The best art lessons come from her students

It’s an early autumn day, and the sun still thinks it’s summer.

Artist Heather Barros soaks it in on the terrace of the collegiate Gothic-style Manor House on the campus of the Princeton Academy of the Sacred Heart, off of the Great Road. As a tenant. Barros runs a school, Art Collaborations, here.

On nice days like this, Barros takes students outside to paint and draw. “We do a lot of making things,” says Barros. She enjoys the outdoors so much, she also teaches Hatha yoga classes here on Sunday mornings.

In summer, Barros’s Art Collaborations students make puppets and marionettes, as well as backdrops, and produce puppet shows. They decorate the boxes the puppets are stored in—Barros pulls out a marionette, like a jack-in-the-box, with lifelike hair made from yarn, “diamond” earrings and jewels at the neck, a gold brocade headband and ceramic head and hands. A tray of small pink hands sits nearby. Barros takes the clay pieces home to fire in her kiln. On a nearby shelf are books from which students create tales: of Arabian nights, Greek myths, Japanese stories. “They also learn about costumes of a culture,” she says.

The Groton, Massachusetts, native always loved art, but studied geology at Mount Holyoke, graduating in 1975, then studied metamorphic petrology—the study of rocks formed under high pressure and temperature—at the University of Massachusetts. She met Ricardo Barros there, and they married in 1978, moving to Lambertville in 1980 for his job.

Together the Barroses had three children. Instead of buying toys, Heather would make things with them. While her two sons and daughter attended school, she learned how little art education was offered, so started a program that brought Lambertville’s artists into the schools. By 1990, they moved to Princeton and she began teaching preschool art classes in the basement of the Arts Council. Soon this became a half-day program for kindergarten students.

“Then I realized I wasn’t an artist,” says Barros. “I couldn’t paint. We had been learning together as we went along. I would ask, ‘how do you draw seashells?’ and we’d figure it out together.'” To teach teenagers, Barros felt she needed to improve her skills and, in 2001, began taking intensive classes with Russian classical painter Gregory Perkel, both privately and at the Arts Council of Princeton.

“Before Gregory, I was just painting simple explorations in watercolor,” she says. In contrast, among her recent work is a painting made at dusk of her studio, the lights from her classroom space glowing from within. “The classes gave me the technical skills to do oil painting.”

Perkel would talk to the class about the difference between painting something profound, versus meaningless art, she says. “Just a movement in relationship to a figure makes a big difference. Capturing that moment, say, a pause in conversation, as if one person just asked a question and is waiting for the other’s response. That was the kind of thing he’d force us to think about.”

A 2014 painting, “The Question,” does that very thing, in a room with light washing in from a window. A man holds a cup of coffee, looking at a woman. Also holding a cup, she is looking down, thinking of the answer to his question.

Another painting is of a fellow art teacher who was down on his luck, without a job, a place to stay, food. He is pictured at a table in Barros’s kitchen, his hands open, empty, expressing his need, as light washes over him. “The hands also show what he has to offer,” says Barros, who has titled the painting “The Offering.”

Barros has traveled to India and Iceland. She has hiked the Himalayas and been out West, but her inspiration comes from her own backyard. When painting landscapes, she may paint from Greenway Meadows Park in Princeton, or create an imaginary path through a foggy field. Sometimes Barros works from photos, sometimes from life, and sometimes from her imagination. “If you do all three, you get better at all three,” she says. “Painting from memory, you understand what’s important and it helps to simplify.”

What she likes best about teaching is what she learns from students. “I am in awe of children’s artwork. After 25 years of surrendering myself to them, I should be able to paint the way they do, but I still can’t.”

Along with fellow artists in the Art+10 Collective, Barros will have an exhibit, Around the World and Around the Block, at the Millstone River Gallery at Merwick Care & Rehabilitation Center in Plainsboro, November 5 through January 20 with a reception December 1, 5-7 p.m.

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The Artful Blogger is written by Ilene Dube and offers a look inside the art world of the greater Princeton area. Ilene Dube is an award-winning arts writer and editor, as well as an artist, curator and activist for the arts.

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