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Bo Bartlett

The "Summer of '14" is now a work of art. It is also a work in progress by Columbus artist Bo Bartlett.

In the painting, two teenage girls are riding a bike oblivious to the cloud of smoke behind them.

It was that kind of summer for Bartlett, who worked on the painting in his second-floor studio in the old Swift textile mill on Sixth Avenue.

Things seemed to be going well, but he says he sensed impending doom.

It struck when his 27-year-old son, Eliot, died suddenly.

Recently, Bartlett sat down with Ledger-Enquirer reporter Chuck Williams to discuss his life, his work and his difficult summer.

Here are excerpts of the interview, with some of the questions edited for length and the order of some of the questions rearranged for clarity.

You have a beautiful place here. Did you think you would ever be painting in an old textile mill?

I don't think I ever thought about the location or the structure itself. I always wanted a wonderful big studio, north light. I have had studios all over the country -- some I have built and some I have just rented for short times.

Betsy and I were in Florence not too long ago, and we were looking at these studios on the Via degli Artisti. We were thinking, "God, we could rent one of these." Turns out there were two of them, side by side, not too dissimilar to this. Then the whole cultural thing with the mail system and dealing with the whole culture and mailing paintings back to America all became a bit overwhelming the more we thought about it. So, we came back here and discovered the Swift Mills had just been restored. We walked into this space, and we were, like, "Yes, that is it." Right here at home.

Is that amazing to you that what you were looking for is a building you knew as a child?

There were a combination of elements that brought us back. My father passed away two years ago, so my mother was here along with my sister. I just felt I needed to be close. ... And what we are doing with the Bo Bartlett Center. These things brought us back.

About 10 years ago, I bought my childhood home in Midtown. We have slowly been restoring it, not thinking that we would live here as a primary residence. It turns out, it is the perfect primary residence because from here, you can fly anywhere. And we are in Maine in the summer.

Maine and Georgia is the perfect split for the creative side and the practical side of your life, right?

So much of it is about the light, and the feeling you have when you are in a place. For example, so many of my dreams take place in my childhood home. I use my dreams. I journal them and put my dreams down every night. When your unconscious life and your conscious life are in that kind of marriage you are truly integrated. I think my being here, it is a constant feeling of being home. It feels right. And in Maine I have a similar feeling of peace.

You left Columbus to go study in Florence, Italy. What year?

It was 1974. I was 18.

You had just graduated Brookstone, right?

My senior year, one of my instructors -- I think it may have been Mary Hugenberg, my English teacher -- had given me "My Name Is Asher Lev" by Chaim Potok. Remember that one? The main character, Asher Lev, is struggling with his strong Hasidic upbringings. The culture didn't necessarily want him to be doing painting and figurative art. He was struggling with that, the religious aspects of his life and his call to draw and be an artist. In the book, Asher Lev went to Florence to study.

I was here with my parents -- strong Southern Baptists. You had religion on one hand, and a call to something that could be bigger on another hand. That struggle was ongoing with me. Then I read that book and I said, "I will just do what Asher did." And he was a fictional character -- and I followed his path.

That path led you here over the next 15 years after you left Brookstone?

When I was in Florence, I was drawing a sculpture of a church. I spent maybe an hour on it. I was doing the best I could. I had good teachers at Brookstone -- A.T. Nicholson, Jan Miller -- but I hadn't had any real serious art instruction. Tourists would come by and glance at it. Then they would go down to the next little doorway. I noticed they would stop, ooh and ahh at something in that doorway. After a while, I got curious. So I put my things aside and walked over there. And there was this guy, Lancelot, and he was doing a wonderful drawing of a sculpture. I talked to him and asked how long he had been working on that. He said, "Six months." And it looked like it. It was an amazing drawing. ... He said, "I think the greatest painter in Florence is a young guy, Ben Long." So, I went and found him. It was actually at the Via degli Artisti studios.

I went and knocked on the door, and this relatively young, beautiful woman opened the door. Turned out it was his wife, Diane Long. She said Ben was here, so I went in and he took me as a student.

I would have expected him to be Ben Longi, some Italian guy. He was from North Carolina; he was a vet, and he had just come back from Vietnam.

