Art The Barbs

Published on August 7th, 2012 | by Elizabeth Coleman


Interview with “The Barbs” Artist Deborah Colotti

Seeing a wall of 200 naked, altered Barbies might be a little off-putting for some. But not for assemblage artist Deborah Colotti, creator of the series “The Barbs,” which features assembled Barbie parts with a twist on social commentary. Her work is often humorous, attempting to highlight and dismantle what Colotti calls “the pervasive, yet strangely hidden, culture straightjacket in which Barbie has attempted to imprison contemporary female identity.”

Colotti’s other work includes assemblages and work with textiles. Calling upon her formal training in wood construction, wood carving, welding, ceramics, tailoring, and glass cutting, she often works with reassembled discarded materials, rendering cultural waste into artistic insight.

Her work has been showcased in galleries and museums around the world. HERE THERE HERE, an exhibit of sculpture and art installation, is currently on display through September 2, 2012 in Fort Bragg, California at Lost Coast Culture Machine (LCCM). The installation consists of animal bones, doll parts and textiles hanging from clothes lines. LCCM explains that the exhibit showcases “the paradox of deteriorating objects that once held life, and lifeless objects claiming to live.” Colotti’s animal bone installations were originally art installations for Burning Man in 2009 and 2010.

This year for Burning Man Colotti is working on two installations to bring to the desert. One piece, titled “Womb With a View,” is a collaborative piece with Janelle Black, Paolo Pedrinazzi and Aileen Cormack. The Burning Man organization describes the piece as “a climbable structure with sheltered space below and a covered platform above with space for a quiet respite” to symbolize the womb, “a symbol of evolution, source of creative power, and the subconscious mind.” People will be able to climb in and out of the womb structure, a place for “creating, re-making, reforming, refreshing.”

Colotti’s other piece for Burning Man this year is titled “Breast Stop,” a solo project consisting of two trampolines covered by domes to  represent the breasts. “Breast Stop” will also be a sheltered space, where people can climb in and out of the breasts, stopping to rest and relax in the heat of the desert.

Colotti took time from her busy schedule for an interview with Art Animal to talk about her past work and upcoming projects.

Art Animal: A lot of your work has a domestic theme. What is the inspiration for that?
Deborah Colotti: I have always been interested in domestic environments and how people put their homes together. When I was a kid I sold Girl Scout cookies door-to-door. I would stand in the entrance way or in the living room of people’s houses and get to see a glimpse of different worlds inside. You can take the same box and repeat it 50 times, and 50 people will do different things with it. I was fascinated to see how people arranged their homes differently.

AA: Where do you get the material for your assemblages?
DC: We hear a lot about recycling and reusing, but we don’t hear a lot about repair. So as a result, I pick up a lot of things that are almost perfect but they need repair. They could be missing a button, or the arm on a chair could need a screw. And so when they are repairable, I repair them and either give them away, or give them to a thrift store. But when they aren’t repairable, then they go into my art studio. People donate things to me all the time, too, hoping that I make art with it.

AA: You are rather well known for your Barbie art, “The Barbs.” Are you still working on those?
DC: I am definitely still working with the Barbies. It’s such a rich vein. A lot of art people look at art and say, “I don’t get it.” The thing that is nice about the Barbies is that they are familiar. People “get it.” We all know something about them. And I am a huge believer in using humor as a way to disarm people. It’s a way to open the conversation about political or social issues. People look at the Barbies and like them, and then can take a look at my other assemblages or textiles. They carry the same themes.

AA: Do people ever have strange reactions to the dolls?
DC: It’s always very interesting to approach a topic in a way that doesn’t scare people off. Some people approach a wall of 200 naked Barbies with caution. Sometimes I have men who approach the wall like, “ew dolls,” but then they will see one that they can relate to. Men seem to like the one with the Hulk Hogan head on a Barbie body. It’s meaningful to them. Once they “get it,” they can begin to look at the other ones.

AA: How do you get your ideas for the composition of the Barbs?
I have about half a dozen dolls on my table right now. Every time I’m in my workshop, I glance at them, study them. I check my feelings on the composition. Like if it was funny in the moment, but a week later it’s lost its charm, then I toss that idea. But if they’ve been sitting around in different positions and it still works, then it’s worth the time. The composition is the easy and fun part. The assemblage is the hard part.

