Photographs by Jim Graham
It’s a Monday morning in early October—still warm but spitting rain from time to time. Throwing some final items into a travel bag, Timothy Barr is awaiting pickup by a friend at his hillside artist’s studio and home in Schuylkill Haven, Pa., a hamlet several miles north of Reading. The two will drive to Cape Cod, Mass., then catch a ferry to the island of Nantucket.
Barr is a solidly built man of 61 with close-cropped hair. His friendly face still bears a few scars from the time several years ago when his motorcycle began to disintegrate beneath him as he tried to take it to 165 mph on a lonely road late at night. As we talk, two cats wander in and out, curious about this interloper in their territory. Barr’s wife of 34 years, Karen, is reading in the next room. “She’s the love of my life,” he says, relating how the two had gone to school together barely knowing each other, then connected one evening at a local bar. “Every Friday, we have a critique session at dinner of my paintings in process. She’s a very good bellwether.”
A commission of a rolling landscape with pumpkins in the foreground hangs above his computer screen. It will be varnished after he returns from New England. “I’ll have to tell the story behind that later,” says Barr as he zips his bag closed.
The voyage to Nantucket is for another commission—this one for a couple whose large home faces west on the Atlantic. They want to permanently capture their sunset. Barr won’t be carrying any paints or sketchpads with him. A Canon EOS 5D Mark II serves as his guide. Although Barr will be taking dozens of photos of the sun falling into the ocean, his stock in trade is pictures of trees, mountains, fields, crops, and old farmhouses and out buildings. Really, it’s whatever catches his eye—tens of thousands of photos, which he spends weeks perusing for ideas. He searches for the anchor image, then for another and another, so he can assemble a composite that makes whole a landscape that exists only his imagination. Call it fictional realism.
Barr may work like this in his studio for two or three months before he pulls out his brushes and boards or panels (no canvasses) and begins painting the first of a series of works that will make up his next biennial show. “I need to sell 10 to 15 a year to make a living,” he estimates.
A true testament to this so-called fictional realism is witnessing puzzled viewers of Barr’s paintings as they try to figure out where they’ve seen the landscape before. Although very much a painter, Barr thinks like a writer of short stories or essays, borrowing from here and there to piece together a tale or an argument. “I compose on the computer,” he says.
Barr isn’t the only one who uses this technique. But it’s difficult to find anyone as dedicated to it—or as good at it. Later on, he asked why he didn’t try his hand at writing. “If I wanted to do that, it would take another lifetime to get where I wanted,” he says with a grin.
Born in 1957, Timothy Barr grew up in nearby Hamburg, Pa., and has never strayed far from the region. He calls its rural remoteness “a desert, an Appalachia for artists.” Barr’s mother, a painter, was his first teacher. His formal training came at the Tyler School of Art and Architecture at Temple University in Philadelphia, where he received his bachelor‘s degree in fine arts. Temple was not an entirely pleasant experience. “During the first week of college, they told me, ‘We can see the Wyeth in your work, and we want to get that out of you,’” recalls Barr. Andrew Wyeth was indeed one of his inspirations. But during the 1970s, Wyeth had become a pariah in the academic art community. “They beat the plein air out of me,” Barr says.
Well-known American realist John Moore was Barr’s teacher during his final semester, and the two did not share the same aesthetic eye. “Moore saw that I was frustrated, and he said, ‘You have to see Rackstraw Downes,’” says Barr.
The English super-realist painter and author was more in Barr’s league, and he emerged from college with the 19th-century Luminist and Barbizon labels. Both descriptions are OK with him, as he loves detail and luminosity. “It’s the Dutch in me,” he says, noting that a board better allows him to add layers of glaze to create a glow.
For 11 years, Barr “designed sprinklers,” struggling to balance his painting with a day job as a mechanical engineer. By the late ’80s, “realism was coming back, and I decided to become a full-time painter,” he says. After three years of work, Barr assembled 40 paintings for a show at the now-defunct Golden Door Gallery in New Hope, Pa. “The show was pretty successful,” he says. By the turn of the century, he was showing at Newman Galleries in Saint Peters, Pa., before the bottom briefly fell out of the art market after 9/11. “That was the only year I didn’t make any money,” he says. Barr has been at Somerville Manning Gallery in Greenville, Del., since 2004, assembling a one-man exhibit there every two years. The next one is coming in September 2020. At last year’s Somerville Manning show, most of Barr’s paintings sold for well into five figures. “Tim is very professional,” says gallery owner Vickie Manning. “He takes what he does very seriously and works very hard at it.”
It’s been three months since my pre-Nantucket visit to Barr’s studio, and we’re now chatting over coffee at Centreville Cafe in Delaware. He’s in town to deliver the pumpkin painting I’d seen hanging unfinished over his computer. He’s also planning to shoot some scenic photography and pay a visit to Somerville Manning.
Barr reaches across the table and begins working on a blank page in my notepad, trying to illustrate how three paintings might large beech tree with squiggles under it—green moss and a redheaded woodpecker. “That’s the idea for the painting, but I have three different backgrounds in mind,” he says, sketching three ideas: a row of trees “like prison bars,” fog and a cliff. “They may represent three different paintings. I won’t know until I start.”
Barr took many photos on Nantucket, which he’s been going through in the weeks since. “I’ve gotten a good, solid 50 ideas in the last three months to add to the ones left over from the last time,” he says, sounding a bit overwhelmed. “Once an idea is complete, the painting may take five months, perhaps needing redesign—or I’ll think of something else.” He smiles. “You can’t ask for anything better.”
We arrive at Somerville Manning just as manager Rebecca Moore is opening for the day. Barr carts in the cardboard box containing his latest work. As he pulls it out, Moore laughs. “Aw, the pumpkins are back.” At a gallery show a few years back, a pumpkins-in-the-foreground painting didn’t sell. Barr liked the composition, so he painted the pumpkins out of the flowing landscape. When he brought the repurposed work back for his show two years ago, the late Frolic Weymouth—himself an accomplished artist—asked, “What happened to the pumpkins? I liked the pumpkins.” So did a friend of Wyeth’s, a local collector who had some of Barr’s works. So he agreed to make her a third painting—the one now leaning against Somerville Manning’s wall.
After a few minutes, the painting is re-packed for delivery later in the day, and Barr asks, “Are you ready to go see the tree?”
Barr has been obsessed for decades by a huge sycamore he first saw in an N.C. Wyeth painting at the Reading Museum and subsequently spied in some of Andrew Wyeth’s works. “I said, ‘I gotta find that tree,’” he says. And he did. Since then, he’s used it as a focal point in many of his paintings. The tree overlooks bustling Route 1 on the grounds of Lafayette’s Headquarters, the old Gideon Gilpin House, in Brandywine Battlefield Park. Barr’s 2017 painting “Lafayette’s Headquarters, Full Moon” is currently for sale online for $33,000.
We park at the battlefield’s headquarters and set out across a grassy knoll toward the farmhouse. From our approach, the huge tree is hidden until we’re about 50 yards away. “Isn’t it a monster?” poses a beaming Barr as we round a corner. “It has such … symmetry.” The huge mottled sycamore is more than 350 years old, its giant limbs branching out at all angles like Medusa’s hair. Barr begins snapping photos. “I’m coming back later this afternoon with a friend and a ladder,” he says. “I want him to take my picture sitting on that first limb.”
The next day, my email inbox is full of renderings of the iconic sycamore painted by Barr and the Wyeths. There’s also a photo of Barr perched on its lowest branch, looking like a delighted schoolboy.