PORT CLYDE — Barbara Prey has a golden resume: a bachelor’s degree from Williams College, a master’s from Harvard and a Fulbright scholarship, which she used to study baroque art and architecture in Germany. One of her first jobs was drawing illustrations for the New Yorker.
Her watercolors have been used for two White House Christmas cards, and her paintings are in the collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and Brooklyn Museum and hang in U.S. embassies around the world.
MASS MoCA, the country’s largest contemporary art museum, after its recent expansion, and a taste-maker in contemporary art since it opened in 1999, challenged Prey, a landscape painter in the tradition of Andrew Wyeth, to make a large-scale painting showing the museum’s new home in a former mill complex before a renovation and expansion added 120,000 square feet. The museum wanted to document the mill while the patina of the peeling paint and unfinished wood floors were intact.
Prey gave them “MASS MoCA Building 6,” which preserves the former factory in its raw state, with dusty floors and red-brick walls. Unframed, the painting is 8-by-15 feet. Prey used three 8-by-5 sheets of paper. Framed, it’s a foot larger in each dimension and weighs about 300 pounds.
If there are bigger watercolor paintings out there, the museum can’t find them, said director Joe Thompson.
“We think it may well be (the largest), but it’s very hard to pin that down with any kind of certainty,” he said. “We can’t come up with any bigger, but I don’t know that was necessarily a goal, either. We talked about creating a watercolor that makes you feel like you are in the space that’s being depicted.”
Thompson suggested the project to Prey, because of his personal admiration of watercolorists who “achieve a frictionless ease” in their paintings, and he puts Prey at the top of his list. At a Berkshires cocktail party a few years ago, he challenged her to blow up the scale and try something really big. “I asked her almost as a coy joke, and she just sort of laughed. As is her way, she leapt at the challenge,” Thompson said.
She proposed an interior portrait of the building, drawing on her interest in architecture that began in college and has resurfaced throughout her career, including in a series of interiors of Maine meetinghouses that she did after Sept. 11.
As old New England mills are, the space is huge. The second floor, on which the painting is based, is more than an acre, with 400 columns and hundreds of windows. There are layers of paint and decades of grime. It was a textile mill and an electronic component plant before becoming a cultural destination.
The painting was unveiled when the new space opened in the spring and is hanging in the prowlike atrium of the new Robert W. Wilson Building, along with art by leading contemporary women artists Jenny Holzer, Louise Bourgeois and Laurie Anderson.
While the large-scale original will hang for up to three years in Massachusetts, Prey is showing a dozen pencil drawings and watercolor sketches of the MASS MoCA commission through Sept. 20 at her gallery in Port Clyde, along with the colorful, representational paintings of the Maine coast that have made her popular with presidents, actors and everyday Mainers. One of the paintings on view in Maine is her final study for the interior mill space, about 24-by-40 inches.
The horizontal painting shows the empty mill, floor to ceiling, looking between two rows of descending columns, which dwindle in size and create the perspective of a vast, open plain of space. Windows along the brick walls flood the surface with light. Her biggest challenge was keeping plumb the drawn lines of the windows and columns to achieve the perspective of looking through space.
Because of the fragility of watercolors, MASS MoCA is committing to a three-year exhibition, Thompson said, and even that duration might be risky given the light-filled nature of the space where it is mounted. “Barbara was very brave to allow us to show it where we are,” he said. “We will monitor it and see how it holds up from a conservation point of view.”
Prey, who has been painting more than four decades, witnessed the transformation of the mill from the time she was a student at Williams College in nearby Williamstown. She has stayed connected to the community as an adjust faculty member at Williams and by maintaining a studio in Williamstown.
It was there she did most of the work on the painting, because the proximity allowed her to travel between her studio and museum during the renovation to sketch, monitor the light and check other details of the space as it was being transformed. “It was disappearing as I was painting it,” she said.
Prey worked on the MASS MoCA project for about two years, though most of the first year was spent figuring out what she would do and how to do it. “The whole process is ground-breaking and sort of new,” she said. “There was not a model that I could follow or a prototype to look at. People have done large watercolors, but they say this is the largest.”
Her early research was technical – where to buy paper for a painting this large, what kind of paint to use, what kind of brushes. After sketching and drawing, she spent six to eight months painting, first at her studio on Long Island, New York, where she lives most of the year and returned to after leaving Maine last fall, and later in western Massachusetts, where she spent most of the winter and spring. She completed the painting in April.
To make a detailed painting so large, she treated it as a series of small paintings, concentrating on a section at a time. Because watercolors are unforgiving and dry quickly, she had to plan and test nearly every aspect of the painting ahead of time. She made several mistakes. She used a shade of red for her bricks that brought unexpected results. Early on, she represented the wood floor by drawing lines, and later changed her mind. And on her final day of painting – one of her final acts – she knocked over a jar of brushes and water, spilling both from her scaffolding onto a section of the paper’s finished surface, discoloring it and gouging it.
She was able to fix each of those errors – by quickly brushing out the offending red, spending three days erasing the lines on the floor and blotting the water and brush marks before they dried.
Prey has operated a gallery on the St. George peninsula every summer for most of 40 years, usually featuring her colorful, representational watercolors of the region’s shingled homes, rugged dories and stout spruce trees. With her work, she attempts to capture the evolving culture of Port Clyde and the surrounding fishing communities, by observing and recording. She does much the same with her painting at the mill.
Prey, 60, is thrilled be a part of the contemporary art conversation and hopes “MASS MoCA Building 6” elevates her stature from a successful watercolor painter to an influential one. Having one of her pieces on view alongside Jenny Holzer, Robert Rauschenberg and other heavyweights of contemporary art can only help, she said.
“This is what I am meant to be doing. You want to have your own voice, your own story and your own style, and this is a great opportunity to take watercolor in a new direction,” she said. “It contextualizes my work with a handful of very well-known, cutting-edge contemporary artists. To be included in that group is really exciting.”