It is appropriate that one would pay a visit to the studio of fine artist/painter Illia Barger on the 129th birthday of Diego Rivera, the Mexican painter, husband of artist Frida Kahlo, and one of the most celebrated muralists of the 20th century.
Barger is also a muralist, becoming renowned in central New Jersey for a host of works. One that really resonates with the rich Colonial history throughout our region is “Winds of Change” (2006), a depiction of the first reading of the Declaration of Independence. The huge work can be viewed at 23 South Warren Street in Trenton.
Barger is also known for the murals that grace the halls of Capital Health Medical Center in Hopewell: the 2011 work called “Growth” is rife with poppies and other flora nurtured by glowing sunlight. Then there is Barger’s “Continuum” (2012) on the side of the Terra Momo Bread Company at 74 Witherspoon Street in Princeton, a 25-by-45-foot dreamlike homage to three small, themed parks that popped up on the blocks behind the building about 10 years ago.
In addition, she has recently completed the painstaking restoration of the scenic murals throughout several rooms at the Stockton Inn, originally done in the late 1920s and early 1930s by Robert Alexander Darrah (RAD) Miller and Robert A. Hogue; these were later embellished by children’s book illustrator Kurt Weise, and by John Follinsbee, one of the most prominent members of the New Hope Art Colony.
This year Barger has taken on what might be her most ambitious project: a multi-paneled mural inspired by the events of the Battle of Trenton. Currently the mural — working title, “After the Crossing” — is planned for the side of a building on Hanover Street, just off Broad in Trenton, although the permanent site is still to be determined.
As part of the 2015 Patriots Week festivities in downtown Trenton, which run from Saturday, December 26, through Thursday, December 31, curious viewers can watch and interact with Barger as she works on the mural, painting in the colors and details of the overall piece she has imagined.
She will be working in a couple of different spaces, including the Trenton Downtown Association (TDA) Pop-Up Art Space at 141 East State Street, on Saturday through Monday, December 26 through 28, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day.
Then Barger will move her workspace to the New Jersey State Museum at 205 West State Street; viewers can see the mural come to life on Tuesday and Wednesday, December 29 and 30, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and on Thursday, December 31, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.
To non-artists it might seem like plenty of time to get the work done, but Barger says it will be a real crunch for her, as she is used to working on murals for weeks or months at a time.
“Of course, I won’t be painting on an outdoor wall because it’s winter — I’ll be painting on five-by-five-foot pieces of special fabric that will later be put up,” Barger explains. “The TDA wanted two different things: they wanted me to do a performance painting for people to watch, which was fine, but, they also wanted a historically accurate mural.”
“One process is fast and one is slow, so I said to them that we needed to work these two things out and come up with a solution,” she says. “I suggested that if I could get started (on the central image), that would be a big help. Then, if I don’t get the mural done, I’ll continue to work on it either in my studio or at an art studio space in Trenton throughout the winter, and finish in time for it to go up in April or May.”
When Barger presented the basic design to the TDA, she had already drawn the focal point of the mural, which is a Colonial-style mirror with spires radiating outward. Historic scenes from the Battle of Trenton will occupy each section delineated by the spires.
“My drawings and paintings tend to have a radiant (quality) to them,” she says. “So naturally there’s a sense of radiance to this central design, which I presented in November to the historians at the TDA. The dynamic design here, the essential theme, is a Colonial mirror with an eagle on it. The spires don’t mean anything, except to help chapter the other scenes,” Barger says, pointing to the different sketched sections of the mural that hang on the wall of her studio.
For the live painting sessions, Barger says, the mirror and radiating spires will already be completed and include a scene in which Hessian Captain Biesenrodt of the Knyphausen Regiment surrenders to General Arthur St. Clair. Barger is quite concerned about getting history correct in her works and says she looked to Richard Patterson, director of the Old Barracks in Trenton, to clarify details — would the Hessian present his sword or shake hands or do both?
When the mural is completed, we will see Barger’s representations of George Washington’s infantry advancing on Trenton on the morning of December 26, 1776; the Continental army’s artillery readying the cannons to barrage the enemy forces; the Hessians retreating toward a nearby apple orchard; and the death of Colonel Johann Gottlieb Rahl, who commanded the brigade of Hessian soldiers that garrisoned Trenton.
Barger has envisioned Rahl, mortally wounded but resting at the home of the Potts family, well-to-do Quaker residents whose house was in the midst of fighting. As has been depicted in paintings, Washington visits the dying colonel, and Barger has included this historic meeting in her design.
