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Barter Theater and William King Museum Collaboration Shows Another Side of Artists

Marcia Willard stands by her sculpture, "Fountain," at the opening of the Artist by Trade exhibit at the William King Museum
Marcia Willard stands by her sculpture, "Fountain," at the opening of the Artist by Trade exhibit at the William King Museum

In Southwest Virginia, the Barter Theater and William King Museum are two key institutions providing the community with artistic, cultural and educational experiences. Now, they’ve come together in a new exhibit that highlights the creative process for those working both on and off the stage. For Virginia Currents, Catherine Komp reports from Abingdon.

Learn more: Scroll down to read Q&As with some of the Barter staff and artists. The exhibit Artist by Trade runs through August 17, 2014. Watch a video tour of the William King Museum from Virginia Currents (TV). And find out about the Barter Theater's history and this season's performances.

It’s opening night for actor and director Eugene Wolf, but this venue is a bit different from the stage he’s usually on:

Wolf: This piece for me is about the trip to Russia and what I wanted to accomplish with the trip and the blending of cultures and the music.

Wolf addresses a crowd gathered at the William King Museum’s opening of Artist by Trade, an exhibit featuring the independent creative work of Barter Theater employees. Wolf’s piece shares his journey to Russia where he played gospel & spiritual music on the Volga River. The video installation includes a 1950’s TV, Russian icons of Jesus and Mary and photos of his grandparents. The longtime actor says he wanted to explore how music can change perceptions and bring people together. 

A portion of Eugene Wolf's installation
A portion of Eugene Wolf's installation


Wolf: I’ve been in theater so I’ve created scenes and help write plays, but never have I taken my impulse and watched it come to fruition.

Artist by Trade also shines a light on the creativity of those behind the stage: the carpenters, scenic designers, prop masters, wardrobe assistants, and sound engineers integral to any theatrical production.

Willard: My name is Marcia Willard and I’m the wig master at the Barter.

Willard has three pieces in the show, including a long blonde wig she sculpted into fury, pointed antlers and a cascading three-tiered, headdress that takes the shape of an elegant fountain.

Willard: For some reason I was just really drawn to water and the flowing aspects that hair has as well and how that relates to water.

For some of these artists, including Willard, it’s the first time their independent work has been publicly displayed.

Willard: I’m proud to see my work and it’s been really nice to have people see it as well, and I’ve gotten a lot of compliments on it which is nice to hear. 

Antlers, Marcia Willard


Cartier: They were completely free to do whatever they wanted to do . . .

Leila Cartier is curator at the William King Museum.

Cartier: . . .and some of them brought in things that they’ve never showed before, some of them took on projects they’ve never tried before, so it’s extremely brave for all of these individuals to participate in this show.

Cartier said the name of the exhibit, Artist by Trade, is a nod to the long and rich history of the Barter. When actor Robert Porterfield founded the theater in 1933, he started “hams for hamlet,” a policy that let patrons pay for admission with livestock or produce.

Cartier: Artist by trade, they’re a creative person instinctually, and “By Trade,” you know barter/trade, the whole idea behind the theater is during the Depression  people would bring food or whatever they could so they could go see a play and feed the actors.

Smith: I knew they were an extremely talented bunch of people, I didn’t know how wide-ranging their talents were.


Untitled, Derek Smith

Scenic designer and professional painter Derek Smith, who also has a piece in the show, says it’s inspiring to learn about these hidden talents of his co-workers.

Smith: Seeing these installation pieces by Barter actors, the house blessing, the intricate calligraphy, the sound and video piece that I think could belong in any museum anywhere in the world right now, you know I was just blown away by how talented they actually are. I knew they were talented, but the level of talent just blows me away.

The William King exhibit also include wearable art fashioned from recycled materials; loom beadwork depicting scenes from nature and two participatory installations that engage spectators through music, animation, props and stage directions. Catherine Komp, WCVE News, Abingdon

Q&A with Megan Atkinson, creator and director of Barter Theatre’s Project REAL, Reinforcing Education through Artistic Learning

What’s the mission of Project REAL?

