Five Questions with Artist Barbara Ernst Prey

Prey at Edwards Air Force Base in the Mohave Desert
Barbara painting the Nasa commissioned   x-43, the fastest aircraft in the world, right before takeoff.
1/ When did you first pick up a paintbrush?

My mother was head of the design department at Pratt Art Institute in New York, so I grew up with a large studio in my home. I remember painting in her studio on Saturdays listening to the Metropolitan Opera. My easle was set up next to hers, we would often go on painting trips together.

I am known for my watercolors but I also paint in oils and other mediums. I think my first painting was in a juried show at age 9. My mother had Winslow Homer prints in her studio and art books all over. I think I chose watercolor so as not to compete with my mother who was so good at oils. I painted while at Williams College and then started to do illustration work for such publications as The New Yorker, The New York Times and many other magazines. All along I was outside painting watercolors, which I have been doing for over forty years. Governor Hugh Carey of New York purchased one of my first oil paintings at 17 and now my paintings are collected by Presidents, Princes, Ambassadors and in the Collections of The White House, NASA, The Smithsonian American Art Museum and celebrities like Tom Hanks. I have a style that is ‘distinctly my own’ as one curator put it and I am trying to push the watercolor medium to new levels. Watercolor is a lot like jazz, there’s a lot of improvising and things happen that are unexpected.

2/ Where do you find inspiration when you’re looking to create?

Maine has always been a source of inspiration as has the natural world and I have been fortunate to paint around the world. My four NASA commissioned paintings of the Columbia Tribute, Discovery Shuttle Return to Flight, x-43 and the International Space Station have certainly broadened my vision on a universal perspective. I am always looking, thinking, filtering ideas. My work references the idea of the nature of memories as well as the depth of the American landscape and my own personal relationship with nature. Even when I was painting at The White House for the Presidential Christmas Card, that sparked ideas of an interior series of Maine workshops which became my working waterfront series and was exhibited in Paris and New York.

My family were some of the first settlers of midcoast Maine back in the early 1700s so painting Maine is a sort of homecoming for me.

3/ Tell us about the cover art featured for our 60th anniversary.

‘Nocturne IV’ was exhibited at the Heckscher Museum of Art in New York when I was the museum’s Celebrate Achievement Gala Honoree. It is painted close to my home in Maine. I had just returned from lecturing at the U.S. Embassies in Paris and Madrid where my paintings were exhibited through the U.S. State Department’s Art in Embassies program, and I had been watching the light and standing at this particular point all summer waiting for inspiration (there were many nights I was eaten up by mosquitos just looking) and then in September there was a sunset that was spectacular. The spot holds many memories for me, all my paintings have some sort of a personal connection or collective memory, and I tried to push the color as far as it would go.

DE1408pI76

4/ Tell us about your organization, Bowdoin College of Museum of Art and why you chose it as your Art of Giving benefactor?

Museums, particularly college museums have played an important part in my career and I value the importance of colleges like Bowdoin, Colby and Williams. I have also mentored a number of Bowdoin students. I am appointed by the President of the United States to the National Council on the Arts, the advisory board to the National Endowment for the Arts. Members are selected for their widely recognized knowledge of the arts and for their established record of distinguished service or achievement in the arts. We support the arts in America as we advise the Chairman and vote on all of our nation’s grants. Next week I go to the White House for the National Medal of Arts awards as we nominate the recipients so I am a very engaged activist for the Arts in America.

I graduated from Williams College with honors in Art History and continued studies at Harvard. I was fortunate to study art history with Lane Faison at Williams, dean of the “Williams Art Mafia” who wrote the book on New England College Museums. Museums have been very important to my develop as an artist. Sarah Cash, Corcoran Gallery Curator of Art, in my Paris, France exhibit catalog discusses the time spent in European museums when I was the recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship and then when I lived and painted in Asia as the recipient of a Henry Luce Foundation Grant. I have also mentored a number of Bowdoin College students.

5/ What’s the best part about summer in Maine?

Everything. I always look forward to my annual exhibit at Blue Water Fine Arts gallery in Port Clyde, Maine which I have been doing for 30 years. American Contemporary opens at the gallery next week. I spend so much of my year in the public eye that this is special as this is a personal interaction with the community which is so important to me. I am fortunate to have a beautiful space, the former Village Inn to exhibit which highlights the artwork.

Laura Serino is the Digital Editor of Down East Magazine.

Be respectful of our online community and contribute to an engaging conversation. We reserve the right to remove impersonators or personal attacks, threats, profanity, or flat-out offensive comments. By posting here, you are permitting Down East Enterprise to edit and republish your comment in all media.