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RCA Worker and Impressionist Painter

Kathryn Stanko

Photo: Hoag Levins

Kathryn Stanko has been working for three years to gain Impressionist artist John Pierce Barnes the recognition he never had in life. She is the curator of his collection and is writing a book about his work.

CAMDEN, N.J. (Feb. 28, 2010) -- John Pierce Barnes is not a name that leaps to mind when you think about notable persons connected to Camden history. But for several years, Pittsburgh art representative Kathryn Stanko has been working mightily to get public exposure for this largely unknown RCA industrial designer who moonlighted as an impressionist artist.

And in the last two years, she's gained some real traction. Her latest triumph is a two-month Barnes exhibit
The Camden County Historical Society show focused largely on Barnes' pastels. This one is titled "Reflection."
at the Camden County Historical Society's museum opening concurrently with the publication of a six-page spread of Barnes' work in the American Art Review journal.

"Camden is famed for its 20th-century manufacturing industries, but most people don't understand how many artists and designers were employed here. It was a city of design and art. Barnes' is just one of many untold stories of those now-forgotten artists," said Ms. Stanko in an interview at the show's opening.

Fine arts
John Pierce Barnes, a native Philadelphian, went to work at the Victor Talking Machine Company in 1926 and remained there until he died in 1954. In 1929 Victor was acquired by the Radio Corporation of America, which later became RCA. For twenty-eight years, Barnes designed product parts there, including the ornate wooden cabinets that housed the company's record players and early radios. But on his own time, he was a fine-arts artist searching out his subject matter along the back roads of rural Bucks and Chester Counties.

Strangely, he never sought public recognition of his work. When he died at 61 in 1954, he left behind a body of landscapes and portraiture consisting of about 70 oils, 100 watercolors and 30 pastels. That collection remained stored away by his heir and only son, Pierce Barnes.

By accident, eighteen years ago, art gallery sales rep Kathryn Stanko crossed paths with her first-grade teacher, who happened
Barnes, a student of the New Hope School, worked in oils, pastels and watercolors. Here, a snow scene in the backyard of his Delaware County home.
to be John Pierce Barnes' daughter-in-law. Though they kept in touch, it was fifteen years later that Stanko learned her teacher's father-in-law was a painter who had produced a substantial collection of impressionist art -- and that it had been locked away for decades.

"In a round about way I had known of this man for fifty years -- since I was in first grade, yet I was completely unaware of his art," said Ms. Stanko. "When I first actually saw the collection -- all of it at once -- I was bowled over. It was beautiful. John Pierce Barnes was an exceptional artist, and it was amazing to think that none of these works had been exhibited since the 1920s."

In 2007, the family retained Ms. Stanko to curate, promote and sell pieces from the Barnes collection. Ms. Stanko herself is an artist and designer of the Metalace brand of jewelry sold in galleries and museum gift shops (

Promoting an unkown
"This project has been been more challenging than I originally thought, but I've learned alot," she said. "As I've talked with museum curators and archivists over the last few years it's made me even more passionate about Barnes' art. But in the beginning it wasn't easy -- museums and galleries wouldn't talk to me other than to ask 'Who is John Pierce Barnes?' Nobody had ever heard of him."

At the time, Ms. Stanko worked in Bella Arte, a tiny gallery then located in Pittsburgh's Shadyside
Barnes' oil "Little fence" is typical of the New Hope artists whose work captured the essence of an earlier, simpler rural America.
art district. And that was where the first Barnes exhibit was launched.

"You never want to ignore the potential of small beginnings," she said. "Pittsburgh Tribune art critic Kurt Shaw wrote a beautiful review. That tiny gallery exhibit really gave the Barnes collection feet."

Those "feet" walked it to the attention of the Butler Institute of Art, a regional museum in Youngstown, Ohio, that has a gallery solely devoted to pastels. The 2008 Barnes show there went well enough to be invited to extend its run.

Philadelphia's Woodmere Museum
And that put it on the radar of the Woodmere Art Museum in the tony Chestnut Hill section of Philadelphia, which is keenly interested in work by Philadelphia-area artists. The Woodmere's 2009 Barnes show featured 70 pieces and was enthusiastically reviewed by the Philadelphia Inquirer's Edward J. Sozanski. The Woodmere itself acquired Barnes' "Sunset," which depicts the distant Philadelphia skyline as viewed from high in an RCA building on the Camden side of the Delaware River.

While his oils, watercolors and pastels are now attracting increasing attention, Barnes the man remains an enigma. Aside from his actual artworks, he's left behind virtually no information about himself. There are no letters, journals or other writings from him or his contemporaries providing any sense of the real person.
Barnes' portrait of Walter H. Gardener, a fellow Academy student who went on to become a New Jersey senator.
The recollections of his elderly surviving family members are thin. Only two tiny photos of Barnes are known to exist. In addition, Ms. Stanko said she's been unable to find any personnel records of RCA or its predecessor companies for that era. "What I've heard is that all those records went into the Delaware River a long time ago," she said.

