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For 25 years, artist Barbara Beatty has been dabbling in a controversial painting method. Traditionalist critics and art-school snobs haven’t yet had the opportunity to dismiss her work, thoughif only because she’s been stashing all her paintings, by the dozen, in her basement. But with her first show launching at the Foundry Gallery near Dupont Circle on Jan. 2, the Bethesda resident will admit to gallery visitors what she’s been admitting to her friends all along: She paints from photographs.
“A lot of people think there’s something wrong with it,” says Beatty, 69. “But I don’t.” Her method was frowned upon in graduate art classes at American University, but Beatty was nonetheless drawn to the idea of taking everyday photojournalism and “transforming it into something else”something more interpretive. She compares the process to taking a news article and using its facts to craft a short story.
Since earning her MFA in 1977, she’s painted almost strictly from photos found in print mediarather than “bored models,” she says. She pores over the Washington Post and the Washington Times each morning, searching as much for studio fodder as for a balanced media diet.
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Like those to be featured in her showing, the mostly oil-on-canvas works in Beatty’s 2001 book Views are based on local-news, foreign-news, and sports photos dating back as far as 15 years. Although Beatty says they all remain “faithful to their photos,” some imagessuch as the youngsters viewing corpses in Cambodian Childrenseem less mysterious than others, for instance, the vague mob in Scapegoat. As if to testify to how much is left to interpretation, Beatty admits she can’t recall where the latter scene, or many others in the book, actually came from. Though she keeps track of them now, she used to throw her raw-material photos away.
Beatty has always worked from current events, and it’s no surprise: In the spring of 1946, when she was 11, she moved with her mother and brother to live with her soldier father in Allied-occupied Germany. Living under martial law in a barbed-wire compound guarded by armed MPs, she witnessed History Channel images that are still burned onto her mind. “The scenes we saw…” she marvels. “You’d drive down the autobahn and see a blown bridge. Or you’d go around a corner in the countryside and see a burned-out tank.” She recently recalled such images in her Fog of War, based on a photo of Baghdad during last spring’s invasion.
Having closely watched the aftermath of the Second World War, Beatty took enough of an interest in history to study it as a Duke University undergrad. But after graduating, she did what most young ladies of the Class of 1956 did: “Got married. Had children,” she says. While her husband practiced law, she raised their three kids in various D.C. neighborhoods, often wishing she had a job. By the time her youngest reached third grade, she decided she had to start taking art classes. Not because she had a gift, but because she was curious: “I said, I think I’m decently educated verbally, but visually I’m not.”
The more hooked she got, the more paintings she found herself stockpiling. With the kids grown, she taught art history to high-school students part of the time and painted in the remainder. First at their Georgetown home and again after their move to Bethesda, she and her husband converted a building on their property into a studio. Finally, a friend urged Beatty to put out her book. But a showing, she decided, could validate her decades of work.
“One of the reasons I did this so late is that I never got the feedback,” she says. “They were all in the basement, and I need the feedback.” And if that feedback from some viewers involves a tsk-tsk at the use of photos, Beatty has her response down cold. “I don’t say anything to them,” she says. “I just paint.” Dave Jamieson