Megan Atkinson: We work with secondary education, so middle school and high school, and we partner with the classroom teachers in teaching core curriculum through theater techniques and making an emotional and physical connection to the material for the students.

What did you do before this position with Barter?

Atkinson: I was working in Boston as an actor and director and I worked as an actor here at Barter Theater about seven years ago and that’s how I came to know the Barter Theater. It is my home, it was my first acting gig out of college and I moved to the North and started working for different theater companies there.Then I came back, and we wrote this grant and fell in love with this kind of work, applied theater, using theater to service the community in a different way than traditional theater.


A Prison of My Childhood, M. Atkinson

Could you tell us about your mixed media installation, “A Prison of My Childhood,”  in the Artist by Trade exhibit?

Atkinson: I was inspired to do this because I think where I’m at with my journey in my life is being open about the kind of childhood I had. By no means does anyone have a perfect childhood, and I’m not saying I was a victim because I don’t think of myself as that. I think my childhood was filled with a lot of adult issues that I had to deal with at a very young age and I had to grow up really quickly. And even though these things at the time isolated me from others and kids my age because I had to grow up so fast, they made me blossom as an adult and created a person who loves to help other people . . . . I think that’s why theater for me is a perfect venue to do that, because it creates an open dialogue. Once you create a piece of art you can be objective about it, talk about it, and so I wanted to create something that kind of exposed where I come from, my roots, that I’ve created who I am and I’m not ashamed of that. Yes, there’s this dark component (to the piece) but there’s also this bright component, with the tree (on the wall) and growth.

And it’s participatory?

Atkinson: Yes, it’s interactive. There are stage directions and you walk through it and take on certain physical components and I’ve created pictures so you know what physical gestures to take on at certain moments. People can touch it, they can move through it, and they read and speak lines of dialogue.

What was it like to see someone interact with you piece?

Atkinson: It was actually really weird and cool at the same time. Even if someone had the same type of experience dealing with the same issues I did, I bet they got something else out of it than I would. That’s the beauty of art, it’s subjective and we all have different viewpoints that can help each other along in life.

Q&A with Whitney Kaibel, Wardrobe Assistant, Barter Theater

Could you describe a typical night as Wardrobe Assistant?

Whitney Kaibel: Typically we come in and we sort laundry, steam anything that needs to be steamed and then get all the presets for the show set up. Then we jump into the show and we help people get into their costumes and then, we go through the show. Sometimes with musicals it’s really hectic and there are 30 second (costume) changes, sometimes several in a row, sometimes 20, it depends. Sometimes there’s only one change for an entire play.

Describe your piece in the exhibit.


Nevele, Whitney Kaibel

Kaibel: My piece is a knitted cowl and I made it from t-shirts. I had a pile of t-shirts, and I looked at it and thought what can I do with this? Reduce, reuse, recycle! I like the idea of creating things from nothing and not having to go to the art supply store and spending $50 on supplies when it’s just really not necessary.

Have you created anything like this before?

Kaibel: Not with t-shirts, but I have used recycled (plastic) bags. I was working a bit with plastic bags, but didn’t like the texture, so I cut those out.

Is the piece meant to be worn?

Kaibel: Yes, it’s actually double-knitted on both sides, almost like a reverse fabric, so the pattern is continued on the other side. So it’s very heavy, but it is very warm despite being made from old t-shirts.

What do you think the community can learn from this exhibit?

Kaibel: I think the community can learn that we all have different sides, and we don’t just do one thing. I don’t just change clothes; Helen (Stratakes) doesn’t just change props. We all have different hobbies and interests and it really does take a lot of different people with a lot of different skills to put together our shows.

The exhibit Artist by Trade runs through August 17, 2014. Watch a video tour of the William King Museum from Virginia Currents (TV). And find out about the Barter Theater's history and this season's performances.