The walls of the church-turned-gallery are adorned with bright-colored papier-mâché sweets and retro-futuristic televisions atop cardboard boxes.
The new exhibit, “We Feed & Nourish Each Other,” was created by local freelance illustrator Agnes Barton-Sabo and displayed at Corvallis’ The Arts Center. Trained in traditional visual arts, they rediscovered papier-mâché because of the resources they had available during the pandemic.
Papier-mâché is an accessible and approachable form of sculpture because it’s created with household materials — paper or cardboard layered with paste.
“I needed an art project to work on because that’s how I express my feelings and survive,” Barton-Sabo said. Driven by a need to work out their feelings about isolation and connection with others, specifically not feeling stuck or getting sucked into despair, they explored the sustainable medium.
The pandemic shaped the exhibit in other ways, too.
An avid baker, Barton-Sabo missed people — and providing for those they care about. Food is a common theme in their work, which is why their latest exhibit includes papier-mâché recreations of comfort foods marked with affirmations.
Taken together, those elements show how people interact with and care for one another.
“I was longing for nourishing people by feeding them,” they said. “When you come over to my house, I’m always going to be handing you food.”
Inspired by the likes of sculptor Claes Oldenburg and the installation artist Jenny Holzer, Barton-Sabo’s art has been as colorful and quirky.
“They have always had this whimsical and decorative type of style,” said Hester Coucke, the outgoing curator of The Arts Center.
Barton-Sabo credits their parents, who are also artists, for nurturing their creativity in their youth. Their parents worked with visual imagery and words, which influenced Barton-Sabo’s style of adding lettering to their illustrations.
Imagery, Barton-Sabo said, conveys meaning in one way, while written messages work in another to get their point across. But when you put them together, they “become something new that people are able to approach from multiple directions.”
Working in a less familiar medium came with its own challenges. Because of their background in illustration, Barton-Sabo is used to controlling every aspect of the creative process.
Papier-mâché, though, comes with a certain amount of unpredictability.
“I needed to remind myself not to get wound up trying to make things photorealistic,” Barton-Sabo said, “just to give in to play more and explore what was going to happen with these materials on their own.”
One exhibit piece is a recreation of a pink-frosted vanilla cake cut in half — and with a hand file embedded, as though it were baked inside. The phrase, “We have the tools we need to get free,” is printed against the layers of the cake in teal.
“I wanted the messaging to focus on reminding people how much community and working with each other is essential to our survival and our progress,” she said.
Barton-Sabo’s creativity is also channeled through their alter ego, Betty Turbo, an identity they adopt when they make illustrations.
They chose the name in college to separate their photography art from their illustrations.
The first name “Betty” comes from their grandmother, while the last name was to add something unexpected.
Coucke said that Barton-Sabo’s alter ego is the perfect representation of their artistic style.
“(The first name) gives you this familiar feel. … It’s nice and it’s safe,” said Coucke. But the surname Turbo, according to Couke, says, “Don’t mess with me, I’m a force to be reckoned with.”
Coucke appreciates Barton-Sabo’s artistic drive in a time where many felt stuck.
“You cannot help but walk away with a smile and feel a little bit more cheerful than you did when you walked in,” Coucke said.
Ultimately, Barton-Sabo hopes that people laugh and find joy in their exhibit while looking back on a time that was hard for them.
Feeding and nourishing each other, they said, comes from both food and art.
It “makes us feel light and joyful for a few minutes or seconds,” Barton-Sabo said, “which is really essential to survival in a world where lots of negative things are happening.”
— Sebastian Gracie Fultz, Leodis V. McDaniel High School
— Hannah Kaufmann, Beaverton High School
This story was produced by student reporters as part of the High School Journalism Institute, an annual collaboration among The Oregonian/OregonLive, Oregon State University and other Oregon media organizations. For more information or to support the program, go to oregonlive.com/hsji.