Bill Barter finds hope and happiness in abstract art
By Meda Kessler
Bill Barter’s Arlington home is filled with things he loves.
Oil paintings and framed monotypes hang in each room; his studio and a spare bedroom are packed with flat files and boxes overflowing with works on paper, drawings from correspondence classes and other pieces done during his 30 years of experimenting with different styles of art. Shelves hold collectibles — sculptures and tiny carved wood skeletons from Santa Fe — and art books featuring Barter’s favorite painters, including Frank Stella, Robert Motherwell and Ellsworth Kelly. There also are photos of his family, including his late wife, Jean, who died a year ago. They were married for almost 70 years.
Barter, who uses a wheelchair due to a long-ago issue with his spine, makes his way through door frames not quite designed for easy access as he gives us a tour. Pulling pieces out of a box, even he seems surprised at how prolific he has been, although at age 91 he paints every day.
“I make things that I like. After many years of looking at art, contemporary art in particular, I have liked work which is abstract, with little or no recognizable imagery, and has “something else” about it, some arrangement of formal qualities that grabs me,” says Barter. “I have worked in oil and monotype, now exclusively oil, in a constant attempt to achieve that ‘something else.’ ”
He eases himself into a comfortable chair to talk about how a physics major who worked in the aerospace industry became an artist.
“Starting in the ‘60s, I enrolled in art classes at universities and museums wherever I happened to be living at the time,” says Barter. “And I took correspondence courses by mail.”
He and Jean moved to Arlington in 1963 when he got a job with LTV, an aerospace firm, and later, Lockheed Martin. He eventually got involved in Arlington’s young art scene as a founding board member of the Arlington Museum of Art, which at one time focused on Texas contemporary art. He also served as president, twice, and was a volunteer at the AMA.
In 1990, Barter was instrumental in organizing “Woodwork,” a show featuring Texas artists who worked in wood or used it in mixed-media pieces, such as Otis Jones. In the program’s introduction, Barter acknowledges the help of gallery owners such as Pam and Bill Campbell, founders of Fort Worth’s William Campbell Contemporary Art, and Dallas’ Barry Whistler.
“I have great memories of what we did for the Arlington art scene and the connections I made by being involved,” says Barter.
In 2001, he became a docent at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth and worked long enough to earn emeritus status. And he continued to paint, receiving invites to juried shows and exhibitions around Texas.
“One of the best things to happen to me was to become a member of the Fort Worth Art Collective,” says Barter. This group of professional artists works together to show their art in a variety of venues. Coordinator Bernardo Vallarino praises Barter not only for his work but for always showing up for exhibitions and supporting other members.
It was through the FWAC that Barter met photographer Becky Wilkes, as the two were part of a late 2022 show called “Duets.” She visited Barter at home and photographed him in his studio. And after discovering that he has nearly 1,000 pieces, she got involved with his February retrospective show at Arts Fort Worth, curated by Robert Long, exhibitions manager.
Barter is obviously flattered but remains calm about all the attention. His response to major life events is, “Well, that happened.” This attitude has helped him continue to create, especially after Jean’s death.
But he confesses that it’s always a thrill to see his work hanging in a show. “I suspect that I’ll look up and think, ‘Wow, that’s me.’ “