The first time I saw the work of Mesa artist William Barnhart, I was smitten. When I learned he is also the man behind one of the most interesting buildings in the city — the eye-catching cinder-block and steel Quonset hut on Center Street just north of University Drive — I was over the moon.
Like a lot of people, I’ve long wondered about the quirky-cool structure, admiring it every time I drive past.
Turns out, Barnhart, 54, built it mostly himself, and it’s where he works on oil paintings, bronze sculptures and other artful pursuits.
He created the two bronze horses on the corner of Main and Center streets downtown, and his design for the Superstition Springs Transit Center garnered a Crescordia Award for excellent environmentally conscious design.
Nearly 30 pieces of his new work are on display in a colorful show at Vision Gallery in Chandler — where I first encountered Barnhart’s creations.
He’ll also open the doors Feb. 20 to his inventive studio, in an artful soiree to raise money for Arizona Museum for Youth, which recently announced it will change its name to The Idea Museum and revamp its brand later this year.
Here, Barnhart chats about his work and the upcoming art party.
Q: The longer one looks at your paintings, the more she sees. I’m guessing it’s probably much harder than it looks to create the shadowy, not-exactly-hidden-but-not-really-obvious figures in your paintings. What’s the process like?
A: My background is classical figure study. I’m very interested in the human emotion and drama of the figure. So, I approach my canvases with no idea or direction of where they’re going to go, but I’m looking for figure development. I start putting pigment down, and I may see something emerge that kind of looks like an elbow or a shoulder, and I’ll run with that. I keep working, working, working until it’s right.
At minimum, there’s always one but usually several figures that emerge. I leave lots of ambiguity, and what happens is, as the viewer looks, their mind wants to make order out of all this chaos. They’ll discover things in the painting relative to their own experience — things that I didn’t necessarily plan.
Q: ‘Four Brothers’ is the massive, knock-out piece in the Chandler show. How big is it, and what things might viewers notice if they look closely enough?
A: It’s 7-by-16-feet, plus the frame. As I’m working, sometimes within the wet paint I’ll scratch in ideas or thoughts or little images, just as part of my working and thinking process. Another reason I scratch back into the surfaces is, by doing that, I’m revealing a history of where the painting has been, revealing the colors underneath. Because it’s been layered and layered and layered. It builds different levels of interest in the surface and layers and textures of the painting.
Q: ‘My Winged Victory’ is another piece that stands out — but in a quiet way. What is she all about, and what kind of feathers is she sporting?
A: That’s a pigeon wing, actually. This might sound weird, but I have a collection of bird wings in my studio. They’re from birds I come across that have been killed. I take the wings and flatten them and dry them out. It’s a way to remind me, ‘Hey, you’re a small creature, and maybe nobody appreciated you while you were here, but I appreciate the grace and beauty you brought to the world.’
(That sculpture) was going to be this female figure up on her toes, but the idea came to me, ‘Let’s put this wing on here instead of another arm.’ I’m intrigued by flight.
Q: Do you approach your sculptures the same way you do your paintings — without a plan?
A: Sculptures, by nature, have to have a direction as to where they’re going. I have to build a steel armature and all that. Those generally are ideas that I’ve drawn in my sketchbook, and eventually one sticks with me long enough, and I say, ‘OK, I have to do this in sculpture.’
Q: You’re hosting a fundraiser Feb. 20 at your studio. If someone is not necessarily part of the art crowd, but has always wondered about that wild and crazy building on Center Street, will they feel at home?
A: Absolutely. We’re going to be giving away a $5,000 painting that night, and everyone who comes through the door has a chance at winning it. There’s going to be a ton of great hors d’oeuvres and music. It’ll be a fun opportunity to see the building and meet me and see a lot of art, too.
I built (the studio) from the ground up. I subbed out the ground work and the concrete and the sprinkler/fire system, but otherwise, it was all do-it-myself. It’s made of just tons of recycled materials — all the glass, almost all the steel, the tile. It’s kind of cool for people to see how that all comes together.
IF YOU GO
What: See “The Art of William Barnhart,” a show of work by the artist behind one of Mesa’s most captivating buildings.
When: On display 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays, through March 8
Where: Vision Gallery, 10 E. Chicago St., Chandler
Cost: Free admission
Information: (480) 782-2695 or VisionGallery.org
What: Check out one of the most interesting buildings in Mesa from the inside — and meet its creator — at The Big Idea Fundraiser, a party with food, music, a cash bar, and a chance to win a $5,000 William Barnhart painting. Proceeds go to Arizona Museum for Youth.
When: 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 20
Where: William Barnhart Studio, 506 N. Center St., Mesa
Cost: Tickets are $25 in advance, $30 at the door. They include appetizers, one drink (beer or wine) and a raffle ticket. Additional raffle tickets will be available for purchase.
Information: (480) 644-5564 or ArizonaMuseumforYouth.com/fundraiser.aspx