Conversation with a Fish

Great fish stories abound, but Bill Barrell has a fish story of a different sort. It’s called “Conversation with a Fish” and it’s about those little goldfish you sometimes bring home from the pet store.

…. I built a small pond in the backyard garden of our house in Jersey City. Not a large pond,  just big enough to hold the few goldfish that we had in a bowl.  It was a small garden, but I had planted grapes and a fig tree and built a small charcoal pit. The pond was situated under a magnolia tree at the foot of the garden. I installed a small pump with the water running over a few rocks. It was a pleasure –  especially when we had dinner there on those warm summer nights.

Years went by and the goldfish grew quite large.

When we moved to Easton, PA, I took the goldfish with us. They did not want to leave. I can’t blame them. To return to a fishbowl life was no fun. But I couldn’t leave them in Jersey City as there was nobody to care for them. The filter had to be changed often or the water would become really murky.

I carted them off to Easton and installed them in my studio. The fish would glare at me, mad as hell that they had lost their pond. Things did not go well. I became sick and was not able to give them the attention they needed.

There were five fish in all and they had grown very large. One by one they started to die. When I was down to three, I called a friend who lived on the Delaware River and asked about putting them in the river. He said they would be gone in flash, eaten by other fish. 

 I kept them.

They had a big tank and it was tough to clean and change the water and me being sick at the time made it really difficult. I was down to one fish. Then he/she developed some kind of skin problem and no matter how often I changed the water and the filter, the goldfsh got sicker. One day I went to the studio and it was belly up. It was over.

I had bought those fish in a Woolworth’s store on Newark Avenue in Jersey City when they were little tiny things. They must have been ten years old when they died. It was a sad ending for them, but I figure they had a longer life than if some well meaning kid had bought them.

I have good memories of those goldfish. I remember sitting in the garden with them and feeling like I could converse with them. They were a part of the family.

Tad in the Cat Room

After Bill Barrell’s opportunity of having three winters in the French West Indies, it was time for his return to NYC.

“It was not easy to set yourself up in NYC in the early 1970s. I raised funds by painting a mural for a patron in New Hampshire. This gave me $2,500 to re-enter.  I could only afford Long Island City where the rents were substantially lower than Manhattan. I had a beautiful raw space loft and I had to put in everything, including the fixtures. There came the problem of earning a living.

What could I do? I had no profession other than artist.

I read an article about a guy who supported himself in Manhattan by walking dogs and had earned $25,000 a year. Great! But I was not fond of dogs and they were not fond of me. One day as a child about four years old, I was in a sweet shop and something stood on my foot. I looked around and was eye to eye with a St. Bernard with its tongue hanging out and breathing all over me. It freaked me out. I was never at ease around dogs again. Dog walking was out.

I thought, well, how about cats? I’ll board them! I put an ad in the Village Voice for two weeks. The first week I did not have one single call. I was sure it was a dud. But the second week the phone rang off the hook. We were in business! We boarded ten cats that week. At $5.00 a pop that was $50 bucks a day!! We could pay the rent with just four days work! It worked out very well and supported us for many years.

At one point, we were able to move to a loft on Lafayette Street in Manhattan, 2,500 square feet for the outrageous fee of $400 a month!   I built a bigger room and some cages for the cats. These were large cages with tree trunks and boxes. It looked like a zoo.

One Thanksgiving holiday we had all the family there. My sister’s son, Tad, loved cats. He was about five at the time.  When I took him for a visit to the cat room, he wanted to get into a cage and be a cat. I put him into a cage with two mild mannered Siamese. Tad looked to me like he would morph into a cat if he stayed there too long.  That’s how this painting came about. I have to put it in my will that if I have not sold it by the time I fall off the perch, it is his.

I am reminded of a movie I saw years ago that applied the alternative thought process. It was called “Sound Barrier”. In the movie, multiple attempts were made to dive from a great height in order to break the sound barrier. Unfortunately, when the plane was close to breaking the barrier, it was too close to the ground and could not pull out of the dive due to the force on the controls. After a couple of crashes, someone finally thinks of reversing the controls so the plane goes with the flow and comes out of the dive in a reverse roll.

That made me think of looking at alternatives when in a tight spot. There is always a way (excuse the unintended pun) to skin a cat. When a painting is not working one way, try another. I have always taught students to think in alternatives. It applies to all things in life and not just art.

Ah Summer!

