Interview With Artist Maggie Barnes

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Maggie Barnes: Finding Inspiration, Courage & Fulfillment as an Artist
by Erika O’Connell

Maggie Barnes never planned on being an artist. But that’s what she’s become, through a series of serendipitous events, and now she can’t imagine her life as anything else. With a bachelor’s degree in English, and a master’s in Secondary Education, this Cincinnati, Ohio, native was (or at least seemed) destined to be an English teacher. And that’s what she was for a few years—until she had children and became a stay-at-home mom. “I was originally planning to go back to teaching when the kids went to school fulltime,” she says. “And while I very much enjoy teaching, I’m so grateful that my career as an artist sort of took off on its own.”

The inspiration to begin painting took hold of Barnes during a difficult time in her life when she was grieving the death of her close friend Mark. “He was an artist and had always encouraged my creative side, so it felt like a good way to pay tribute,” she recalls. “Also, as a recovering alcoholic, I knew it was important to find a healthy way to process my feelings. And just like when I had gotten sober, I knew there was no human power that could relieve me. I knew I had to find a power greater than myself. I found then, and still find today, that greater power in art.”

Although she had made it a point to sign up for an assortment of high school art electives such as ceramics, metals, photography, etc., she never took any drawing or painting classes in her youth. “For whatever reason, I never felt like I was a ‘good enough’ artist to take those,” she says. Barnes felt more comfortable in the performing arts—playing violin and piano—or at craftier pursuits like painting second-hand furniture with “funky designs” for her kids, which she thought of as decorating rather than art. Her friend Mark suggested she try her designs on canvas, but she couldn’t see the point given that she felt inadequate at drawing. “Anytime I’ve tried to copy something or draw something realistically, it turns out very choppy and just plain awful,” she claims. “I took a couple drawing classes in college, and I enjoyed them, but I still felt a bit like a poser.” For some reason she had never considered abstract art as something she could do for a hobby, let alone a career. That’s what other people (artists) did—she was a musician; and a teacher; and a mom.

But in January 2005, when dealing with the first “big thing” in life after getting sober, Barnes heard something or someone whispering to her spirit: “Pick up a paintbrush instead of a drink.” She had never painted before and was quite surprised by her sudden, unquestionable need to do so. The first thing she ever painted, other than that old furniture, was done with her toddler’s acrylic paints on an old address book. Then she got some canvas and painted at least one piece a day for more than a month. She made her first sale after only a couple months, to a friend who happened to come by and see her work in the dining room (her temporary studio). Barnes hadn’t really thought about the idea of trying to sell her work; she was doing it as a sort of therapy, and saw the money she made simply as a means to buy more paint.

Shortly thereafter, a fortuitous get-together with another friend led to an exhibit (in London of all places!), and she began to see a pattern of “billboards” unfolding in her life, as if somehow the universe had magically detoured her onto the path to her true destiny. The next push from fate came as her youngest child started going to school full-time, when she was given the opportunity to be a guest artist at Essex Studios (www.essexstudios.com). “After looking into it, my husband and I decided perhaps it was time to get a studio space of my own,” says Barnes.

Since then, she’s sold countless pieces to collectors for their homes, has participated in various outdoor art shows, and has exhibited work in a number of local venues including A.R.T. Gallery (www.ArtResourceTeam.com), The Edge Yoga Studio  (www.yogaedge.net), and Kennedy Heights Arts Center (www.kennedyarts.com), where she is a Guild member. Barnes also dabbles in photography, and has recently received several inquiries about whether she plans to exhibit/sell her photos (she’s working on it). One of the most humbling experiences she’s had so far was being invited to take part in a panel discussion following the screening of the documentary Who Does She Think She Is? (www.whodoesshethinksheis.net), about what it means to be an artist and a woman, especially in a society that doesn’t always take women artists seriously.

In a short time, Barnes has come a long way from her preconceived notions about what it means to be an artist. She’s opened herself up to the boundless possibilities, and has become more than willing to trust the calling. Here, she talks about her hardships, her triumphs, and why she can’t imagine not being an artist. To learn more about Maggie Barnes, and to view more of her artwork, visit www.ArtworkByMaggie.com.

What inspires you?
Everything—nature; painterly art; life; love; music; van Gogh’s letters…

I still have a studio at the Essex, and I enjoy the fellowship that comes from being part of a community of other artists. I paint because it offers me indescribable balance and relief. It allows me to accept and resolve the things that I perceive to be chaotic and imperfect, and, through grace, fi nd an authentic purpose, a harmonious arrangement to it all. When I am able to trust that grace, that creative energy, it simply becomes a matter of showing up at the canvas to quiet the chatter in my head.

