It’s an early autumn day, and the sun still thinks it’s summer.
Artist Heather Barros soaks it in on the terrace of the collegiate Gothic-style Manor House, designed by noted architect Rolf Bauhan, on the campus of the Princeton Academy of the Sacred Heart, off of the Great Road. A shrub blooms with button-size yellow flowers. Barros nurtures the plants in this courtyard, just as she has nurtured art students for 25 years.
Along with fellow artists in the Art+10 Collective, Barros will have an exhibit, “Around the World and Around the Block,” at the Millstone River Gallery at Merwick Care & Rehabilitation Center in Plainsboro, November 5 through January 20 with a reception Thursday, December 1, from 5 to 7 p.m. Other Art+10 exhibiting artists include Priscilla Snow Algava, Jim Bongartz, Gail Bracegirdle, Betty Curtiss, Katja De Ruyter, Fran Eber, Jeannine Honstein, Ryan Lilienthal, Sandy O’Connor, and Tasha O’Neill.
Barros has taught art classes here for 12 years. As a rent-paying tenant, she has no obligations to the school but does offer classes to its students a few times a year. Before coming to the 43-acre campus, surrounded by trees, her school, Art Collaborations, was located on Alexander Road for the same number of years.
When the Dignan family (heirs to the Ward Baking Company who contracted Bauhan to design the Manor House) lived here in the 1930s and ’40s, this was the children’s garden, Barros points out. On nice days like this, she takes students outside to paint and draw.
“There are a gazebo, a grotto, a fountain, and a cave,” says Barros. “We do a lot of playing outside and making things.” She enjoys the outdoors so much, she teaches Hatha yoga classes out back on Sundays, from 8:45 to 10 a.m. (Open to the public, $5/class; just show up. Classes are held indoors in inclement or cold weather).
One can easily fall in love with the surroundings, and fortunately there are several ways the public can access it. In addition to Art Collaborations classes, the building also hosts Westminster Choir College, which offers music lessons in the upstairs former bedrooms, and every autumn the school opens its campus for a community paint out.
Barros leads a tour through the grand living room to another room, where the indoor yoga classes are held. She is working with the Academy to get a gallery up and running — molding from which artwork will hang has already been installed.
In summer Art Collaborations students make puppets and marionettes, as well as backdrops, and produce puppet shows. “They perform two shows a summer,” says Barros. They decorate the boxes the puppets are stored in, as well. Barros pulls out a marionette, like a jack-in-the-box, with lifelike hair made from yarn, “diamond” earrings and jewels at the neck, a gold brocade headband, and ceramic head and hands. She takes the clay pieces home to fire in her kiln; a tray of small pink hands sits nearby, awaiting transport.
“We also make rod puppets,” says Barros, demonstrating how the heads turn. On a nearby shelf are books from which students create tales: Arabian nights, Greek myths, Japanese stories. “They also learn about costumes of a culture,” she says.
She leads me through a dark wood-paneled library, jolting a deja vu to the 1990s when the Junior League held its designer show house here, and through a door with a secret stairway to an upstairs bedroom, then another door to a hidden room. Throughout the largely preserved building are other traces of that 1999 show house: trompe l’oeil and faux painting on ceilings and mirrors and birdcage wallpaper. Barros’ students benefit from having these features to draw from. Even the bathrooms with Mercer tile are inspiring.
At one time known as “the hunt room,” this hidden room is where fellow Art+10 member Ryan Lilienthal has his studio. Lilienthal was not in his studio at the time because he practices immigration law, but he was an artist long before he was a lawyer, having taken classes twice a week at the Boston Museum School while an undergraduate religion major at Tufts. Barros was among the many he studied under.
Perhaps, through her yoga practice, Barros has worked to minimize her ego. She is more inclined to talk about the space, her students, and fellow artists than her own work and life.
In addition to Art+10, Barros belongs to a group of plein air painters, and she has recently joined a group that paints at the Hopewell Train Station. “When it’s too cold to paint en plein air, I want to paint interiors,” she says. She’s also forming a new group to paint on each other’s work, in succession. “There’s no ego, no ownership. We collaborate in such a way that the individual disappears. Most artists wouldn’t join, because they don’t want others to paint over theirs.”
And who gets to keep the finished product? “When we did it as an experiment, people drew numbers from a hat and the lower numbers got to choose first.” Barros, in her ego-less way, chose last.
The Groton, Massachusetts, native’s father, Hugh Stoddart, was a nuclear physicist. Her mother, Marion Stoddart, is an activist and community leader known for her efforts in the rescue and recovery of the Nashua River in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. She received an award from the United Nations in 1987 and was profiled by National Geographic Society in 1993.
