Wednesday, August 16, 2017  

John Barber: The Chesapeake Bay Waterman's Artist


By Bob Cerullo

Golden moonbeams danced across the water as a first time visitor to Gywnn’s Island marveled at the sheer beauty of the scene. It was moonrise on the Chesapeake Bay. As the moon appeared on the horizon, then made its slow ascent into the night sky, the young student artist John Barber was smitten by the play of light and the place. As John describes the moment: “I was 20 years old when I arrived at Gwynn’s Island after dark. Alone, I walked out and saw this magnificent, full moon rising over the open Chesapeake. I ‘was hooked’!” That experience was the beginning of a lifelong commitment to capturing, on canvas, the scenes of the stories of the Chesapeake Bay past and present.

The artist left his hometown of Danville, Virginia in 1965 to attend Richmond Professional Institute now Virginia Commonwealth University. Barber had a fellowship from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts which he won based on the art he was doing in high school. After four years at VCU, Barber left and took a job as a graphic designer. The gentleman he worked for owned a 26-foot wooden hulled double-ended ketch designed by the famed Murray Peterson of Camden, Maine.

She was called the Wild Duck and the owner kept the boat on Jackson Creek in Deltaville. Barber sailed with his friend out of Deltaville for several years until the owner moved the Wild Duck up to the Great Wicomico River. In the early 80s, John and his wife Kathy bought a summer home near Bertrand, Virginia near the mouth of the Corrotoman River and Towles Point. The couple was invited by longtime friend and collector of John’s originals, Brian Dillistin, to take a cruise on the buyboat Callis Brothers to the Urbanna Oyster Festival. Captain Terry Haydon owned the buyboat and she was a 62’ traditional buyboat built in Palmer, Virginia in 1938. The boat was used in pound net or “trap” fishing, during WWII as a buoy tender, and later as a buyboat and for hauling shell and planting seed oysters.

The trip on the Callis Brothers started John’s love affair with buyboats, deadrises, skipjacks and the history of watermen. The Barbers bought a series of boats, both power and sail, with their last being a 32 foot Grand Banks trawler which was moored at Fishing Bay Harbor Marina in Deltaville. Soon afterwards they purchased a unit at Jackson Creek Condos.

Spending much of his time on the Bay, John learned about watermen, their boats and the people who built their unique craft. In the process he became an expert in his own right. Well known author and expert on the Chesapeake Bay, Larry Chowning said: “John Barber has utilized extensive research and extraordinary talent to capture on canvas the mood and essence of the water culture of Chesapeake Bay. His paintings are a museum unto themselves that are a reflection of his own love and passion for the Bay region. John knows the Chesapeake Bay and that knowledge flows from the body of work that he has dedicated his life towards. Everyone has a favorite painting but John’s body of work is the real gift to us all and what makes him the most accomplished bay artist of our times.”

John visited with watermen and boat builders capturing their images on canvas and the history of the people and scenes he was painting. John became acquainted with legendary Captain Johnny Ward who is revered among watermen. His descendants still work the waters in the area. John tells of an instance where he was given permission to paint a picture of the buyboat Ward Brothers. When Barber came to sketch the boat, it was freshly painted white. But, John painted his picture to include the traditional rust stains always seen on that type of boat. The owners expected to see their boat gleaming white and were disappointed at first when they saw the rust but agreed it was more true to life.

Ironically, the artist has no formal training in painting. He received his degree in and worked as a graphic designer for ten years then gave up that work and struck out as a painter. His art soon became highly respected. In 1985, he was commissioned by the National Geographic Society to create an original oil painting titled “The Vanishing Fleet” as a gift to President Ronald Reagan and Barber participated in the White House presentation of the painting. The painting includes several boats; the central image is of the skipjack Stanley Norman. This study for the larger painting that was published as a limited edition print now hangs in the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California.

 In 1987 Barber was elected to the Board of Trustees of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. During the Clinton administration, he was chosen to do a painting of the White House in commemoration of the bicentennial of the President’s home in 2000. Former first lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton, displayed his version of Virginia’s Easter Egg created for the 1995 Annual White House Easter Egg Hunt.

