Barbara Ingerski Mann’s home sits off a small road on land that is deeply terraced from its time as a cotton farm. Her extensive basement studio looks out into the woods. She and her husband, a retired professor of landscape architecture, live not far from the University of Georgia and enjoy being part of its vibrant research community. She has resided in Athens for more than forty years, but—with a father in the military—she was born in Japan, and lived in Washington state; Washington, D.C.; and Naples, Italy, while growing up. She is an avid nonfiction reader, and her current pile of favorite books includes Cotton: The Biography of a Revolutionary Fiber by Stephen Yafa; Rust: The Longest War by Jonathan Waldman; The Cell: A Visual Tour of the Building Block of Life by Jack Challoner; Sacred Architecture by A. T. Mann; and Cosmigraphics by Michael Benson. She channels her interests in art, science and nature into creating work in metal, her longtime passion.
Mann moved to the deep South to attend the University of Georgia [UGA] in 1969 to study art. The school fit her family’s budget (she is one of five children) and she had seen and liked the paintings of Lamar Dodd, the art department’s director for many years, at an exhibition in D.C. She quickly discovered that art meant more than just painting and drawing, and found her home in the University’s strong craft areas, first in ceramics. She began visiting friends in the metals area while Robert Ebendorf was teaching, and started taking metals classes when Gary Noffke joined the faculty in 1971. She received her B.F.A. in 1973 and her M.F.A. in 1975, focusing on jewelry and metals.
She married William A. Mann, a young professor at UGA, in 1974 and they had their first child, Anthony, in 1982 and second, James, in 1986. She wanted a family and though she took time to focus on raising her boys, she also maintained a steady schedule of part-time teaching and studio work. She offered after-school art classes at St. Joseph Catholic Parish School while her sons attended, taught in the University’s continuing education program, still teaches at local community art centers, and has served intermittently since the mid-1970s as a part-time instructor in jewelry and metals at the University. One of her most personally influential teaching assignments is through the University’s study abroad program in Cortona, Italy, where she has taught nine times. Those travels remind her of the childhood awe she experienced while visiting Italian churches, which were always “full of mystery and smoke.” She is drawn to the rich cultural emphasis in Italy—and in Catholicism—on tradition and on the cycle of life and death, a key theme in her work.
One of Mann’s favorite pieces of jewelry is a brooch titled Life on Mars from 2000. She wonders, within the vast expanse of time and the vast expanse of space, could there ever have been life on Mars? This work is composed of three rounded forms: the top section features a trilobite fossil bezel set in gold; the middle a hemisphere of deep red Italian glass bezel set in gold; and the bottom a meteorite cast in place with three gold dots that suggest stars, planets or space dust. Through bringing these objects together, she documents parts of her thought process: one rock records life on Earth from over two-hundred-and-fifty-million years ago, while the other could have carried trace elements of many, potentially living, materials across vast expanses of space; the extreme magnitudes of time and distance embodied by these carefully selected objects—combined with the chance of interstellar contamination—presents many possibilities for speculation upon the red planet’s history.
Mann sets the elements in Life on Mars against sterling silver cuttlefish bone castings. She learned this ancient technique as a student in the early 1970s from artist Nancy Shapiro. Cuttlefish are sea creatures similar to squid with an internal shell that is rich in calcium and pumice-like in consistency. Collected when they wash ashore, cuttlefish bones are popular with pet owners, who place them in birdcages, and jewelers who slice them in half and press forms between them to create molds. The resulting casts have wavy, laminated textures. Many artists smooth these away, but Mann likes the natural ridges, and in her work they suggest growth and emphasize connections to nature.
A recent work, Meteorite Necklace, also features meteorites, each one in a comet-like setting speeding towards a central disk with a ruby slice. Instead of recalling science fiction or space-age-modern qualities, the rough rocks combined with the organic forms and cuttlefish bone texture convey a sense of raw nature. The silver middle element evokes a swirling and churning energy, and numerous faceted stones suggest, as Mann explains, “light rays, explosion, dispersal.” She is fascinated by depictions of the cosmos in art and maps, and with this necklace has added her own wearable representation of a powerful universe.
While works like Life on Mars and Meteorite take a vast perspective of nature, Mann also delves into the other extreme, examining cellular structure—she ponders life’s puzzles both large and small. Single Cell, a round silver brooch, is a luxurious scientific diagram of a eukaryotic cell in sterling and gold with a variety of gemstones representing the nucleus, lysosomes, ribosomes, and mitochondrion, while a similar pendant, A Slice of Life, suggests a cell more generally and is rendered in silver with coral, pearls and diamonds. In her Creation, Stem Cells, a round pendant or brooch that illustrates a stem cell becoming a neuron or nerve cell, Mann chose rubies to represent health and life and diamonds to represent energy or sparks. One reviewer, Dorothy Joiner, describes irregularities in the forms as hinting at deterioration, but likens the work to a “petri dish incubating stem cells, their branchlike extensions stretching toward each other in the miracle of growth.”
When Mann sought knowledge about stem cells she contacted Dr. Steven Stice, a professor at the University of Georgia and a leading stem cell and cloning scholar, who generously invited her to his lab, showed her stem cells, and talked with her about their use in research. He shared images of stem cells that she uses as inspiration. Mann made a brooch in 1998 honoring Stice’s work with the first cloned mammal, The Cloning of Dolly, that features a pair of cast sheep atop a grassy green druzy uvarovite with a gold double helix between them, and Cloning Calves Sistrum (2011), a rattle reflecting her belief that research such as Stice’s keeps the world “agitated” in a positive and necessary way.
