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His art pours out

Big, bold canvases laid thick with color, contrast and an urgency of purpose. Such is the work that defines prolific bay area artist Jack Barrett.

Published May 28, 2006

Jack Barrett, The Grand Temptation, undated, oil on canvas.

Jack Barrett, Longueuilin, undated, oil on canvas.

Jack Barrett, 76, in his studio at Salt Creek, is the subject of a large exhibition in the galleries there.  
[Times photo: Bob Croslin]


Jack Barrett is one of the few artists I can't be objective about. I have known him too long, liked him too much and own one of his paintings.

That disclaimer made, I can say with a clear conscience that a major exhibition of his works at Galleries at Salt Creek is one of the most visually satisfying experiences I have had in a long time.

Barrett, 76, was an illustrator at the St. Petersburg Times for about 20 years, retiring in 1990, several years before I began working for the newspaper.

That's when he began painting in earnest, the canvases flowing from his studio at a herculean clip. Most of the 47 works in this show are from those "retirement" years. Some were finished only a few weeks ago.

What they all share is an exuberant, lyrical love of color. Even black looks bright.

We see the roll call of recurring images: jesters, clowns, doves; the mysterious tangles of people; the bold fields of color that isolate or contain the figures. But just when you think you have him pegged, he breaks out another trick from his immense stylistic bag and you stop thinking of Matisse or Chagall and begin considering Schiele. Or De Kooning. Or any number of other artists whose influence might flicker through but never dominate Barrett's unique vision and visual vocabulary.

Barrett calls these references "my baggage."

"But I would never steal the soul of another artist," he says. "I once stopped doing a series I was working on because I felt like I was beginning to copy Milton Avery instead of just being influenced by him."

A surprising number of landscapes are on view, some abstracted, those done recently more realistic. And smaller than his typical canvases. He was recently bedridden, unable to stand, so his wife, Louise, brought him scaled-down canvases he could hold in his lap. They have an uncharacteristic realism that Barrett saves from vapid prettiness with thick swirls of color that subvert the scenic-vista tradition.

Barrett is an intuitive painter who says he has trouble sleeping at night for "thinking about color and movement."

But he's a draftsman at heart, filling hundreds of sketchbooks with drawings, mostly of people he observes in cafes, stores, and, more recently, doctors' waiting rooms.

He met Louise Barrett, his wife of 22 years, when he

noticed her and sketched her face on a restaurant napkin.

"I still have that napkin," she says.

"Drawing is where you show your soul," he says.

He has been drawing ever since he could hold a crayon.

"I grew up in Pittsburgh and had an elder aunt," Barrett says. "She was very cultivated, had a piano and painted. I spent weekends with her drawing and painting. She really turned me on to art. I would take the streetcar to the Carnegie Museum to look at the art and then I took Saturday classes at Carnegie-Mellon."

His father disapproved of his desire to become a professional artist so he took the path of least resistance and joined the Marines.

He was wounded and left for dead on a Korean battlefield but survived after an emergency operation without anesthetic. He went to art school on the GI Bill and found work as an illustrator. He flirted briefly with acting, appearing as a ghoul in the 1968 George Romero movie Night of the Living Dead.

He came to Florida in 1969, hired by the St. Petersburg Times. After doing an illustration for a story about the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus that was in town, the circus asked to buy it.

"I told them I'd let them have it if I could spend two days learning to be a clown," he says. "That was the beginning of my interest in the clown image, which evolved over the years to other things."

His frequent use of birds came about because his father gave him a rifle as a boy.

"We went to the woods and I shot a bird. I thought, 'How senseless.' I still think about that bird," he says.

But most of his inspiration comes from the sketch books, where he'll find a face or pose that engages him. Then he just starts painting.

He rarely dates his work and often doesn't recall painting them. He can't explain a cryptic title, saying "it was just something that came to me at the time I was painting the picture."

His paintings are owned by hundreds of collectors, many from the Tampa Bay area, but most in this exhibition came from his own cache. He brought about 100 to curator Lance Rodgers who culled them down by half. The others, Rodgers says, were just as worthy of inclusion. Rodgers stacked them on the floor of a smaller gallery so visitors can look through them, too.

Barrett says he learns something new with each painting and could paint "for 50 more years and still learn new things."

But he's ailing from serious cardiac hypertension and says this will be his last show. Until someone suggests an exhibition of his notebooks, perhaps paired with the paintings.

"Oh," Barrett says. "Maybe one more show."

Lennie Bennett can be reached at (727) 893-8293 or


"Jack Barrett: Beyond All Boundaries" is at Galleries at Salt Creek, 1600 Fourth St. S, St. Petersburg, through June 17. Hours are 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Free admission. 727 894-2653.

[Last modified May 26, 2006, 10:18:20]

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