Cape Cod artist’s devotion to Mary inspires exhibit

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By Kenneth J. Souza, Anchor Staff

CENTERVILLE, Mass. — After just a few minutes in the presence of Sam Barber, the renowned painter and American impressionist, three things become readily apparent.

First, he has been blessed with a God-given talent that is beyond comprehension.

Second, as a recent convert to Catholicism, his intense faith would shame even the most devout, life-long Catholic.

And last, but certainly not least, he has a deep and infectious love for the Blessed Mother.

“I pray to her because she has the power over everybody,” Barber told The Anchor. “She is beautiful and she is the mother of the Lord.”

While best known for colorful seascapes and striking portraits inspired by and depicting the people and places around his Cape Cod home, Barber recently began to focus his attention on Our Lady.

So the oil paintings of sailboats in Hyannisport harbor and depictions of the Nantucket lighthouse that line his two-level Osterville studio have now been supplemented with portraits of the Madonna and Christ child.

“I’ve been painting Mary now for almost a year-and-a-half,” he said. “I do a lot of different types of works — landscapes, boats, scenery — but inspiration can come so quickly.”

In honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the fruit of Barber’s Divine inspiration is now on display throughout the month of May inside the Msgr. Perry Parish Center at Our Lady of Victory Church in Centerville.

A dozen of Barber’s paintings comprise what is being temporarily called the “Holy Mary Gallery,” which also features two crucifix sculptures he fashioned out of branches and his private collection of “Mary rocks” that bear an uncanny resemblance to iconic poses of the Blessed Mother.

“I’ve collected images of Mary for the last five years,” Barber said. “To me, each one is unique. I see Mary in everything.”

Barber gathered most of these stones during long walks on Sandy Neck Beach near his home while praying the Rosary on one of the sets of colorful beads that he also fashions himself.

In fact, he traces his devotion to Our Lady and his eventual conversion back to these prayerful walks.

“I prayed to (Our Lady) to help me sell my house in Hyannisport, because I couldn’t afford the taxes anymore,” Barber explained. “She helped me out.”

Noting that a slagging economy and an inability to sell his artwork at the time created some serious financial hardships for his family, Barber felt compelled to rekindle his faith. Although he had been raised in the Greek Orthodox faith, in subsequent years he drifted from religion altogether.

But through friends and acquaintances, he often found himself attending services at Our Lady of Victory Parish.

“Over the last five years I would come (to Our Lady of Victory Church) and sit and listen,” he said. “I came here many times for weddings and funerals when Msgr. John Perry (was pastor). I always felt I wanted to do something with Mary. She was my favorite.”

When Barber confessed to his friend, Barbara Fitzgerald, that he was thinking of becoming a Catholic, she immediately introduced him to Father Patrick Tarrant, a retired priest who assisted at the Centerville parish.

“He’s such a holy man and he came to my house and saw my paintings,” Barber said. “He told me we had to get together every week for lessons for about six or seven months. Then one day I was with him in a restaurant and I told him I’d like to convert today and he said: ‘Let’s go.’”

Barber’s Baptism into the Church was a revelation and through Mary’s intercession he was able to sell his Hyannisport home and move his family into a more modest house in Centerville, about a mile from Our Lady of Victory Church where he now attends Mass regularly.

Calling Mary “the queen of everything,” Barber said she is one of the most unique and beautiful things about Catholicism.

“Catholics are so devoted to Mary,” he said. “I respect her because she is the queen of the Church, the queen of Heaven, and she’s done so much for us.”

The paintings in the Holy Mary Gallery range from traditional poses of the Madonna with Christ Child to collages featuring depictions of Our Lady of Fatima and Our Lady of Guadalupe, to moving portraits of Mary at the foot of Jesus’ cross at the crucifixion.

“She has sorrow, but she is happy because she knows everything is coming back and she knows He is going to be risen in three days,” Barber said. “I tried to capture what I knew about that moment, because since I’m an artist I have a vision and you can see Jesus on the cross at the top of the hill and at the bottom you can see Jerusalem. I’ve seen that in different paintings, but then I added my own interpretation.”

Barber said he bases most of his paintings on existing works but then adds his own unique style and point-of-view to the composition.

