For the artistic spirit, inspiration and materials can be found anywhere. And in the modern world, the art thus created can manifest itself in the most unexpected places and media. New Paltz’s Joan Barker has been making art all her life, in various forms – but she probably never imagined it would end up on a skateboard.
Since 2018, leading skateboard company HOPPS has been using Barker’s imagery to brighten the decks of its rolling products (as well as t-shirts and hoodies). Brooklyn-based artist/skateboarder/co-owner Jahmal Williams spotted his work and was mesmerized. The initial HOPPS series replicated some of Barker’s photographs of arrows painted on the pavement of streets and parking lots around the world. A second line, in 2019, was inspired by the artist’s capture of colorful patterns of oil slicks on road surfaces.
It’s easy to see the appeal of such images to people whose visual perspective is often directed towards the street as they practice their favorite sport. But the business relationship Barker and Williams forged before the onset of COVID-19 is moving away in a new, more abstract direction. In fact, its component of the HOPPS Fall/Winter collection is literally called the Abstract Series.
The images HOPPS is now bringing to the attention of avid skateboarders come from a long series of corrugated paintings that have occupied much of Barker’s time and creative energy during the pandemic. His process begins by cutting through the surface layer of large sheets of cardboard, peeling off sections to reveal the ridges underneath, then burning them. Using markers, pencils, inks, acrylics, pastels, charcoal, oil sticks, even scraps of yarn and thread, she builds a layer of color and texture on the aged cardboard substrate.
Sometimes the resulting images suggest humanoid figures or geometric patterns, sometimes a tree or a fish, but they usually appear unrepresentative – until the viewer reads the title of the work, such as so many stories, A Frayed America, buried history, Without weapons? Where Valid ID. “The challenges of the past two years have highlighted the importance of listening, reading, observing, participating and, for me, painting, as critiques in the search for understanding. Notions of our common humanity, our history, our difficulties and our impermanence are constantly recontextualized. My paintings are a response to the mental, physical and emotional challenges set in motion by the pandemic and political unrest,” she writes of her most recent works. “It takes a crisis to challenge the structure and norms of a society. Witnessing the collapse of our foundations is monumental. Restructuring is a necessary and enormous task. Art allows me to move memories, emotions, dreams and current events onto cardboard.
Barker has long grounded his work in a context informed by current events, global and national politics, the state of the environment, how harsh socio-economic realities play out on a human scale. His pieces included in the “Art & Social Justice” exhibition currently on view in the main gallery of the Woodstock Artists Association and Museum, for example, are reconstructions of graffitied sections of the Berlin Wall, as captured in his photographs taken in the Kreuzberg district: a neighborhood with a long history as a Jewish ghetto and later a home for Turkish immigrants, artists, the poor and the marginalized.
Barker made a habit of using photography to document the lives of urban outsiders as a young woman, beginning as a hobby while attending the Fashion Institute of Technology. Armed with her associate degree, she then became a photographer’s assistant, worked as a colorist at a local photo processing factory, got a job as a photographer at BOCES. When she saved enough money to take a year off, she embarked on a camping adventure in Canada and the West Coast, packing a Mamiya square format camera. “Travelling and living a free existence in nature has been an eye opener,” she writes.
Upon her return to the East, Barker lived and worked for a time in Connecticut, where she befriended Jeanne Steig, a sculptor and author of children’s books illustrated by her husband, New Yorker cartoonist William Steig, who won the Caldecott Medal for Sylvester and the magic pebble in 1970 and later created the ogre character on which the film Shrek was based. “We continued our salvage adventures finding treasures in junk heaps and discarded pieces on the streets. [Jeanne] created magical scenes from these remains while Bill drew characters whose body language and emotional state were conveyed through lines and splashes of color,” Barker writes of these early mentors. “They were two of the most insightful, influential and supportive people in my artistic creation endeavors.”
Back in New York City, haunting art museums, taking classes sporadically at the School of Visual Arts, The New School, and City College, and setting up darkrooms wherever she lived, Barker eventually found work that changed her life: as an archivist/office manager. for photojournalist Ken Heyman. As a youth, Heyman had worked in the field with anthropologist Margaret Mead and collaborated on a photo book with Lyndon B. Johnson, followed by a long career on assignments for Life, Time and See magazines.
“I learned to navigate and photograph strangers on the street through Ken’s mentorship,” recalls Barker. “I would often go for walks alone all over the city on the weekends to photograph people, always impressed to discover something new because I was looking, seeing and curious about how people felt and interacted… documentary photography captured my full attention.” The artists associated with the Rivington School on the Lower East Side were among his favorite subjects.
Also during this period, she says, “I traveled to the Maine Photographic Workshop Center to study with Mary Ellen Mark, Gilles Peres and Eugene Richards – all major influences on my vision and understanding.” All were also Magnum Photos veterans, which should give some insight into Barker’s social documentary approach.
But it was her association with Heyman – a photography assignment of urban children interacting with animals at the Fresh Air Fund camps in Dutchess County – that led her to move upstate and rediscovering the nature photography she had learned to love on that childhood camping trip. Housesitting in Tillson for friends of Heyman, she met their associate Dennis Moore, whom Barker ended up marrying.
Traveling first to the Hudson Valley in search of the final credits she needed for her undergraduate degree, Barker discovered another mentor: François Deschamps, who taught experimental photography at SUNY New Paltz. “I had never painted with photosensitive materials applied by hand before; the class was outstanding,” she wrote. “The environment at SUNY was supportive and I was encouraged to continue working toward an MFA degree.” In fact, Barker ended up teaching herself at SUNY New Paltz for 22 years, “primarily as an adjunct, but also full-time some semesters as faculty went on sabbaticals. During the summer I photographed for the Fresh Air Fund – and still do, after 30 years.
With easier access to nature in the upstate and inspired by the earthworks of Andy Goldsworthy Storm King’s Wall, Barker began experimenting with interpretive landscape photography using slow shutter speeds and a moving camera. “As in painting, gesture and movement inform the image. I also painted, but I kept this work for me, because I was known as a photographer.
His most recent Hudson Valley Winters uses assemblages of found materials – dried vines, moulted snake skins, fallen wood, as well as man-made objects such as mirrors – in natural settings: floating in the Kleinekill near her home, frozen in the outside in blocks of ice, or even set on fire. “My still life photographs recognize the unpredictable and fleeting nature of life,” she writes.
From early childhood, Barker was always engaged in painting, but it was mostly something she did for herself and kept to herself. It took the enforced loneliness of the pandemic to divert his artistic attention there and away from photography. Judging by the varied, skillful, and powerfully evocative results she now shares, one would never know that hadn’t been her primary medium all along. A selection of his paintings on cardboard debuted in a One Wall exhibition curated by Sevan Melikyan at the Wired Gallery in High Falls in August 2021. And now a whole new audience will be able to view his paintings on cardboard via the very unusual medium of skateboard decks, visible to https://hoppsskateboards.com.
“The collaboration between me and Jahmal and HOPPS has turned the events of 2020 and 2021 into art and art into skateboards that seem to have universal appeal,” says Barker. “The boards took the isolation we all felt and turned it into something that embodies joy, escape, and the energy for movement and change.”
To see more works by Joan Barker, visit www.jbarkerimages.com, www.facebook.com/joan.barker and www.instagram.com/joanbarkerart.