Artist Charles Barnes
“I think it’s beautiful”
by Bill Weaver
photos by George Bredewater
Charles Barnes lives in a house/studio/gallery on Old Nashville Road near the north entrance to Brown County State Park. It looks small from the outside but once inside you discover a maze of rooms stuffed to the gills with paintings, drawings, objects d’art, and books.
Scores of upended brushes wave hello as I enter. A hundred pipes are arrayed neatly on the wall. Art books lie open on tables and chairs, each turned to a painting or an artist that Barnes wants to share with his visitors. His home is like a giant Cornell box, or Kurt Schwitters MERZ home.
I’m here with George Bredewater who acts as guide and interpreter for his old friend. Barnes, who is 87 years old, suffered a stroke 23 years ago that paralyzed his left side and left him without the power of speech. After a long, determined rehabilitation he can get around just fine. He drives himself to the library each day, reads vociferously, and keeps his house a heck of a lot neater than I keep mine despite a long life of collecting strange objects. But speech is still a problem for him. He talks in short, loud, sometimes profane, bursts. If he needs to explain or elaborate he hands you one of the open books that sit on every flat surface. It seems a particularly cruel affliction for a man who was once noted for his robust speech, whether lecturing on the meaning and beauty of art, at dinner with friends, or brawling in a neighborhood tavern. He feels lucky despite it all.
“Maybe what you’re going to do, Bill, is absorb some atmosphere,” George tells me as we prowl amongst the many watercolors in Barnes’s small gallery where he offers his truly beautiful paintings for sale to the few people lucky enough, or curious enough, to stop by.
Barnes was a recognized and celebrated artist from his very earliest days at the John Herron Art Institute where he studied with his friend, cartoonist Dick Wingart. His work has been exhibited in the National Art Gallery in Washington, the Los Angeles County Museum, and everywhere in between. To list them all would fill the rest of this article. The list of his accomplishments is nearly as long, from art director for Argo Films, to war correspondent for the Indianapolis Star, to art teacher at the Brown County High School.
He was also friends with some of America’s great painters. “Did you know Jackson Pollack?” George asks him.
“H___, yes! 1930,” Barnes forcefully replies. That was when Pollack was still a student, long before he eradicated art’s last great boundary.
Barnes is equally comfortable with either representative or abstract art, but for George, “Jackson Pollack, he’s just a little far out for me.”
“I think it’s beautiful,” Barnes replies.
“He knew Georgia O’Keefe,” Bredewater goes on. “Did you see Andrew Wyeth in Pennsylvania?”
“Years and years and years,” Barnes replies, which is answer for things that happened before his stroke.
“We won’t get into how many times you’ve been married,” George kids him.
“Yeah, I don’t give a d___,” Barnes agrees amiably.
In fact, his longtime companion, Rosalie Dilts, lived right next door. “She worked in Indianapolis, George goes on. “Rosie looked after old Charlie.”
“How many cats did she have over there? About 70 cats?”
“She was a beauty,” George concludes and to which the photographs on the study table attest.
“Charlie was a wild man,” George goes on. “He’s known some weird and wild people.
“He had a sports car, worked in Hollywood—everybody was a friend of his.” Barnes was part owner of a design studio on Sunset Boulevard with Dick Turpin. “Turpin was an architect. He designed rooms for houses and Charlie did the interior decorating. They really had a going thing.”
Barnes spent four years in the service during World War Two, put to surprisingly good use by the army where he served with the 704th Engineers as chief camouflage technician. His duties were to hide petroleum pipelines and gas booster stations. Using skills perfected making abstract art, he used the natural materials at hand, such as weeds, grass, and leaves for this work. He traveled with the American Army from Africa, to Sicily, Italy, and France. During this time he made many drawings of the destruction he found in the wake of war. I sit at his desk looking through clippings of some that were printed by the Indianapolis Star. Even on aged brown newsprint they are affecting, powerful, and exquisitely drawn. Ruins, barbed wire, and blackened earth are depicted with the same sense of balance and control as the watercolor landscapes in his gallery.
“I think for his age he’s doing pretty good,” George says. “He is self-disciplined despite his little handicap.”
“Isn’t that awful?” Barnes says as if talking about someone else.
“But he can still go ahead and do the artwork.”
“Yes!” Charles laughs.
“The Lord left you that.”
“It’s something,” Barnes acknowledges. “You don’t know about that [with a stroke].”
“Charlie tells me that he does a little artwork every day.”
“Well, sure, I have to,” Barnes says, as if talking about breathing.
As George takes him outside to photograph I find a passage in his scrapbook from a lecture given by a younger man. “These creations,” he said, “When invented by an artist, can bring the same joy of relaxation, elevation, and animation of spiritual life as music.”
I’m sure the older man agrees.