The colorful life — and home — of Barbara Wilbur

By Lisa Britton January 06, 2010 03:06 pm
From pottery to painting, Barbara surrounds herself with works of art

Barbara Wilbur, 83, creates her art from many types of media. Her Baker City home is her showcase for clay pots and sculptures, paintings and gourds of all sizes. (Baker City Herald/S. John Collins)
The blue door is a clue, but it won’t prepare you for the onslaught of color inside.

Barbara Wilbur has painted her house’s interior with brightness — splashes of red, orange, pink and green on paintings and upholstery, and blue sequins on her chair pillows.

This is a wonderful place to be on a bleak, wintry day.

She has surrounded herself with art of her own, and pieces from her sister and son.

Art, she says, makes her happy.

“Yes — oh yes,” she says.

Wilbur is 83, and art has always been in her life.

“We started at church — mother would give us crayons and paper to keep us quiet,” she says with a smile.

She was born in Baker City, and lived in Richland with her aunt for the first two years of her life. At 2, she moved to Bend with her parents, and then returned to Richland when she was 16. She graduated from Eagle Valley High School in 1944.

From there she went south, to Marysville, Calif., and worked as a telephone operator at Camp Beale, an Air Force Base.

That’s when her life took a new direction.

“I met my husband, married him and moved to Pennsylvania.”

Eight years later she came back west, without her husband and with her four young children.

“Eagle Valley was always home to me, and always will be,” she says.

But she never returned to live in Richland — she headed farther west, to work in the potato fields near Redmond.

Then she got a job with Safeway, and began a 30-year career with the grocery store — two years in Bend, 15 in Baker City and 13 in Portland.

“I had to work,” she says with a shrug.

She admits life was a bit hard, raising four children on a single income.

But she coped.

“I was a Depression baby. You save string, you save old nails,” she says. “That was a time of learning the basics. If I hadn’t had that background, I’d never made it through with four kids.”

It was in Portland, in the 1970s, when she felt the need to pursue art — her response to a family tragedy.

She spent two years at Portland Community College, and then five at Portland State University.

She started in sculpture, but soon discovered the “lost wax” technique was too expensive.

“So I started sculpting in clay,” she says.

She is a hand builder, meaning she molds clay with her hands to create her masterpieces. She has, in the last decade, created massive pots made from coil after coil of clay.

“You just build it and smooth it out,” she says, making the process sound simple. (It takes hours and hours.)

She encourages anyone to give pottery a try.

“Get some clay, take it home, just move it around. You have to get the feel of clay.”

Instead of the shiny, high-heat glaze finish, she prefers to finish her pots with a sawdust firing.

For this, she first bisque fires her pots (this initial firing makes the clay hard, but porous, like terra cotta). Then, she sets up an old trash can pierced with holes and puts in several pots layered between sawdust.

“Then you start your sawdust on fire,” she says.

The results are different every time.

“That’s what I like — you never know. I call them happy accidents.”

Though she doesn’t throw pots on a wheel — she was hit by a car on Sandy Boulevard in Portland and has had back problems ever since — she appreciates that technique.

“They seem to communicate with it,” she says.

She earned her Bachelor of Science degree in art and sculpture in 1980.

Along with her clay pieces, Barbara’s walls are decorated with her paintings — and she’s not too shy to shoo visitors past one she doesn’t like.

“I never professed to be good at painting,” she says. “We have very good painters here.”

She only paints in the summer when she can be outside, and she isn’t limited to canvas.

On this day, an army of colorful gourds march up her staircase, each a different hue and design.

These gourds are grown just for art. After harvest in the fall, they must sit until totally dry.

“Then you have to scrape them and sand them. There’s a lot of work involved,” she says. “The preparation takes longer than the painting.”

She works at the table in her kitchen, near a window and across the room from turquoise cupboards and a 1929 wood-burning stove.

Her kitchen, by the way, is decorated with all sorts of utensils — a mixture of family heirlooms and antiques, and a few of her clay pots.

Above the window are words, in French and Spanish, that read “Eat, drink and be merry.”

“I don’t speak either (language), so I looked them up,” she says.

But she likes to travel, and has been to Mexico nine times.

And her spare bedroom is wallpapered with maps from National Geographic magazines — Italy, Europe, the West Indies, the British Isles.

“There are no two maps alike,” she says, perching on the bed to look around the worldly room.

She prefers the warmer climates.

“If I could, I’d have a second home in San Miguel,” she says.

Then, as thoughts of a tropical getaway begin sounding mighty nice on this cold day, her 15-year-old dog Chan Li nudges her hand.

Barbara scratches the dog’s ears, then smiles at her four-legged companion.

“If it weren’t for you, I’d be in Mexico.”