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My Favorite Things: Artwork from China brings back memories for NWA collector

by April Wallace | March 12, 2023 at 1:00 a.m.
Chef Brandy Barnes, spent the last decade working in restaurants in China and Denver and who is now back and living in NWA. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Spencer Tirey)

We all have something -- or somewhere -- that fires up the serotonin just by holding it or seeing it: the woods where you grew up playing hide and seek, a Barbie doll collection that dates back to the 1950s, a cabinet full of your mother's old copper cookie cutters, the room in your house that makes you feel the most peaceful. "My Favorite Things" invites Northwest Arkansans to share those special things or places that brings them joy.

When Brandy Barnes agreed to take a new opportunity that would require her to live in China, she didn't know how to speak Chinese. She didn't have much culinary experience either, even though the new job was opening and running a restaurant that served Western food. But she knew without a doubt that she wanted to take the once-in-a-lifetime offer.

Now Barnes is living in Northwest Arkansas, but she brought back more than her memories with her when she returned.

What do you collect?

Chinese artwork. This large, main piece in my living room is what it looks like in the area that I lived in. There was an artist village outside of the town I lived in, and I bought it from an artist there. As I was rolling up to his place, he was painting this. There was just art everywhere. It was really beautiful. It always reminds me of being in China and that whole episode of my life, which was a really wild one.

Then all of these (smaller works on the other wall of my living room) are also from China, but a different city. I picked them up at the thrift market, antique market thing. I liked those.

How long did you live in China and what was your experience like there? How did the collection begin?

A year and a couple of months. I was living in Oakland and working at a climbing gym in San Francisco. I knew I wanted to be a chef, but I hadn't broken into the industry. I went to China to this (particular) town to go climb, because there's tons of (great places for) climbing there. I stayed for a month and almost didn't get on the bus to go back to the airport because I loved it.

When I got back, a guy who climbs at the gym where I worked said, 'How did your trip go?' I (told him I) didn't want to leave. He said, 'Well, I'm opening a restaurant there, and I need someone to run it. Would you be interested in that?' I said "YES!" immediately, without even thinking. A million percent, I want to do that.

Fast forward a year later, I am there and opening this restaurant that had a big focus on Western cuisine. Chinese is one of my favorite cuisines ever, but Western restaurants that did Western food were slim pickings (in the area). They wanted a place that served a fancy breakfast, with real bacon, over there. The menu changed every day.

A few months into being open, we had the biggest flood (they'd had) in years. In the restaurant, when it started to flood, I was just watching my work be ruined. The janitor rides up on a motorbike and says we've got to move equipment on higher ground. So we were able to save the freezer, the fridge and the big important equipment. It was crazy heavy stuff, but I was so hopped on adrenaline. I was in game time mode for that.

We cleaned up the next day and had gotten power back soon and (realized that) we were one of the only restaurants in town that had power back on and showers. Pretty much the whole expat community came and took showers, and I was able to give people food, because a lot still didn't have power.

It was a cool experience but (by a year in) I was so stressed out and worn thin, at the end of my rope. I got to a point where I was so exhausted. I didn't really speak Chinese. And I had hardly any culinary experience. I didn't end up staying there too long after that.

What an amazing experience. What appeals to you about these items that you brought back?

They remind me of a place I really loved a lot and of (the fact that) there's an adventure out there every single day; that this is a tiny place in a huge country. That ... you can pick and choose the flow of your day, and it can be extraordinary and fantastic. It reminds me of this big adventure. I don't want to forget it. A lot of parts were hard, but (they help me) not forget.

The smaller ones were from the antique market, and I love their aesthetic. They remind me of a certain style I used to be surrounded by all the time.

It makes me think of moody colors and of being dark and gray and misty and mystical outside but (where) in town there's neon lights everywhere and it's bright and crazy. It's such a different thing to be surrounded by versus living here, everything (colors, aesthetic) is in the middle. China is big and bright and awesome. It's so much. And I loved being there. But it's nice to be back where I can speak the language ... especially if I need coffee and directions!

Did you purposely set out to collect these things, or was it an accidental collection?

It was a happy accident.

These small works (that show a few drawings of) a panda and rabbit, were in this old illustration book about how to draw in this style. It's so pretty and so different from anything I'd ever seen. The paper smelled nice, that old book smell. So beautiful and simple. The shop I found them in was wall-to-wall packed full of crazy things and so awesome. I just couldn't say no to it.

What's the most expensive item in the collection?

The landscape painting was 350 yuan, or about $35-$40. But I thought, "That's it, that's what I need."

What's the least expensive item in the collection?

These smaller works all came in one book for the equivalent of $5.

Is there "one that got away" – i.e., one you passed up and regretted not buying?

I don't think there is. I also got pamphlets that are really hard to explain and Chinese silk scarves. Everything I picked was flat and easy to pack. I was living out of a backpack, so I got rid of all my clothes. Like, I'll get new clothes.

Is your collection finished, or ongoing? Will it ever be finished?

Ongoing for sure! It's definitely a lifelong project. All of them are things I got while traveling, and I don't intend to stop going places anytime soon.

What's the most meaningful piece in your collection, and why does it pack more of an emotional wallop?

The large landscape painting for sure. It was a really special experience finding it in the first place, and it reminds me of a place that was very formative in making me who I am today.

What do people say about your collection?

Haha! More than one of my friends has called my house "the Asian art museum." I don't mind that at all! I love all the pieces so much, and I think it's pretty great living in a museum.

Do you collect anything else?

I also have my instruments. It's a big thing for me because my dad passed away in September, and one of these guitars was his. He bought me my first guitars and (it was a part of) how I started playing guitar. Then I have a piano and a melodica, which is a lot of fun. I love it, as well as the washboards and everything.

I began playing the piano when I was 7. (From) ages 7-14 I was in lessons and did competitions every once in a while. It had been such a consistent thing in my life that my aunt got me the piano, which is electric, but has pedals. I took a big break from playing from ages 14- to 20 and picked it back up again, able to work on pieces without the pressure of lessons or competition.

I started playing guitar at age 13, when my dad got me a custom Fender Stratocaster. I was hooked immediately, and taught myself how to play.

I've now also got a Martin Dreadnought acoustic, an Epiphone electric, and a Jasmine acoustic. That last one is a great beater guitar to bring to parties and campfires.

I also have two washboards, which are super fun to bang on, a set of chimes and a harmonica my Papaw left me. They're all special and each has such a unique sound.

Send suggestions for collectors to profile to April Wallace, Associate Features editor, at [email protected].

  photo  Chef Brandy Barnes, spent the last decade working in restaurants in China and Denver and who is now back and living in NWA. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Spencer Tirey)

Print Headline: Sojourn in China filled with memories and collected artwork


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