“The Nashua had been one of the most polluted rivers in the country,” says Barros. “It smelled and had no life in it, a result of the sludge from dye from the paper industry. No one knew it could be done in a lifetime. My mother took it on as her life’s work. She taught tennis to raise money and carried petitions and bottles of dirty water to the governor, making friends with Ted Kennedy in the process.” Kennedy would canoe with Stoddart on the river.
Although Barros always loved art, she studied geology at Mount Holyoke, graduating in 1975, then studied metamorphic petrology, the study of rocks formed under high pressure and temperature, at the University of Massachusetts for three years while teaching at Mount Holyoke. She met Ricardo Barros at UMass, and they married in 1978, moving to Lambertville in 1980 for Ricardo’s job as a civil engineer for the New Jersey Department of Transportation. (Shortly thereafter, Ricardo made a career change, becoming a professional photographer.)
Together the Barroses had three children: Kip, 37, Brett, 33, and Cora, 31. Instead of buying toys, Heather would make things with the children. While her two sons and daughter attended school, she learned how little art education was offered, so she headed a program that brought Lambertville’s artists into the schools. By 1990 they moved to Princeton and she began teaching preschool art classes in the basement of the Arts Council of Princeton. Soon this became a half-day program for kindergarten students.
“Then I realized I wasn’t an artist,” says Barros, setting aside her ego. “I couldn’t paint. We had been learning together as we went along. I would ask, ‘how do you draw seashells?’ and we’d figure it out together.” To teach teenagers Barros felt she needed to improve her skills and, in 2001, began taking intensive classes with Russian classical painter Gregory Perkel, both privately and at the Arts Council of Princeton. It was through this experience that she met some of the founding members of Art+10.
“Before Gregory I was just painting simple explorations in watercolor,” she says. In contrast, among her recent work is a painting made at dusk of the Manor House, the lights from her classroom space glowing from within. “The classes gave me the technical skills to do oil painting.”
Perkel would talk to the class about the difference between painting something profound versus meaningless art, she says. “Just a movement in relationship to a figure makes a big difference. Capturing that moment, say, a pause in conversation, as if one person just asked a question and is waiting for the other’s response. That was the kind of thing he’d force us to think about.”
A 2014 painting, “The Question,” does that very thing, in a room with light washing in from a window. A man holds a cup of coffee, looking at a woman. Also holding a cup, she is looking down, thinking of the answer to his question.
Another painting is of a fellow art teacher who was down on his luck, without a job, a place to stay, or food. He is pictured at a table in Barros’s home, his hands open, empty, expressing his need, as light washes over him. “The hands also show what he has to offer,” says Barros, who has titled the painting “The Offering.”
Among her many charges is to help students prepare college portfolios. She has them work on observations from life, and hanging in the classroom are charcoal drawings of French presses, a stainless steel sink, all made in the Manor House’s enormous kitchen.
There is nothing Barros wouldn’t do for her students, including going to Chinese markets to bring back whole fish they can paint from. In addition to rendering fish in charcoal and oil, students make fish plates in Styrofoam and print from them with gold and silver ink.
Barros has traveled to India and Iceland. She has hiked the Himalayas and been out West, but her inspiration comes from her own backyard. When painting landscapes, she may paint from Greenway Meadows Park in Princeton, or create an imaginary path through a foggy field. Sometimes Barros works from photos, sometimes from life, and sometimes from her imagination. “If you do all three, you get better at all three,” she says. “Painting from memory, you understand what’s important and it helps to simplify.”
Recently she has created a series, “The Red Box.” These are 3-by-4-inch paintings, all with a red square, sort of abstract but some of the red boxes could be a cottage at sea, a barn in a field, a carriage in a storm. “I got started and couldn’t stop,” she says.
What she likes best about teaching is what she learns from students. “I am in awe of children’s artwork. After 25 years of surrendering myself to them, I should be able to paint the way they do, but I still can’t.”
In addition to the Art+10 exhibition, Heather Barros will be part of a two-person show next year with fellow Hopewell Train Station painter Janet Purcell at the Millstone River Gallery on view April 23 through July 13, with an opening reception Thursday, April 27.
Around the World and Around the Block, Art+10 Collective, Millstone River Gallery at Merwick Care & Rehabilitation Center, 100 Plainsboro Road, Plainsboro. Saturday, November 5, through Friday, January 20, reception Thursday, December 1, 5 to 7 p.m. www.windsorhealthcare.org.