Nov. 21—TUPELO — Barbara Eaton taught art classes to students in Northeast Mississippi for 30 years. But at the same time she was teaching, she was also creating.
“My students saw me not only as a teacher, but also as an artist,” Eaton said. “They saw me entering my work in shows and getting recognition.”
She taught gifted art in schools in Corinth, Pine Grove, Booneville and Baldwyn and regular art in Ripley and Tupelo. Her last teaching job was at Lawndale Elementary, where she spent four years; she retired in 2010.
“I have babies everywhere,” said Eaton, 64. “They run up to hug me, and I have to think, ‘Which school, which grade?'”
After she retired, she opened a studio in Tupelo called The Art Shack.
“I had my paintings there, but I couldn’t get away from teaching. I did classes, workshops — it was a teaching studio. But I had a desire to be a practicing artist.”
Eaton had her studio for a couple of years, then moved to Palestine, Texas. She did teach some private art lessons, but she also had a spot to sell her own artwork.
“In Texas, I wasn’t just a teacher,” she said. “They saw me as a practicing artist.”
For years, Eaton created oil paintings — that was her favorite medium — although in her classes she taught everything from acrylics and watercolors to photography, clay and woodworking, along with oil painting.
Even today, if she creates a painting, it’s going to be in oils. But her latest obsession is with clay sculptures that double as whistles.
“I went to a workshop somewhere around 2003 and learned how to make a clay whistle with one sound,” Eaton said. “Over time, I created a system where I can get up to eight sounds in one whistle.”
She calls her creations Clay Tunes. Subjects include chickens, owls, cats, dogs, mice, birds and flying pigs, as well as people.
Her celebrity fish are her most requested clay whistles now.
“I do John Wayne, Marilyn, Elvis,” she said. “They’re fish caricatures — fish wanting to be celebrities. The Elvis fish is the most asked for — I call it El-Fish. I will recreate a version of that over and over, but each one is different. I don’t use any molds.”
To make a clay whistle, Eaton first creates the sculpture itself. Then, while the clay is still soft, she makes her first “sound,” a hole with a 45-degree angle, and a mouthpiece to blow into.
“That’s the most important sound,” she said. “I blow into the soft clay to get the sound right, hoping it holds its shape. Then I carve other holes to get other sounds.”
After a sculpture is complete, it dries for up to a week, then goes into the kiln for a 10-hour firing. After the glaze is applied, it’s fired again.
Originally, all her whistle sculptures had a full-color glaze. Then she moved onto using a paint wash. Now, she likes to do whistles with a red oxide wash combined with glaze.
Some of her Clay Tunes are six inches tall, while others may be that wide. Her whistle necklaces, which play three notes, may only be the size of a walnut.
“The larger the volume of air in the whistle, the deeper the tone,” Eaton said. “The smaller the volume of air, the higher the pitch.”
Eaton, a mother of two and grandmother of three, took piano lessons as a child, and has always had an interest in music. She has directed cantatas and children’s choirs at church.
“In my whistles, I get to combine sound with form,” she said. “I get to combine two of my loves in one piece.”
Eaton’s work can be purchased at the A.T. Hunn Gallery in Savannah, Georgia; the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art in Biloxi; Tallulah’s Treasures in Orange Beach, Alabama; and the Caron Gallery in Tupelo. Whistles range from $45 to $65 for a necklace, to $75 to $600 for a sculpted Clay Tune.
Eaton also enjoys selling her pieces at festivals. Her first was the GumTree Arts Festival in Tupelo in 2013. She’s also been to shows in Texas, Memphis, Oxford and West Point. The Peter Anderson Arts & Crafts Festival in Ocean Springs, earlier this month, was her most recent.
“What attracts people to my booth is the sound, because I’m performing,” Eaton said. “I blow on my whistles and play them the entire time. I like seeing the looks of shock and surprise and then smiles on people’s faces. I like entertaining them.”
But after three months of creating sculptures for a show, and then two days at the actual festival itself, Eaton is worn out.
“I’m totally exhausted,” she said. “My lips are chapped. My voice is gone because I also explain how the whistles are made to people. I guess that’s the teacher in me.”
Living the dream
Eaton said that ever since she was 19 years old, it has been her dream to own a lake studio where she could look at both sunlight and water while she worked. She was able to make that a reality two years ago when she bought a small cabin at Lake Piomingo, where she does the majority of her sculpting.
“I have always been fascinated with light on form and the special way it defines the contours,” she said. “In whatever medium that I’m working with, whether oil paint or clay, that light moving in and over the surface comes into play. Sometimes I hate to put glaze on my sculptures because I don’t want to lose the detail of form and light.”
That’s one of the primary reasons she’s started antiquing the surface of the fired whistles with washes, sometimes oil paint washes, but most recently with red oxide washes that will enhance the details and form and let light play over the surface.
“Then I will add the element of color with the glaze combinations to add to the personality of the piece,” Eaton said. “It’s very important to me that each piece that I hand-sculpt maintains that balance of light, color and personality, with the added element and surprise of sound and music through the sculpted clay mouthpiece and holes.”
Eaton said creating her art makes her happy — it makes her feel full.
“When I paint, it’s something my soul has to do, but it’s more stressful,” she said. “When I do my whistles, it’s more joyful. The day I feel like this is factory work, I’ll stop.”