Barney Zeitz: Thinking big

Welding is all part of a day's work for Barney Zeitz. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

Barney Zeitz participates eagerly in his life as a person and as an artist. He shows up as a good man, grateful for the artistic talents that allow him to shape and meld harsh and unyielding metal and glass. And as an artist, he fashions these materials into colorful, sometimes stark, sometimes whimsical, art, often vaulting expressions of the human condition.

He also seems to possess a mind like an Internet search engine, endlessly shaping the ideas that fill his head.

“Yeah,” he says, laughing, “once an energy therapist of some kind put her hand on my chest and said ‘How are you able to sleep with so many ideas running through your mind?'”

Mr. Zeitz, nationally recognized for his sculpture and stained glass artwork, seemed mystified about the source of his creative bent. “It’s as if a light bulb goes on and — boom — there’s the idea. Honestly, at those times I just feel like the work is passing through me from someplace else.”

He works big — architectural installations that involve a myriad of crafts and processes, including several glass and media fusing processes he’s developed and believes are unique. He’s completed 18 commissions of large memorial sculptures and stained glass pieces around the country.

And he works small; he designed and made the family silverware.

If he’s bemused about the way his life’s work has evolved, it’s understandable. Mr. Zeitz, now 60, grew up in Fall River in what he recalls as an unremarkable fashion with no particular artistic yearnings. He graduated from Durfee High School and attended the University of Massachusetts. He was drifting about at 20, when he decided to move to the Island.

Along the way, serendipity happened.

“Remember those plastic stained glass kits kids had years ago?” he asks. “I picked one up and started working with it. I made something for my mother, don’t remember what, exactly. I do remember that I got a book on leaded stained glass as soon as I got to the Island and learned how to do it.”

He explains, “I used the matured savings bonds from my bar mitzvah to get going. The first piece I ever sold was in 1971, a lamp with a stained glass shade. It sat on David Crohan’s (well-known Island pianist) piano in The Rare Duck in Oak Bluffs. A guy gave me $100 for it. Of course there was a lot more than $100 in labor in it but I found out I could make something that someone would buy.”

Despite acclaim and the ability to make a living as an artist for 40 years, Mr. Zeitz admits he’s still trying to prove himself to himself. “That’s big for me,” he admitted in a Woody Allen moment. “I’d say today that I’m secure in my insecurity. Some days I feel really good about the work and then, boom, I’m convinced I can’t do anything.” He notes that being self-taught probably contributes to the condition.

He believes that insecurity also plays a role in the bidding process, ticking off a long list of big and small pieces and projects that went for 50 cents on the dollar value. He’s willing to beat himself up as a businessman but as he discusses pricing, it becomes clear that the artist in him dictates many choices.

“I just had to do the Holocaust sculpture (installed in Providence R.I.) and the Viet Nam memorial on Martha’s Vineyard. I want people to feel when they look at my work. When they look at the Viet Nam memorial, what are they feeling? Are they proud, vulnerable, afraid, empty?”

Being an Island artist has its good points. “There are a lot of rich people who appreciate and can pay for my work. On the other hand, sculptors aren’t very mobile. You can’t pack up the car and drive to a New York show,” he says.

He talks about the work with the sort of conviction that can talk a dog off a meat wagon. But when it comes to defining himself, he’s pleasantly circumspect, and keeps deflecting the subject back to his art.

“Where do I want to be in five years? Well, I’m 60 and standing on scaffolding all day is getting tougher,” he says. “That’s a control issue. I want to do everything myself, even pour the footings for my sculptures.”

He continues, “Probably my biggest challenge is be a good parent. From the business standpoint, it’s marketing myself. I wish someone would come along and help me market and I would just do the work but I’m a pain in neck,” he says, cheerily adding, “I’m 60. I need to figure that out.”

He’s teamed up with Michael Craughwell, a young Irishman who is working on projects and some of the perennial Zeitz top sellers. “Michael is very good. He’s a keeper,” he says. The two men are currently finishing a large set of stained glass windows overlooking William Street in Vineyard Haven for the First Baptist Church.

A browse through Barney Zeitz’s work (go to leaves the observer with a belief that he has done more than one life’s work. But then he says, “You know, I have this idea…”