end up with these large-scale commissioned works? Word of mouth.

"I was in a bunch of international art fairs in Florida, in Miami and Palm Beach and my work went into a number of hospitals on the east coast because of that," she said. "Then people would go to those hospitals and they'd see my work and they contacted me."

Medical facilities may have developed a special affinity for Barello's work because of the source material for her installations – discarded X-ray and MRI films. She cuts and organizes the film into patterns, shaping the film into leaves, birds, etc., which are then pinned to the wall in huge arrangements. 

"I started collecting X-ray films and I just thought they were beautiful. they have a limited color palette and they're showing images of the interior of the body in a way that's minimally noninvasive,” Barello said. "There was something about that mystery and magic of it that I found interesting. I started cutting them apart and just constructing collages of them. I was taking these images of an individual, inside somebody's body and working with a conglomeration of other images of other people to create an overall image that was united in some way. It was about bringing people together through art that's made from photographs of the invisible."

These permanent installations grace the halls of 11 medical facilities and corporate offices in the U.S. Barello's work has been shown in16 solo and two-person exhibitions and more than 120 group exhibitions over the last 30 years in the U.S. and overseas in countries like Italy, Taiwan and Germany.

Barello grew up in Washington state as the only artist in a family of engineers and mathematicians. She received a bachelor's degree in studio art, anthropology and art history in Bellingham, Washington and earned a master of fine arts degree in jewelry, metalsmithing and silversmithing from the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee in 1992. She started her career at NMSU teaching metalsmithing later that year.

"When I'm teaching a skill, I love the process of breaking down whatever it is I'm teaching into small component parts for somebody, introducing those parts and then building up to a more complex picture," Barello said. "I just love that process, and I ‘m invested in the idea of giving people skills so they can make their own objects because I think there's a tremendous amount of power in being able to make things. It's very affirming, empowering and it supports creativity and innovation."

Before Barello transitioned to massive-scale works created with X-ray and MRI films, she was focused on jewelry and its varied interpretations.

"I was interested in the idea of what happens if adornment isn't gender specific," Barello said. "We always think of women wearing jewelry, men wearing cuff links but that wasn't the part of jewelry I was interested in. I was interested in exploring the physicality of humans and how we might understand that and express it and experience it through adornment. I was making work that questioned function or questioned how body-adornment becomes a method for us to convey our personal identity to the exterior world."

She even used X-ray film to create brooches as part of a wall-sized installation. But Barello's work with MRI and X-ray film will be winding down thanks to a change in technology. Since medical imaging has gone digital, Barello has a limited supply of films left, which she says might allow her to complete as many as 11 more installations of this type.

However, she's already started transitioning to the next phase in her life as an artist.

"I'm becoming really interested in this idea of time, how we experience time and how we understand time," she explained. "I'm in the process of switching to doing this Grand Canyon piece that's looking at these three layers, three possibilities of time. There's the geologic time, which you see in the canyon walls. There's a cosmic time which you see in the amazing night sky. And then there's this day-to-day ant crawl across the landscape, the human effort to get through that space."

Barello retired from NMSU as a Regents professor of art in July and has received numerous awards and fellowships throughout her career, prior to the governor's award. In retirement she is starting fresh, embarking on a journey into new artistic territory.

"The new work is different and it's mysterious, it's unknown and it's outside of my skillset," Barello said. "My ideas require learning new technologies and materials and I'm happy to say I’m still willing to take on that challenge. I'm certainly afraid of the unknown but on the other hand, I feel like that's what it's about to be an artist. You want to continually evolve in your research, so in order to do so, you have to set your sights on the unknown."


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