AA: Do you assemble the Barbs with adhesive?
DC: I don’t use adhesive if I can avoid it. I use wire, screw, anything but glue. Glue comes off those slippery rubber Barbie bodies. I send a lot of my work around the country and adhesive doesn’t hold up in shipping with temperature changes. Over the years I’ve learned.

AA: In prior years, you’ve made art for Burning Man, including the bone and clothesline installation. How did people react to those pieces?
DC: Some people feel very squeamish around bones, but most people find the installations calming. I studied tea ceremonies in Japan when I lived there, and to me the pieces have a very “tea house” feel. I actually had this wonderful email from someone after Burning Man in 2009, the first year I took the installation out to the desert. This woman had gone out a couple times everyday and sat in my artwork, although she had this phobia of swaying objects. She found herself out there everyday, writing in her journal and resting, even though she was surrounded by swaying bones on clotheslines. So she wrote to me when she got home because she had shown her friends these pictures and they said, “Wait, you have this phobia! How could you be sitting under all these waving objects?” But she said she felt super comfortable and not threatened.

AA: I’m excited to see your pieces out at Burning Man this year. Can you tell me more about your solo piece, “Breast Stop”?
DC: This year for Burning Man I wanted to make art, but I didn’t want to bring the clotheslines back. In 2011 I heard about an artist who had used a trampoline on wheels to create a snail-shaped shade structure. From this image I had the idea to work with the feminine form by making two giant breast shade structures. Within days of this idea I saw the listing on the internet for free trampolines and I knew it was meant to be. About 20 people can get inside these breasts and rest and relax. They are going to be about seven feet tall, sort of a low dome. I’m not encouraging jumping. It’s more of a rest stop.

AA: What are you using to make the breasts?
DC: I’m using parachutes over bent pvc pipes as the structure over the trampolines. My friend found these industrial lamp shades that look a bit like flying saucers, but they are perfect nipples. Another friend is going to make the armature to support the nipples, and I am bending all the pvc pipe for the frame and doing all the interior cushions. There will be pillows along the inside to cover the springs. The nipple lampshade is the same on the inside, so you will be able to see the inside of the nipple.

AA: You mentioned that you are using parachutes to cover the domes. Where did you get the parachutes?
DC: I went to this military surplus place to look for parachutes, but they were a horrible olive, drab, military green color. The owner was a total jerk, too, and wouldn’t let me open them in the store or return them if I opened them at my studio and saw that they might not fit my needs. He had this whole attitude with me because I’m a woman. We went round and round and he eventually kicked me out of his store! I’ve had run-ins with him before, but that time was the worst. Anyways, I went online to look for parachutes and it turns out for some wacky reason the British military made a bunch of pink parachutes. I ordered two of those. They are perfect for “Breast Stop.”

AA: You mentioned you lived in Japan. How has living overseas influenced your work?
DC: Living overseas was a huge influence. I traveled in my 20s for three years all around India, Thailand, Europe, Nepal, and Sri Lanka, to name a few places, and lived in Japan for two years. I learned about the art and the culture, and assimilated what resonated with me into my art. For example, in Japan, the number four is a bad number. The Japanese word for “four” is shi, which also means “death.” But the number five is a living number. They believe there are five elements. I love that, and now I usually work in fives. It feels natural to me.

For more information about Deborah Colotti and her work, visit

Tags: , , , , ,

About the Author

Elizabeth Coleman is an attorney and writer, born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. She holds a bachelor’s degree in English from UCLA and a law degree from Santa Clara University School of Law, where she received a certificate in public interest and social justice and served as an articles editor on their law review. Apart from her legal career, Elizabeth enjoys writing short stories and dabbling in art (the messier, the better!), and previously was a regular contributor to SWOOP Magazine. She has recently started working on her first book, a young adult fantasy novel about lucid dreaming and parallel realities. Read her blog at

One Response to Interview with “The Barbs” Artist Deborah Colotti

  1. Pingback: Maker Faire, the mother of all inventions (Community Voices) « Oakland Local

Back to Top ↑