Kathy and John opened The Barber Gallery in Richmond, Virginia during 1994, and in 1996 the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum published an incredible beautifully book titled: John M. Barber’s Chesapeake with a narrative by John R. Valliant who is the past Executive Director and President of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels, Maryland. In the preface to the book they created together, John R. Valliant wrote of Barber: “I first became acquainted with John in 1989 when he visited St. Michaels to create “Moonlight over St. Michaels.” At that point, I realized that in addition to all of her natural assets, I was seeing yet another of the Chesapeake Bay’s treasures- an artist whose work captures the spirit of the Bay, her waters and her shoreline, her watermen, and the craft in which they make a living... One of John’s first artistic objectives was to capture on canvas the dwindling fleet of skipjacks, the last working commercial sail to fish in North America. In doing this, he became a trusted friend of many skipjack captains and their crews, not an easy achievement in a society of watermen who cling to a simple way of life that is tough, but above all, honorable. Their mistrust of outsiders is exacerbated by the disappointment of exploitation and commercialization. To gain their confidence, John has risen before dawn on bleak February mornings to share a simple breakfast and endure cold winter winds on the water to capture the spirit of these hardy sailors as they work the oyster beds. Early on, he sailed on his first working skipjack, the Elsworth, hauling dredges, culling oysters, and earning the respect of captain and crew. During the 1980s, he sailed aboard nearly all the skipjacks afloat. John has gone into backwater boatyards to learn firsthand the art of maintaining these hundred year-old craft to keep them afloat and working for ‘just one more season.’ On the days when it was too foul to dredge, he has sat with captains around wood-burning stoves listening to the stories of what the Bay was like when the oysters were disease-free and abundant, the crabs were plentiful, and the waters were graced by clouds of working sails. The accuracy with which these boats and their working rigs are depicted in his paintings is a testament to his firsthand experience.” In 2003, the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum exhibited 27 of Barber’s paintings.

He was elected a Fellow of the American Society of Marine Artists in 2007 and in 2009 he was awarded the Distinguished Service Award by the National Maritime Historical Society in Washington DC for his efforts in depicting the vanishing ways of life on the Chesapeake Bay and his environmental and philanthropic endeavors to save the Chesapeake. All these honors are particularly meaningful in light of the fact that some guidance “experts” he encountered in his early years told him he could never make a living as a painter.

Famed TV journalist and yachtsman, the late Walter Cronkite, commissioned John to create a painting of his beloved sailing yacht Wyntje in 1999. In preparation for the piece, the artist sailed from Annapolis, Maryland to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. The painting depicted their arrival into the Edgartown Harbor on Tuesday, June 1. Kathy arrived the following day and the couple enjoyed five more days as guests of Betsy and Walter at their summer home on the harbor. The Barbers attended the unveiling of the painting in that year at the Cronkite’s Annual Christmas party at their home in New York City.

Perhaps the best way to appreciate and understand John Barber is to savor his own words. In the epilogue of his book
John M. Barber’s Chesapeake he wrote: “In my paintings, I have tried to portray the Bay as I see her-fragile and threatened in many ways, yet tough and unforgiving in others, especially to those who fail to heed her warnings and know her moods. My art shares the majestic beauty of this irreplaceable natural treasure, and I hope that it helps to inform others of her immense value to our society. I have also attempted to show the less tangible character of the Chesapeake Bay, which is much more than an estuary, salt marshes, and marine life. It represents a way of life, a spirit that captures the imagination with a lifestyle that evokes quieter, simpler times. The Bay also represents the inevitability of change. It will be a measure of our ability to manage that change if we wish to ensure that this magnificent estuary will survive to provide enjoyment and livelihoods for generation to come.”

The artist learned of the July 18 fire this year that devastated the Deltaville Maritime Museum and wanted to assist in their efforts to rebuild. After meeting with longtime friend Director Raynell Smith, it was decided that Barber would create a special original oil painting of the Museum’s buyboat F.D. Crockett at nearby Stingray Point Lighthouse. Copyrights are to be donated to the Museum, which would publish a series of limited edition prints that will be sold to benefit the restoration of this wonderful institution.

John Barber is truly a treasure of the Cheasapeake. His lifelong passion to preserve not only the actual images of a
bygone era but also the spirit of the times has created a legacy for generations yet unborn to enjoy for as long as the moonbeams shine on the waters of the majestic Chesapeake Bay. To see more of John Barber’s paintings and prints visit www.johnbarberart.com.To learn more about the plans to rebuild the Deltaville Maritime Museum and the prints of the F.D. Crockett, visit: www.deltavillemuseum.com.