While working on my master’s degree, I came across Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity (www.theartistsway.com) in a creative writing class. I practiced it pretty regularly for a few years, and then went back to it when I began painting. I can’t say enough wonderful things about the book. It has freed me to feel comfortable doing my own work, and has disciplined me into understanding that there is power in showing up day after day regardless of inspiration or direction. I currently facilitate a weekly study of The Artist’s Way at Kennedy Heights Arts Center.

Another book that has been powerful to me is Art & Fear (by David Bayles and Ted Orland). It echoes what I learned in The Artist’s Way, and has helped solidify the idea that hard work equals success—that it is possible to make a living as an artist if you’re willing to work hard.

Maggie Barnes’ painting “Katy’s Birthday” is 16" x 20" work in acrylic.
© Maggie Barnes. Reprinted with permission.

What do you consider your first “success”?
A few months after I started painting, a friend from high school who had moved to England came home to visit. Our families spent a few days together, talking art, swimming and enjoying good food. After she and her husband got back to England, they called with an opportunity…long story short, they agreed to pay for half of my painting supplies for a year, flew me and my paintings to London, and arranged for my work to be shown at One (www.only0ne.com), a funky high-end boutique in Notting Hill. The success from that experience—and most especially their strong belief in my work—gave me the courage to take this new hobby seriously. There is no doubt that without the help of Nikki and Richard Conway, I might not have painted for any longer than a few months. I am so grateful for their support and encouragement!

This experience also gave me the courage to ask for what, at the time, seemed to me like a lot of money for my paintings. I tested the waters with these prices at local fundraisers. Being present when multiple people are bidding on your work can be a bit intimidating, but in the end, it has been an incredible experience. I do several of these each year, and I’m always astonished and grateful. It’s a way for me to give back to the community, not to mention I get to do something I’m passionate about. It really blows my mind that I can essentially use my paintings as currency—getting paid for doing something I was going to do anyway!

So would you say “doing what you love” is the best thing about freelancing?
There are so many things I like about it, but the biggest has to be that I get to set my own schedule, which allows me to be flexible with my family’s needs. Having a studio of my own gives me a place to go to work (and I work very hard at what I love), but I’m also able to spend time with those who are most important to me—my family and friends. It’s a pretty good deal. It feels like I’ve been given a free pass. Sometimes it’s hard to believe that this is my life!

Is there a downside to freelancing?
The balance between home life and being an artist is sometimes tricky. Even though I know I have the full support of my friends and family, I still cringe at the occasional use of the word “hobby” for my artistic endeavors. I know they don’t understand: I have to paint; it’s what I’m here to do. Yet from time to time, I still feel the need to defend, even to myself, the time spent at the studio. And while I know that being creative is my purpose here, it’s easy to lose sight of it when the issue of money enters the conversation. I have found some peace in the acceptance that these tend to be semantic issues. And since art is my direct line to my higher power, it is far too important for me to let semantics get in the way.

How do you promote your work? Do you have an agent/rep?
I don’t have an agent but do dream of it. The business side of things isn’t my strong suit. Not that I don’t understand it, or even the importance of it, but, quite frankly, I’d rather be painting. On the other hand, when I work with someone else on putting things like business cards and brochures together, I do tend to have solid ideas of what I want. So I tend to go back and forth a bit about whether I really need an agent. I used to send postcards for my art shows, but now I mostly rely on people seeing my work at the studio—we have “art walks” throughout the year.

“River Walk” by Maggie Barnes shows off her signature impressionistic style with textural paint in blues and greens. © Maggie Barnes. Reprinted with permission.

What do you hope to achieve with your art?

My hope for my art is that it moves people in a healing way. For me, painting is about healing, and about being in touch with my higher power. When I begin my day, I pray that I can be of use through this gift I’ve been given. I call it a gift because it’s something that keeps me sober and allows me to give back.

My hope for myself, in terms of my relationship with my art, is that I will always be willing to show up and do the work, whether I feel like it or not, and to remember something I learned from The Artist’s Way—that it is far easier to do the work than it is to be a blocked artist.

What projects are you working on now?
I’ve been reading a lot lately about plein air work, and have been feeling the itch to get out there and do a bit of that. I have two pieces I’ve been commissioned to do by Christmas. And I recently began painting in oils (rather than acrylics). When I was diagnosed with melanoma in December 2008, I made the decision to begin something I had always wanted to do. I have some beautiful oil paints that I had “put away for a rainy day,” so I took them out and have been using them exclusively since. The paintings are still similar in style: expressionist, impressionist, and some abstract.

Do you have any advice for beginning/struggling artists?
Get copies of The Artist’s Way and Art & Fear. Read them, practice them, and share them with friends. Keep showing up!

ERIKA O’CONNELL is former editor of Artist’s & Graphic Designer’s Market, as well as a freelance editor/writer and aspiring artist.

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