Dr. Dan leads students to transform, inspire and create new artistic connections
By Sarah Ostler Hill
Printmaking, beads, sewing, film, book binding, painting, photography, bread – Dr. Daniel Barney doesn’t let his medium define him as an artist. He is an art omnivore, immersing himself in various media, processes and their cultural contexts as a way to discover how and what people learn through artmaking. Today, as a professor in BYU’s Department of Visual Arts, he serves as educator, researcher and artist.
Barney has always been interested in finding answers, and perhaps that was one reason he was initially drawn to the sciences. He had taken some art classes, but it was only the encouragement from his future wife, Cassandra Christensen, that led him to apply for a scholarship in the arts. He was pleasantly surprised when he won that scholarship. The arts encouraged and expanded that initial interest in finding answers.
At first, Barney didn’t considering pursuing a career as an educator, even though Christensen was working on her Bachelor of Fine Arts in Painting with licensure in K-12 Art Education.
“Teachers don’t always get the respect they deserve,” he laughs. “Cassandra was working on her teacher certification, so I began to substitute teach for her. That’s when I began to rethink my reticence towards teaching.”
Art as a Process
Once Barney graduated, he didn’t have access to the printmaking equipment found at BYU, so he moved into more traditional materials like painting and drawing. Barney began teaching at Timpview High School in Provo and was asked to teach a crafts class.
He laughs as he says “crafts” with a tone that implies he wasn’t about to teach kids how to make friendship bracelets or paper mache. It was his class to teach, so he began to explore beyond technique to the philosophies that deal with a process and then materiality.
“I’m not intensely interested in making, but what can be learned through the making,” he explains.
Barney says his students were attracted to making beads, so he took it a step farther to learn the art from a historical and cultural perspective. He talks about wood, bone and shell beads, Egyptian faience beads, and 2700-year-old Zhou Dynasty and Warring States period beads, and what they mean to different cultures and times. Barney’s extensive research on technique led to some extraordinary lampwork beadmaking. His work has been exhibited and sold throughout North America.
“I did glasswork and jewelry making for 10 years just because I was teaching and interacting with high school students,” he says, as if anyone could gain national recognition after being asked to teach a beginning art class.
When students expressed an interest in clothing, Barney threw himself into analyzing dress as an artistic process. Clothing intrigues him, he says, particularly how it relates to politics and ethics, such as power, modesty and oppression. Much of his early scholarly writing is focused on dress as an artistic, albeit problematic, concept.
Barney’s most recent self-proclaimed obsession has been making bread. He says he makes four loaves a day using only wild yeast, flour, water and salt. Most people would say they bake bread, but Barney examines the entire process.
“I have no idea how it will relate to my artistic practice just yet,” he muses. “But I’m seeing what happens when the conditions are set for great things to happen, but don’t force it. Most of the time, the resting is doing the work.”
Barney’s many successes perhaps emerge from his drive to learn new things.
After teaching high school for about nine years, Barney decided to get his master’s degree in art education at BYU. He continued to work at Timpview High School until he went to the University of British Columbia to get his doctorate in curriculum studies. As he was finishing his coursework, he saw a position at a highly selective New York art school was coming open. While he considered this the perfect fit for what he had been studying, he hadn’t yet finished his research so he knew it was a long shot. He was shocked when he was shortlisted. He was further stunned when he was shortlisted by another prestigious art school. Then, both schools made him offers.
“That’s when I thought maybe I’d have a chance at BYU,” Barney says. He contacted BYU faculty members, a call for applications was opened, and BYU offered him a position as well. He had three very attractive offers, all when he was still just a PhD candidate, meaning his dissertation research was only in the initial phases. He had to write his dissertation while he was a full-time instructor at BYU.
“Ultimately, BYU was the right fit for my family,” Barney says. “Everyone has been really supportive and thinks outside what I thought was BYU’s box. As a student, I had a different idea of what the faculty was thinking.”
From Beadmaking to BYU
As a professor at BYU, Barney has had some unique experiences in teaching and learning from students. Sometimes he presents project ideas, but then lets students apply their own voice. He doesn’t believe that learning is always best when everyone follows the same assignment. Teaching students to create their own assignments is a foundational art skill for which Barney strongly advocates.
Barney recently instructed students they would be doing a project in canning. Conventional canning involves preserving things that are physically sustaining. This project would involve putting something spiritually or emotionally sustaining into a mason jar. Barney was moved by the work his students came back with. Some were incredibly personal, he says, relating to their own life experience or culture.
“I cry all the time in my classes,” Barney admits, almost resignedly. “I get overwhelmed to be here and to have these conversations with the students.”
While most of his students are LDS, they bring different life experiences from across the world. Their common faith lends to some redundancies not necessarily visible at other institutions. Barney highlights this because he believes his LDS perspective helps him make connections as an artist he wouldn’t otherwise make.
“The concept that we need to be taught by the Spirit doesn’t really exist outside Mormonism,” he says, and then elaborates by talking about how humility plays a large role in learning more. “Before you can learn more, and become an expert, you have to humble yourself. It has helped me transform my practice from one who knows to one who knows provisionally, tentative to the contextual insights of the Spirit.”
Absorbing and Sharing Influences
One of the greatest influences on Barney’s artistic life has been his father-in-law, an artist in his own right. Though their approaches to art differ, he saw early on that being an artist is acceptable and legitimate.
“He has shown me I can be a positive force for our community and abroad,” Barney says. “Knowing there’s a person in my life who is successful in his career, family and community has made a huge impact in my life.”
On a grander scale, Barney is inspired by artists such as Alfredo Jaar, Eduardo Kac, Vic Muniz and Tom Friedman. He is intrigued by Andrea Zittel’s motto “liberation through limitation” and how this might play out in art educational settings.
From these artists, and his research, Barney has developed his own motto: Curriculum is an improvisation within a scene of constraint.
He points out the constraints that surround us on a daily basis: classrooms, institutions, workplaces and political entities. But with these limitations come a lot of agency and the ability to make choices.
“What can we do within these boundaries, and when do we need to trespass those boundaries?” he asks. “We engage in the world artistically and wonder what we can learn from such engagement. Through our collective inquiry, we can be transformed and learn more than we would have independently.”
Barney’s teaching style seems more collaborative than usually found in a classroom. Long ago he dismissed the notion that students passively learn from teachers. He views his role as both teacher and learner and believes students should come to class with the same mentality.
“It’s not that one person is smarter and one is lacking,” he explains. “We just have a different set of experiences and together we’ll learn and teach. I want to be surprised. I want to learn when I teach. I want students to come in thinking it is as much their responsibility as mine to teach.”
In 2012, Barney collaborated with a former high school student who was working on her master’s of fine arts degree in creative writing. Ashley Mae Hoiland was frustrated by the amount of negativity she saw on billboards during her commute. With Barney, they initiated the Billboard Poetry Project, funded by the Laycock Center for Creative Collaboration in the Arts. They presented poetic messages on several billboards, along with other artistic and pedagogical interventions, within the Wasatch Front to inspire community members to think and act differently.
Barney doesn’t let his medium define him as an artist. His constant curiosity and desire to know more drive him in his discovery for why and how people create and what such creation incites. He looks forward to teaching and learning from students in the upcoming school year.