Artist and musician Barry Graham: Layers of stories, layers of talent
by Margaret Dabbs
Oct 19, 2011 | 3094 views | 0 0 comments | 56 56 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Years ago, family friends gave us a set of nesting wooden Russian dolls for Christ-mas. Formally called Matryo-shka, this entertaining gift sat on the kitchen counter throughout the holidays and we all enjoyed opening the largest one and finding a smaller one inside, eight dolls total, with the smallest only a few inches tall. The set returns to the counter by popular demand every holiday season and draws its openers like a magnet.

After writing this column for the last two years, I realized the stories I find are similar to our Matryoshka. The main story presents itself like the largest doll and when I open it and actually get into the details, I delightfully discover other stories nesting comfortably inside one another.

My next planned column subject was artist Barry Graham. At that point, I only knew him as the creator of Eve — Eaton Family Chiropractic Clinic’s mule in the Walker County Arts Alliance’s 50-Mule Team Public Art Project. While in search of his garden art at Wild Birds Unlimited Nature Shop in Tuscaloosa, I stumbled upon the story of Sunday, the shop cat, named for the day she wandered in about six years ago and made herself at home. When the store was sold, the charming new owner, Mary Rhodes, realized the former owner had forgotten to take Sunday. When Mary asked when she wanted to come get her, she was told Sunday came with the shop since the former owner had the other shop cat, Friday, and the two did not get along with each other.

Fortunately, Sunday is no threat to the little birds who occasionally hop into the shop on days when the weather is conducive to leaving the front doors open because she is afraid of them. She brazenly flirts with men customers, hides from raucous children she aptly remembers from previous visits, and enjoys the attention of humans of all ages, some who stop by now and then just to speak to her.

Sunday, as the reigning queen of Birds Unlimited, finds her throne in many places. The bird baths frequently serve as her beds, at Christmas she naps under the Christmas trees, and in the spring she takes advantage of the sunshine as she luxuriously stretches out across the doorway, requiring those who enter to step over her. Mary semi-seriously suggests she might have to close the shop if something ever happens to Sunday, her best public relations ambassador.

A lifelong

devotion to art

Searching for Barry Graham’s home way back in the hills off Highway 69 between Oakman and Jasper offered an excellent reminder of Walker County’s natural beauty. Opening another layer of his story, I found the rolling hills, winding creek, steep bluffs, and quiet serenity which lured his parents, both Oakman natives, back home to the country after living and working in the Birmingham area for many years. Following his dad’s death, Barry joined his mother in this peaceful home which gently blends into its wooded surroundings and announces itself at the driveway entrance as “My Neck of the Woods” with a wooden sign he designed and made. In his easy, thoughtful manner, Barry describes the importance of this setting. “I think being here is a haven in itself…I couldn’t think of a better place to be, to get away from everything, the hustle and bustle, and be able to add to your creative spirit.”

Barry’s early growing up years were spent in Midfield in a kid-packed neighborhood where they could walk or ride their bikes to school and never had a shortage of companions. When he was about 12, his family moved to Forestdale. Once he got to high school, the long era of social unrest had begun. But Barry had an art teacher who helped him maintain his focus on art by encouraging him to stay involved with art projects and competitions. At the same time, this teacher’s support and guidance gave Barry the opportunity to begin realizing his art could actually become his lifework.

While his interest in art continued to expand and take a firm grasp in his life, Barry discovered another passion — music. At 14 he played guitar for a band from Hawaii at the Tutwiler Hotel in Birmingham for a few nights as his band debut. He continued with the guitar, often sang lead, and spent evenings on Morris Avenue soaking up the music of a variety of bands including the Allman Joys, the predecessor to the Allman Brothers. But after Barry graduated from high school, his art won the tug of war for his attention at that point and he pursued his art dream at the Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, Fla.

His degree from Ringling opened the door to a position as a graphic designer in the Alabama Power Company training department where Barry designed training materials for 12 years. He worked for himself in advertising for five or six years, spent 10 years in the publishing industry in book and magazine design and illustration for the Women’s Missionary Union, and consistently worked freelance doing illustrations for Birmingham Magazine, Alabama Power, and advertising agencies.

Watercolor painting throughout the years

Barry continued to paint over the course of these years and his watercolors have been displayed in museums and art galleries all across the Southeast including the Birmingham Museum of Art, Littlehouse Galleries in Homewood, The Attic Gallery in Vicksburg, Miss., and The Waterfront Gallery in Pensacola, Fla. His work is also included in a variety of corporate and private collections.

In explaining why he is drawn to painting, Barry noted, “You paint for yourself. But then you are hoping to transfer that thought on paper that somebody else is going to see and appreciate, and enjoy.” While he has his own thought process when he begins a painting, he graciously acknowledges and respects the fact that each viewer takes away something personal from a painting. “I encourage the viewer to absorb my painting, creating a personal experience. I could share my own personal experience and relationship as the creator. However, the viewer and painting together author their own affair. That is not for me to dictate.”