The importance of science in understanding the cycle of life and death is deeply personal for Mann. When her son Anthony was diagnosed in 2001 with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease), which took his life in 2009, she read a lot, “read out of necessity,” in order to understand his illness and to learn about treatment opportunities. In addition to translating cellular structure into metal and stones, she conveyed her appreciation for the efforts of scientists and study animals in a necklace titled Research Mice as Saints from 2010. The necklace is a series of brass washers each stamped with “SOD1” representing a specific gene being studied for its possible connection to ALS, as well as a series of numbers denoting individual mice used for testing. Sections of Pyrex stirring rods, a laboratory essential, hang from some of the washers. The most haunting element are three silver mouse skulls with brass halos, honoring the mice who died. She reverently states, “The mice gave up their lives; they are saints.” Even amidst the great loss that forced her attention toward stem cells and ALS research, she has created works that convey beauty, compassion and hope.
Mann’s Memento Mori Pendant also features insects. In this work a large moth with matched agate wings and a curled proboscis prepares to suck what liquid remains in a decaying lemon, while a larva crawls along another part eating holes in the slice. The two-sided pendant is gently washed with blue and purple enamel, giving it an impressionistic hint of mold, while a few faceted stones flash and twinkle to indicate that the lemon is not completely dry. She reinforces the idea of moisture through the rutilated quartz “droplet” hanging from the bottom. Memento Mori at first glance appears to be conventional jewelry with gemstones, but through the details Mann twists the narrative and makes it a true “reminder of death,” as the name denotes, drawing upon sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Dutch vanitas paintings, beautiful still lifes with added elements like skulls or insects.
Food has emerged as a recurring subject in Mann’s work, and she creates necklaces and bracelets from materials including cast peanut shells, garlic, okra slices, and peach pits. She explains, “I love to cook, and eat, and I see so much beauty in the patterns and forms of many common foods. Preparing and chopping fruits and vegetables can side track me easily and I have to stop and go make a mold of that perfect slice of okra, or top end of a pepper, before it dries.” Her Okra Necklace comprises a series of individual slices, of assorted widths and seed densities, while her works with peanut shells investigate their endless variety of netting patterns. Much of her work is broadly situated—science, the cosmos—but the food pieces are more rooted in her adopted region. She even keeps a bucket for peach pits in her studio and is casting okra pods as vases.
In a recent exhibition of her work she included the following text: “Festina Lente is an Italian phrase which means ‘Make Haste Slowly.’ ” For her, this “is a reminder to slow down, take time, and take a long look at the beauty and complexity of what surrounds us.” And, she enjoys connecting her experiences with nature to the scientific texts she reads. Once she found an unusual sea creature fragment on the beach, and it reminded her of “reading about the amazing discoveries in the ocean depths and hydrothermal vents.” She considered the form, contemplated the “unknown in nature and life,” and used her sparkling vocabulary of gemstones and precious metals to express her wonder at nature and science, and the “mystery of the sea,” through the pendant Proliferation.
Mann avidly amasses materials for her work and for inspiration and especially relishes starting projects. She has drawers and drawers—filled with tidy little trays—of projects (at least a hundred) she has begun and intends to complete. Her studio is lovingly cluttered with skulls, postcards, toys, boxes, pistachio shells, dried flowers, books, and tools, and has at least eight places for her to sit and work, plus a casting studio in a former horse barn and a separate drawing room. Each day she walks in the woods, always returning home with a treasure—rough bark, a special stick, a beautiful feather or leaf, or maybe a glittery rock. She believes, “Observation gives us a more intimate relationship with nature and miracles,” and in that spirit recently completed the brooch and pendant Sunlight in the Trees. For this work she cast found twigs and added shimmering baguettes to replicate the dappled light she enjoys seeing filter through the limbs and leaves as she walks. This simple observation of nature translated through metal and stones reflects Mann’s optimism and the pleasure she finds in looking, learning and making.
Joiner, Dorothy. “Barbara Mann: Form and Response.” Metalsmith 33: June 2011.
—“Barbara Mann at Wiregrass Museum,” World Sculpture News 21, No. 3: Summer 2015.
Roberts, Holly. “& Artist Spotlight: Barbara Mann,” Ampersand (magazine of the Red and Black, University of Georgia student newspaper), April 4, 2016.
Ashley Callahan is an independent scholar and curator in Athens, Georgia, with a specialty in modern and contemporary American decorative arts. As part of her research for an upcoming exhibition at the Georgia Museum of Art, “Crafting History: Textiles, Metals, and Ceramics at the University of Georgia,” for which she was a co-curator, she interviewed Barbara Mann, who has been involved with the school’s craft areas since the early 1970s. Mann, a local leader in metals who helped found the Athens Metal Arts Guild in 2013, graciously shared her knowledge of the history of craft in Athens. Callahan was pleased to have the opportunity to expand her discussions with Mann to include details of Mann’s own career and artistic perspective. Next up will be Callahan’s contribution to Ornament on jeweler Kat Cole.