WALLA WALLA, Wash. -- Barby Ream, emerging artist, curious student and varsity volleyball player, has learned a thing or two about life in her 20 years. Taking life as it comes, adapting as needed, is one rule of thumb she has learned to like, an approach she often prefers to careful and precise planning. Another good idea, she says, rests on the notion of balancing life between competing activities and interests. And, finally, if there are secrets to the creative process, they might be found in a playful willingness to twist and turn whatever materials are in hand, whether those materials are the disjointed pieces of a sculpture, words on a page, or the extremes of a musical scale.
Ream, a Seattle native, came to Whitman in the fall of 1996 at a time when the Missionary volleyball program was struggling and she wasn't quite sure where her life was headed. Now, four falls later, not only has Ream helped lay the foundation for a winning volleyball tradition, she has developed and showcased her skills as a professional artist while diving headlong into exploration of other arts, music and writing among them. There also were spare moments for a few seasons of varsity basketball. Not bad for someone who landed at Whitman at the last minute, and who wasn't sure she was staying once she got here.
"I didn't come to Whitman for its art program, or for its volleyball program, or for really any reason at all," Ream says. "It just happened that way, which is the way life seems to work, at least for me."
As a high school senior, Ream gave serious thought to attending Columbia University, which was recruiting her to play volleyball. "All I really knew at the time was that I wanted to go to an academic-minded school," she recalls. "I wasn't interested in a school where athletics would come first and require a huge time commitment."
When Ream and Columbia failed to click, she accepted a late opening at Whitman, where older sister Kathy Ream had just graduated. Relatively little volleyball recruiting had taken place at Whitman during that particular time, since one coach left in late spring and was not replaced by current coach Dean Snider until August. Consequently, Ream was the only freshman on that fall's team.
As her first year began, Ream wasn't certain that Whitman was anything more than a stopgap measure. That perspective soon changed. "I was surprised how well I liked Whitman my first year," she says. "My professors were an inspiration right from the start. Ted Stein in my core class and Irv Hashimoto in my Language and Writing class were just wonderful. My whole attitude about education started changing, and I became somewhat obsessed with learning. It was something of a surprise, but my grades my first year at Whitman were better than my grades in high school."
As Ream sampled classes in search of an academic major, she quickly settled on studio art and eventually switched to art history. "I have always liked to make things," she says. "I always took shop classes. When I was younger, my dad (David) introduced me to one of his friends who has a glass-blowing studio in Seattle, and I had fun working there when I was in high school."
Ream complimented her Whitman studies by taking classes in metal casting and fabrication at the University of Washington and the Pratt Fine Arts Center in Seattle. While attending Whitman, she also gained a rock-solid understanding of welding by taking industrial welding classes at Walla Walla Community College.
By the fall of 1998, Ream was making ambitious plans for an unofficial yet impressive independent study project. She introduced herself to the owner of the Art By Fire gallery in Seattle's Ballard neighborhood, talked about her interest in metal sculpture, and was soon rewarded with an unexpected vote of confidence. Ream was given carte blanche to exhibit her work in June, 1999, as part of the annual Ballard Art Walk.
"It was surprising," she says. "We started to talk and before I knew it, she told to me to get started, that she had faith that I could do it. I wasn't so sure, but the project continued to fall into place as time went along." Her project, which she titled "Take Time for Music," grew to include about 20 fabricated steel representations of various musical instruments, including the guitar, bass and cello. The whimsical yet handsome pieces shimmer with a natural patina that reflects the beauty, joy and rhythm Ream sees and hears in music.
Her first solo exhibit, happily enough, drew enthusiastic support from her immediate family. Her brother Robert, who works for Microsoft, financed the show, and her mother Edie handled catering for the opening. Sister Kathy, who works in the publishing business in Boston, helped with pre-event publicity and arranged for music for the opening.
"My first show turned into a huge experiment," Ream says. "It was a thousand little lessons rolled into one. Until the very end, I kept expecting the whole thing to crumble. Everything came together, though, and what I finally learned was to trust my own instincts. I learned how important it is to stick with your own style, your own way of doing things, and to have confidence in yourself in any situation."
