Joy Barth says she’s addicted to anything that has to do with water: rain, sailing, sailing in the rain.
Since 1980 she has sailed all over the country and even to Turkey with the Princeton Ski Club. Of that trip she recalls the rain streaming down, the vessel listing, and the captain going below to turn on Beethoven. “The crashing music and the waves — I have never had such a wonderful experience,” she recounts. These days Barth sails on calmer seas with her middle-aged son in San Francisco Bay.
Even when she’s painting, water is part of the process. Barth throws water at the painting, then hoses it off. “I can’t work without it being wet,” says the Ewing resident. An exhibit of her paintings and works on paper, “Passages,” will be on view at the gallery at Chapin School, starting Monday, November 3, and continuing through Friday, December 12. The opening reception is Wednesday, November 5.
A member of the Princeton Artists Alliance, and one of the Trenton Artist Workshop Association’s delegation to the Soviet Union in 1989, Barth, who also writes poetry, says “Now I’m the wind instead of having the wind outside myself — I make the movement.” She says she prefers not to choose content, but allows herself to submit to the work instead. “The choice of material or technique, the use of collage, sand, relief surfaces, and pouring are simply means to an end, a spontaneous response to the work in progress.” The works are a meditation on the moment they happen.
If it all sounds very Zen, Barth was once a lecturer on art as Zen at Brooklyn College. As director of the art department at the Titusville Academy, she worked for 30 years with a special needs population, and though she wasn’t trained as an art therapist, nor was it her title, art therapy is what she did.
She does not believe in doctoring work to make it perfect. “Being in the moment, taking what’s inside of you, and putting it out, you can’t doctor that. It’s very liberating to express yourself that way.”
Her day begins with writing in her journal, drawing, watching backyard birds, and writing poetry — it is purely for personal expression, and she hasn’t published it. It’s all part of her process of taking something from inside and putting it outside. When she gets into her studio, it’s all about experiencing pleasure — and the text finds its way to her canvas. She may use an old drawer with partitions to print from, then collage on top, scrub it off. “I don’t have a standard way of doing this,” she says. “I may have a plan but then go in a different direction.”
A year and a half ago, Barth lost her daughter, Becky, 44, to “complications of alcoholism.” There had been no warning.
Barth says that with all she learned during her years of helping others, she is now doing her own art therapy. “That’s what a lot of this work is. My daughter has given me this gift, and I’ve learned a lot. I’m stepping out of this place where I had to purge something — these works have a brightness.” Indeed they are bright with white — Barth says she loves white. Even the frames are white.
“Each of us has an inner warrior,” says Barth. “In religion we look outside to a god that saves us. I’m more interested in the Buddhist idea of finding god within, and that’s what I’m doing in my therapy.”
One work in “Passages” is a letter to her daughter. Being able to read it is the least important thing, she says. “I went through it like writing to my daughter about selfhood and finding your path. Each day you have a passage from where you are now,” she says, explaining the show’s title. “The present is moving. Sometimes I think I’ve had about seven different lives. There are doors that may be closed, and we open them and say, ‘Here I am.’”
The “letter,” printed through a large screen and hung like a scroll from a bamboo rod, is in different shades of off white. “This is Becky, the essence that comes out of her. For three hours I just wrote on canvas, instead of in my journal, the letters on top of each other. It doesn’t show up well — I look at the shapes between the overlapping letters, and the forms they make. I sat there with a spray bottle of water, diluted paint, and layered it in.” It looks like things growing, like plants. Some words can still be deciphered: “away.”
As part of her therapy, Barth says, she wrote herself an instruction manual on “how to get where I need to be. Sometimes it’s words, other times it’s an acknowledgment of where I am that day, and where I want to go. It does take time, but my days are much better when I do it — it centers me. I get too excited about seasons, too many ideas, and need to settle myself.”
Barth grew up in Pittsburgh. Her father, a draftsman, drew and sculpted things like a carved stalk on a rifle he used for deer hunting. Barth was always interested in his tools, but her father discouraged that interest, just as he discouraged her mother from working outside the home. When her father died, she went through his workbench and found her favorite of his tools, a file, with a note tied to it: “For Joy.”
From watching her father control her mother, Barth was determined that no one would ever stop her from doing what she wanted. “I was always bucking my father’s ideas, climbing hills and getting on boats,” she says. “There were lots of rivers and lakes and wild hills, though no ocean.” With her brother Barth kayaked, canoed, and went white water rafting. “I had a strong upper body, but in college I crushed a vertebra in a car accident. I didn’t let it stop me — I pushed myself because I wanted to get everything in.”
As a child, Barth’s first love was music. She studied piano, guitar, and flute. Her piano lessons were in a turreted convent, taught by a nun who told her to go home and tell her mother she was wasting her money, that Joy had no talent. “I thought she was crazy and missing the point, which was enjoying the music.”
So with encouragement from her mother, Joy knocked on the door of the pianist from the Pittsburgh Symphony and subsequently took lessons.
“Do we get our stubborn streak genetically, or does it evolve from childhood determination?” she pontificates. “As a teacher, I think how we’re affected by the environment, by people who suppress us. Why do some thrive, and others don’t?”
Barth earned a bachelor’s degree in art education from Indiana University of Pennsylvania in 1959 and took graduate courses in fine arts at Carnegie Mellon, then later at Rutgers.
She raised her children in Pittsburgh, and then the family moved to Belle Mead when Barth’s ex-husband started a software company in Princeton in the early 1970s. In Pittsburgh Barth painted in watercolor, but became more expressionist in New Jersey. “The ’80s were a great time in this area: there was no end to exhibits, and I sold so much.” She gradually became an abstract painter.
After retiring from the Titusville Academy in 2010, Barth thought she would devote herself to art full time but realized she missed teaching so she works one day a week at Children’s Day School, also with special needs students.
From her work getting children to show their emotions, Barth has learned to open her own feelings that had been suppressed during her upbringing. Although she had begun writing poetry in high school, she made it a part of her daily practice while teaching. She also explored her own spirituality through yoga, Buddhism, Universalism, and Quaker meetings. “As our lives change, marriages fail, children pass away, as we sail, every day we’re weaving a thread,” she says. Attending Buddhist sanghas has helped to turn those loose threads into a cloth, in her words.
If Barth could describe the sentiment in her letter to Becky? At first it’s hard to remember what went through her head for three hours nearly half a year ago. Then, it comes. “I hope you know I love you.”
Passages, The Gallery at Chapin, 4101 Princeton Pike, Lawrence. Paintings and works on paper by Joy Barth. Monday, November 3, through Wednesday, December 12. Reception for the artist Wednesday, November 5, 5 to 7 p.m. The exhibit can also be viewed during school hours by appointment by calling 609-924-7206. For more information, go to www.chapinschool.org/The-Gallery-at-Chapin.