Architecture’s Robert Barnstone Creates ‘Wooden Fabric’ for NYC’s Socrates Sculpture Park

PULLMAN, Wash. — A wooden sculpture created by Washington State University architectural designer and assistant professor Robert Barnstone is on display in New York City’s Socrates Sculpture Park on the East River.

“Prone” opened Sept. 17 at the park, the winner of an international competition Barnstone entered in February against 200-300 other artists. Barnstone went to the park July 28 to install the two-and-a-half-ton work that combines cradle and volumetric pieces.

Barnstone joined the WSU faculty in 1997. He teaches first- through fourth-year architectural design studio, historic preservation, contemporary furniture design studio and architectural theory courses. His wife, Deborah Ascher-Barnstone, is also an assistant professor in the WSU School of Architecture and Construction Management.

The WSU architectural designer hails from a family of acclaimed poets — father Willis, sister Aliki, brother Tony — and a painter, mother Helle. “Prone” has its roots in this literary and artistic creativity.

“Conceptually, you begin to read the stitches,” Barnstone says of his sculpture. “It’s sewing wood onto a frame. The nails will turn black; you will see the stitches in time, like on a shirt. It’s very much a wooden fabric.”

Openings in the volumetric piece fold into themselves; they never allow access within. But they create a blackness that invites something else to come in: the viewer’s imagination.

“The blackness of the space is ‘prone’ to other kinds of thought,” Barnstone says. “Your mind can jump from one thought to another.”

“Prone” is part of a body of work 12 years in the making. Barnstone created earlier hollow pieces in steel, also inaccessible from the outside. He lived in East Africa for two years with the Maasai tribe and was introduced to tropical architecture that combined bentwood with mud. One wall of the volumetric piece in “Prone” contains a wooden bulge, a tribute to the East African architecture. Japanese influences also can be seen “in the rigor of the clean blocks of wood,” he adds.

“So it has a lot of cultural attributes,” Barnstone says.

But one interpretation Barnstone sees in “Prone” is that of an “industrial remnant of New York.

“You wonder if it’s a figurative or an inanimate object,” he says. “It’s very interesting, this play of object/body. It allows your imagination to create the narrative, create the story, create the backdrop.”

“Prone” will have many “readers” at Socrates Sculpture Park. The area’s only park devoted to large-scale sculpture, it attracts hundreds of people every day for more than just viewing art. In the three to four weeks that Barnstone built “Prone” at Socrates, he saw a teeming microcosm: musicians who played their instruments to the East River; Dominicans fishing; voodoo practitioners holding a ceremony; people doing tai chi or walking their dogs.

“It’s used from sunrise to sunset,” he says. “It’s a wonderful place to build a sculpture.”

And a fantastic communal environment for artists and sculptors, Barnstone adds. While at Socrates, he worked with seven other sculptors who were installing pieces at the same time. Resident sculptors also helped Barnstone build his piece and will maintain “Prone” while it is there.

In that time, his sculpture will deteriorate with the weather and take on a patina. The sewing lines will be seen. That’s the time Barnstone looks forward to. More will be read in those lines.

“Architecture is the poetics of the environment, and that is something I’m very fascinated with,” he says. “Whether you open the cover of a book or a door, it’s very much about reading. I find myself constantly reading the world.”