Learning to make beauty from tragedy: Oklahoma artist creates art from the ashes of 2018 wildfires

Great State

WOODS COUNTY, Okla. (KFOR) — Even though it’s been two years, the rolling hills around Woodward still bear the marks of a wildfire that scarred the land, grass, and trees.

Neil Barney remembers the April day in 2018 when the flames roared through here.

“When it came, you wouldn’t believe how fast it burned across there,” he recalls.

His losses were fewer than some other landowners but there were still large piles of charred lumber lying around.

“I’ve still got some left,” he chuckles. “And I should have some for a while.”

Jump ahead to April 2020, and the landscape of northwest Oklahoma is changed again, not by flames this time, but by a viral wildfire.

Neil’s wife Rita owns the Cafe Paradee coffee shop in downtown Woodward.

She still sells cups of her signature ice coffees but she runs them to the curb these days.

The demand is always constant, she says, “No matter what the temperature. If it’s snowing, sleeting, a hundred degrees.”

Behind the shop though, some of that burned wood was still sitting around when Neil had the kind of idea that sometimes breaks through the ugly haze of continuous bad news.

Again, he recalls, “That first piece I picked up was kind of unique, kind of triangle shaped. I thought, ‘I wonder if I can put that on the lathe and make something out of it?'”

He started turning some of that wood, the Chinese Elm, the blackened Locust fence posts into something other than trash.

“I know just enough about carpentry to be dangerous,” he smiles.

Neil started making bowls and other wood implements for family. He didn’t think much about selling them until Rita told him to.

She says, “I told him I was going to put some of his things out in the cafe because you are making so much that we can’t store it.”

A suddenly changed horizon, dark shadows.

Sometimes medicine is a good ice coffee.

Sometimes it’s a new perspective that provides a good way out of bad times.

The Cafe Paradee has a shelf now that sells some of Neil’s creations. The Pioneer Museum in Woodward also sells his work in their gift shop.

‘Is This a Great State or What?’ is sponsored by WEOKIE.

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