Maybe no one should be surprised that Jean O’Reilly Barlow created sculptures in her Irmo studio for an exhibit in Florence, Italy. After all, she accidentally launched her career as Ireland’s first supermodel when she popped into a salon for a haircut. Her art and life reflect the beauty of unexpected combinations and the way stories can still find happy endings despite life’s twists and turns.
Today, Jean is the artist and entrepreneur behind Interi. She uses gemstones and crystals from the North Carolina mountains to transform 17th and 18th century pieces from Italy, creating a new work with new life. Her sculptures are sold through the luxury e-commerce site 1st Dibs and Interi’s online store. It’s sought out by some of the wealthiest and most famous people in the world, who say they’re inspired by her constructions.
“We’ve all had wear and tear on our lives, but we can still see the beauty. I think all of that adds to our lives, whatever you’ve gone through,” Jean says.
From Ireland to Italy to Irmo
A career in art was Jean’s original plan. She was preparing to enroll in Ireland’s National College of Art and Design, and her mother thought Jean needed a proper haircut. “My hair was very long. We were in the late ’70s, and it was like a hippie’s. And my mother told me there was a hairdresser who had come to our equivalent of Neiman Marcus. ‘Just go in and get your hair done,’ she said.”
What happened next plays like a scene from a Hollywood movie. Famous British hair stylist Howard Layton was at the salon in Dublin for promotional appearances. He asked Jean if she’d like to be his model for some Denman brush demonstrations. She said yes. He grabbed his scissors, lopped off her long blonde hair, took her on the Late Late Show — and a star was born.
Calls flooded into the O’Reillys’ house the next day with offers for modeling jobs. Jean postponed plans for art school and signed with an agency. Soon, she was working with the most influential photographers in fashion, landing major magazine covers and becoming the face of well-known brands, including Guinness. “That’s especially cool,” says Jean’s daughter Grace Barlow, “because my grandpa, her father, was an engineer at Guinness.”
Modeling took Jean to Paris, London, and Rome. She walked the runway for Yves St. Laurent. She was a muse for designer John Rocha. She acted in a film with Gerard Depardieu. By the mid-1970s, she had established herself as more than the face of Ireland. She was working with some of the most creative people in the industry as part of the international fashion world, the first model from Ireland to make it at that level.
Traveling for shows and photo shoots, Jean started roaming antique markets wherever she went. She didn’t realize it at the time, but she was taking her first steps toward another career.
Jean left modeling at age 24, marrying and moving to Los Angeles. When her first husband died a few years later from multiple sclerosis, Jean returned to Ireland and entered an apprenticeship with Sotheby’s. It was a way to explore her interest in antiques and return to her original plan, a career in the art world. Then, on the brink of starting a job with Sotheby’s in London, Jean followed her heart and took an unexpected turn again. She married Tim Barlow, had two daughters, and moved to Irmo, South Carolina.
Sculpting Her Medium
Though South Carolina was now home, Jean still traveled to Ireland frequently to care for her parents. She’d make stops in France or Italy, using those detours to add to her ever-growing collection of fragment artifacts. “I would buy the fragments,” Jean says, “because that was something I could bring home. And the hunt is half the fun.”
On afternoons in Irmo, she’d entertain her young daughters with a walk to Beckham’s Barn Rock and Gem Shop. “I would take the fragments, and we would basically do what I’ve done here,” Jean says. They looked for rocks and crystals that complemented the pieces — stones with color that picked up on faded bits of pigment, a fleck of mica that mirrored worn gilding. Jean’s ideas for her Interi sculptures started to take shape.
Jean also frequented Scott’s Antique Markets in Atlanta and talked about her sculptures with a vendor there. The vendor invited her to bring a few pieces to see if they’d sell. “We dropped them off, she put them into a glass case, and we went for coffee. By the time we were finished with our coffee, every one of the pieces had sold. So that was, to me, great encouragement,” Jean says.
Her visits to Tuscan villages and to the city of Florence connected her with local Italian experts, craftsmen, and collectors who purchased church decorative fragments that were beyond repair. One of these longtime collaborators left Jean his extensive collection, which she inherited a few years ago.
“We had walked the dusty roads of Italy together for the past 30 years, so I have an almost infinite amount of resources,” she says, in addition to hundreds of pieces her daughters have helped her catalog.
At the same time, Jean has searched for crystals and gems in the Carolinas and Tennessee. “The two largest rock and mineral fairs are held up in the Great Smoky Mountains. They have been some of my most inspiring experiences. I love seeing these really unusual rocks and minerals and formations that I can feast my eyes on. I probably love them as much as I love hunting for the fragments,” says Jean.
The construction of a new piece, though, always starts with the fragment first, just as it did when Jean and her daughters went to Beckham’s Barn. “I was saying to someone recently that when I pick up an artifact, I know immediately what’s to go with it,” she says, an observation that seems all the more remarkable when one looks at Jean’s rows of shelves bulging with antique carvings and stones.
Modern Mud Angels
Among the pieces she’s obtained through her Italian sources are those salvaged after a flood of the Arno River in 1966 that damaged Florence’s treasured churches and museums. Some pieces were restored. Others were used as models for creating replacements. The fragments Jean owns were too broken to be used for either of those purposes. They were not too far gone, however, to become something wonderful in Jean’s eyes.
After marrying those pieces with crystals and gemstones, Jean took them back to Florence for an exhibit at the Corridoio Fiorentino gallery this past summer and used them while a guest lecturer at the Florence University of Arts. “One of the things I’ve really enjoyed is being able to go back to Florence and teach this international group of students about the Florence fragments,” she says.
In preparation, Jean, Grace, and photographer Lizzie Grosso learned more about the Florence flood. “We watched documentaries about the mud angels, which were American and other international volunteers who came over to help save a lot of the rare artifacts and art from the mud and damages of the flood,” says Lizzie. “That’s where a lot of these pieces have been sourced from, and they still have the original mud on them. So we’ve been calling ourselves the modern mud angels.”
As Lizzie photographed the Florence pieces for the exhibit catalog, she came to appreciate how the mud sets them apart from the rest of Jean’s work. Lizzie even finds there’s a hint of earthiness in the way the pieces smell that connects them to that time and place.
For Jean, teaching in Florence is another chance to explore the stories of healing and possibility that people respond to in her sculptures. Her daughters, Grace and Joybelle, have both helped Jean build and run Interi. Joybelle, who now works for International Justice Mission, became involved in combating human trafficking while still a student at the University of South Carolina. “More than a Fragment,” an Interi initiative, was created to help nonprofits “rescue, restore and empower,” with a portion of sales donated to three organizations.
“My mom rescues, restores, and transforms these beautiful historic artifacts that had been discarded from the churches. And she transforms them into something more beautiful than they even were before,” says Grace. “We saw a connection between that and the organization for which my sister works and we’ve both volunteered.”
Jean’s living and dining rooms are filled with Interi sculptures. She turns piece after piece over in her hands, pointing out how crystals fill gaps in 300-year-old wood carvings, looking as if nature placed them there. With enough artifacts to last a lifetime, Jean has no intention of slowing down. “I just don’t think of retirement, me sitting in a rocker. That’s not within my sort of persona. I will do what I am doing and more.”
More may include modeling assignments in the near future for the woman who put Irish fashion models on the world’s radar. Some agencies have been in touch. But for now, she has recently returned from Italy. “One of the things I have really enjoyed is being able to go back to Florence and teach this international group of students about the Florence fragments.”