Barn Painters explain the mystique
Martha's Vineyard Times File Photo
Barns seem to hold a magic that invites transformation into art. Three who regularly show their barn paintings on the Vineyard are: Wendy Weldon, Peter Batchelder, and Suzanne Crocker.
Chilmark artist Wendy Weldon exhibits at the Carol Craven Gallery on State Road in West Tisbury. Growing up on a farm in Indiana, her childhood surroundings were the flat landscape, farm patterns of squares, and circles punctuated with barns.
Ms. Weldon calls the barn shape perfect in its proportions. "It's inspirational for me," she says. "What I saw growing up was magical. You can't put it in reality..."
Some viewers might mistake her paintings of barns for houses, even without windows, flower boxes, or walkways. Ms. Weldon, who began coming to the Vineyard in 1955, and moved to Chilmark in 1998, explains barns are storage buildings — warm places for animals, dry places for storage, and homes for tractors — the spaces that keep the farm going, and age with elegance and dignity.
"That barn shape is part of my core. The shape, the colors, the doors — they make me smile," she says. "They make me happy."
Wherever Ms. Weldon lived, barns served as an important part of her artistic repertoire. Barns and rocks became the predominant themes in her work. After college, she moved to Vermont, doing pen and ink drawings of birds — and lots of barns. Later she lived in California's wine country, and her work became purely abstract, but barns remained as a form that translated readily into abstraction.
"I'm not really a landscape painter," she says. "I just don't paint in any real time." Her barns are abstract conceptions that can be set in any kind of environment, floating somewhere in an imaginary heaven. She uses them to express herself through color, shape, texture, and planes. The shapes and proportions of her barns provide the inspiration for her use of layered, shimmering color, often employing gold leaf to help build texture.
Like Ms. Weldon, painter Peter Batchelder doesn't depict literal translations of barns, and also, sees them as opportunities to experiment with color.
"I like the idea of being more expressionistic," he explains. "I prefer superimposing different elements... I like to transform the drawing into something universal." He adds, "Simplifying is difficult. The challenge of the composition is to put as few things in as possible, to leave behind what got my attention. Then you're left with a peaceful feeling."
Mr. Batchelder, who grew up in New Hampshire where his father was headmaster at Walnut Hill School in Natick, regularly visited the Vineyard as a child. He moved to the Island in the early 1990s, initially monitoring birds for the Audubon Society, which gave him access to parts of the Island many people don't get to see. He met his wife, Kim Sullivan, when both worked at the Beach Plum Inn. The couple opened a small gallery, Anasarra, on Beach Road Extension in Vineyard Haven.
Now a resident of Amherst, N.H., he exhibits at the Dragonfly Gallery in Oak Bluffs, and admittedly loves painting barns, calling them the quintessential New England structure.
"I think barns are almost icons of New England, a part of New England's agricultural history," Mr. Batchelder says. "I just always loved them. They're such big, looming structures — you can't miss them."
Mr. Batchelder has made barn-hunting expeditions with his mentor, Provincetown barn painter Robert Cardinal, taking photographs from which he makes his preliminary charcoal drawings. His goal in painting barns is to bring out an element of the abstract, of something universal that evokes history and memories.
Suzanne Crocker, who comes from the rural town of Hamilton, exhibits her barn paintings at North Water Gallery in Edgartown, The Field Gallery in West Tisbury, and at Dragonfly Gallery in Oak Bluffs. Her interest in barns comes from the conceptual and the aesthetic.
Ms. Crocker feel barns have life and soul. Through the use of light, she tries to convey the spirit, the interconnectedness of things so the viewer can see how the barn relates to what's around it.
"I love the shape," Ms Crocker says. "Its solid, simple forms allow me to juxtapose colors in many ways. It's really about color."
She continues, "Musically, it's like a symphony with big booming sounds that I balance with little piccolo charcoal marks," she says.
Barns have captured her attention for the last 10 years. "I will get addicted to a place, paint it up to 10 times — moving things around, changing the colors, the perspective, light source, fenestration," she says. "I feel they've witnessed so much. People come and go, but barns remain our story keepers."
Brooks Robards regulary writes for The Times.