“I’ve looked at the artwork of Bernini and Michelangelo and I copy some of those old masters but then I change them,” he said. “I change the positions of the hands or the poses and I add my own vision.”

Although his image of Mary isn’t based on any one person or model, he sees her in his own unique way.

“Whenever I see a beautiful woman, I think to myself: ‘My God, she looks like Mary,’ but she doesn’t have the halo or the spirit or the grace,” he said.

“To me, this is what Mary looks like,” he added, pointing to a painting depicting a teen-aged Blessed Mother holding Baby Jesus. “She’s petite, she’s not a big girl, she’s small but she’s beautiful. Someday I hope to see her in my dreams and then I’ll know what she really looks like.”

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As Barber conducted a guided tour of the Holy Mary Gallery, he would often call each painting his “favorite” until moving onto the next one, which then received the same level of affection.

“One of our parishioners, Tom Duffy, just came back from Lourdes and brought me pictures of Our Lady from the grotto,” Barber said. “So what I’m going to do is I’m going to take those (photos) and enlarge them and make them into prints and I’m going to paint them.”

Noting that he works on upwards of 15 paintings at a time, Barber is forever fine-tuning and tweaking his artwork.

Pointing to a work-in-progress called “Mary Rose,” he offers a quick critique.

“It’s not finished yet, I need to do some more work on it,” he said. “You can see there’s a lot of light on Jesus’ legs; it should be in shadows.

“I work on one for maybe an hour, an hour-and-a-half. I’m doing a commissioned work now for Father Mark Hession of the Our Lady of Victory Church building and grounds. I just finished it for him this morning.”

Having lived on Cape Cod for more than 35 years, Barber’s artwork is clearly infused with a bright and airy color palette that captures the essence of the area.

“Surrounded by water causes the sky to change from green to green-blue to aqua-light blue, sometimes in a matter of minutes,” he said. “When I first came here to study with Henry Hensche, I knew right away that this was the place for me and that I would stay.”

In keeping with the tenets of impressionistic painters like Degas and Monet, Barber never uses blacks or dark browns in his paintings.

“Black has an oxide chemical (in it) that eats the other colors,” he said. “If you remember John Singer Sargent, he was a great portrait painter, and about 35 years ago I went to the Boston Museum and I was admiring one of his paintings — the girl with the pink dress — and more recently I went back to see it and the whole thing looks gray because he used black. Even her face and the skin tones have faded.”

Barber will be sharing some of these tricks of the trade during art class workshops for adults and children next month at Our Lady of Victory Church, with all proceeds to benefit his home parish. 

“I’m going to teach classes to two different groups,” he said. “I’m going to have young people for one class, because I’m going to explain to them the love of flowers, the love of colors, and the love of two colors together; how yellow is the happy color, and how red is the love color, the blood color.”

A longtime fixture at the prestigious Wally Findlay Gallery in New York City, which sold some 2,200 of his paintings over a 24-year period, Barber’s impressive list of clients over the years has included everyone from the Kennedys to Fox News Channel president Roger Ailes.

“I’ve sold paintings to a lot of famous people, I’ve sold paintings to the royal family, to the Kennedys, and a lot of important people have come to my home to buy paintings,” he said. “So if I drop dead right now, I did it all for the Lord and I leave everything behind to tell the stories.”

Barber, now 70, seems content to be working for an even more powerful client these days.

“I hope God will give me a dog’s life,” he said. “Maybe if I’m lucky, I’ll live another 10 or 15 years so I can do a lot more painting.”

Sam Barber’s “Holy Mary Gallery” is now on display in the parish center of Our Lady of Victory Church, 230 South Main Street in Centerville, throughout the month of May. Viewing times are during parish office hours: Monday-Thursday from 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. (closed for lunch from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m.); Friday from 9:30 a.m. to 12 noon; and Saturday from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m.

Sam Barber’s art classes will be held at Our Lady of Victory Church on June 7 from 10 a.m. to 12 noon for adults and on June 21 from 10 a.m. to 12 noon for children, ages 10 to 15 years.

To register or for more information, call Lisa Aubin at 508-775-5744, extension 119, or email lisa@olvparish.org.

© 2017 The Anchor and Anchor Publishing  †  Fall River, Massachusetts