To the artistic mind, inspiration and materials can be found anywhere. And in the modern world, art so created can manifest in the most unexpected places and media. Joan Barker of New Paltz has been making art all her life, in various forms – but she probably never imagined it ending up rendered on a skateboard.
Beginning in 2018, a leading skateboard company, HOPPS, has been using Barker’s images to jazz up the decks of its rolling products (and tees and hoodies as well). Brooklyn-based artist/skateboarder/company co-owner Jahmal Williams spotted her work and was entranced. The initial HOPPS series reproduced 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 capturing of colorful oil-slick patterns on road surfaces.
It’s easy to see the appeal of such images to people whose visual perspective is often directed down towards the street as they practice their favored sport. But the business relationship that Barker and Williams forged before the onset of COVID-19 is zooming off in a new, more abstract direction. In fact, her component of HOPPS’ Fall/Winter Collection is literally called the Abstract Series.
The images that HOPPS is now bringing to the attention of avid skateboarders come from an extended series of paintings on corrugated cardboard that have occupied much of Barker’s time and creative energy during the pandemic. Her process begins with slashing through the surface layer of large cardboard sheets, peeling sections of it back to reveal the ridges underneath and then scorching them. Using markers, pencils, inks, acrylics, pastels, charcoal, oil sticks, even bits of thread and wire, she builds up a layer of colors and textures atop the distressed cardboard substrate.
Sometimes the resulting images suggest humanoid figures or geometric patterns, occasionally a tree or a fish, but they generally seem nonrepresentational – until the viewer reads the title of the work, such as So Many Stories, A Frayed America, Buried History, Unarmed? or Valid ID. “The challenges of the last two years have emphasized the importance of listening, reading, observing, participating and, for me, painting, as critical in the search for understanding. Notions of our shared humanity, history, predicaments and impermanence are relentlessly recontextualized. My paintings are a response to the mental, physical and emotional challenges set in motion by the pandemic and political turmoil,” she writes of her most recent artwork. “It takes a crisis to question the structure and norms of a society. To witness the crumbling 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 her work in a context informed by current events, global and national politics, the state of the environment, how harsh socioeconomic realities manifest on a human scale. Her pieces included in the “Art & Social Justice” exhibition currently on view in the Main Gallery at the Woodstock Artists Association and Museum, for example, are reconstructions of graffitied sections of the Berlin Wall, as captured in her 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 disenfranchised.
Barker got into the habit of using photography to document the lives of urban outsiders as a young woman, starting as a hobby when she was attending the Fashion Institute of Technology. Armed with her Associate’s degree, she then became a photographer’s assistant, worked as a color-checker in a local photo processing factory, got a photography gig with BOCES. When she’d saved up enough money to take a year off, she headed out on a camping adventure to Canada and the West Coast, packing a Mamiya square-format camera. “Traveling and living a spare existence in nature was a revelation,” she writes.
When she got back East, Barker lived and worked in Connecticut for a while, where she became close friends with 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 went on to create the ogre character on whom the movie Shrek was based. “We went on scavenging adventures finding treasures in junkpiles and discarded bits on the street. [Jeanne] made magical scenes out of these scraps while Bill drew characters whose body language and emotional state were conveyed in lines and dabs of color,” writes Barker of these early mentors. “They were two of the most insightful, influential and supportive people in my artmaking efforts.”
Moving back into 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 a gig that changed her life: as archivist/office manager for photojournalist Ken Heyman. In his youth, Heyman had worked in the field with anthropologist Margaret Mead and collaborated on a photo book with Lyndon B. Johnson, followed by a lengthy career on assignments for Life, Time and Look magazines.
“I learned to navigate and photograph strangers on the street with Ken’s mentoring,” Barker recalls. “I often went walking all over the City by myself on weekends photographing people, always in awe as I discovered something new because I was looking, seeing and curious about how people were feeling and interacting… Documentary photography had captured my full attention.” Artists associated with the Rivington School on the Lower East Side were among her favorite subjects.
Also during this period, she says, “I traveled to the Maine Photographic Workshop Center studying with Mary Ellen Mark, Gilles Peres and Eugene Richards – all major influences on my seeing and understanding.” All were also Magnum Photos veterans, which should yield some insight into Barker’s social documentary approach.
But it was her association with Heyman – an assignment photographing urban kids interacting with animals at Fresh Air Fund camps in Dutchess County – that led her to relocate upstate and rediscover the nature photography that she had learned to love during that youthful camping trip. Housesitting in Tillson for friends of Heyman, she met their associate Dennis Moore, whom Barker eventually ended up marrying.
Commuting at first to the Hudson Valley in quest of the final credits she needed for her undergraduate degree, Barker discovered another mentor: Francois Deschamps, who taught Experimental Photography at SUNY New Paltz. “I had never painted with light-sensitive hand- applied materials before; the class was remarkable,” she writes. “The environment at SUNY was supportive, and I was encouraged to continue working toward an MFA degree.” In fact, Barker ended up teaching at SUNY New Paltz herself for 22 years, “mostly as an adjunct, but also filling in full time some semesters as professors went on sabbatical. During the summer I would photograph for the Fresh Air Fund – and still do, after 30 years.”
With easier access to nature upstate, and inspired by Andy Goldsworthy’s earthwork Storm King Wall, Barker began experimenting with interpretive landscape photography using slow shutter speeds and a moving camera. “As in painting, gesture and movement informed the image. I was also painting, but kept that work to myself, as I was known as a photographer.”
Her more recent Hudson Valley Winters series uses assemblages of found materials – dried vines, molted snakeskins, shed antlers, as well as human-made objects such as mirrors – in natural settings: afloat in the Kleinekill near her home, frozen outdoors in blocks of ice, even set on fire. “My still-life photographs acknowledge the unpredictable, ephemeral nature of life,” she writes.
Since early childhood, Barker had always been engaged in painting, but it was mainly a thing she did for herself and kept private. It took the enforced solitude of the pandemic to turn her artistic focus there and away from photography. Judging by the varied, skillful, powerfully evocative results she’s sharing now, one would never know that it hadn’t been her primary medium all along. A selection of her cardboard paintings debuted in a One Wall show curated by Sevan Melikyan at the Wired Gallery in High Falls in August 2021. And now a whole new audience will get to see her cardboard paintings via the highly unusual medium of skateboard decks, viewable at https://hoppsskateboards.com.
“The collaboration between me and Jahmal and HOPPS resulted in turning the events of 2020 and 2021 into art and art into skateboards that seem to have a universal appeal,” says Barker. “The boards have taken the isolation we all felt and turned it into something that embodies joy, escape and energy for movement and change.”