Becca Barnet of Sisal & Tow
Becca Barnet of Sisal & Tow
If you’ve been in Charleston for any significant amount of time, you have heard of Becca Barnet.
Barnet's haunting taxidermy pieces make everyone take notice and she’s had shows at Redux Contemporary Art Center, The College of Charleston, and the Waterfront Gallery as a part of Piccolo Spoleto. She’s originally from Spartanburg, but spent time studying at RISD before working in New York at the American Museum of Natural History. You could call her an artist, taxidermist, metalsmith, illustrator, sculptor, teacher, photographer, or businesswoman, and each time you would be right. You would think someone with such a breadth of experience wouldn’t be so fantastic in each discipline, but she is. I was lucky enough to snag a few minutes of her time over crisp iced coffees from Kudu, just steps away from her beautiful home studio.
First, what brought you from New York to Charleston?
When I was younger I came to Charleston to do the typical tourist-y things, like eat, shop, and appreciate the architecture. I really enjoyed the colonial, small town feel of Rhode Island, but it was just too cold for me. And New York was just too overwhelming and really, I knew what I wanted. I wanted what Charleston has to offer. When I came back I was blown away by the colors, art, lights, and the willingness of everyone here to engage in community and the arts. I thought I should just try it out. My dad really pushed me to be job focused when making decisions, and I thought Charleston was the right size because there is a demand and money to be spent on the arts here. It was also big enough to have that market but not too big where I couldn’t meet people and make connections.
How did you come to taxidermy from illustration at RISD?
At first taxidermy really scared me, but I loved stuffed animals and especially creating the habitats. When I was a kid I loved to create shoe box habitats and my mom let me turn our basement into a jungle with fake flowers and a straw hut. I also loved to make little things out of clay. In high school I really wanted to take more art classes but they weren’t offered, so my parents transferred me to a private school where that was more of a focus. When I was accepted to RISD, I chose illustration because I thought it was the most employable degree I could come away with, at least more so than sculpture or fine art. But then I started to make things in 3D and one of my professors suggested an internship at the museum and they hired me. From there I knew what I wanted to do, it turned into a job, and the rest is history.
Was there a moment of panic when you decided you wanted to abandon illustration?
At RISD your whole class takes everything together so we all explored drawing in 2d, then 3d work, and we are all having the “OMG, I am in art school and this is awesome” moment, but after your second year, you break into groups based on your specialty and that’s when I had a panic attack. I was asking myself why I was doing this every day, but I stuck with it and actually graduated. The panic continued into my senior year because at RISD everyone is amazing and you are constantly comparing yourself to everyone but no matter what you do, there will always be something better. You can’t compare yourself to other people because someone is always smoother, making more money, or doing something you want to do. You’re just living a human experience and everybody brings an awesome gift to the world. I still have to remind myself of this. I know it’s kind of hippy dippy, but it’s a good thing to remember.
What advice would you give to people making a similar change in their path?
You know, I went to be an illustrator but there are so many other applications of my gifts and talents. I don’t have to limit myself to illustrations. It doesn’t have to be just that. It can be museum work, it can be installations. I know I’m good at replicating color and textures. I learned to put my strengths to work.
Also, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Sometimes I think people don’t ask for help because they are afraid it means they aren’t doing it right. But if you don’t know, ask someone who does. The city offers counciling for small businesses and there are so many resources online. You are not alone. If you want to start a stationary store, go talk to someone who has done that before. Ask Google. Ask Jeeves. Just ask!
What’s the best piece of advice you have ever received?
Be nice to everybody. Not like fake nice, but you don’t know other people’s stories. You don’t know their backgrounds or what they could be to you in the future. Never write people off immediately. You never know who could help you in the future and hook you up with that one meeting that skyrockets your career. Say hello to a lot of people and say yes to everything, everyone, and any opportunities. Shake people’s hands and bring them coffee. Be available and interested. Be the first to work and the last to leave, even if you are a freelancer or volunteering. Be appreciative and be a hard worker. Just show up. Don’t be afraid to use your connections. Introduce yourself, offer to volunteer. That’s what I first did in Charleston and those people I brought coffee are now my clients. I volunteered at the Halsey and now I’m on the board. It’s so important to go out and meet people. You don't have to have it all figured out to go and put yourself out there.
What’s the best advice you give to other people?
