Devin Balara originally planned to study the mind, but she ended up learning to follow her heart. The 23-year-old artist is currently enrolled in the MFA program at Indiana University in Bloomington, spending long days not studying psychology, but laboring in the steel foundry at the Midwestern campus.
Born in Tampa, Balara moved to Jacksonville at 17, and though she had studied both music and dance as a child, she had no intention of pursuing any creative calling at the college level. In fact, she spent her first semester at University of North Florida as a psych major. “I was really interested in how the mind works and the way that people relate to each other,” Balara told Folio Weekly in a phone interview during a rare break from the sculpture workshop. But an innate creative restlessness led her to the school’s fine arts department. “I had never taken an art class until I went to UNF,” she says.
Balara credits the “humble and small” UNF arts program with helping ignite her self-confidence. “I had a really great professor in David Lauderdale — he was like our Yoda,” she laughs, explaining that he demystified the “whole art world” to the students. “I was under the mistaken impression that I had to be a master when I first started out.” Balara became friends with a couple she describes as her “mentors,” in the form of Lance Vickery and Jenny K. Hager-Vickery, whom she credits with “helping me understand that to make things with good ideas behind them, the most important thing is to develop craftsmanship first.”
Hager-Vickery, an associate professor of sculpture at UNF, is equally complimentary of her former student. “Devin’s sculptures are like drawings in space,” she says, citing Balara’s use of an acetylene torch — work that is tedious for an artist of any age. “When she draws and paints, the work has the same line quality — thick and thin lines with high repetition. She’s been really successful and continues to be inspired.”
After graduating, Balara painted and served as host of the WJCT new music program, “Indie Endeavor.” At the Hagers’ urging, however, she traveled to Solsberry, Ind., in July 2011 to participate in a workshop at the Sculpture Trails Outdoor Museum. Located on 20 acres of bucolic countryside and featuring the work of more than 60 international artists, the museum is the brainchild of sculptor-instructor Gerry Masse and a sort of backwoods Shangri-la of steel sculptures.
“I needed to get out of Florida for a while,” Balara says. “So I drove up and I was there for the month and I had a complete awakening to my talent.”
Over the course of a few summer weeks, she participated in an intense work-study program that involved primitive camping, 12-hour days of assisting more seasoned artists while honing her own skills, and much time “digging and shoveling,” to keep the forge at a steady temperature of 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit, the melting point of steel. The experience transformed her, and forged a new relationship with an alloy of iron and carbon.
“There’s a sense that steel, more than anything else, does what I tell it to,” says Balara. “I know what it likes and how it’s going to behave. You just need to treat it the way it wants to be treated to become malleable.”
Balara has never strayed far from her original fascination with the mind and attendant relationships. “I was interested in psychology, but I realize that art could be a way of exploring those ideas on my own terms.” Her work (levimarxcontemporary.com) investigates her interior beliefs in impressive pieces that have been shown locally at the galleries R. Roberts and Gallery L. Most recently, her piece, “Once, Twice, Three Times an Hombre,” has been accepted at IU’s prestigious Kinsey Institute Juried Exhibition.
Balara also has work featured in the show, “On Mediation,” opening this week at the West Gallery at Riverside’s CoRK Arts District space. Curated by Staci Bu Shea, the show is documented in a limited-edition catalog and features work by several artists, including Judith Gammon and Aaron Garvey, contemporaries the sculptor has known for nearly a decade.
“Devin is able to translate her cleverness and chosen minimal materials into complex and powerful works,” offers Bu Shea, “and she does so without an overbearing sentiment.”
In pieces like “Timidity” and “Effort,” Balara’s deliberate use of abstraction attempts to convey her principles of patience, repetition, discipline and timidity, while imbued with a subtle sense of humor. Her untitled piece at the CoRK show — a hanging work of cloth and sculpted wood — explores the potential of an actual material becoming sensual. “Wood, fabric, velvet, brass tacks and well-treated metal and hanging devices — all things that are kind of seductive,” says Balara of the piece, which is arranged to allow a viewer to walk through it and be touched — literally — on both sides. Balara believes this touches on the fleeting sensation of being seduced by a material thing — “an object is never really going to love you back.”
“I try to interpret these overarching themes with abstract forms,” she continues, “since I feel like [the abstract] is a more universal idea.” Her pieces fuse steel with materials ranging from resin to wax to even paper, disparate materials that try to explain the “common gestures” expressed by all living beings. “I liken that to everything in the universe and every job that everyone does,” she says, of our deliberate efforts in life to survive and, we hope, thrive. “It’s a hard thing to appreciate and an even harder thing to acknowledge and not feel extreme anxiety about — but I think my work is trying to get at the fact that we’re all kind of the same.”
The opening reception for the exhibit “On Mediation” is held on Friday, April 20 from 6-9 p.m. at West Gallery, CoRK Arts District, 2689 Rosselle St., Jacksonville. The show features work by Devin Balara, Judith Gammon, Travis Flack, Aaron Garvey, Christine Sun Kim, Austin Moule and TSOSTC. 485-6692.