He had seen a show at the Metropolitan Museum of Pietro Annigoni, the great Italian fresco painter who painted the famous portrait of Queen Elizabeth. Ben went to Florence to study with Annigoni. I didn't really realize that. Ben was there in his 30s with a mentor, as well. I studied with Ben for four or five months and I learned to draw during that period of time. He would sit me down with a root or some sort of skull or something and I would work on it all day, every day. Ben would make his comments and suggestions and show me how to make adjustments. So, in that real intense period of time, I learned to draw. I came back and got married to my high school girlfriend and we moved to Philadelphia with a child that following spring.

First, I went to Philadelphia College of the Arts, then after a year I switched over to the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts, which really focused on painting. While I was there, I entered a degree program at the University of Pennsylvania. By going somewhere that I could really focus on painting, I went to school all day and worked at UPS at night. I rode my bike everywhere and made $40 a week, lived in a really tiny room that was $100 a month. We ate rice and bread.

Could you be doing what you are doing now without the formal education?

That is a great question. It really depends on each artist's circumstance. I know that I left Columbus because I couldn't find what I feel like I needed here to develop. One of the things that I think is most important -- and what we are trying to do with the center -- is people who are artistic... will be able to stay right here. There has never been that opportunity before. ... We hope by the center, which will go into the schools and help with art education in the schools. We have a partnership that has developed, called PALS, and we will be working within the schools. We will actually be helping these kids develop artistically.

The center is part of Columbus State University, right?

Yes, it is.

The Bo Bartlett Center -- and the fact that you will be putting part of your collection here, teaching here, working with young artists and art awareness -- is that a direct result of the fact that you did not have that when you were growing up?

I think it is. I noticed along the way that my work was best if there was a cumulative effect, where you have paintings building on themselves. When I would have a retrospective show, that is when you got the strongest impact of the ideas of the paintings. Over the years, a private collector here in Columbus started purchasing some of the larger paintings. So, that collector is going en mass to the center at CSU. Once that got to roll -- you know, artists have lots of other works, sketches, journals, references, studies for paintings -- if all that went there as well, it would be an educational opportunity. You would be able to see the whole process of a large painting. You would be able to see it from the original sketch on a napkin, to the process of having models pose for it, to compositional sketches for each major painting. It not just for archivists, but for students and scholars. You will have the whole process. This a rare opportunity to be able to do that. My idea was to have it here. This is where it would most comfortably be.

But this isn't Philadelphia; this isn't New York, Chicago; this isn't Atlanta. Do you think this big idea can work in this small city?

I know it will. I feel like there's more unlikely places than this that have become art centers. Marfa, Texas, where Donald Judd was in the military during World War II. He liked the place so much he went back and bought the whole base. It became the center for his art. People make this trek way out to middle of the desert in Marfa, Texas, to see his work.

This in the South is really centrally located. This is the center of the art world. (Laughter).

Certainly the center of your art world?

This is the center of the real world.

This painting over here -- you have two girls on a bicycle and you have a painting of the bicycle above it -- is that an example of what you were talking about?

I did a lot of little thumbnail sketches when I was trying to figure this out. ... The bike was just a single study for me to learn -- it is a learning process. Each one of the studies are a learning process to get closer and closer to what it is going to look like in the final painting.

If you look at the bike alone, it is the same thing but it is different. I mean, the pedals are in a different position than the main painting, right?

I was doing a study of the bike. The pedals up there, I was not concerned about where the pedals might be. Down here, I had to make a decision about where I wanted her pedaling. ... Also, funny little side note -- when they were posing, Betsy had to have her back foot down on the bike so they could steady themselves. There was a functional reason for that back foot to be down. Changes like that are just practical things. The whole idea -- it is called "Summer of '14," it is the anniversary of World War I so it is 1914 -- that feeling of innocence before the whole world changes in some sort of direction that previously it had not.

This was 2014 and I was working on it this summer. My wife, Betsy, and her friend Lark Pelling posed for it. I wanted to make them feel innocent, like right before things change and nothing in life is ever the same again. They are still holding on to some modicum of childhood. So, there is a sense of innocence -- and it really is about that innocence to me. But there is that smoke on the horizon -- the real world is out there and it is an unsettled place. They are moving toward that. Betsy sort of notices it. She is looking toward it.

The other girl is oblivious?

She is enjoying the ride. She is like Norman Rockwell. I wanted to play up that over-the-top sense of joy, but then have that gravity. I have been having this sense of impending doom all summer. I don't know why. Maybe it was Ferguson; maybe it was the Middle East. The whole time I was working on this, I was, like, "Things are pretty good right now compared to where they could go, so I am going to just try and capture this moment." All of the paintings are about trying to capture the moment and the way I feel... at that time. They are a representation of how I am feeling and how I am processing those feelings. Maybe it turns out the feeling of impending doom wasn't about the world at all. Maybe it was a private thing.