Summer is the season that Bill Barrell enjoys the most.
Bathers, 42" x 48", 1996, oil on canvas

… When I lived in Provincetown, Massachusetts, I was in the water half the time. I had a sailboat, a big awkward thing, but it got me out to the Point where I could look back at the town with all of it’s crooked houses.  I would fish and swim. It was liberating to be without heavy clothing. Oh, I loved the other seasons but summer was special. I believe it stems from some miserable summers I spent in England growing up. It is impossible to stay in the water there for more than a few minutes.

I also summered in Maine for many years. The sea was hopelessly cold, worse than England. So we swam in the lakes. Many of my works echo those days. We would often swim in the buff. Swimming amongst the reeds was beautiful if there was a full moon! Frogs would croak, crickets would chirp and the loons would sound off across the lake to one another. They were fun filled days and my work would become fun filled too.

In Pembroke, Maine there was a waterfall where I would take my son Joshua. We would splish splash from one level to another and sit under the falls.  Small waterfalls appear often in my paintings reflecting those days of bliss.

It was even more exotic in the French West Indies where I lived for three winters. No waterfalls but water one could swim in for hours on end. Palm trees and soft breezes would make any time of day pleasurable.

Here in Easton, Pennslyvannia, I have recently been introduced to a swimming hole in the Bushkill River. I intend to take my grandchildren there to enjoy the peace and tranquility of such a bucolic environment. It’s soothing and restful.

These kinds of places crop up in my work from time to time. Here in “Bathers”, it feels like a conglomerate of all of these places.

Hard Knocks

Bill Barrell reflects on tough times and what it takes to manage to survive them.

Yellow Hand, 42" x 34", 1999, oil on canvas
Yellow Hand, 42″ x 34″, 1999, oil on canvas

…..I often think back to my mother and wonder how she survived the Blitz during the war, what with four kids and a husband in the army. I remember one Sunday night during the Blitz, we had set out the table for tea and seated ourselves around it eager to gobble down bread and jam and a chocolate cake that Mom made special for Sunday.


When all of a sudden, the sirens sounded the alarm.

Whoops! Up jumped us four kids all headed for our gas masks, rubber boots and rain coats, with Suskie the dog leading the way. It had become routine for this to happen at the sound of that alarm.

But this time, my mother’s voice boomed out, “SIT BACK DOWN! ADOLF HITLER IS NOT GOING TO SPOIL OUR SUNDAY TEA!” Back we all trooped to the table. We managed to finish our tea to the background music of some loud thumping and crashing.

I know that much of her resilience wore off on me and my brothers and sisters. It has paid off handsomely.

In late 2003, I was diagnosed with cancer. Whoa. That news kind of shakes one up a bit. There is a fast re-evaluation of your situation. Can you survive it? Can you deal with it in a sensible way? What is going to happen to the project you have going? How is the family going to take it? Will you see your daughter graduate? Well, the first thing I learned was to take it one step at a time.

This was not new to us. My wife had just been through the experience of breast cancer and a mastectomy. I had been the supportive one and now it was her turn to help me through it. She did so with flying colors.

At the same time, we had just bought a big old warehouse building that we were renovating into studio, living and storage space. The rental units were finished and rented, but we had to put a rush on things in late December ’03 for the other spaces as I was set for an operation on January 4th. We knew full well that I would not be able to handle the physical work after the operation.

Well, I managed to pull it all together and was able to move in right after my operation. There were many trips back and forth for the chemo and radiation, but I survived. I have periodic checkups and all has turned out well. I would have been whinnying with the angels above if not for modern medicine and the strength and resilience that I learned from my Mum.

One is not the same old self, but it is much better than the alternative.

I love you Mum. Wherever you are.


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. –

In One Ear and Out the Other

Bill Barrell says his  last year in school was spent gazing out of the school room window…..

…..   ” The teacher would get my attention by aiming a piece of chalk at my head, often with great accuracy, and bring me back from my adventure among the clouds and sky. I was fourteen. Even though I would then sit and pay attention, so much seemed to go in one ear and out the other.

In One Ear and Out the Other, Head with Green Nose
In One Ear and Out the Other (Head with Green Nose), 36 in x 32 in, 1998

 The British school system was set up as to provide a work force with a bunch of muscle, lacking brains. How to add and subtract pound shillings and pence was drummed into us so that we could go out into the world and spend our wages on beer and baccy after toiling in the mines, factories or fields.

I did have the one teacher who I could understand what he was talking about. The art teacher. He would walk around in his tweed jacket with leather elbows while sucking on a pipe and umming and arring over our work. He was big into abstract art of which I knew nothing. He mentioned Miro, I remember. He would encourage us to just make shapes and forms and curvy lines. He liked my work so much that he pinned one up and discussed it. Little I knew this would become my calling ten years later. His was the only class I didn’t daydream in. I still remember it all very clearly, whereas history, science and math is all a blurr.

