Barbara Masterson, who lives on a farm at the top of a small mountain in the southern Ulster hamlet of Milton, had always painted landscapes. But one day in May 2015, when she was out painting on a neighboring farm in Marlborough, some migrant workers wandered into the scene and her subject began to change. “I just painted them in quickly,” she said. “It was kismet. I was just innocently painting and they just kind of appeared.”
From then on, “the more they came into view, the more I planned my day into painting them.” Eventually, the figures became more than “great shapes and colors” as she got to know the workers and learned their stories. Her paintings got bigger, the figures more dominant, until, starting in the summer of 2016, she was mostly taking photographs of the workers, which she used as the basis for large portraits painted in her studio.
That transformation is currently on display at “People in the Fields,” an exhibition of Masterson’s paintings at Seven21 Media Center, located at the top of Broadway, in Kingston. Masterson casts a light on people most of us never see, yet who are integral to the harvest of the food we eat. Her depictions of these migrant workers stooped or kneeling in the fields or striding across the land carrying wood or produce boxes as well as the portraits that humanize each as an individual resonate particularly at this historic moment, as President Trump prohibits certain immigrant groups from the U.S. and pledges to build his wall along the Mexican border.
Hung along the downstairs hallways are Masterson’s small, roughly painted oil landscapes, in which the colorful stooping figures form a rhythmic motif integrated into the rough-textured green and yellow fields. Also on display are her gouaches, which depict the workers, faces hidden from view, as they pick peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, kale and other crops. Farther down the hallway and up on the second floor, the paintings, all oils, become larger, emphasizing the figures. Three men wearing caps, loose shirts and jackets and jeans pick pumpkins. A lone figure, pants rolled up over his boots, carries two stakes of wood. A group of women in the back of a pickup truck look up and smile.
She is expert at capturing moments in these people’s lives: a worker, his head wrapped in a pale orange cloth, grins as he rolls up the sleeve of a shirt, while another strides across a field hoisting wood and yet another rests a mallet on his shoulder.
Masterson, who always gets permission from the owner of the farm to paint on the property as well as the workers themselves before photographing them, said initially she painted on a farm with predominately Latino people, who she communicated with using her rudimentary Spanish. Last summer she began painting on another farm whose workers were mostly from Jamaica, and the connection clicked. Eventually she focused on mainly taking photographs, which enabled her to have more of a dialogue with the workers. “When I’m out there photographing I’m interacting with them more. The more I talk to them the easier it gets for me and them,” she said, noting that “maybe the word is getting around” since often when she approaches a new group of workers they seem to know who she is.
“These fellows are so hard-working,” she added. “I never see them unhappy. They don’t grumble, and I’m very conscious about not interfering with what they have to do because I don’t want to get them in trouble. I don’t want to paint an overly rosy picture, but I’ve never heard anyone complain. Sometimes they’re singing.”
One of the most striking works in the show consists of a portrait of two Jamaican men hanging against the orange wall in the stairwell. They are smiling, looking directly at the viewer, and both are wearing blue caps and jeans with frayed knees and carrying machetes. Their bright red, orange and light and deep blue clothing harmonizes with the red fall foliage and russet grass in the background. The two nearly full-sized figures fill the canvas and emit a sense of rough outdoor physicality as well as shy friendliness and geniality.
The man on the left is named Whyte, and he was one of the workers who accompanied Masterson to her show of paintings at The Falcon, in Marlboro, last fall. After noticing how delighted the workers were when she showed them photos of her paintings of them on her phone, one day she drove up to the barracks and invited Whyte and two other workers to accompany her to the exhibit. Music was playing as they walked inside and sat down. “It warmed my heart,” she said. “The band recognized me, people clapped, then the band recognized who was with me and the fellows stood up and were just beaming.” She said many of the workers, who are phased in depending on the season, will return starting at the end of March, with some staying until the end of November.
“I love painting them,” she said, noting that Whyte and another one of her subjects, a worker named Kingsley, call her occasionally from Jamaica. “I’m kind of honoring them.”
Currently she’s working on a painting showing a man standing on a ladder trimming the apple trees. “The only thing you can see is his eyes,” she said, noting the man’s face is wrapped in a scarf for protection against the cold. All the people in the fields are men, although she’s observed women washing produce and working in the packinghouse, which she hopes to paint in the future.
The men represent a range of ages, and some have been coming to the area for several years. Machetes are used to cut down the weeds growing around the apple trees as well as sharpen one end of a wooden post to a point so it can be driven into the ground and used to stake tomatoes.
Masterson grew up in Cornwall, studied at Elizabeth Seton College in Yonkers and obtained an MFA from SUNY New Paltz before working as an art teacher, teaching advanced painting and drawing at Newburgh Free Academy. In 2014 she retired after 25 years. With her partner, Lynn Faurie, she raises pasture-grazing cattle and pigs on their farm, which is certified organic. (Faurie inherited the farm from her family, and Masterson’s son, grandchildren and other family members also live on the property. They sell the beef, pork, and eggs directly from the farm.)
Masterson, who sold 12 works at her Falcon show, is donating 10 percent of the proceeds from the sale of any work in the current show to the Worker Justice Center of New York, which has a location in Kingston and provides legal services to workers and otherwise advocates for workers’ rights (at the Falcon show, she donated proceeds to the Rural Migrant Ministry).
“I love these people who are working so hard, and I want them to be noticed,” she said. “People just have to realize the food has to be harvested.”
“People in the Fields” is on display until March 30. The opening to the exhibition is this Friday, Feb. 3, from 5 to 7. On April 1, another solo show of Masterson’s paintings of farm workers will open at the Woodstock Artists’ Association, in Woodstock.