Is it difficult as an artist to have a story behind a work and then throw it out into the world to be judged in other ways?

Yes and no. No, in the sense that I try to not alienate the viewer. Lots of art is a transgressive art where it is trying intentionally to prod us in a way that is alienating to the majority of common folk. I don't want that at all. I would like just the opposite. Not that I am really populist, but I would like not to alienate in any way. On whatever level you are viewing that work from, if it is the highest level of intelligentsia or if it is just the man on the street, if you're walking along and see a painting you might find some connection into it. I want people to find a way into it. The representational aspect of it is just that. You look at it. You recognize it as a bike and some girls, and maybe you can just enjoy it for that. There are levels of meaning, and I think those levels are where people who might be art appreciators, collectors or historians, they might see it for different meanings.

My style is I am making the paintings I would like to see in the world. I am not doing it for any type of agenda or strategy. You have to work within your own temperament, you have to be true to your own temperament. That is what I try to encourage my art students to do. When I was coming along, I liked Norman Rockwell and Andrew Wyeth and Picasso.

So, to me those were the things that were art. Well, maybe a little Salvador Dali, if I wanted to be a little weird. But these are things I enjoyed most. To me, that was art because I didn't have any other art education. If it came in the house through a magazine, I got it and said, "That's art."

Other people's experience could be completely different. If you are living in the Bronx and you are on a train going by graffiti, you are going to have a very different visual vocabulary than a kid growing up in a field in Georgia looking at the grass in the afternoon. One isn't more valid than the other. What is important is a sense of staying true to your temperament -- whatever your DNA is. Then whatever art you make is true art regardless of what the style of the moment is. Styles come and go.

You played right into the next question. In our society, we label everything. You are an American realist. Norman Rockwell was an American realist. Is that a fair label?

I don't label myself.

Others do that for you.

Others do it. Unfortunately in the art world the way it plays right now -- the New York art world -- contemporary is the basic form and that is the phrase that is used right now to cover the whole blanket of living, working artist within a genre of post modern. Some people are in that, and some are out. Some of the people who are in the regionalist school or working outside that might not get to be in even if their work is similar because they are not in the inner circle. But it is all valid work. One of the things that I find interesting in the art world is it is most likely not to be written up in the art magazines as the newest coolest thing or at all if it is not the newest coolest thing. So, it is likely not to be written up as the hottest, newest, coolest thing. In music, for example, you have classical music, and it's fine. You have folk music, and it's fine. You have jazz, and it's fine. You have rhythm and blues, you have rap, you have pop, and they are all fine. If record stores existed any more, you could go into a record store and find them in the bins. You can find them on iTunes under those categories, maybe. Choose anyone you want to listen to and it is all fine. Art doesn't really have that luxury right now. If it's not in this contemporary mold, a lot of it's just out. A lot of it sort of cycles out. It is not something that necessarily bothers me because I just do what I do. And luckily I have been successful at it. People buy it and the galleries like it. And I do well.

How much Rockwell is in your work?

I like to think of my work being influenced by Rockwell, but sort of turning it on its head. Rockwell was a master -- a master of narrative, and a master of the ability to tell a story, probably unlike any other American painter.

And he had a great medium for distribution with the Saturday Evening Post, right?

Yes, he did. And some people think of him just as illustrationist. I can remember just 10 years ago, you could actually buy a Norman Rockwell and they were affordable. They were in the thousands of dollars. I was coming along and they were always just slightly more than I could afford. I almost bought one about two years ago, but I didn't. They have just gone astronomical.

He wanted really badly to be liked. He wanted to be liked more than I wanted to be liked. He wanted people to love the work, and not alienate anybody. So that's why they are American to the sense of being patriotic at times. He was trying to find the everyman and a common thread throughout the culture. Whether or not that was a fabrication -- and many historians have gone back and written it was a fabrication; I grew up in those times and I didn't think it was a fabrication -- I thought he was representing the world around us. But I think many people didn't have that experience. In later life, he became more political when he married his last wife. He represented what was going on in America.

You say you have remained true to yourself. How difficult is that?

