Sculptures cement artist's reputation

Barry Coffin is one of Indian Arts Show's judges

Barry Coffin's career as an artist has brought him plenty of recognition and some pretty cool experiences, too.

Like getting to play golf with rock musician Steve Miller � as in the Steve Miller Band.


Richard Gwin/Journal-World Photo

Lawrence artist Barry Coffin works on a piece in his studio in downtown Lawrence. Coffin is one of the judges for this year's Lawrence Indian Arts Show at the Museum of Anthropology.

Over Memorial Day weekend, the Lawrence artist participated in an art show called Indian Arts Northwest in Portland, Ore. He figured that as long as he was in the area, he'd stop by and see his buddy Miller.

"I went up and played golf with him in Friday Harbor, Wash. He's a big collector of my work. He's bought about 29 pieces of mine through the years. He's a real nice guy," says 52-year-old Coffin.

Oh, yeah, Miller bought about 15 more of the artist's ceramic sculptures while the two were hanging out together. In fact, the musician recently added a new wing to his house, just to display the work of Coffin and other artists.

Aside from the support of Miller, Coffin has a lot to be proud of.

His ceramic and metal sculptures are in many private collections around the country, as well as the permanent collections of the Heard Museum in Phoenix, Ariz.; the Denver Art Museum; and the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, the Museum of Fine Arts and the Institute of American Indian Arts Museum, all in Santa Fe, N.M.

Coffin, a 1965 Lawrence High School graduate, is in his third decade of exhibiting his work nationally and internationally. He continues to win awards and recognition for his sculptures.

He twice has been chosen to participate in the juried portion of the Lawrence Indian Arts Show, which will be held for the 12th year Saturday through Oct. 22 at Kansas University's Museum of Anthropology.

This year, Coffin will serve as one of two judges for the art show, which exhibits the work of contemporary American Indian artists across the nation.

What: Indian Arts Show.When: Saturday through Oct. 22. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays.Where: Kansas University's Museum of Anthropology.Price: $1 for students and $3 for adults.

Maria Martin, co-owner of Southwest and More, 727 Mass., has coordinated the event since it began.

She and her husband, Don Martin, show some of Coffin's artwork in their 2-year-old gallery. It's the only gallery in the region that carries his pieces.

Like Coffin's friend Miller, Maria Martin is an admirer of his artistry.

"I saw some of his work years ago at the Lawrence Arts Center, and I was taken by his unique style. His figures have an exaggeration, a kind of caricature," she says.

"The hands are just a very strong point in his pieces. They show a great deal of expression and sometimes almost humor. That struck me at the arts center. I just thought it would be wonderful to have his work in the gallery."

Her customers appear to love Coffin's sculptures.

"They are so unique and contemporary. People are drawn to his work. It's marvelous to watch people in the gallery approach and then look at the sculptures," she says.

"They're always smiling while they're talking about them. And younger people are always asking if there are more pieces."

Even though she's around it all the time, Martin is not immune to the appeal of Coffin's work, either.

"Barry just sculpts from the heart. He can take clay and give it a unique expression. His work is very, very colorful, and it has a (sense of) humor about (it). They're just happy pieces. I walk by them quite a bit, and when I walk by, I smile," she says.

Lawrence roots

Coffin, whose tribal heritage is Potawatomi and Creek, returned to Lawrence about 1 1/2 years ago so he could assist his mother, 81-year-old Lolita Coffin.

"I've enjoyed being back. I've enjoyed spending time with my mom and seeing old friends. But I still sell my work mainly out of state," he says.

Coffin grew up on the campus of Haskell Indian Nations University, where his father, Tony Coffin, served as a coach and later the school's athletic director.

The Coffin Complex, Haskell's indoor athletic facility, is named for Tony Coffin.

Barry Coffin has three brothers, two of whom are artists and the other is a printer. None of them live here.

Coffin came home to Lawrence after having spent the previous 24 years living in Sedona, Ariz., Aspen and Durango, Colo., and Santa Fe and Taos, N.M. Since he returned, he has used a downtown Lawrence gallery's basement as his studio.

"Those are all nice places, all art communities. I think you can learn a lot by moving and living in different places. But I've been in Santa Fe mostly, doing my artwork. I went to school there at the Institute of American Indian Arts," he says.

"Many of the most important American Indian artists have gone there or taught there. It got me going in art. If it hadn't been for that school, I wouldn't have been an artist."

'It's a gift'

Coffin does an occasional painting, bronze work or stone carving, but his primary medium is ceramic sculpture. He describes his striking artwork as "contemporary totem figures," which he fires and then completes with acrylic paints.

Some of his figures are based upon koshari, black-and-white painted clowns who perform during Hopi Indian ceremonies. Other sculptures are medicine men wearing buffalo headdresses.

His latest work is a clear departure from earlier pieces.

"I've sort of broken away from Southwestern and Native American images. I'm experimenting with contemporary shapes and forms," Coffin says.

"I've just started these bigger ones, which can go outdoors. I've always done the smaller pieces."

His sculptures range in price from a few hundred dollars up to $15,000.

The source of Coffin's artistic ability is a bit of a mystery to him.

"I guess it's from being Indian. All the Indians I know are really good artists. I didn't start doing art until I was 27 and went to art school," he says.

When pressed, Coffin admits that he feels pretty good about the way his career has gone so far.

"I think I've been successful. I'm in the permanent collections of several museums. My work has been shown in the Kennedy Center (in Washington, D.C.), the Smithsonian and a lot of museums around the country," he says.

And in 1995, Coffin participated in a three-month-long, artist-in-residence program in the south of France.

Though he's enjoying living in his hometown, it's not a sure thing he'll stay here for good. He might move back to the Southwest.

"There are so many artists and galleries; it's a lot easier to sell your art there," Coffin says.

Why is he an artist?

"It's something I enjoy. It's definitely a gift I have, and I feel it's my obligation to share it with people," he says.

"The most important part of my work is that people enjoy it. That it inspires them."


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