Loel Barr’s first reaction when Robert Langdon of Saugerties’ Emerge Gallery asked her if she’d like to do an exhibition that covers all of her various styles of work was something akin to horror.
Look to Barr’s website and one can see why. It’s split into two, for starters. Half is dedicated to her longstanding career as a professional illustrator. She created drawings for kids’ works, as well as for top publications, including a long stint as a staff artist at USA Today.
The other half follows the many avenues the fine artist has explored since getting her MFA in printmaking, drawing and painting back in Kansas, where she grew up dreaming up other worlds she could escape to, like some modern-day Dorothy Gale. There are paintings, almost-realistic drawings, collages, assemblages, and pieces that mix media in a variety of innovative ways.
“I just let Robert choose what he wanted,” Barr said. Some 45 Barr pieces will adorn Emerge’s walls for the month beginning this Saturday, February 3, in a show entitled “Playing in the Dark.”
“There will also be large portfolios of other works, including the illustrations,” said barr. “Seeing it all together I was able to step back and say to myself, Yes, this is all by the same person.”
After years of being told that her work lacked consistency, the sort of singular look that many successful artists strive for and then get trapped within, Barr was pleased by the showing of her versatility.
Growing up in a flat world where her father ended up teaching physics in a small college she eventually attended, Loel Barr entered her many worlds of art. She recalls years spent staring at a once-popular image on her wall, “The Land of Make Believe,” into which she’d travel as an escape from banal surroundings.
She recalls upsetting a third grade schoolteacher by adding her own element to a drawn depiction of a summer picnic — a dog running off with a human hand. She also remembers being terrified by feathers, even singly, getting loose from a pillow. It’s something she’s thinking she might now have to explore in her art.
“I’ve always been a very, very active dreamer,” Barr says. It’s what holds all her art and illustration in various media together. “Just this morning I was chasing little pigs in a garden ….”
Early influences, beyond the Land of Make Believe included Edward Gorey and Charles Addams. Later, she found a kindred spirit in the dream-logic films of David Lynch.
Somehow, Barr’s works aren’t dark, even though they include dark elements. They’re playful. They feel fuller because of the odd elements she’s not afraid to include, without deep explanation or meaning.
“First and foremost I love materials, which is what I start my pieces playing with,” she explained. “I love exploring new things. And I keep hoping I find something that’s like the perfect tool of expression for me .… But am happy, too, if I don’t.”
Barr sees play as having been central to her life all along. It was there in her travels overseas when newly married, a stint in New Zealand, and her eventual move to the D.C. area, where she thrived as an illustrator while also raising a family. And it was there in her decision to eventually move to the Hudson Valley after exploring it while her daughter went to Bard. She liked the mix of people she met, the cultural climate, the bumpy, not-flat terrain.
“I’ve given up on ever becoming a grownup,” she said in her artist’s statement. “I still believe in fairy tales. I stare — out of plane windows, at bugs and sidewalks. Can’t stop looking at people, on the streets, in restaurants, where it annoys my companions who think I’m ignoring them — I’m still listening …. I have hundreds of old sketchbooks which transport me to places and times far better than any photograph could. I have a colorful and often bizarre dream life and a painfully vivid imagination. I’ve enjoyed and endured cheap travel in exotic places, and now I’m happy remembering Arabia, Africa, Afghanistan, Turkey, Penang. Their textures show up in my work. I’m interested in more things than I’m not.”
Despite the way some elements pull her, Barr has always maintained balance within her art, and life, by not going too far. “I don’t let it all out,” she said, noting how she’s had to draw for children and a general populace, and also raise kids of her own. “I guess it’s all ultimately about coming out of that flatness that is Kansas.”
Playing in the Dark, an exhibition of works by Loel Barr, runs from February 3 to 26 at Emerge Gallery, 228 Main Street in Saugerties, with a reception on Saturday, February 3 from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. For information call 247-7515, or visit www.loel barr.com.