This is something else I talk to my students about. You have to have a certain amount of ego. And the ego is just sort of an ego strength, in a way. You can't have too much ego that it comes around and bites you. You have to have just enough to protect yourself from all the barbs and all the arrows that are coming, but not so much that you inflate yourself so much that you can be popped with a pin like a giant balloon. You have to find this middle ground where you are secure in what you believe, but your mind is always open. Artists are like sponges. We want to take in all the information you can, but you have to remain as objective as possible. So you don't necessarily form opinions or make judgments. You are just looking, looking, looking. That is where words don't have as much to do with it or ideas don't have as much to do with it. You are just taking it all in, processing it, and letting all of that inform what you do.

What does the trained observer see in his hometown that he didn't see as a 16- or 17-year-old kid?

Growing up, do you remember what it was like? You could walk everywhere. You could ride your bike everywhere. There was not nearly as much traffic, and Columbus stopped at Cross Country. There was nothing north, of course.

We got to go everywhere. I would go to the Bradley or the Georgia Theater and get in with RC bottles I collected along the way. I loved growing up here. We were middle class, growing up in Midtown. Our house was in the woods. Fifteenth Avenue was a dead-end street, it was actually our driveway.

The freedom to roam, and the freedom to just sit and experience and look at the light, I found out some things healthwise. I have an anomaly from birth. I don't have a left vertebral artery, which means that the blood flows to my right brain, but it takes a little while to get to my left brain. That is why I had trouble speaking. I didn't speak until I was 4 or something. In school, I had speech problems. I didn't like writing. I liked drawing. It was all because I was experiencing more visually and not verbally.

I was able to overcome those things to the extent in high school I was giving drawings to math teachers to survive. (Laughter).

To answer the question ... coming back, the light is the same. It is a nuanced feeling to me about the wonder of the light and how it comes across Alabama and strikes the room, especially in the late afternoon. The iron particles turn it a pink. It is light like nowhere else. Here and painting, I am so inspired by that. In a way, it is the same impetus that got me going when I was young.

Now I am able to harness it. As one gets older, you know you only have a limited number of paintings left in you. Hopefully, I will live for another 40 or 50 years. For a while, you are just painting like wildfire, then you get to a point like "what do I really care about?" You start to hone your vision to the things that are most important and the things you want to get out before you are not able to do it any more.

Ballpark figure, how many paintings have you painted at this point in your life?

Thousands. How many thousands is hard to say. I do a drawing or watercolor wash every day. I mean, we do hundreds of those a year. They just pile up and will eventually be going to the center.

One painting could have hundreds of drawings behind it, right? That is marketable work in today's art world?


I have to have at least one big painting going on. Right now, I have three. It is circumstantial partly because of what happened this summer. If I don't have one big painting going, I feel like I am not sure why I am alive. It gets me in here every day to try and resolve what I have started.

What time of day are you most productive?

I am in here every day -- with a little flex time -- between 9 and 6:30. A break right at noon and I go down and have lunch with Betsy in her studio. That has been my schedule basically since I got out of school in 1981.

When I first got out of school, I would work little longer hours because I was still in the habit of working at UPS all night.

When I got out of school, I would paint portraits to survive and work on my own paintings after that. Now, I am past the point of having to paint portraits to survive. I love doing them, but I don't do them very often. I just paint people I know and love.

You have to have incredible discipline to do this, right?

People say that. But when you're in it, it doesn't feel like discipline. You don't have an alternative. You love doing it and you want to do it. And if you are doing anything else it feels like you are off track. ..,

There was a point when something just clicked and I knew I could paint exactly what I wanted to paint. Part of that was having learned to have drawn under Ben Long. The other part was studying concurrently while I was at the academy with Nelson Shanks. Nelson was one of the great American portrait painters. I spent two years with Nelson. I painted side by side with him. ... Back then, he had two students at a time. One of them would be the student who had been there the longest, maybe a year. And another student would come along. He would have one experienced student and one new student. He was flanked by students. ... Nelson didn't say much ... he just let you paint. But he painted the whole time. He painted the model. He would mix his colors, not say a word. Any time we would take a break, the students would go over to his pallet and look at the painting and look at what he had done. We would learn. He didn't explain it. He showed it. ...

I think all great art comes from that knowledge and strong foundation and you build on top of that. You don't just throw somebody out there and say, "Express yourself." You have to have the history. You have to have the skill set.

So it is not all God-given ability?

