Hanging on a wall, in a studio in Flora, Miss., designed especially for her by the renowned architect Samuel "Sambo" Mockbee, is one of the most beautiful paintings in Lea Barton's studio. The gorgeous black woman featured has long hair that cascades gently over her shoulder. A close look at her hair reveals the sentence "I Am Not Afraid"—the title of the piece—over and over and over. Around her are pieces of old wallpaper that the artist stripped from plantation homes, intricate patterns that speak nothing of the horrible places from which they come. There are also baby-doll heads, gently held in delicate fingers, strategically placed on the canvas. One probably couldn't begin to fathom the number of things the woman in the picture—or the artist—does not fear.
Coming Out of The closet
Lea Barton's passion sought her out.
When she was younger, she sketched and drew, but heard repeatedly that art couldn't take you anywhere and didn't pay the bills. She finally became so discouraged that she destroyed all the artwork she'd ever created. By the time she graduated high school, she was almost embarrassed that she'd been so taken by artistic expression. She ignored her urges, until they were no more. Or so she thought.
Barton's father—Henry Smith—didn't believe a girl needed to be formally educated past high school, so she had no further education to direct her. Needless to say, fine art was never a consideration. Starting off as a secretary, as they were called at the time, the creative woman who had asphyxiated her artistic desires eventually spent 16 years of her life in the legal profession.
"I learned a lot about myself in all that time," Barton, now 50, says.
The more the artist proactively disregarded her passion, the more she knew that art was something she had to do. "I told Ken," her husband and "soul mate" of 10 years, "after we'd been dating for a while that I had something to tell him."
Although she had nothing to show for it, Barton told Ken: "I'm not who you think I am. I'm an artist."
"And he believed me, child! I'd never told anyone else that," she says.
Shortly thereafter, at age 36, Barton enrolled at Millsaps College and majored in art. That wasn't enough for the woman whose passion had given her a second chance to claim it, though. The Millsaps grad then headed to Brooklyn, N.Y., for two years to get a master's of fine arts at the Pratt Institute.
Barton had finally embraced who she was created to be. She was out of hiding and ready to turn her memories, her thoughts, into art.
"When I was growing up, we used to own a store. Lots of people would come to our little store. White and black people. There was one little girl who used to come in all the time with her mother. She was so cute, and her plaits would stick out. I wanted my hair to do that," she says.
Barton and the girl, who she assumes was about her same age, weren't allowed to talk. There were certain people you didn't talk to as a little white girl in Yazoo City, and that included little black girls. "We had conversations, though. We just didn't speak out loud. Our eyes would meet, and we would just talk to one another," Barton remembers.
One day, frustrated because of the way things were, Barton asked her grandmother, whom everyone called Big Sparky, why she couldn't talk to her "friend."
"My grandmother had to explain to me some harsh realities. I'm sure it was difficult for her, because she didn't care about skin color or money or any of those other outside things. She believed in judging people on their actions," Barton says now.
While Big Sparky schooled Little Sparky—Barton's childhood nickname because she was so much like her grandmother—about some of the harsh realities of growing up in the '50s, Barton was not satisfied.
"I knew that things shouldn't be the way they were. I was determined to not let something that seemed so wrong dictate who I would be," Barton says.
Growing up, the Smith family moved around quite a bit; Father Smith was in the military. Everywhere the family went, though, Little Sparky didn't allow her sense of fairness to be squelched.
"I've always run in circles that I wasn't supposed to run in, and done things that I wasn't supposed to be able to do. I adopted my grandmother's philosophy about people. Trust people until they show themselves not worthy of your trust," Barton explains.
Lifetimes later, at a flea market, Barton came across a portrait of a little black girl with two pigtails. "She reminded me of my friend from the store," she says. "I had to take her home with me."
The artist left the flea market that day, portrait in tow, and has used the image repeatedly in her work. The little girl's haunting, but sweet eyes pierce your soul in "Look Away, Look Away," one of the pieces from Barton's most recent collections, "Another Lost Cause."
Going to The Chapel
"It would take a special person to buy this piece," Barton says, standing in front of "Look Away, Look Away," contemplating. "It says a lot."
The painting repeats the image of the little girl, southern belles, a striking black woman with long, flowing hair and a white woman who peeks out from behind a veil. These femme fatales, in their own right, are trapped behind chicken wire.
"The wire is confining, but there's also something beautiful about chicken wire: its repetition."
The unnamed little girl isn't the only one who finds herself repeated in Barton's pieces. Even in the 21st century, one of the first images that come to one's mind when thinking about the South is antebellum homes, parasols and corsets that help show off bulbous-bottomed dresses. For some, the imagery may cause nostalgia; for others, anger. For Lea Barton, women in corsets and princess-shaped dresses convey images of conflict.
