Award-winning sculptor says art keeps him young

July 16, 2003|by MARLO BARNHART

Merill Barnes' eyes are sharp, his hands steady and he still refers to his wife of 61 years as "the kid." But his 83 years of living have made their mark on his art.

"I'm a great believer in fate," Barnes said as he worked on a sculpture in the small Homewood cottage studio where he and his wife Betty have lived since returning to Maryland last August.

A native of Cumberland, Md., Barnes said he never would have met his future wife if a teacher named Agnes Carroll hadn't flunked him two years in a row in elementary school.


Now 80, Betty can see her face at all stages of her life and in several different media as she walks from room to room.

But one of her husband's most cherished works - a life-size bronze bust of their granddaughter, Erin - was donated to the permanent collection of the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts in April and now is on exhibit in the main hall.

"Erin was 5 when I did the portrait," Barnes said. "Now she is 23 years old."

Barnes has jewelry on permanent display at the Smithsonian Institution as well as sculptures in many private collections around the country.

After studying jewelry design and goldsmithing at Bradley University in Peoria, Ill., Barnes took designing and gem courses at the Gemological Institute of America and sculpting in Los Angeles.

"When Betty and I got married in 1941, the war was about to break out and I only had $12," Barnes said.

With $2 worth of gold, Barnes made his bride's wedding ring. He paid the minister $3 to marry them, $2 for a motel room above Hancock and 35 cents each for a ham and egg breakfast. There was just enough left over for lunch at the Liberty Tavern, he said.

Barnes then began his military service, sending his pay home to his wife, who got a job at Kelly's Tires.

After he was discharged from the military, Barnes opened the Jewelry Trade Shop in Cumberland which did all the work for 21 jewelry stores. Later, the couple opened Barnes Custom Jewelers.

Sculpting took up much of Barnes' retirement years first spent in Rockport, Maine, where he created the bust of his granddaughter. That bronze won Barnes the 1985 Rockport Art Association Portrait Group award and the Carl R. Matson Memorial award, according to the brochure for Washington County's museum.

From Maine, Barnes and his wife made their way to South Carolina, Florida and then back to Western Maryland late last summer.

A front room adjacent to Barnes' studio is not only filled with memories but with works in progress.

"It keeps me young and it's never boring," Barnes said.

Using a special clay that stays supple, and wax, Barnes works with the tiniest of tools as he sculpts the molds he later casts in bronze or silver.

The key ingredient though, always was and still is, his love for the art. That he says he will never lose.

"We both worked very hard but we took our $12 a long way," Barnes said.

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