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Local artist Barbara Dill recycles gnarled trees from her neighborhood in North Side to craft her modern artifacts. 

Wild Wood

A quiet shady street in North Side: Here, venerable old homes with gracious, sloping front porches still hold their secrets along with every other sort of thing they've been given to protect from time and weather. The restrained tangle of their front yards instigates a kind of eccentric, private covenant among them. Thus, the people who inhabit the houses behind and beneath those age-old, broad-trunked, wide-spreading oaks and maples are not so much residents as denizens. Barbara Dill — an artist whose medium, conveniently, is trees — is one of them.

In Dill's backyard, discreetly out of view from the street, the remains of the neighborhood's declining trees are being reincarnated into great gnarled wooden bowls and graceful, animated totemic sculptures. Several of her recently finished works have just returned from an appearance in MCV's Arts in the Hospital sculpture case, where they stood effectively arrayed in a huge glass enclosure, separated from the real time of the lobby like the treasured relics of lost cultures that, in fact, they are.

"Barbara intentionally selects wood from local trees that might seem imperfect to others, but it is the natural defects and peculiar characteristics of the once-vital wood that give her pieces their own unique beauty," says Ted Batt, the director of Arts in the Hospital and organizer of Dill's exhibit. "We all have imperfections. In Barbara's functional and sculptural work the flaws are brought out as enhancements." Batt has been developing a permanent display for MCV's Hospitals and Physicians VCU Health System and has recently included Dill's work in the Ambulatory Care Center collection at 417 N.11th Street, downtown. She also has a large bowl permanently installed in the lobby of MCV's The Park at Stony Point.

While the North Side trees were still accumulating annual rings and branching out over lawns and parked cars, Barbara Dill was growing up in Hawaii and Tennessee. After earning a B.S.N. from the University of Tennessee School of Nursing, she set out to travel the world. This period of her life began as a school nurse in Germany. Several months into her assignment she got a more exotic post. "I attended a placement meeting where the program director announced a need for staffing in Ethiopia," said Dill. "I jumped at the opportunity."

Eritrea, Ethiopia, would be her home for the next year. It was a place that would inspire her deeply in her attitude about life, "I entered a society that was built around giving and sharing. The tribespeople had nothing, barely enough to eat, and yet they always shared what they did have with others." Dill recalled "They made use of all the resources around them." Years later, her stay in Africa would inspire her art.

Dill returned to the states to practice psychiatric nursing for 21 years, earning a master's in her field at Boston University and six years later moving to Richmond to take a job in emergency room psychiatric care at MCV. There she met Shelly Klinger, a psychiatrist and lifelong friend who encouraged Dill in her newfound passion for wood. Less than two years later, she gave nursing up to carve.

"Carving wood added so much joy to my life, it enabled me to process the difficult work I did for a living," Dill said. Recalling the catalyst for her new vocation, Dill reminisced "Actually it all started with a wooden fish bowl I came across in Smithsonian Magazine. I loved it, but knew if I was going to have it I'd have to make it myself," Dill explained. Right around the same time, Klinger showed Dill a Henrico Adult Education brochure that had just arrived in the mail; and that was the beginning. That was 1988.

Dill got involved in the Richmond craft scene, co-founding the "But Is It Art? Gallery" in 1990. A Carytown exhibit and sales space representing local craft artists, the gallery's playful name echoed the prevailing conversations on craft and fine art. It was a fixture on Cary Street until its close in the summer of 2000.

In the years since Barbara Dill carved her first bowl, her ability to transform a block of rough-hewn wood into a beautifully wrought object for use and/or contemplation has matured to exceptional standing, and she now mostly works on life-size sculptures. She has taken on increasingly larger, more challenging tree sections and learned how to maneuver their cumbersome bulk. By improvising simple machines from materials at hand, Dill uses tree trunks — that might become sculpture at some later date — as fulcrums, and jerry-rigs pulleys, ropes and tackles.

Dill credits her mentor for these developments, "I always call Sid Morton for helpful solutions." In Dill's sculpture one finds a primitive interpretation of the carefully considered proportions and minimal tastes of Brancusi, as well as the spontaneous interplay of differing materials explored by Picasso — two of Dill's sources of inspiration. Always present too, is the lingering spirit of her life in Africa, which impressed upon Dill the wisdom of turning everything that can be gathered and made greater, into a gift. And turn she
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