Barnes' son -- now in his eighties -- remembers that his father served in the U.S. Navy in World War I. Draft board records indicate that Barnes had the tattoo of a tinsmith's insignia on his right arm; that he was 5'9" tall and that he later signed up at age 49 to fight in World War II but wasn't taken. It's also known that sometime in the early 1920s, as a pandemic of encephalitis lethargica, or "sleeping sickness," swept the world, Barnes contracted the disease and suffered lingering symptoms for the rest of his life.

Surrendered himself to art
After the war ended in 1918, Barnes surrendered himelf to his art in schools that enabled him to associate with some of the era's most influential artists. The first two decades of the 20th century had been a time of great ferment and tumultuous change in the arts as traditional realism gave way to an explosion of avant-garde techniques such as Impressionism.

Impressionists used loose patterns of tiny dots, strokes and splotches to capture the overall effect of a scene
Impressionists did just that -- used cryptic brushwork to capture the essence of a scene rather than the detail of the scene itself.
rather than its specific details. Such images are often ethereal, dream-like visions focused on a landscape's delicate lighting.

The Impressionist style first emerged in Paris in the late 1800s among groups of artists who favored painting "en plein air," a French term meaning "in the open air." They were the first to popularize the use of fold-up wooden easels and portable wooden paint boxes as mini field studios. It was part of a new ethic demanding that one fully engage the reality of the subject landscape, rather than trying to remember or recreate it at a later time in an isolated studio room.

By the turn of the century, one offshoot of this movement took root in the artist colony at New Hope, Pennsylvania, and its members became known as the "Pennsylvania Impressionists" or the "New Hope School." Their work, which depicted landscapes of Bucks and Chester counties, reached its peak of national acclaim just as John Pierce Barnes was entering The Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Art (now known as the University of the Arts) in Philadelphia. He won two student awards there.

Daniel Garber's influence
Then, in 1921, the 28-year-old war veteran entered the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts were he studied until 1925. The Academy was the country's oldest art museum and school and an institution of international renown for both its collections and
"A Day to Paint" is one of the pastels that Barnes did on sandpaper. The individual in the picture is believed to be a fellow Academy student.
its faculty members. One of those was Daniel Garber, a leading member of the Pennsylvania Impressionists and one of the country's most exhibited and awarded fine artists. He became John Barnes' teacher as well as a window to the inner circles of the New Hope artists community.

Much of the current Barnes art collection consists of a flurry of pastels, watercolors and oils created during his years of association with Garber. Ms. Stanko said her research leads her to believe that Barnes was one of Garber's best students, which is quite something given that Garber taught at the Academy for forty-one years.

In 1921 and '22 Barnes work was displayed at Philadelphia's annual watercolor and miniature exhibition. He obviously excelled as an Academy student, winning prizes including two school grants that allowed him to travel and live in the art centers of Europe. On the second trip in 1923, he was accompanied by his new wife, Lola.

Bucks County en plein air
Part of the Academy curriculum included frequent en plein air trips through Bucks and Chester Counties with Daniel Garber, who could be a stern teacher. Ms. Stanko
Barnes wandered the areas around the Delaware River to find scenes like "The Front Porch."
recounts one of the family stories: "Barnes was out with Garber and other students one day when Garber asked 'Who has a canvas? Who has a canvas? I need to show you something.' John Barnes had this beautiful oil in the trunk of his car, and Garber took it and said, 'Here's one.' Then he started sketching all over it in pencil. Can you imagine? I was told that Mrs. Barnes said her husband never got over that incident."

As he finished Academy schooling in 1925, the local arts community was preparing for the latest rounds of new professional exhibitions as well as the exciting and unique art opportunities offered by the soon-to-open 1926 Sesquicentennial World's Fair in Philadelphia. But that same year, John and Lola Barnes were pregnant with their first and only child.

Making a living at RCA
Instead of pursuing a full-time career in the fine arts he had studied so intensely, Barnes took a job in the industrial arts department of the Victor Talking Machine Company in Camden, grinding out blueprints, logo designs and product decorations.

"I think Barnes could have made his living as a fine-arts artist," said Ms. Stanko. "But he went into design
At RCA and its predecessor companies, Barnes did industrial design work, like these escutcheons for wooden radio cabinents.
because he felt that is how he would support his family."

Barnes and his wife settled in Springfield, in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, and his daily commute was a long one involving the train, the trolley and the Delaware River ferry each way.

Nevertheless, for the rest of his life -- and his twenty-eight years at Victor and RCA -- Barnes spent many weekend and vacation days sketching and painting in Bucks and Chester Counties as well as Maine. But he never again attempted to enter competitions or exhibitions.

"He never sold any of his own work," said Stanko. "His son Pierce told me he remembers his father as a quiet man and a very, very private person; almost introverted. When Pierce visited the Woodmere exhibit last year, he said, 'Oh, my Dad would have been so uncomfortable to have a public display of his art like this.'"

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