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A Conversation with Scip Barnhart

On how he decided to become an artist:

I ask Scip Barnhart to describe when he decided to become an artist, but he demurs and insists that he prefers to call himself a teacher – an enabler. Because he always loved to make things and was encouraged by his high school teachers and mentors in art school - luminary figures such as George O’Connell and Thomas Seawell - he wants to repay this debt by enabling his own students to succeed. His students might not all end up as artists, but he feels his role is to tell them that it is okay to swim against the tide of today’s trends – whatever they may be. Scip prefers spending time with a student to tell them the stories of artist who have come before and to help them understand the nuances of drawing and printmaking, the techniques that will help them best express themselves.

On his “process”:

Scip tells me: “I think my work is narrative and it usually comes out (of) this ongoing conversation with myself constantly over many years….

Drawing precipitates everything. It’s the beginning of everything and you have to know how to draw and if you’re going to make a lithograph…or an etching…or a linocut.”

On one of his favorite pieces:

Scip Barnhart describes the story behind one of his most striking works, “The Death of Ray Chapman,” which he created in 1996. For those who aren’t well versed in the history of baseball, here is a bit of background. Ray Chapman was a baseball player who was hit in the temple with a baseball in a Major League game in 1920 and died shortly afterwards. Scip grew up playing baseball quite seriously and was a big collector of baseball cards. He knew this story well and tells how the idea to create this piece was planted in the back of his brain many years ago. When Scip’s young son was about eight years old and was starting to play baseball, he asked his father if getting hit by a baseball would hurt…Scip had to think quickly and decided to make up an elaborate story about how Ray Chapman had been selected to be a guardian angel in order to look out for and protect young baseball players. Of course, the story is complicated by the fact that the devil also shows up and there is a battle between the angels and the devil, so Ray doesn’t die instantly. Scip’s son is so mesmerized by this story he asks his father to do a drawing of this incident. He asks him repeatedly over the years if he has completed it- but Scip spends about twenty years planning this drawing with photos he takes of himself with a Polaroid. Because he was embarrassed to ask his students to pose for this, he basically did all the poses himself. He spent twenty years sketching and drawing and finally, when he turned fifty, he worked three days straight in his studio and completed the charcoal drawing. Then he made the lithographic print. Because he is so modest, Scip doesn’t tell me that this beautiful piece is in the collection of the National Gallery of Art, but I discover this after our conversation.

Another of his favorite pieces:

Scip did a drawing that hangs in his studio that he has never wanted to sell - because he loves seeing it every day. It depicts an imaginary meeting between Rembrandt, Humphrey Bogart, James Dean, Bill Woodward, an unidentified baseball player and Scip himself (in a costume similar to the one worn by the youth in the Calling of St. Matthew by Caravaggio). They are all gathered in Titian’s house. The richness of history, overlap of ideas and subtle back-stories only add to the delight in this masterful composition.

A few thoughts of Scip Barnhart on the current state of the art world:

“I think the worst reason in the world is to do art for money….so I make my work for me and, if you like it, you like it…I’m not saying I don’t appreciate it when people like my work, but I’m not doing it for you. I’m doing it for me.”

“Artists have that special thing in the community: if a doctor or lawyer goes to church and sits in the front row, they’ll come and arrest him, but if an artist goes and sits nude in the front row in church, they’ll say “well!” And you get a pass!”

I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know this talented teacher (and artist!). I hope you did too.

-Parinaz Ziai Bahadori

January 28, 2021

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