Barbara Carreño poses with "METU," the god she created to represent self-love, self-respect and self-forgiveness, at the exhibit.
Product design senior Barbara Carreño is a big believer in taking the emotions that she feels every day and expressing them in a physical way — not through gestures or actions, but through toy art.
There’s a character she calls “kind of a Band-Aid boy,” a mummy-like creature glumly hunched over with his heart on a chain attached to his chest. Another figure resembles a girl arranged in a yoga position as her guts spill out of her, a serene smile on her face. Other characters, called “Bodos” in a riff on the Spanish word bodoques for “little bundles,” represent simpler emotions, like the love of donuts or bunnies.
“Basically my stuff is kind of like a world of emotions,” Carreño said. “It’s about giving life to your emotions, with or without faces. Some people take them literally and some people don’t. Some people don’t understand them and they freak out!”
Since 2009, Carreño has showed her toy art in her native Venezuela, Barcelona and even at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Her latest exhibit, A Peek Into the Unusual Imagination of Microbarbi: An Exhibit Featuring her Fantastical Creations and Highlighting Rare Local Antique Toy Collections, will be featured at the Historical Society of the Phoenixville Area until Dec. 31.
"Bandaid boy" by Barbara Carreño.
The name of the exhibit stems from her nickname, Barbi (which she’s been called since childhood) and “micro mundos,” or “micro world” in Spanish. It describes both Carreño and her art, which started out as small miniatures and has grown bigger in the last three years. As displayed in the Phoenixville show, Carreño’s art representing her emotions can be whimsical, fantastical, otherworldly — and, most of all, very bright and vivid.
“I’m trying to bring a little more color into the world,” she said. “I think we need more happy thoughts and happy emotions.”
The toy art, made from clay or woven cloth, was created either in her studio located in her South Philadelphia home or a lab in the Westphal College of Media Arts & Design’s URBN Center. Some pieces were even made for class projects, like one that was also featured last year in the Philadelphia Museum of Art for the Collab Student Design Competition. Additionally, Carreño’s work features wooden pieces that she made at her co-op at Farmhaus, a local woodworking furniture studio.
She's considering having her thesis include work from this exhibit to highlight pieces that invoke empathy as it relates to society, culture, race, gender and disability.
“Drexel’s product design major is very open,” Carreño said. “The professors help you and push you to do certain things within certain rules, but in another side, it’s very open for you to develop what you want. Everyone has a very specific, different thing they want to do — I want to do toys, one of my colleagues wants to work with shoes — and we’re all very different in our approach.”
Carreño’s art is also influenced by her background. Born in Venezuela, she moved to Barcelona in 2010 for four years; both places have been going through political turmoil for years, continuing through today.
The first version of "Rene" by Barbara Carreño.
“Everywhere I’ve lived is going through a rough patch, but I try not to suffer through it,” she said. “I won’t do anything to the world if I fall. I try to maintain upbeat. It is difficult, but I don’t want to feel sad, and I don’t want others to feel sad for me either.”
Carreño started making toy art in Venezuela after she graduated with a degree in graphic design; when she put her pieces in a show in Venezuela, she sold them all and decided to continue with her hobby. In Barcelona, she continued exhibiting and took a course in toy art. She moved to Philadelphia in 2014 to be closer to her brother. After she heard about Drexel’s product design major (and learned what product design was), she knew what she wanted to do in her new city.
“My dream is to develop my brand with my toys,” Carreño said. “I want to make them not just in an artistic way, but also through product development.”
Going forward, she’s embarking on what she calls a “new era” featuring what she calls her gods — values and qualities she believes all people should live with. The idea of her gods started during a trip to California in December with her now-husband in which she started jokingly talking about her gods and realized there was something there to work with.
The symbols of Carreño's gods, as tattooed on her arm: love, infinity, anti-hate, Sagittarius, detachment, mountains and water.
She created symbols for each of these gods and even had them tattooed on her forearm. There’s a heart, to symbolize love; mountains, for nature; a wave representing her love of water and the sea; and an infinity symbol to show that “everything is infinite unless you don’t want it to be,” she said. The middlemost symbol is the Sagittarius sign, which stands for her horoscope sign as well as self-love and self-forgiveness. The other two symbols include one showing hate against hate and another depicting detachment, to represent her move from Venezuela as well as her detachment from the material world.
Carreño plans on making masks of these seven gods and has already completed one for Sagittarius — the most important one — for the Phoenixville show.
After graduation, she plans to work for a company doing product design and continue her toy art on the side.
“I will never stop doing my toy art,” Carreño said. “That’s my therapy! I need to do it. If I don’t, my fingers start itching.”