Shadows and Hermit Crabs

In the early seventies, Bill Barrell spent three winters in St Barths in the French West Indies. While there, nature showed him a different way of  seeing and creating art.

Shadow Play #5
Shadow Play #5, photograph, chalk, 1971

….  The idea of going to the Caribbean all came about one summer while having dinner with my friend, Michael Zimmer. He was telling me of how he and his wife Emily had gone to St. Marten for their honeymoon. While there, they had taken a side trip to St. Barths and saw an acre of land for sale on the Bay de St Jean. They bought it. Michael, an architect, had thought maybe of building a house there. He said it was beautiful.

I suggested to him that seeing as neither one of us was locked into any work situation we should do like the birds do and migrate there in the winter. As we both had our summer houses in Maine, it would be the perfect set up.

So.. we plotted and planned for that winter.  Since Michael’s son’s nanny was a certified teacher, we would arm her with teaching materials and take the children too. We studied the Whole Earth Catalogue and planning to sustain ourselves of the earth, we loaded up with seeds.

The locals named the place for us. Le Camp.

I tried painting while living at Le Camp. It did not work. Sailing, swimming, reading and lolling around in the hammock was such a pleasure that painting was saved for Maine. There was always a creative feeling gnawing away at me. When I came by a camera, I decided to try my hand at photography.

Soon my eye turned to the hermit crabs who were living with us. They were helpful little buggers. After dinner, we would put our plates on the ground next to our kitchen. In the night, one could hear them clanking on the plates licking them clean.  (In the morning, of course, we would take the plates down to the sea and rinse them.)

Those little creatures would also move into larger abandoned shells. So I would look for abandoned shells, paint them and place them next to the plates.  So the crabs were often seen sporting new freshly painted houses. It was their thrift shop.

I did a drawing with the crabs. I blocked off about a four by six area in the sand. I dusted the area to make it black, then I rounded up a dozen hermit crabs and released them into the area. They wandered around trailing beautiful lines in the black sand. In the evening, I would sit with a glass of wine and enjoy the art work done while I had been off sailing or swimming.

On my return to Maine in the spring, I would stop in New York City for some cultural input. On one of those stops, I took this photo on the roof of a loft on Mulberry Street. While watching those crabs in St Barths, I had become interested in contrasts so the sharp contrast between the sun and black tar roof caught my eye. It had rained the night before and there was a puddle. The sun was drying it out so I set up a series of ten shots with a half hour between shots.  Every half hour I would line the puddle in white chalk. It made for some beautiful uncontrolled shapes. 

I enjoyed working from nature and learned much from it through the lens of a camera….

The Creative Zone

Bill Barrell, the artist, wants to know….. what makes an artist keep on searching for the masterpiece of masterpieces?

Bather, oil on canvas, 2007


…. Someone said “art is ninety five percent perspiration and five percent inspiration”. How right they were. So, what does make an artist keep on searching for the masterpiece of masterpieces?

There is a lot of work before touching a blank canvas. Building stretchers, stretching canvas, priming the canvas, cleaning brushes. But once finished with this mundane stuff one can dive into the blank void. There sits the blank canvas waiting to be transformed by you into a work of art.

Some painters are format painters transferring an image to the canvas and having pre-mixed paints. This format does not work for me. I cannot get into the zone via this route.

It is not easy for me to get into the zone. I have to start probing the surface with shapes forms and colors. These shapes forms and colors then begin to struggle with one another trying to find harmony with one another. A beautiful shape often appears by the elimination of what one thought was a great form. The battle begins between the seen and the unseen.

Soon one begins to probe the depths of the mind, rummaging around trying to understand hidden thoughts and meanings, images long forgotten now becoming relevant to the current situation. This process is so engulfing that before one knows it you are in the zone. It all becomes so clear as to what the painting needs. Layers of inhibitedness peel away.

Picasso, who was a trained academic artist who drew plaster castes and did portraiture, had to reinvent himself. In those old academic days, painting was like many other professions- a learned skill. Artists such as Picasso, Braque, Matisse and others had to break out of that train of thought. Picasso had watched his children paint and draw and he aimed for that freedom from what academia said art should be.  Being the great master that he was, Picasso was able to overcome the rigid training and used it all to his advantage. These artists turned the whole academic process inside out and it was a great turning point for art.

The next turning point was American abstract painting. Willem deKooning could really wield a brush. He had a lot of academic training, but I believe his real training came as a house painter. I have done a bit of house painting and it’s not easy. To be able to paint window sashes one has to be very adroit at running that paint down without smearing it all over the glass. There is a rhythm to it. It’s called running the paint as you chase a loaded brush down a window pain. I know it has helped me in my work and I can see it in deKooning’s work.

I also watch and learn so much from my grandchildren when they paint. They are in the zone all the time. As time goes by, this will change as they are introduced to formal art in school. Later in life, if they become artists, it will take years to peel away the layers of obstructive teaching.

The zone is a hard place to get to and there are no easy ways. I know artists who have used drugs to get there. They feel like the drugs get them into the zone and who knows, perhaps it does in some cases. But for many it’s an illusion. I knew Bob Thompson, a truly great painter. There were times he would use drugs to get into the zone. He died at the early age of 28.

So, I am always intrigued with getting back into the zone for the next truly creative experience.

Have you been in the zone lately?

The Bones of Mad Cows and Contemplations of Human Greed

Greed fosters bad things, whether it be oil spills or mad cow disease. Bill Barrell contemplates greed and how it brings odd shapes and forms to his paintings…..

Untitled painting, Bill Barrell

 –  This painting stems from a period I went through while trying to understand certain aspects of human greed and the Mad Cow Disease. That disease came about from pure greed.  Why was it allowed to happen?

Like the current oil catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, regulations were ignored in order to save money.

It was a known fact in the 1950s that if cows were fed meat or meat by-products, they would go mad. There is meat and then there are by-products of meat and it was the by-products that caused the problem.  The people who used the brains and spinal cords of slaughtered animals knew full well they should be discarded as this is where the disease resided. But they ignored that fact and thought of the investors and the bottom line. Those by-products also ended up being used in such meats as baloney and hot dogs. I often look at hot dogs and think what a scam. Who knows what goes into them?

Well, none of this is news now. But I was able to vent my spleen by doing a series of mad cow paintings.

This particular painting incorporates me as I felt as angry as the cows.

Is that cow parts I see being fed into my brain via my ear?  Am I changing into a hot dog?  Is this me turning into a spongiform? Am I coming down with the dreaded Mad Cow Disease? I feel as one of them.

I hope that things have changed for the better and that the practice of feeding animal waste to grass and grain eating animals is in the history books. But greed, as we now see with the oil companies being a prime example, will often overcome virtue. –