While planning sections of the mural, Barger called upon real people to model for her, as she has done before. She preps for the mural scenes by posing models in assorted light situations and then takes numerous digital photos and even digital video for documentation.
For the scene with Rahl and Washington at the Potts home, she was unable to find models to her exact liking to represent Mr. and Mrs. Potts, the Quaker husband and wife who took in the injured Hessian officer. So she and her boyfriend, Duggan Millard, dressed up in Colonial garb and had someone else take photos of them at the scene.
As for Hessians and early Americans portrayed in the mural, Barger relied on the living history facilitators and re-enactors at the Old Barracks in Trenton to supply the faces and figures of the soldiers. Several especially fervent re-enactors shared the incredible details of the Hessian uniforms, down to the buttons, breastplates, and trim.
Further discussions were had about hats, boots, weapons, miscellaneous gear, and even facial hair. “They (the re-enactors) really know their stuff and they love to talk about it,” Barger says.
In all, there are 11 five-by-five-foot panels that comprise the mural, so it’s another huge endeavor for Barger, 54, who lives a stone’s throw from the Delaware River in Byram, just north of Stockton.
Her light-filled studio looks out over the river, and one of her almost daily sights is an adult bald eagle that fishes and hunts near the Pennsylvania side of the river; she says it is teaching its young to do the same.
Barger says she grew up a few miles across the river from her current abode, in Carversville, Pennsylvania, where her artistic and musically inclined parents purchased and renovated an 18th-century stone grist mill.
The studio and Barger’s adjacent living space is simple but alive with artwork. A visitor sees a stone birdbath and sculpture by her stone mason brother, Jason, on the property, numerous works by her painter-musician mother, Lilias, on the walls; a bear-gargoyle by her father — the famed sculptor Raymond Barger — looks out over the entrance to her studio, seemingly as a guard or totem.
When backpacking through Europe in the late 1970s, Barger learned to live simply. She also absorbed all kinds of artwork while visiting as many museums as possible. As research-minded then as she is now, Barger sketched, took notes, and made copious journal entries during her travels.
After Europe she went to Bennington College in Vermont on a full scholarship, built up an impressive portfolio of drawings, and was subsequently accepted into Cooper Union in Manhattan, where she earned a B.F.A. in 1985.
Yet another bit of Diego Rivera-birthday synchronicity comes when Barger mentions her beloved teacher, Reuben Kadish, who was her mentor during her studies at Cooper Union. Barger says that Kadish worked for David Alfaro Siqueiros, the Mexican social realist painter, who, along with Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco, established “Mexican Muralism.”
“Reuben was an assistant of Siqueiros in Mexico and Southern California before he became the head of the mural division in California for the Federal Art Project,” Barger says. “My largest mural (the 35-by-150 foot “Underwater Sea,” 1993) at the Brooklyn Army Terminal, was dedicated to Reuben Kadish after his death in 1992.”
For about 15 years after graduation, Barger ran a highly successful business painting decorative finishes, making ordinary surfaces resemble elegant stone or wood. She earned an international reputation for her skills.
The commissions to paint murals started to come in the early 1990s, with works for, among other venues, hotels in Philadelphia, as well as “Titian’s Mistress” and “Peaceable Kingdom” for the Hamilton Grill Room in Lambertville. All the while, Barger was continuously participating in group and solo exhibitions in central Jersey, Bucks County, and New York.
Her contacts in Trenton had been thinking about the current mural project for years, having fallen in love with Barger’s “Winds of Change.”
“The TDA came to me about the project. There had been talk of another mural over the years,” Barger says. “‘Winds of Change’ has stood the test of time. (The people in the TDA) love it, and they liked the details of the history. So they were totally open and receptive to this new project.”
“As for getting the models (through the re-enactors), I went down to the Old Barracks, and knew all these guys from the previous mural,” she says, pointing to the different body language and facial expressions of the models in the photos she took.
Her favorite might be the re-enactor exaggerating Rahl’s death scene. Barger smiles as she recalls his over-acting. “They were having so much fun doing this,” she says. “They were all just great about this, and I couldn’t have done it without them.”
Patriots Week Mural Painting Sessions, TDA Pop-Up Art Space, 141 East State Street, Saturday to Monday, December 26 to 28, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; State Museum, 205 West State Street, Tuesday and Wednesday, December 29 and 30, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Thursday, December 31, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Free. www.patriotsweek.com.