Sure, Barbara Chen’s smiling, dancing women are plump and cast of heavy bronze, but these fleshy figures look decidedly light-stepping. The Richland, Wash., sculptor credits that to a freewheeling imagination (she pictures poses in her mind rather than using plus-sized models) and a constant stream of music (“I listen to everything from ballet to reggae, world music to opera, and that inspires the feel of their poses,” she says). But more than anything, Chen’s work is a product of happiness. “For me, making art is like making music,” she says. “I want it to be something that I enjoy and that other people can enjoy.”
Chen’s 14-inch-tall dancing figures, including Felicity (right), are crafted in a five-step process. She creates an original sculpture in clay, makes a mold, then casts a resin sculpture, which she tweaks and reworks. She then takes a final mold, which goes to a foundry, where the bronze statue is cast. It’s a long, laborious process, but the bronze is essential to her statues’ structural strength. “A few years ago, I had a beautiful pink stone and wanted to make a female figure out of it because of its fleshy color,” says Chen. “But one of the limitations of stone is that a dancing figure would break at the ankle because it would be too heavy and fragile. So by using bronze, I’m able to have her stand up and dance.”
Chen, 44, didn’t always have sculpting aspirations. After earning an economics degree from Stanford University, she worked at a stock brokerage, taught English in Japan and even did volunteer work with primates (including Koko, the famous gorilla who “speaks” American Sign Language). It was when her father passed away in 1988 that she took a chance on an art career. “My father had commissioned a friend from China to paint my mother’s portrait, and he was the first fine artist I’d ever met,” she says. “He opened my eyes to the possibility of art as a career.” She made her first sculpture—a gorilla—out of hobby clay, and with her artist-friend’s encouragement, pursued art full-time.
“I discovered I had a knack for working with my hands—and that it really makes me happy,” she says. Chen’s work costs between $95 (for sterling silver jewelry pieces) to $20,000 (for large outdoor sculptures). Felicity, a limited edition statue, sells for $2,200.