Karen & Tony Barone were both born in Chicago – Chicago is where they met, fell in love, married, achieved their first successes and established themselves as a creative force. Leaving Chicago, they took a non sequitur route moving their high voltage creativity to the California desert. They “got their stripes” in New York City’s Soho; then moved west & worked from a hillside studio on their horse farm in East Tennessee.
They moved west again, this time to Los Angeles, where they became a powerful artistic presence while working out of their massive canal-side studio in the artist community of Venice Beach.
I recently sat down with the renowned wife & husband artist couple at their studio compound in Rancho Mirage, California to talk with them about their Art Adoption Dalmatian Nation Initiative, the fabrication of their sculptures pieces and other projects currently underway.
It’s such a pleasure to be sitting here in paradise with you both at this beautiful studio, how are you both doing these days? Tony Barone: We’re fine, busy! Karen Barone: Hi Let me start by saying, I’m the verbal one, he’s the visual one! (With a laugh) “That’s good to know. So tell me about the Art Adoption program you’ve just initiated? TB: The Art Adoption program is a community collaboration initiative that seeks to put large-scale public art in front of fire-houses or town halls across the nation.
The playful dog sculptures are meant to honor the unique relationship between fire fighters and the role animals play in the line of duty. For this concept, which we also call the Dalmatian Nation, the idea is for interested local citizens in every community to privately invest in and purchase the sculptures for their home community.
We decided to restrict purchase of the sculptures to private individuals who are willing to pay for and donate the steel or aluminum sculptures to their respective city fire departments.
The program is designed so there is no taxpayer cost for the public art. We and our staff work to match individual donors with each sculpture in each town or city location, wherever there’s a fire hall, a town hall or an animal adoption center.How are the sculptures made? TB: Technology has changed our enterprise. Karen and I design the sculptures to be like architecture. Right now, I’m in the process of grinding a piece of aluminum to show a local arts committee a sample of a finish.
We do a design for a restaurant or a building and then take those drawings, convert them to CAD (computer-aided design) then take those drawings and convert then to a computer language that drives the cutting machinery. The pieces are so large now that we hardly touch them.
We get exactly what we draw as far the details. Then we take that same piece of steel, after its cut out and we start separating and forming it, because it’s still flat. Whether we’re making a meatball or some other curved shape, it was flat at one point. We had to find a place that we could spin out those forms, those hemispheres and then weld them together. It’s intuitive engineering.
KB: Most of our design is not about hanging something on the wall. It ‘s about walking into an exciting, entertaining, art space. TB: We don’t decorate! KB: Or put up light fixtures! It truly is walking into an entertaining exciting environment.
How would you characterize your interiors business? TB: We were the first people to use contemporary, landscape seating where the terrain was like a topographical map and you sat in different areas. We did that in Chicago for Lettuce Entertain You. The first restaurant we designed for them was The Brewery. Another client was the Tango Restaurant Chain. For them we designed a space that was like a gallery.
Sometimes its creating an environment that receives art and when people walk in they become part of the scene, they embrace it, add to it.
So your philosophy is? TB: Anything that we can use, anything, everything is an opportunity.
What are you working on for Fall of 2011? Tony: We’ve just curated a show using eight artists who are all living along the San Andreas Fault. Right now in the other room, we’ve got fans blowing on the canvases. We’ll put in three pieces: an ice cream bar sculpture, then we’ve done a horizontal diptych. Where most diptychs are two panels vertical, we ran the panels four by seven and a three by seven, which when put together become a 7-foot by-7 foot painting.
We’ve got another project which is an homage to Ernest Hemingway’s short story For Sale, Baby Shoes, Never Worn. We’re always stretching canvas.
Now Karen, I understand you were a celebrity host and videographer/filmmaker? KB: Now what you must understand is that when I did films, it was really a whole another take, it was pure art. Tony: We used to do a magazine, kinda like today’s Facebook, but you’re talking in the 80s, 90s. Wherever we traveled around the world, say France, Basel, Switzerland, Germany, wherever we went we would take pictures, then cut and paste them and make up this magazine called The Buzz. It was a lot of fun! KB: Our greatest pleasure truly comes from….TB: Pleasure! KB: What we share and produce and put out there, we do together.
(At this point in the interview, Tony appears to be getting ready to cook.) TB: We bought this saffron in the harbor in Barcelona, they made us vegetarian paella. KB: It was marvelous!