In beginning a painting, Barry goes to the location he wants to paint, takes photographs, makes a sketch which evolves into a drawing, and then starts to paint. He returns to the location before finishing a painting and sees the location again at the same time of day and in the same light. Further describing his process, Barry adds he is not trying to exactly copy his photograph. “I like to create a little different image and give it a little different feel.” For example, in his painting “Indian Point,” he changed the foreground so the viewer’s eye would be drawn to the water and the detail of the mountains.

Last May Barry introduced Southern Windows, a new series of 30 paintings at Littlehouse Galleries in Homewood. The first painting in this series, “Tattered Remains,” was inspired by a window from a long-abandoned house just down the road from his home. The cracked and broken window still displayed scraggy flour sack curtains as vines grew in and out of the window. While the window tells its own story, Barry does not simply paint a copy of the window. He experiments with shapes, colors, and light, draws upon his own memories and experiences, and through the window, shares his own story.

“Abandoned Library,” another painting in the Southern Windows series, is easily recognized by those familiar with Oakman as an arched window in the old building right in the heart of town which has lived many lives, including the life of a library. The stark emptiness and sense of abandonment of this building are felt as the viewer sees the initial window, sees through this window to another window on the other side of the building, and even has a glimpse of shapes outside the second window. Using a window from an old store in Decatur as a starting point, in “Cliché Array” Barry incorporated images from the display window in Jasper’s longstanding landmark Andrew Posey and Son Hardware, as well as a blue plate which belonged to his great grandmother.

Barry plans to add 10 more paintings to Southern Windows before taking it on the road to art museums in five Southeastern cities. He describes this series by explaining that he is actually “painting a story.” However, the warmth, charm, and intrigue of this moving series may be found in its ability to actually tell three stories — the window’s story, the artist’s story, and the viewer’s story.

Discovering a new

creative outlet

After painting for much of his life, Barry began looking for another creative outlet which would give him a chance to step away from the intensity of the painting process. About a year ago he took the first steps in his new medium, Handcrafted Recycled Garden Art. He designed and built three birdhouses, one for his mother and one for each of his daughters, entirely from found and recycled materials. Barry explained, “I wanted to do something a little more physical, make some noise, stir up some dust.”

In the process of cleaning out and reorganizing his dad’s basement workshop, Barry began to see the possibilities of re-using and re-purposing many of the items his dad saved and collected over the years. His adventure into garden art offers him the opportunity of creating a work of art entirely from his imagination using an endless array of objects- ceramic roof tiles, outdoor Christmas tree lights, La-Z-Boy recliner springs, honey spoons, bottle caps, keys, vintage hardware, and outdoor pieces he finds walking the trails he built around his home- branches, knotholes, stumps. Charlie Thigpen’s Garden Gallery in Birmingham, The Plant Lady in Duncanville, and Wild Birds Unlimited in Tuscaloosa, proudly display and sell Barry’s whimsical, uplifting birdhouses, each simply designed with obvious joy and reflecting its own distinct personality.

Seen as a whole, Barry’s art harbors a wonderful unity created by its genuine connection to nature and the contentment he finds outdoors. He easily puts it all together as he observes, “Ironically, they all kind of match because they are all outdoor related, all plants, trees, landscapes. Even the windows are related to the construction of the birdhouses because it’s older windows, windows that are deteriorating, showing age, showing character. With the garden art, I’m doing the same thing. I’m taking things that are old, that have character and making them something new again.”

Four decades

with music

Barry’s basement workshop, where much of his artistic energy is exerted, also serves as a museum of his other creative life — his life as a musician. The silent tambourines hanging from the ceiling and the stage lights now aimed towards his work counter quietly reflect his four decades playing and singing with bands, the last 10 years with The Chill Band in Mississippi. Although he gave up this layer of his life about two years ago to dedicate more time to his art and to simplify his day-to-day routine, a smile slowly moves across his face when he reflects on those years and his devotion to his music is still quite obvious.

In addition to playing and singing, Barry has written some songs, declaring them to be “lyrics, vocals, and most instrumentation created by me simply for my own amusement.” But listen to “Crawfish Rendezvous,” where his 84-year-old uncle plays the fiddle, and you will stop and smile as you visualize and sense the pleasure of the place Barry painted with his words and music — a small Louisiana town on the bayou, where folks gather “singing praise and glory bound,” serve “jambalaya to pacify,” and consider “a rusted Eldorado parked about halfway up a tree,” a local feature. You might even hope to visit this satisfying place where there is “…Nothing in the world that will ever make you want to leave.”

Opening up the layers of stories in Barry Graham’s life handily reveals the rich, deep layers of his talent — paintings which thoughtfully encourage feelings and memories, garden art touched with a flair for whimsy, and music that conveys enthusiasm for life. This artist and musician, a man with a gentle soul who walks closely with nature, gratefully and happily shares his gifts.

Margaret Dabbs is a freelance columnist who resides in Jasper. Her column appears every other Wednesday in the Lifestyles section. Comments and suggestions are welcomed by contacting Dabbs at 387-2890