Chattanoogan: Barbara Murnan – Multi-Faceted And Catching Fire

Wednesday, January 22, 2014 - by Jen Jeffrey

The two men in Barbara Murnan’s life were concerned she may experience empty nest syndrome when her son went off to college and so they encouraged her to start her own business using her new hobby of designing and creating jewelry.

Barbara’s creativity developed as a child when she enjoyed painting. “I did portraits using acrylics, oils and I did still-life. I could look at a photograph and break the colors down in the mind’s eye and put them on a canvas. That was my first interest in art and then I put it away for many years before I decided to pull it out and be artsy again,” Barbara says.

Born in the southwest corner of Wisconsin, she notes that her father’s wanderlust moved the family to various places throughout the Midwest. She primarily grew up in Iowa and later attended high school in Minnesota.

Her father Joe was in sales with the mobile home industry, while her mother Pat was a housewife until later venturing into the work force in the jewelry business. Barbara craved her independence and only one day after turning 18, she ventured out on her own in her robin-egg blue Chevrolette Corvair to Duluth, Minn.

“I wanted to join all my friends in Minnesota, but they were in college and doing their own thing and it was a growing up process for me. When I had loaded up my car for my great adventure, I wasn’t very prepared because my mother had done everything for me,” Barbara admits.

“Here I was jumping off into the great big world and I didn’t know how to cook or run the washing machine… it was baptism by fire to say the least,” she jokes.

Her parents had moved her siblings, Jeff, Karen and Laura, to Chattanooga in 1974. When Barbara realized that living on her own was harder than she thought, she decided to move to Chattanooga where her family was, though she did not move in with her parents.

“I was 20 years old when I moved to Chattanooga. My parents picked me up at the airport and it was a gray and cloudy wintry day. I thought, ‘Oh my gosh what have I done?’ I thought it was awful. I had heard things about the South and how women ran around barefoot and pregnant and if you had teeth that was really good,” Barbara laughs. “But that was the North’s perception at the time. I decided I would make my home in the South and Chattanooga has become my home. My immediate family is down here, my siblings and my mom (my dad passed away). This is our home and it is a great place to be. I am glad I didn’t turn on my heel and hop back on the plane to head back North.”

Barbara was hired by a couple who owned Downey’s Auto Parts stores and then she worked for Miller-Reid, an advertising firm. It was in advertising where she would spend the bulk of her adult life.

Barbara met her husband Jack after he had just moved to Chattanooga taking a job with Signal Apparel.

While having dinner with good friends who were happily married and Barbara realizing there was something missing in her own life, she headed down to the Bebop Café on Brainerd Road hoping she would see someone she knew so she wouldn’t be alone.

“I saw this guy dancing on the dance floor with someone and I was bobbing around trying to act like I was with someone instead of by myself and he came up to me and asked me to dance. I said, ‘You cad! You are here with your girlfriend or wife and you pull me over to ask me to dance?’  He indicated that he was not with that woman and had only danced with her so I danced with him,” Barbara chuckles.

When the couple discussed where they lived, they found they were both living on the same road. Jack invited Barbara for a midnight swim, but she declined and the next morning, Barbara heard a knock on her door.

“I wasn’t looking half as good as I did the night before. I had my glasses on and a T-shirt and I think I even had cartoons on the television embarrassingly enough! Maybe it was CNN …yeah, it must have been CNN,” Barbara says under her breath with a giggle.

Jack stood at her door dressed nicely in a polo shirt and said, “I just wanted to see if you really lived here.” Barbara invited him in thinking that if he was interested after seeing her at her worse, then it might be something tangible.

“Needless to say that was almost 29 years ago. The minute he rolled his Charmglow grill down to my apartment, I knew I had him,” Barbara laughs.

The couple dated for three years and married in 1988. They have one son, Sean, who is in the Naval Reserves finishing his third year in med school. Jack is a ‘ragman’ (in the apparel industry) and has been with XPRA Apparel for the last 25 years.

After Barbara left Miller Reid, she interviewed with News Channel 9 where she would work in sales/advertising for 27 years until she was hired last year with EPB Fiber Optics.

A few years ago, Barbara had a friend who lived in Atlanta, but had a vacation home next to her home in Harrison. When Barbara’s son Sean had worked as a pool boy for their neighbor and college took him away, Barbara told her friend that she would be happy to take care of the pool herself. The woman wanted to pay her but Barbara told her, “I don’t want you to pay me, but if you would like to give me one of your necklaces you make, I will accept that.” The trade was made and as Barbara looked at the necklace closely her artistic creativity began flowing again as ideas popped in her head of what she could create.

Making jewelry was an outlet all her own and she was good at it. With Jack traveling for business and Sean heading to college, the two suggested that Barbara start her own business. At first, she dabbled in beading that her friend was involved in and she took a class on how to make earrings at a bead shop in East Brainerd.

“From that moment on, I was hooked. I was utilizing a lot of stone and the more I got into it, I was evolving. I enjoyed the beading part of it, but when I discovered working with metals and metal-smithing, I have been hooked ever since. Give me a hammer, a tank and a torch and I am a happy camper,” Barbara says enthusiastically.

She took a soldering class and watched a few DVDs but would mostly work things out in her own mind. She sold her creations to her hairdresser who would in turn sell them to customers. That was the beginning of launching her business “Wired Expressions”. Wired Expressions came about because she was making a lot of wired creations. When she was involved with Color My Image, a boutique located on Frazier, the owner suggested that she look into In-Town Gallery.

In-Town Gallery is an artist co-op of 34 artists who work the gallery and make decisions jointly.

“At that same time, a friend of mine said they had just lost a jeweler so I applied at the gallery and have been with them a little over a year now,” Barbara says.

As her jewelry creativity evolved so did the name of her design business. “With a torch in one hand and a hammer in the other, I am ‘Catching Fire’,” Barbara says on her website.  The new name Catching Fire describes more than the wiring artistry in her work. Barbara uses semi-precious stones encompassed with copper, sterling silver and other natural elements giving her creations a bold and earthy look.

As a standing artist at In-Town Gallery on Frazier Avenue, artists devote one day every three weeks to work at the gallery and are given a certain amount of space for their creations.

Barbara also attends the Dalton Fine Arts Guild doing a show indoor and outdoor annually.

“I don’t envision myself mass producing - I want to keep my designs as one of a kind. Right now I am testing out Rhinoceros which is an upscale boutique at Warehouse Row. I put some pieces in over Christmas and we’ll see how it does,” Barbara says.

“When I see somebody wearing one of my pieces, I have the biggest smile on my face. A while back, I bought about 100 ram’s horn buttons from the Faroe Island northeast of Iceland. They have more sheep than people!” Barbara laughs, “They were having a crafts fair and I saw the ram’s horn pieces and bought them for my jewelry. A lady bought the ram’s horn earrings and said she came back later for the necklace. She was making a trip to the gallery just to buy my things. I get so much satisfaction out of it. It is such a compliment seeing my designs around somebody’s neck,” Barbara insists.

Her favorite design is a triangular-shaped necklace made from sea glass wrapped in gold.

“I am working on a piece now that may rival it. It’s a little more involved than what the sea glass was. My husband asked me where I come up with the ideas and I told him ‘Yoga.’ I will be lying there at the end of class in my Shavasana pose and I will design in my mind. I think it gives me more freedom to not put it on paper and, when I create, I can go with the flow."

When asked if any of the yoga poses give her inspiration for designs she laughs and says, “I don’t know… I am starting to see Downward Dog right now…”

For custom pieces visit In Town Gallery or email Barbara at:

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