My first year as a wage earner was spent in the west end of London as a theatre ticket and messenger boy. I had previously found a job in a stained glass workshop at apprentice’s wages. That didn’t sit well with my father as he felt I had to contribute to my upkeep. He found me my West end job saying it would broaden my mind (and give him more to spend down the White Lion). Perhaps it was just as well. Who knows. I probably would be dead from lead poisoning if I had stayed at the glass shop. Maybe my father with his selfish desires saved me from a grizzly end.

Also, being a messenger boy perhaps fitted in with my later calling. Paintings are like messages. They reveal things in us we would never have known otherwise.  We can view things in a different light and peer into the dark recesses of our minds. Art keeps pressing forward, never stagnant always fresh and questioning. For instance, who would have thought a hundred years ago that Damien Hurst’s sliced up cow in formaldehyde would be a priceless museum piece.

So, in one ear and out the other makes me aware of where I came from and perhaps, some things we hear do not need to be retained.”

The Not So Still Life

Bill Barrell loves to paint but tea also plays a big role in his day to day life….

Still Life with Telephone
Telephone Ring, 50 in x 66 in, 1998

…. I am usually the first one up in my house which means that I make the tea.  Marilyn, my muse, will not stir until tea has flowed through her lips. Once in a while, she will call out “Good Cuppa”. This means all of the elements have been in the correct position for the perfect Cuppa.

One can never rely on it being a good cup of tea no matter how much attention one pays to the making of it. I have read much on tea and have a Chinese friend who scolds me for adding milk. I have enjoyed many a cup of oolong or lapsangshoshon, but nothing surpasses a cup of regular Brook Bond Red Rose tea with milk – no sugar.

This painting, “Telephone Ring”, was leading me on just such  a merry chase and was giving me a hard time. Deep in thought and wrestling with what to put where or what color would bring it to life, the phone rang and I answered it.  I was still talking on the phone when I glanced at the work and through the distraction I saw what I needed! I thanked my caller profusely, hung up and dove right back into the painting, wrestling it to the ground.

So, what I have in this painting is a captured moment. The phone rings and things have come to life. A painting can look so easy and sometimes it does come easy.  Many times it’s a struggle, creating doubts and fears that one has lost ones mojo. Often, these works turn out to be the most forceful and interesting because digging deep into the psychic mind, we find the ability to solve what seems like an unsolveable problem.

When looking at paintings, it is a good thing to look at the reworking in areas. This can give you an idea of the struggle. For example, you can often see in Picasso’s work that one line or block of color will change the whole area therefore shifting the perspective, feeling or energy field, the latter being such a vital part of the work.

What is so great about art is that once the energy has been attained it is an energy force that does not diminish.

It is almost as good as a good cuppa……

Farewell Gabriel

Bill Barrell usually paints the objects and people in his life. Here he expresses how this painting “Farewell Gabriel” means more than that.

Farewell Gabriel
Farewell Gabriel, 66 in x 70 in, 1987, oil on canvas painting

…. I had a friend who lived in the West Village in New York City.  He was married with a son and had a circle of friends that included everyone from plumbers to philosophers –  gay and straight, young and old, male and female. It was a diverse circle of friends. One day he told me of a friend by the name of Gabriel.

Gabriel was from France. He had told my friend how repressed he had felt in France and that he had recently come to the U.S. and emerged from the closet as a gay man.  He was determined to enjoy the freedom that gays were having in Greenwich Village. My friend encouraged him to enjoy himself.  I met Gabriel a couple of times. He was young, energetic and full of vim and vigor.

Unfortunately, it was the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. It could not have been a worse time. The disease was relatively new and little understood. Gabriel had come out of the closet and stepped into the fire. It struck him within months. There were no medications then and he had little hope of survival. Within six months of meeting my friend, Gabriel was gone. It was tragic that he was gone after such a short and hopefully enjoyable time.

 I don’t often do paintings of events, but this event struck me as so tragic that I felt I should record it. I like to think that it memoralizes not only Gabriel, but the people who have passed away from AIDS and those that cope with it now.

figurative expressionist artist …………………………………………………………… This is a blog by the artist expressing thoughts on his own paintings as well as experiences with others relating to his daily life and life of painting since the 1950s. …………………………………………………………………. Paintings are posted with words from Bill that are as varied as extolling on the successes of his children, JZ and Liza, to the milestones of his grandchildren and on to his memories of fellow artists, collectors and shows. His art and words touch on things like politics, religion and the weather. ……………………………………………… For Bill, art and life are interwoven. ……………………………………. …………………………………