Alot of mothers would like their children to grow up to be mainstream professionals. The problem is, some kids just aren’t interested in dissecting cadavers, defending criminals or being corporate headhunters. They just want to paint.
Artist Nathan Barnes is that kind of son. He knew his parents wanted him to wear a suit, and he started down that path, studying marine biology in Florida. But after making his way back to Utah’s Westminster College, he found that his artistic urges wouldn’t leave him be.
After switching to the University of Utah, he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts in 2002. After that, those pesky mainstream necessities started to bite, and he developed a serious rent-and-food habit. Surviving meant putting his work out there and seeing what happened.
“Philosophically,” says Barnes, “I think life is part your doing and part fate. I always look for the serendipity in a situation. I just hope the time is right for my art.”
It does seem that serendipity has played a role. Submitting a couple of small abstract paintings to the University of Utah’s Union Gallery for a group show during the Olympics was something of a whim, but it got the ball rolling for him. He sold both, one to the gallery director and the other to the union director.
From there it was a natural step to set up a solo show in the same space. While developing a body of work, he submitted a piece titled “Bottle Up” to a juried exhibit at the Bountiful/Davis Art Center and took second place. This spurred an invitation to be a part of a group exhibit at the Horne Fine Art gallery, where Barnes is currently showing five pieces.
Of course, looking at his recent, rapid success, it seems that serendipity alone wasn’t enough. Barnes is fresh out of an academic environment, and he has already realized that being pragmatic would stifle his art. Creating those two abstracts—which was completely off the cuff for him at the time—taught him more about painting than most of his classes. He says that willingness to experiment has allowed him to grow as an artist.
“I like to make representational objects that really turn and have form and volume, but I think the paradox is that they’re being created out of flat, solid pieces of color.”
In contrast, his cityscapes, like “Merit Market” and “1A Buswell Street,” are completely different beasts. Typically, they are created faster, not labored over and not predictable.
“Bottles you can really analyze. Plants and organic things are harder to break down that way, so I paint them on a rougher surface and allow for a more chaotic brush stroke,” says Barnes. “It’s when I learn things like that that I think, ‘How could I be painting the same thing in 10 years that I’m doing now?’ because there are so many surprises. It would be ridiculous to confine myself.
“So art, in a philosophical point of view, is just like life—you change, you grow and you’re influenced by your experiences.”
This change is so constant that Barnes, in the beginning, had a hard time signing his work. The signature became this seal of approval that this particular painting was now finished, ready to be hung on a white wall and picked apart by art patrons everywhere. He had to go back and sign every canvas before it went to a show.
“There’s another paradox,” Barnes notes. “You’re never going to arrive at a destination because you’re always traveling there. Signing it became some sort of mark of my arrival at some destination.”
With a few successful shows under his belt, Barnes has arguably arrived on the Salt Lake City art scene. And although he’s toting paints instead of test tubes, he can’t help but note that if it weren’t for friends and family, he may be heading back to school to get that business degree.
“I get a lot of support from people around me, really that’s how I survive,” he says. “And I think my mother even likes my latest painting.”