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By Donna Cedar-Southworth
Barbara Liotta’s sculptures transfix and mesmerize viewers in a visceral way. Made with shards of stone and cord hung from a visible piece of hardware, her contemplative creations inhabit and animate the spaces in which they live.
Liotta draws parallels between her work and the art of ballet. “A ballet teacher once told me, ‘When you do a leap, you go up in the air, do what you’re going to do with your feet, then pause and stretch for a moment. And then you come down,’” she relates.
It’s the pause and the stretch that are thrilling to the artist. “Just as the dancer defies gravity, art is about the power of an impulse to defy the rules,” Liotta explains. “Art that really speaks to me is that traditional reach for something transformative. Like dance, it shouldn’t sit there. You want to catch something airborne.”
Catching something airborne is a fitting way to describe Liotta’s oeuvre. She starts with inanimate material: marble, stone or slate. Once she’s shattered the stones for a sculpture, she ties them with cord and hangs them from pieces of hardware. When she lets the stones fall free—suspended from the overhead structure—they gracefully move within their space. As the artist would say, they begin to dance.
While Liotta is experienced at carving stone, she prefers hauling chunks or slabs of rock to the alley outside her Northwest DC garage-cum-art studio, where she takes a sledgehammer to them to create smaller, imperfect shapes with jagged edges that expose the energy within.
“I look at each piece of stone almost figuratively. I see them as figures and I want them to have a vibrato—like when you play a string instrument, the string vibrates.” she explains. “I want them to breathe. They’re not stiff—they move.”
Liotta sources stone from Tri-State Stone in Bethesda and works with Fernando’s Marble Shop in Rockville to select granite, marble and quartzite. She chooses specimens not only for color and depth but also for their density, translucence, size, shape and what she calls “activity—how the veins move and interact.” As the artist observes, “It’s about finding the right stone to sing in a particular space.”
Commissions are collaborative efforts between Liotta and her client—often an architect or interior designer. First, they visit the space where the artwork will hang, discussing different ideas and locations. Liotta often finds inspiration on site. “There’s a lot of just sitting there, experiencing where the ceiling is, the height of the space, where the walls are, where the life of the room is—and just trying to understand where the energy moves,” she reveals.
Liotta takes photos of the space, prints them and draws her ideas directly on the prints. Then she shares these concepts with her clients and discussions ensue. Clients also help choose stone for each piece. For one commission, Liotta was asked to source rock from a lake in Michigan where the client grew up; another client who taught Classics hired her to create a sculpture using Greek marble.
Born in Cleveland to “art-conscious” parents involved in music and visual arts, Liotta studied fine art and dance at Sarah Lawrence College, where one of her mentors was the renowned dance instructor Bessie Shönberg. “What Bessie taught me in choreography class informs what I do more than anything else I ever learned,” Liotta avows, “from how to look at art to how to have a discerning eye and how to clear out extraneous work.”
Liotta painted throughout college. Eventually, she moved to Washington and dedicated herself to pursuing art full-time 35 years ago. Her early work explored large-scale paintings on unprimed canvas, which she ripped, gathered and hung. However, she wanted more dimensionality than what canvas would allow. “I wanted to make my lines and trajectories out in the air,” she recalls. “I wanted them to soar in three-dimensional space—and I just fell in love with stone.” She began working with large boulders and river rock, then moved on to more delicate, shattered stone and suspended chunks of rock.
Liotta accepts private and public commissions. A large-scale sculpture is on permanent display at Legacy Memorial Park in Washington, DC. The Phillips Collection owns one of her pieces, and her work is shown internationally with the Arts in Embassies program and privately around the United States.
“I see my work as akin to chamber music,” Liotta observes. “There’s a certain austerity—the minimum of elements that weave, blend and soar until they achieve eloquence.”