Just put yourself out there, be present, and be active in your community. Even if you don’t see the path, just go down it and let yourself be pleasantly surprised. I’m very Type A, very controlling, and I constantly have to work on letting things go. You just have to give yourself the room to be pleasantly surprised. Always do your best but don’t be too hard on yourself if things don’t turn out perfectly. I think I have my shit together more than a few people, but not really, not all the way. The difference is I just know that if I continue to try and work hard, I will continue to have more opportunities to show the world what I have to offer. Then I can say “Oh, I can’t believe it turned out this way!” That’s a great feeling.
What has been your greatest professional hurdle?
I was once commissioned to make a custom light fixture for a local restaurant and spent a year of my time doing it and then they rejected it. Looking back there were so many red flags, but it was certainly a learning experience. I would say when you start a project and it is not flowing, you’re not meshing with the person, and getting meetings and approvals is like pulling teeth, walk away. You can tell it’s not a priority for them and it’s not worth the blood. You have to let it go, thank them for the business opportunity, but let them know the project isn’t moving and you can’t continue with it.
Stick up for yourself but know it’s not always going to go smoothly. When it is an uphill battle everyday to get it going, get the fuck out. Get out while you still can. I learned in that year when you are struggling that much to get people’s attention or permission or money, it’s bad news. Just don’t do it.
Are there any personal hurdles you have had to overcome?
I have learned when working for friends to lay out expectations, the hours you plan to work, when you are available for meeting. Set those parameters and stick to them so your business can stay business and personal, personal. Make agreements you can both walk away at any time with no hard feelings. Layout a timeline so projects can’t carry on forever. Timelines are one of the most important things in my work. There can be extensions, but each one comes with new parameters and you get paid at the end of every timeline. It can also be really challenging separating work and personal when working from home. It’s hard when you’re in a relationship and you are both at home all the time. I still struggle with time management. I have meetings at my house which is also my studio. It’s great to be working at home with my dogs and eating lunch in my own kitchen, so it’s hard to overlook the convenience factor.
What are your latest projects?
I am currently working on a complete renovation of the Natural History Gallery at the Charleston Museum, creating taxidermy pieces and custom wallpaper for a boutique hotel, as well as some smaller pieces for retail stores, and of course making time to draw on my own. The wallpaper is all local flora like okra, cotton, fig, and jasmine.
The renovation at the Charleston Museum is extremely exciting because this gallery literally hasn’t been touched since the 1970s and hasn’t been redesigned since the 1920s. The have an amazing collection of fossils, bones, and taxidermy. I have been brought on for a two year contract to remount 150 taxidermy pieces, as well as redesign the entire gallery, from the furniture to cabinets and lighting, as well as update the flow to create a better experience for visitors (think UX/UI but for museum-goers).
My time at the American Museum of Natural History was spent working both upstairs and downstairs. Downstairs we focused on design, the way it flowed, color schemes, and the way visitors experienced our collection. Upstairs I worked on fabrications, animals, pots, creating replicas, and making mounts for fossils or remodeling them.
I’m excited that this project includes both, and all the materials are real except the fossil caps. I’m going to be working closely with the curator to tell the story but I will be thinking about how people will interact and walk through, the best ways to highlight the collection. We’re ripping out all the dioramas, furniture, just everything! It’s really rare to be able to work on something of this scale.
You have so much going on, how do you manage it all?
Like I mentioned before, I’m not afraid to ask for help! I have two women that assist me with work I do in the studio, my boyfriend helps me cut wood and prepare surfaces, and mostly I just work really hard and do the best I can. My dad has also helped me as an experienced businessman. He is very interested in teaching me how to work with people and write thank you notes. He’s really sociable and helpful in that regard. Otherwise, I schedule time to do bills, invoicing, and email. I keep a separate bank account for my business and use an app to help me evaluate what I’m taking in, bringing out. I also make time to evaluate my pricing, business structure, and always make time to sketch, no matter what. There’s so much work that goes into running a creative business outside the creativity. For example, when I recently worked on a large mural outside Cannon Green I had to research prices of forklifts, forklift restrictions, and determine whether or not I needed a permit.
I have had to also learn the art of delegating, not only how to do it, but what can be delegated. So much of my business is my creativity and I can’t outsource that. But then you have to factor in outside labor and there are so many logistical things to think about when working commercially. I really have to evaluate so many different things on any given day.
To learn more about the amazing work Becca does with Sisal & Tow, visit her website and keep up with her most recent projects by following her on Instagram @beccabarnet (and keep up with the cuteness overload that are her two puppies!)