Robert Barra knows the value of a good lesson. His awareness of ‘life’ as an artist and lessons learned along the way are framed in a stunning showcase of innovative ‘firsts’ and successes in the industry. This, and a true enjoyment of art, is what he brings to the classroom as an Armory instructor.
Early on, he started drawing figures and remembers a teacher remarking that he was, ‘a very good drawer.’
“I always knew I could draw,” said Barra, of West Palm Beach.
What he didn’t know then, was what was coming next. “She said to me, ‘You are drawing a foot, but it’s not her foot.’”
“I learned a big lesson,” he said. “The lesson is draw what you see, not what you know,” he said.
Next, he started painting, and with it, another lesson presented when an instructor entered a classroom and handed out big paintbrushes and lots of white paint. Then, instructed the class - poised at their adorned canvasses - to paint broad strokes of the white paint over their work, as if to erase it.
This lesson? “It’s not that important,” Barra said, adding that he doesn’t permit erasers in his class. “If it’s that important, we can start again… We can paint another one,” he said.
He helps the artisans in his classes learn to critique without criticism, especially when they aren’t ‘pleased’ with their work, applying another lesson learned. “Don’t take criticism as rejection…it’s just an opinion.”
His understanding about knocks in the career he calls, ‘a hard business,’ come from his vast experience.
Early earnings as an artist in the late 60s came from work in ‘spot’ drawings – small art renderings used to complement restaurant reviews, for example, when photographers didn’t come with the magazine’s budget. “If the ambience was fish, or candelabras, I drew them…I did a lot of those,” he said.
Barra’s style of instruction in the classroom is to encourage artisans in student-led fashion. He doesn’t refer to his class participants as students, but ‘artisans,’ stating that many who take classes at the Armory are experts in their craft who want to create art together. Others span in skill and talent, from beginner to professional. “People come to the Armory because they love art,” he said.
Despite being highly-acclaimed and actively involved and recognized in artisan competitions, he won’t draw or paint in front of his class, encouraging them to, ‘do their own thing.’
“They come into my class and I let them take the ball,” he said. “(Their work) is like a signature, it won’t be like anyone else’s.”
When Barra steps into the classroom, it’s his personal invitation for people to come, visit, and experience what he calls the “excitement” that the Armory is all about. “Sit in on a class, start a dialogue,” he said.
He shares stories about turning points in his career that he says were not planned. “They just happened,” he said.
Like the time an art director on Madison Avenue noticed he had the ‘eye and the knack.’
“I spent half of my lunch hour helping rearrange the layout of the magazine,” he said. “One day, the editor asked to meet.” This led to his career as an Art Director of magazines for 21 years. “It was magic.”
Work and projects with popular high-end publications like the New York Times, Gourmet, and the New Yorker took him to Europe and favorite spots along the way to enjoy painting. At one time, his still life works were featured in four galleries in SoHo, and again, he reflected, “it was magic.”
He was asked to lend eight of his paintings to a television set design with culinary icons James Beard and Julia Child, he said yes. “Viewers called in,” Barra recalled. “It was just wonderful…they sold one at a time!”
When describing his career as an artist, his enjoyment comes through again and again, as he recalls moments along a timeline of hits, misses, successes, rejection, and landmark firsts – like rolling out Bergdorf Goodman’s inaugural, and world-class-signature catalogue. He was recruited by the iconic, posh department store for his innovative approach to hopping on with the then ‘popular’ ski-wear push, newly on-trend. Barra’s concept and idea: ‘Let’s do an event,’ led to a fashion show and shoot. “We hired models, photographers…it was magic.”
That ‘magic’ led to Barra stepping into the commercial advertising business and ultimately launching his own, successful ad agency. “I am open and way out there, and that is what helped me,” he said.
To artisans he meets, he keeps advice focused on the basics, like finding a gallery and connecting with other artists. “Keep going, create a body of work, and find something that no one else is doing.”
View works by Robert Barra on Instagram at: barra5401
About the Artist:
Robert Barra studied at the Rhode Island School of Design, the Art Students
League, and is an elected member of Allied Artists of America. He is listed
in the Who's Who in American Art and has won many awards including The
Windsor and Newton Award of Excellence. His work has appeared in the
New York Times, Gourmet, and the New Yorker. He has exhibited at the
Butler Institute of American Art, the National Art Club, and the Salmagundi
Article contributed by Laura Louise Tingo, JSS Marketing & Public Relations