The Ballard Art Walk, a coordinated effort between neighborhood restaurants and art galleries, allows art patrons to visit several exhibit openings on the same evening. "It was a wonderful night," Ream says. "There was tremendously positive feedback from so many people," including a number of art professionals who asked for her portfolio. "One of the other gallery owners closed her shop for a short time so she could come and see my work. It was a great confidence booster."
This fall, after returning to campus, there was a new and appreciative host waiting for several pieces from her summer exhibit. Pieces now on display, indefinitely, in the Hall of Music include three elongated guitars draped on a wall. Clinging to another wall is a bowed-in-the-middle bass with four strings jutting out at multiple odd angles. "There is so much tension in that piece. It looks as if it's ready to explode off the wall and fall to the floor. I still walk around it, rather than under it. I love pieces that create visual tricks and mysteries, that have the power to mess with your mind a little bit."
Other pieces tucked away at ground level in the crooks and crannies of the Hall of Music include a closed guitar case with broken strings bursting through in all directions and an elegant, life-sized bass, one that sits not too far from a smaller bass whose vertical dimension has been reduced and crunched at three or four points. "The pieces from my first show are probably more personal than anything else I will ever make," Ream says. "I still look at those pieces with amazement, almost as if they are my babies, my children. I am amazed they exist. It would not be easy to sell them. If I did, it would have to be to someone I knew, someone who would give them a good home."
The fact that Ream shaped her first professional exhibit around music is not surprising. She plays the guitar, saxophone and piano, continues to take voice lessons through the Whitman Music Department, and has taken a number of music theory classes. "The music program here at Whitman has been a great source of inspiration for my art work," Ream says.
"Studio art and music are a lot alike," she adds. "With both, you begin with an idea or concept and improvise as you go along. I really didn't plan any of the art pieces in my first show. I just started twisting and turning them, and they came out the way they did. Jazz is a lot like that, in that you have a basic scale you can mess with. It's great when it turns out, but you don't really know until you get there."
Ream was taking a History of Jazz class last year from David Glenn, associate professor of music, when she borrowed one of his instruments to use as a model for her developing art project. "We were talking later about her exhibit and I suggested the possibility of displaying some of her work in the Hall of Music," Glenn says. "She liked that idea a lot, and when I floated it past the rest of the music faculty, they were interested as well. Once we saw the pieces, we were sold immediately. I love them. They have a lot of personality."
Ream says music serves as both inspiration for her artwork and as a point of balance for life in general. "I have different interests and I need to keep a balance. I need to go from my sculpture to the library, or from volleyball practice to the music building. Those areas are parts of my life, and I need them all to be happy."
Her final season of competitive volleyball got off to a great start earlier this fall. An athletic 6-foot middle blocker, Ream was named to an all-tournament team at Colorado College, twice earned Player-of-the-Week honors in the Northwest Conference, and was a key contributor to a team that was among the conference leaders late in the season. She credits Snider for building a winning program, and for being the right coach for a school like Whitman. "Dean is perfect for Whitman in the sense that there is much more to his life than just volleyball," she says. "He reads as much as we do on our road trips. He plays the piano, he has a wonderful singing voice, and he has his family. There is a balance to his life."
"When it comes to volleyball, Dean's intuition is good," Ream continues. "He understands what we as players need to do if we want to improve and get better. He also listens to our input, and he understands that we really are students first."
While Ream isn't the type to start making her post-Whitman plans, she sees her artwork playing a central role as her life rolls on. "I have tons of ideas when it comes to art and sculpture," she says. "If there are people out there interested in what I want to make and create, then I'll pursue those ideas. If not, and I end up working at McDonald's for the rest of my life, well, I'm willing to take my chances."
Of course Ream doesn't see her future resting on art alone, under any circumstances. "Art may be my profession, but I'll still be going to the gym to play ratball, and I'll still be spending time at the library. I'll still be reading books and playing my guitar."
Dave Holden, Whitman Sports Information, (509) 527-5902