Becca Barnet is a force to be reckoned with. A Jane-of-all-trades, there doesn’t seem to be any creative project Becca and her team at Sisal Creative can’t wrangle, tame, and make their own. At least not yet.
From studying illustration to becoming a skilled taxidermist to starting her own business, Becca’s path and passions are anything but ordinary. But that hasn’t stopped her from pursuing her dreams.
What was the first thing you created that had a profound impact on you? How did you feel?
I’ve been making art since I could hold a pencil. My mom was particularly supportive - teaching me how to dig clay from the woods near our house or letting me paint our entire basement and turn it into a diorama. I used to spend hours on MS Paint, drawing with the mouse. I would say that my first large-scale personal project was that basement diorama - I created various scenes using paint, fake flowers, fake animal fur, plastics, cardboard, fabrics, and more. I worked on it for much of my childhood. I wasn’t sure what I was doing, I was just letting my creativity go nuts and my parents let me completely transform the space. They also helped me get materials I needed, which was cool. My mom let me use an old shower curtain and I made a waterfall under a fan so it looked like water was moving. I loved the feeling of making something that people enjoyed looking at.
As a teenager, I remember dissecting a frog in biology and thinking, “How could this be any cooler?” The way things fit together, the colors, textures, and patterns on top of the entire body of the frog being functional and beautiful - I was not grossed out, I was floored.
What set you down the path to attend RISD and study Illustration?
In high school I was painting and drawing constantly. I was really into comic books, particularly the Sandman series by Neil Gaiman, and I would pour over the art and re-draw a lot of it and make my own versions. I would draw on anything - shoes, my textbook covers, my clothes, and my walls (again, thanks Mom). And I was so bad at math and history that I knew I had to pursue something in the arts.
I had a really influential art teacher who inspired me to apply for art school. They also helped me get my portfolio together. Once I got to RISD, I chose illustration as a major because I was convinced I wanted to do that forever. I didn’t realize that illustration classes were preparing me to be able to make any kind of art - allowing me to take their DNA and their needs and put my own spin on the work.
Becca putting the finishing touches on a pair of custom antler plaques. Photo by Elizabeth Ervin.
You also attended the Missouri Taxidermy Institute, which is an unexpected route to take. What inspired you to jump into the world of taxidermy?
I had some amazing teachers at RISD, all of whom saw I was obsessed with dioramas and sculpture. I started completing most of my illustration projects in 3D formats, and they supported the idea. I also got into stop-motion animation, and I was creating puppets and props from animal skins. My scientific illustration teacher suggested I do an independent study and figure out how to go to taxidermy school, so I did some research and went. Originally I just wanted to learn another skill set, but it ended up opening a lot of doors for me.
What’s one lesson you learned there?
To treat everything as an experiment. Life is a lot like taxidermy - you can start out with something pristine and perfect, it can go through a bunch of really rough looking stages, and then it can come out good or bad. You’ll never know until you try!
Becca repairing a vintage ram mount. Photo by Elizabeth Ervin.
After your schooling, how did you initially apply all your newly-learned knowledge and skills? Did you have a plan sketched out for what your ideal work looked like?
When I got back to RISD after taxidermy school, I begged the Nature Lab to let me have a job there repairing the mounts that were very old and falling apart. (The Nature Lab is a really amazing library of all natural items. Some you can rent, but mostly it’s a huge collection of reference materials from human skulls to sea shells.) After getting the job, I repaired a lot of their collection. The detail and precision really lit a fire inside of me. It was such a challenge to match things like colors and textures, and I felt like taking on that kind of work was unique to me.
As for my personal work, I started making some puppets using actual animal parts, which was what I had originally set out to learn how to do. The way I viewed “making” really changed for me after taxidermy school - now I think about what the inside of everything looks like.
Do you have a secret for translating that precision and tactile feel to your design work?
Most of the projects I sink my teeth into turn out to be what I like to call “insanity projects.” So in my personal work, or natural history replica work, the detail is present, the textures and colors are thoughtfully produced. The scale is small enough to warrant this detail. To translate that to a much larger scale, say, a room-sized art installation, each and every detail must be considered. I usually end up repeating one element over and over, for example, building hundreds of units that cluster together to give a unique textural effect overall. For museum exhibit design, each detail is considered down to the hardware used and texture of each surface. I’m obsessed with detail!
Another view in the downtown studio. Photo by Elizabeth Ervin.
Let’s talk about Sisal Creative, your fabrication studio. What prompted you to start your own business? Was that part of the plan all along?
Sisal Creative was born when I was posed with the question: “What’s your actual dream job?”
At the time, in 2010, I was working at the Museum of Natural History, in New York City, making parts of traveling exhibits. I guess I thought that was my dream job, but then I got a vision of being my own boss, making amazing work for museums, living in a chiller place than New York City, having a dog and a truck, going to work with each day being totally different. It wasn’t until 2012, when I moved to Charleston, South Carolina, that Sisal Creative was really formed. That’s when I started feverishly begging people to let me make them large-scale, custom art installations.
What was the hardest part of launching it?
The hardest part was being able to accurately explain what I do, and then getting people to trust me to do it. At first it was like, “I’ll make anything!” Then it was like, “I’ll make anything, within reason.” (No, I don’t want to stuff your cat or turn your teeth into dice!)
I started with loads of private art lessons, pet portraits, logo designs, illustrations, and then moved on to site-specific installations. Pricing was almost impossible, and learning about the importance of contracts the hard way was challenging. Scheduling was also hard. Working for yourself takes a lot of discipline and self-forgiveness for not being perfect at running something you started. You’re figuring it out as you go along.
Speaking of discipline and self-forgiveness - as a business owner, how do you attain that work-life balance? What boundaries have you set for yourself?
I only learned boundaries in the last year or so and I’m still working on them. They are indeed a struggle.
Getting a studio outside of my home (I worked from home for three years) was helpful in terms of turning off the work brain in the evening. I keep set hours for work, and work later or harder if needed. My studio is my happy place, so I might spend some personal time there, but when I’m not on the clock, I try to not read any work emails or worry about things I cannot do anything about at the moment.
Exterior view of Becca working in her commercial space in downtown Charleston. Photo by Elizabeth Ervin.
Your job requires a great level of creative problem-solving and inventiveness. Do you have any particular habits when approaching a new or difficult project?
Creative problem-solving and inventiveness are my bread and butter. I firmly believe that with the right amount of research and ingenuity you can make anything artistic happen. I start by figuring out if the client wants me to come up with something completely new, or if they have an idea already in their heads that I have to figure out how to make. The step after proposals is pricing, where I have to do extensive research on materials costs - from shipping and transportation, to subcontracted services, all the way down to the gas I’ll use to get the materials. That’s the part I don’t love that much, but it’s very important to remember to cover your employees and other overhead costs. Then the fun part - buying materials, manipulating or sculpting, and installation.
Each project is inherently attacked the same way, but they’re all totally different. We just did a 15 foot mural out of mosaic tile, and I had never done that before. We figured out the surface area, ordered the appropriate amount of tiles, and YouTubed how to do a tile mosaic. It turned out pretty great I think.
Now that you’ve created your dream job - what’s next for you? What does the future hold?
I’m working hard on growing sustainably - taking on bigger and more involved projects, but making sure I can still deliver the same quality of work I’ve always delivered. I have an incredible project manager/designer now, but eventually I’d love to work with other full-time artists who can contribute to our already wide range of skillsets.