TB: You know each thing is not only a creative thing, it’s a memory from a creative thing. But anyway, back to Karen making video. It just got to the point where she was doing a three-minute video every week. How long did you do that? KB: It was over a year. TB: And then the forum dried up! The show wasn’t on any more, we didn’t have any place to do it. Its’ like this painting we’re doing right now (the dipstych). It’s an opportunity and we needed to paint.
(He pauses for a moment) So the show comes up and boy we get to paint a piece for the show. I mean it’s all in there, ready to come out anyhow and its kinda like love the one you’re with! Right now we’re making love to canvas. It’s not finished, we didn’t skip a beat. We’re also working on a proposal for a commission for an animal shelter.
(He asks Karen to finish his thought …. again indicating how they are one being in so many ways) KB: I want to do a miniature. TB: And then we’re doing a Mother dog in addition to the Dalmatian but its about the same scale, kinda like a golden retriever. Its in this unitable technique where we interlock forms, that’s changed us!
How do children react to your work? KB: It’s really outstanding to watch any child approach our sculptures. TB: They’re not afraid to smile. They’re very honest. They’ll point. You know as an adult you’re not allowed to point. Kids will point for a while until their parents make them stop. And then the forms that we’re using are very approachable. We’re not just doing 6’3” dogs and cats — we’re doing toys. These are toy like images! So kids really get it.
The average child today is so overwhelmed by technology, its great for cities to include these in their public spaces. They can be touched and are truly appropriate subject matter for public art. TB: That’s a good observation.
In terms of direction are you interested in pursuing more film? TB: The opportunity just isn’t there. We created a character called the LoveMonster which is getting bigger and bigger and more important. If you go on the the web to LoveMonster.com, you can see the animation.
The current incarnation seems to be adult oriented? TB: One of my only regrets was that our book was not accessible to kids. Kids gravitated to the images immediately.
I kept having to say, you know this is an adult book. Since then the LoveMonster has evolved. He had those two appendages hanging down, but they were confusing people. KB: The LoveMonster was an androgynous character.
But people thought the drawings indicated something more, more male oriented. TB: We edited the drawing and even gave him good dental work. The earlier version got in the way of the message. The loveMonster is our alter-ego, especially me.
It’s my outlet to do what I want, say what I want. Now in one painting, he’s about seven feet tall. And he’s the one that’s saying to the Karen figure “what’s better? Pasta or sex?”
I require any painting that I work on with Karen — that she be in the painting! I just love painting her! She keeps wanting me to be in the painting with her! And when you’re as hot as Karen, as in the documentary of Monsieur Pompadour! When I saw it, I went on a crash diet and shaved. I stopped wearing my stone cutter jacket.
Now I am the LoveMonster in the painting. Karen’s there, she’s standing next to me. I’m staring at her, I’ve got buttons in my hand. I’m trying to cajole her. He has become me and I’ve become him. You know with regard to film, we work from opportunity and so far it just hasn’t been there.
You’re a natural fit for a documentary. TB: We’re working all the time and we’re producing good work. Film is very collaborative. KB: It takes a great number of people to make a film. TB: At our studio in Venice (CA), we had five or six working interns coming from around the world to work. The thing that’s changed, with our move to Rancho Mirage, CA, we whittled it down to just the two of us. You’ve come full circle then from your youth, when you first met in Chicago? TB: The most important thing for me was to please Karen. I wanted her to look at me in a favorable light. So I guess if you look at our paintings and our sculpture today, they’re very finished, very clean, very few flaws, they’re articulate.
In the meantime, we have two paintings coming up, For Sale, Baby Shoes, Never Worn. The next one is also baby shoes, we thought of calling it Once Upon A Time. It’s a giant, but I’m not sure yet, what’s under it. It’ll have to wait. The rest is still inside of us.
The thing about painting is you can empty yourself on to a canvas and that’s what we do. We’ve been wanting to acknowledge Hemingway on canvas for a long time so we are.
There’s always a canvas being stretched in the studio. We’re usually into five, six projects simultaneously. At one point, life runs out before the ideas do.
Is there such a thing as retirement for working artists? Tony: No, we’re working harder then we ever have. KB: We’ve created the most perfect …. Utopia! TB: Yes it is!
For more on Karen and Tony Barone, visit their website at Baroneart.com