Painter Illia Barger calls her artistic identity “an inescapable genetic flaw” — both her parents and her siblings are also artists. Her father, Raymond Barger, was a well-known sculptor who created the 64-foot high “Goddess of Perfection” for the H. J. Heinz pavilion at the 1939 World’s Fair; her mother was a pianist, composer, and painter; her brother is a stone mason; and her sister is a marble carver.
Barger’s creativity was not only a consequence of heredity but also of environment. In 1964 her parents purchased an old stone grist mill in Carversville, PA, built in 1784 by Thomas Ellicott, a land surveyor for Thomas Jefferson, and transformed it into a combination home and antiques store. “My mother also had a tea room where she served French pastries she had made on ‘for sale’ fine porcelain,” says Barger in a telephone interview from her home in Byram, NJ. Her parents also hosted a monthly musicale for 30 years, bringing in Juilliard students and feeding everyone the pastries that merited a full-page story in the New York Times by Craig Claiborne in 1968.
A solo show of Barger’s large-scale paintings of flowers, opens with a reception on Saturday, November 1, at the Ruth Morpeth Gallery, 43 West Broad Street in Hopewell.
Barger’s first independent foray into her own life as a budding artist was a year (1977 to ’78) spent backpacking through Europe at age 17 after graduating high school — using money she had earned by working at Mother’s Bakery in New Hope. Of course she visited every possible museum and kept a journal, which included both writing and drawing.
Possibly the most significant wisdom gleaned from the trip, though, was how to survive as an artist. Barger realized during that trip how little she could live on, sometimes sleeping on a train floor or “feeding myself with a free museum pass.”
“You get smart about how to live,” she says, and the lessons of her European trip stood her well in 1981 when she lived in a tent in a condemned building in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, protected by her boyfriend’s dog, and later when she moved to a former crack house apartment in the East Village, which she fixed up and lived in for over 10 years.
When she returned home from that European trip, Barger spent two years at Bennington College on a full scholarship, during which she drew incessantly. During a two-month nonresidential term she lived with a friend in New York and spent hours every day drawing at the Metropolitan Museum. She became friendly with the guards, who gave her a little folding chair for drawing in the galleries.
Sometimes she made appointments to use the drawing library in the Lehman Collection, where she would sit “up close and personal” with the likes of Rembrandt or the Italian mannerist Pontormo. “It was like meeting your biggest hero on an easel on the desk in front of you,” says Barger. “It was not like museums where you are coursing through a conveyer belt of images.”
These drawings took her to the next stage in her career. “Drawing was the stepping stone that I knew was a necessary part of what I needed to know to get where I wanted to go,” says Barger. On the basis of these drawings she was admitted to Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York City.
At Cooper, Barger learned how to paint, explored slate sculpture, and studied anatomy and art history. What she recalls especially of the school was the quiet encouragement of Rubin Kadish, her sculpture and drawing teacher: “I remember him saying, ‘Paint one of those every day; you’ll get where you’re going.’”
When she graduated in 1985 with a bachelor of fine arts, Barger started a business painting decorative finishes, which means painting things to look like something they are not. She became a “master grainer,” making plain wood or metal doors look like mahogany or marble. She worked for 15 years with different decorators all over the United States as well as in France, Germany, and Switzerland, and was at the top of her field, booking six months to a year in advance.
What her work as a master grainer gave Barger artistically was utter comfort with her tool of choice, a two-and-a-half-inch house-painting brush. “I have painted so many acres of surface with this brush, finessing veins of marble and grains of woods, that I don’t have a tool — it is part of me, and I can make it do whatever I want.” The brush is like an extension of her hand and head, so that her artistic energy can flow directly onto the canvas.
Because Barger found she never had time for her own painting, she decided to give her clients a year’s notice and use her savings to paint for two years straight. She also applied — successfully — for a granted, artist-run studio at P.S. 122 in New York, where she had enough space to create large paintings that sold well. After the first two years, she won a Pollock Krasner Foundation grant that supported her for another year, one during which she ended up spending more time in the hospital than the studio because her mother and then her father became ill and died.
Because scale was very important to Barger, and she had always painted big, she segued from decorative painted finishes to something closer to art by painting murals, which also paid reasonably well. “People will pay $10,000 for a mural in their dining room but not for a painting — unless they feel it is an investment,” she says.
One of her murals, on the side of 23 South Warren Street in Trenton, depicts the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence at exactly that location on July 8, 1776. Her largest mural is in the Brooklyn Army Terminal, which houses the first city-funded day care center for underprivileged children; it was funded by the Economic Development Commission under Mayor David Dinkins. Other murals are at the Treetop Hotel in Philadelphia and at the Hamilton Grill Room in Lambertville.
After the murals came large paintings of fruit sections, ranging from three-by-four feet to five-and-a-half by six-and-a-half feet. “What is interesting psychologically,” says Barger, “is that people don’t look at small things, but if they are presented in a different scale and are forced to look at it, they have all these different associations.”
Barger’s exhibit at the Ruth Morpeth Gallery features very large flowers. The source of these paintings lies in Barger’s experience as a beekeeper when she lived on a farm from 2001 to 2003. “Flowers are literally created to attract the bees,” she says, “because they have nectar and bees want nectar, and the bees are meant to fly and pollinate the flower.” The show will also include small placards on the walls with amazing facts about bees.
Barger imagines the different flowers promoting an extraordinary array of dances as they lure the bees to their delectable treats. “It’s like a Miss America contest,” says Barger.
The artist chose the large flowers and fruits not because of any interest in presenting the particular subject. “So it’s a rose, now what?” she asks. “Are you done with a painting because you have named what it is?” Her concerns lie in a different realm. “We know what it is, so now what? Everything else is an abstract aspect — the architecture of the petals, the arabesque of curves, the idiosyncratic qualities of the flower like color and nuance.”
Barger also had a very pragmatic reason for making the flowers so large. “I’m blowing up the flowers so you as the viewer are closer to the scale of a bee and a flower,” she says. “If you were a honeybee, imagine going into a pink tulip, surrounded by extraordinary perfume, color, and architecture, and food in the middle on a gorgeous plate.”
Art Exhibit, Saturday, November 1, Ruth Morpeth Gallery, 43 West Broad Street, Hopewell. Opening reception for “The Botany of Desire,” an exhibit of large scale floral paintings by Illia Barger, inspired by her experiences as a beekeeper. The scale allows for the intimate exploration of each individual bloom, so that color, quality of light, surface, and shape surround and absorb the viewer, much as they do a bee collecting nectar from a blossom. On view through Sunday, November 30. 609-333-9393 or www.ruthmorpeth.com.
Gallery is open Wednesday to Saturday, 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.