Southern belles and women clothed in wedding dresses are throughout "Another Lost Cause." The individuals in these paintings and their feminine physiques force you to look at them. To consider them. To empathize with them.
"If I can get your attention," she says, "then you're going to think about the work—even if you don't like it. The world requires 15 to 30 seconds of your attention; I want more than that. Even if it's hatred, I want to illicit a response."
An observer notices quickly that women in wedding dresses are easy to find in Barton's work. Wedding dresses represent so much, she says. Promise of a better life, promise of a worse life, promises. They're all wrapped up, there, in that little white dress—particularly, it seems, for Southern women like Barton herself.
"I thought I was in love the first time I married. I was, but it was also a way to escape. I wanted to get out of my father's house," she reminisces. "It didn't last very long, but it got me out of the house," she says. That marriage lasted about a year.
Barton says it saddens her to think that young women still have the same attitude she did so early in life—that you have to have a man to have a life. She finds it tragic that "feminism" has become "just the other 'f' word."
"There's nothing wrong with being able to stand on your own two feet, child," she exclaims. "What's so wrong with that? I don't know why people think because a woman is willing to take charge that there's something wrong with her. That doesn't make you a bitch. It means you're strong and expect equality. And you can still be a lady in all of that. Feminism is humanism."
When Sunday Comes
One afternoon, sitting in the locally famous Weidmann's restaurant in Meridian, Lea sat with her best friend, Louise Webster. The two have considered each other best friends for about 10 years and have giggling fits with one another, just like 16-year-olds.
As the two sat, eating, they were surrounded by images of beauty queens. There was a white woman with big, blonde hair to the left, and a white woman with big, brunette hair to the right. White women with big, pageant hair were everywhere—the stuff of dreams.
"I just sat there looking at these pictures on the wall and wondering where the black women were. I know lots of beautiful black women. If these walls were supposed to be filled with images of beautiful women, why weren't there any other shades of tan on the wall besides mine?" she says.
Barton and Webster, whom she calls her sister, talked about the imagery of people of color, particularly African-American women, for a long while surrounded by the pageant girls.
"The more I thought about it, the more disillusioned I became because of the art we see depicting black women. She's either sitting on the porch, holding a baby; standing over the stove cooking something with a little white girl tugging on her dress; or she's out in the cotton field with a wide-brimmed hat on smiling. I don't do a lot of cotton-picking, but I doubt that it's something you smile while doing," Barton says.
What came next was quick. Barton said, "I'm going to do something about that."
And she has. From this dining experience, "Sunday Morning" was birthed. This is a collection of 30 paintings. Each painting is a Webster woman—mother Webster, her daughters, sisters, nieces, the daughters-in-law, cousins and, yes, Lea herself. In each portrait is a woman with a glorious crown—a church hat—atop her head. A careful look at each painting finds pages from hymnals that tells a small piece of each woman's story.
"These are powerful women. Doctors, lawyers, principals," Barton exclaims. "This is them in their glory, not slaving over a hot stove. Although, some of them can really cook!"
These portraits won't be broken up, she says, but must be displayed together as one piece. Individual portraits tell one story, but collectively, they tell a bigger story.
"Even if it never sells," she says, "that'll be fine with me. I won't break it up … it means too much."
Little Sparky, Big Sparks
Much of Barton's more recent works have a collaged look. The canvases are often layered, she says, because the work is pluralistic—particularly her work surrounding the South.
As the recipient of two Mississippi Arts Commission fellowships, Barton is ecstatic that the work she's done about her home state is recognized by the state itself. Additionally, the artist's work has been featured in the prestigious Mississippi Invitational.
"It's a really big deal," Barton says. "It was such an honor to be recognized. It's humbling."
Barton's impact reaches beyond this state, too. Her work has been shown in the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C. The curator of the museum was so impressed with "Dixie Refining," the piece Barton had on display, that it's become a part of the museum's permanent collection. Barton's representatives at Perry Nicole Fine Art in Memphis and Cole Pratt Gallery in New Orleans also keep her quite busy.
"It may sound trite, but you can go home again," Barton says. "Even with art. You always come home. It's a gift."
A great testament to the power of the arts. You can't escape it. I first got an up close and personal look at Barton through Ebony Gee's show Southern Spirit. She is really passionate about what she does, and it shows.
- c a webb
Thanks, Natalie! I enjoyed this article. It makes the art and the inspiration come alive.
This story is so far from the truth it should be removed. THE TRUTH SHALL SET YOU FREE.
Beautiful article, Natalie. Forgot to say so initially, but it rocks...
- Tom Head
You must enjoy fiction.
truthful, if you've got something to share, now'd be a great time to show it to the world. Otherwise...
Otherwise...STFU! Seriously. You can't expect to make those kind of allegations without being challenged to tell "the truth"!
- Jeff Lucas
the truth hurts. Its sad that some think they have to fabricate their past just to enhance their careers.