Bayou Blue artist turns logs to find ‘Nature’s Art’

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When John Barrios is not busy running a sleep center, he can often be found in his double garage, standing in front of a lathe, patiently coaxing the often-hidden beauty out of logs.

Barrios turns bowls and platters – some utilitarian food-safe vessels – “but my passion is more of trying to show what nature does,” showcasing the natural grain patterns and bark as well as imperfections – insect damage and decay.

That means his vessels can be of various shapes, with or without lids, asymmetrical … all depending upon what happens at the lathe as he uncovers layer by layer the wood’s true nature. “Nature can make things beautiful,” he said. “I try to expose what’s inside and try not to mess it up.”

“Wood turning is a way of stress relief and relaxation,” Barrios said, because his profession is fairly demanding. “You can’t be thinking about work or other issues” when turning wood on a lathe, he said. “If you’re distracted, it’s a good chance something bad’s going to happen.”

A woodworker who has built furniture for most of his life, Barrios had purchased a wood lathe to turn spindles for chairs. When he decided six years ago to try to turn a bowl, Barrios put a piece of wood – about an 8-inch square – on the lathe and “it flew off and missed by my head by 2 inches … I just didn’t know what I was doing.” With the wood spinning 2,000 to 3,000 RPM while sharp blades are applied to cut away the wood layer by layer, “it can be a dangerous proposition,” he said.

From building furniture, known as flat work because projects begin with flat planks, Barrios was familiar with basic characteristics of wood. But he had very little knowledge about the types of insect damage and other forms of distressed wood; now he points out damage by beetles.

“The more I work, the more I want the wood distressed,” he said “I try to expose what nature has already done, display the beauty of what nature has already put in it.”

As Barrios begins removing layers of wood from a spinning log, he’ll sometimes find the piece turns out differently than he envisioned because of the wood’s inherent qualities. “I look at wood differently now … I’m not trying to force a piece to be what I want it to be,” he said.

That can mean roughing out a bowl, then wrapping it in a paper bag with wood shavings and sitting it on a shelf for a few months to allow the wood to release moisture and change its shape a bit. That stabilizes the piece for further turning and finishing.

“I like the fact (that wood) it is a living media,” Barrios said. “It still breathes, will take and release moisture.” So sometimes he tries to anticipate the potential warping due to moisture loss, and to build that into his finished piece. It’s a bit of a challenging process, for predicting nature’s actions can be tricky. Sometimes the pieces turn out nice; other times, he logs it as a learning experience.

Barrios is careful when selling his pieces, and inquires about the intended home of the piece. If shipped to a very dry climate, the work may ooze moisture, bubbling out of the wood, and may crack if the change is drastic. If he gets an order for a piece to be shipped to a very dry climate, he’ll do the two-step drying process to allow most of the moisture to leave the wood before finishing it.

If he’s in a hurry, he may use a microwave oven to help remove the moisture to stabilize the wood. At one time, that was done in his wife, Donna’s, kitchen microwave – to her chagrin. That particular appliance has since been moved to Barrios’ woodworking shop and replaced in the kitchen. But that’s not the only donation to her husband’s hobby Donna Barrios has made, although unwittingly.

“I lost a good butcher knife,” she said. One day when her husband needed a particular blade shape for a piece and seized one of his wife’s kitchen knives, cut the blade to his satisfaction and kept it in his shop.

Barrios also recycles when it comes to his raw materials, turning deer antlers into ballpoint pens (with laser-etched images of deer, an item popular with hunters). He estimates that 80 percent of the wood he turns into art is recycled from nature.

He often gets calls about trees that have fallen in storms or been hit by lightning. After Hurricane Katrina, he was called to retrieve fallen trees that had been standing for decades and meant something to the property owners. So he’d turn them a bowl or some kind of memento from their tree to honor the tree and thank them for their contribution to his art.

“I like the idea of making pieces from trees that meant something to somebody,” he said.

Barrios and his wife often can be found at the Houma Downtown Market in the Terrebonne Parish courthouse square, with Barrios turning small demonstration pieces out on his smaller lathe, and are showcased Sept. 14 at Art After Dark in downtown Houma. The Terrebonne Fine Arts Guild event, in its 13th year, will showcase more than 40 local artists exhibiting paintings, photography, jewelry and wooden art.

“John produces one-of-a-kind pieces out of wood that is usually cast away,” said Karen Kelly, show chairman. “The bowls, platters and vessels he produces are beautiful and needed to be included in Art After Dark.”

Although Barrios has a new email address ( and some of his work can be purchased through and in the gift shop at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Miss., don’t look for a commercial website too soon. For a hobby, Barrios produces enough pieces to have an inventory to support participation in a few events during the year. If he did anymore, the pressure of having to produce and rush his pieces would negate the stress-reducing benefit he now enjoys. Higher volumes of production will have to wait for retirement.

Bayou Blue artist John Barrios examines a log on his lathe in his double-garage studio. Barrios, who enjoys discovering and showcasing the natural stories ensconced in his media, is one of more than 40 artists scheduled for downtown Houma’s Art After Dark.