Art Class for the Barnes Builders

Art Class for the Barnes Builders

The Philadelphia Inquirer

Stephan Salisbury
Inquirer Culture Writer
November 3, 2011

PHILADELPHIA —The Barnes Foundation gallery may be closed in Merion, the priceless collection stripped from its walls.

The new Barnes on the Parkway may still be under construction, earthmovers crunching swaths of ground, workers hammering away.

But students are still viewing Barnes images of Cezanne, Matisse, Renoir, and de Chirico anyway. They are still actively pondering the relationships of paintings, objects, furniture, architecture, and nature.

And they are doing so in a most unconventional fashion - via slide projections inside a construction trailer across 20th Street from the building site on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

There, in a small, hot room, often interrupted by chirping BlackBerrys and other insistent demands of the workaday world, with one wall crowded with practical construction drawings and another hidden by a marker-tagged whiteboard, members of the construction crew building the city's newest museum are taking time to study art and aesthetics.

Every Wednesday for the last several weeks, John Gatti, painter and education director for the foundation, has been conducting in-depth seminars on the Barnes collection and the ideas and pedagogy behind it.

Members of the construction crew suggested the class themselves.

"They had a hunger and a desire to learn what this whole thing is about," Gatti said before class Wednesday afternoon.

"They love the building. They love the work. And they understand that they are living a part of Philadelphia history, cultural history. They want a more intrinsic understanding of what their role is."

Seven members of the L.F. Driscoll construction team crowded into the room and, for nearly two hours, Gatti showed slides of images from the collection and of the seemingly mysterious juxtapositions they formed on the Barnes gallery walls. He spoke directly to the experience of his students.

"You guys know every corner, every shadow, every pipe," Gatti said, referring to the museum rising across the street. "You know what's going on behind the walls and below. That's art. That's craft and its art. It's your curiosity and interest that brings us to a discussion of the artwork."

And away they went.

Through Matisse's vivid portrait Le Rifain Assis, painted in 1912-13.

"Anybody have any comment?" Gatti asked.

"He looks pretty confident," said Jack Garrett, site supervisor, after a moment of silence.

"Yes! Why?"

"The way he's posed."

That led into a discussion of aggressive associations. Gatti put up an image of a muscle-bound bodybuilder. He showed an image of a striped djellaba that Matisse used for the painting. He brought in Ingres' portrait of Napoleon on his imperial throne.

He moved effortlessly into an exposition of the formal characteristics of the painting, its organization as a treelike triangle above a square, which led directly into a discussion of the relationship between art and nature, a painting and its environment.

"My first year teaching I had people coming in and and saying, 'My kid could do that,' " Gatti told his transfixed students. "I had to take them through this whole thing of who Matisse was . . . and the complexities of it."

This class for workers building the gallery - which will open to the public in May - is not as incongruous as it may seem. Albert Barnes, the collector who made his fortune on an antiseptic medicine called Argyrol, conducted classes for the workers in his own small factory here in Philadelphia.

Every day at 12:30, workers would assemble for two hours of art appreciation, courtesy of Barnes, who poured his money into works by impressionist and early modern masters.

Barnes believed art was an essential educational tool, one that would not only enrich lives but also kindle creative energies.

The crew members attending Gatti's class would not argue. The class has been a revelation.

"I'm in the gallery building and go walking around and see these big walls," said Dennis Cook, an assistant superintendent on the site who had never been to the Barnes in Merion. "I envisioned giant pictures. Big art. I never thought of all these little pictures. Never thought that. So it's been very interesting."

Marc J. Peraino, a superintendent, said he had indeed been to the Barnes in Merion, although "five years ago I never heard of the Barnes."

He went before the gallery closed in Merion in July and now he wants "to learn a little something about the art."

Garrett, site supervisor, played a key role in arranging the classes. He wanted to further the Driscoll company's training program, for one thing, in order to "bring out the comparison between construction and art," he said.

The response has been enthusiastic. Workers leaving the site for other jobs have asked to return, just for the art course.

"The light and color and line and repetition is in almost everything that we do," Garrett said, alluding to formal elements of the Barnes aesthetic. "One of the things the classes have taught me is that . . . the workforce is very creative. This is helping us see that. And it allows us to build something beautiful."

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