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Barbara Prey is discussing her current solo exhibition at the Hancock Shaker Village

Barbara Prey Interview with Greylock Glass

Transcript of interview:

Greylock Glass (GG): For this episode, we spoke with artist Barbara Ernst Prey at the opening of an exhibition of her most recent work at the Hancock Shaker Village entitled Borrowed Light.

 A collection of pensive yet powerful watercolors, these daringly large works are conversations with natural light as it lends attention to demure interior spaces and pristine glory to a blended exterior landscape of nature and the works of man.

Barbara was generous with her time and spoke with the Greylock Glass on a wide range of a palette of topics.

It really is an ambitious installation you’ve created. These, as you mentioned, are large, I think most people don’t fully appreciate what the difference is between an oil painting of this size and a watercolor painting. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Barbara Ernst Prey (BEP): I was recently commissioned by MASS MoCA to do the largest watercolor in the world, which is 8 x 15 feet, for their new Building 6, which just opened, and you can see that on display at the museum. I was really on a roll having painted and figured out the process of doing this huge painting, and then when we discussed the possibility of the Hancock Shaker Village exhibit it was for me just kind of a hand in glove situation because I really wanted to continue to work on large watercolors. A lot of them are 40 x 60 inches unframed, it’s easy to do them small but expanding and painting them in watercolor, which is the most difficult medium, makes them a unique challenge.

GG:Why are large watercolors, in particular, so difficult?

BEP:You can’t make mistakes. You can try and cover up if you do, but again when I was doing the MASS MoCA, piece I had to hold my breath I wasn’t making a mistake and again with these paintings it’s the same thing. If you make a mistake you can cover, but not really, and so you have to know what you’re going to do at the beginning before you start. You have the picture in your mind of where you’re going. And you know you have to keep your whites white, and kind of have a map to go through.

GG:Do you typically have it mapped out in a sketch, or in your mind, or both?

BEP:Again, for MASS MoCA I did multiple studies before I did the finished painting, and this exhibit at the Hancock Shaker Village is really interesting because you can see there are some studies that show you a little bit of the process, how I started small to work out the composition before I went ahead and did the very large painting.

GG:I imagine being alone in some of these spaces, it gave you some quiet inspiration just being there—tell us a little bit about the method of sort of transporting what you’ve experienced, what you felt and saw and capturing that; I have no idea how I would even begin to walk into a building and say “What do I paint, what am I looking for?”

BEP:I’ve always been interested in the Shakers, I like their simplicity and their design, and I actually have some Shaker objects myself. I visited a lot of Shaker sites looking for painting ideas and with MASS MoCA, and I did the White House Christmas card in 2003, which was an interior scene, so I have done a number of interior scenes. When I was at Williams College, my honors professor was the late Lane Faison and I did my Honors Thesis on Southern German Baroque architecture, so I’ve spent a lot of time looking at floor plans and visiting a variety of architectural sites, so interiors really speak to me. I’ve been to Hancock Shaker Village multiple times and was really familiar with the space, so the thought of doing these paintings was something I was really excited about, as opposed to it being a scary concept, because the light and the structures really fit into what I like to paint.

GG:The balance between line and color, what you choose to accent, seems really natural. When you see, what do you see first when you look?

BEP:I did work for the New Yorker magazine for ten years. I started out doing a lot of books and magazines, so line has always been really important to me. If you’re a watercolorist you have to be a good draftsman. To me, line says so much. I’m noted for my colors and these paintings really push color in different directions, you can read it but there’s a lot of abstraction in between—it hangs on a good design, and then there’s also the story of the painting.

GG:Each one of these, we can’t look at them in isolation, either in isolation of the meaning behind them, the isolation of the emotional content, or the historical content.

BEP:There are so many different narratives in these paintings, as you said, there’s the artistic—what you see as a painter and what you want to paint—and there’s also the historical. I have a degree from Harvard Divinity School so I’ve always been very interested in the Shakers from the historical perspective, and also from the architectural and design perspective, which ties in as my mom was head of the design department at Pratt Art Institute, so I grew up with design being very important—and the lines of the Shakers, there’s an incredible beauty in that design.

GG:It’s almost like it’s a map that you’re very familiar with, that you can traverse.

BEP:Yes, and it also pulls in a lot of different parts of my life, every painting has a story—I’m looking right now at Channeled Light, and Shakers are very egalitarian, this is the wash area, it’s women’s work, it’s different rooms, the sewing room, where the Shaker women would’ve worked; and as a female American artist that’s something I can relate to.

GG:The simplicity of the subject, the Shakers, belies the importance of them as an egalitarian society, and I think we’ve lost a little bit of that in our own communities. There’s such a division of labor and a division of social groups, do you think – and this is unrelated to the paintings – but do you think a movement like this could ever re-emerge in America?

BEP:Well they tried to create a utopian community; anything is possible, as they said there are 3 Shakers left.

GG:Sometimes only hanging on to 3 people sounds like utopia to me. As you pointed out this was a year’s work and you were absolutely immersed in this work… what is coming up next for you?

BEP:I actually have four shows coming up, and I’m on the National Council for the Arts which is the advisory board to the National Endowment for the Arts, so I’m off for my meetings, and one thing that I’m really excited about is I just had a painting that went into the collection of the National Gallery of Art in D.C.

I’ve done a lot of work for NASA, I am one of the few women in the NASA art collection, and some of my work that’s been commissioned by them is going to be in a museum show in July.

GG:Excellent! How long will the Hancock Shaker Village show be up for?

BEP: The show, Borrowed Light,will be on exhibit through November.

GG:So people have some time, wonderful, but come soon! Because the light changes and shifts, and early summer the light is just right.

Barbara, thank you so much for speaking with us.