Painter's focus shifting to Chesapeake's towns

Bayside: Famous maritime artist John M. Barber, known for paintings of the Bay, is letting his brush describe some of the settlements along its shores.

May 27, 1999|By TaNoah Morgan | TaNoah Morgan,SUN STAFF

John M. Barber has spent two decades trying to capture the endangered life of the Chesapeake Bay in short brush strokes and shades of blue.

Now, in something of a departure, the maritime artist is starting to take a look at the towns nourished by the bay's existence.

His most recent work, "Annapolis Evening" will go on sale next month at Annapolis Maritime Art Gallery. The 18- by 28-foot oil with brooding, cloudy, nighttime skies, takes in a view of Main Street, the Maryland Inn, St. Anne's Episcopal Church and the State House dome from Church Circle in early spring.

During the past two decades, Barber has seen nearly every inch of the bay's shoreline and shared much of his vision with the world through his artwork.

In Barber's eyes, the Chesapeake Bay is filled with sailboats gliding over heavy waters under full, dramatically curved sails, watermen going about their nearly extinct way of life, steamboats lapping brackish waves and filling the sky with smoke, and aged lighthouses awash in sunshine.

Barber said he hasn't really given up the bay as a focus of his work, but sales of his maritime works have slowed and he wants to travel more -- including to Martha's Vineyard and Alaska -- and to continue to paint what he sees.

"Now I have two balls in the air," he said. "The bigger ball is the bay. I really do care a lot about that."

Through the years, Barber has become a scholar of the East Coast bay waters that stretch from Maryland to Virginia. He spends hours researching old maps and drawings for historical context and spends days walking the streets or sailing around points to get the right perspective.

"He has a love for the bay and that obviously shows in his painting," said Mary Todd Winchester, a vice president for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, of which Barber was a board member from 1987 until last year. The artist's four posters and an exclusive print earned the foundation more than $300,000.

Although his Chesapeake Bay works have been popular -- he's sold about 85,000 prints featuring the bay -- Barber said sales have slowed on his maritime pieces. Two years ago, he turned to waterfront towns, starting with Richmond, Va., where he lives with his wife and where his shop, the Barber Gallery, is located. He made four paintings of popular settings there.

Last year, the White House Historical Association commissioned him to paint the president's home to celebrate its 200th anniversary. A print of the painting will be featured in the 2000 calendar.

Next he turned to Annapolis. The city shoreline has been featured twice before as part of his marine works, but this latest piece is the first time an Annapolis street was the subject of his work. He said he will not do a series here as he has done in Richmond.

"I've considered other locations, other cities around the country," he said.

For "Annapolis Evening," which he completed last month, Barber said he spent about three months searching for the right view, sketching, taking photographs and finally painting the piece -- the latter a three-week task. Although he strives for accuracy, painting the sun in the east instead of the north, keeping boats that need 6 feet of water out of areas watermen would recognize as shallow pools, he does allow himself some creative license.

In order to capture a bit of the bay in "Annapolis Evening," he straightened Main Street to include a glimpse of City Dock and a sailboat at full mast at the end of the street. The trees in the painting aren't the ones planted at Church Circle, which would have covered the State House dome, and instead of the blacktop that covers Church Circle, Barber extended the brick pavement along Main Street.

"I'm just helping the city planners a little bit," he joked. "This is my suggestion of what they should do and I'm showing them what it would look like."

Annapolis Evening goes on sale June 14 at Annapolis Marine Art Gallery, 110 Dock St., Prints are $130 and remarqued prints are $325.

Pub Date: 5/27/99

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