You know God is a big question. Who knows what that is? I don't know. You have a little talent, then you have a certain amount of ego or drive or desire to do something with it. Or you just find a sense of meaning. I know my brother and sister could draw better than I could as a kid. They always won the ribbons at the Chattahoochee Valley Fair and in school. I just drew harder and they eventually stopped. My sister is a good photographer, but I just kept at it.

It was a valid option for me. I thought about maybe wanting to be a minister for a while -- or a clown. Those were the only two options I had. Maybe being an artist I got to incorporate all of that stuff. I get to preach a little bit; I get to have a little fun, entertain.

Are you offended your work is an investment for some people?

No. It is an honor. If anyone likes the work for any reason, it makes me happy. ... I think it is more important to be grateful for all of the people who do understand it and are attracted to it.

People all over the world who own your paintings, right?

Yeah. I have been lucky.

Did you think that was possible 40 years ago?

You know, that's a good question because you don't even think about it. You put your head down and you work. You have short-term goals and long-term goals. I have long-term goals and you are not there yet. I think it is really important for students to structure it that way. You have to have short-term goals where you know you can meet them. You have long-term goals you are still working for. I learned to paint portraits so I could make a living if people didn't like my paintings. ... I am honored when people buy my paintings. I have a strong collector base and I have been blessed.

Do you think about the monetary value of your work when it leaves your hands?

In every studio I have ever had -- until this one about a week ago -- I wouldn't even discuss money. Not even discuss money. We had open studio and sold some things to friends and family. It was the most practical place.

I have always had that rule, and in theory it is still my rule. You have to be responsible so you can make enough money to pay your rent, pay your bills and tithe. You want to make enough money so that it is not an incumbrance on making the work. Making the work is the only thing that matters. Betsy and I joke if people completely stopped buying the work -- you know, 2008 was a tough time for artists because people stopped buying the work; art is the canary in the coal mine; if something is coming up, people stop buying art; we can tell you when things are in a downturn --

we would be in a tiny garage, painting and eating crusted bread, happily. Because nothing else matters. It's not about the success or financial reward. It is about the work you are making, and the truth of the work you are making. Hopefully it finds some connective tissue out there.

You see your wife Betsy in a lot of your work. She's a model, wife and artist in her own right, a musician. She's a lot of things, right?

She's an angel.

Why do you say that?

She is a light being. She is enlightened. She is well informed. She is very loving. She's able to gauge situations and not make harsh opinions and rash judgments. She is able to stay very steady. It is a real gift to be in a relationship like that. Our temperaments are very similar. We are well matched. We can both be very sensitive, and we are both relatively optimistic. So, going through life together is a joy.

I want to get back to this painting in your studio. You talked earlier about an impending doom. You have had a tough situation in your personal life in the last few months. Do you want to talk about it?

Long pause) Yeah, I can talk a little bit about it. (Pause) I think the important thing to realize is there is suffering. Everybody suffers. And we are just here for a short time. And life is short. We are going to lose family members. And we are all going to lose loved ones at some point, being if they are a parent, a sibling or a child -- in an ideal world, we prefer it is not a child. The natural order of things with age, the older ones pass first. We expect that. When one loses a child, it is a disruption of what we think as the natural order of things.

The silver lining -- if there is a silver lining -- is there has been an outpouring of love from everybody that has been overwhelming. For us, it has been a strength to us. I don't know if we didn't expect it, because you are not expecting any of it, but it has really lifted us up and made much stronger bonds between us and the community here and our friends across the country. And within the family, as well.

We're all going to go. Eliot just went ahead of me. And I look forward to seeing him again.

Many writers I know write through pain. Do artists paint through pain?

I don't know what other artists do, but the work always has been a form of sublimation for me in psychological terms. Whatever emotions I am having, whatever feelings I am having, I sublimate them by putting it on the canvas. And that's the way I continue to go forward. So, whether it is anger, sadness, love -- whatever it is -- I paint it. And the paint holds it. That is the magic of why painting has life. It transubstantiates.

The paint is no longer just pigment. It is something that is a living, emotional, vibrating thing that gets in the paint and lives there. People actually see a painting and say, "I don't know what it is about it, but I really feel something." It got put there. It is somewhat intentional. And sometimes it's by grace that it actually happens because you have to have a balance of your own effort and leave room for the gods to agree it is all feasible. So, I have been working with a painting about it since his passing. It is not finished yet.

Can you look at your work and see the highs and lows of your life?

It's there in the work.

In the body of the work?

It's all there. That's the thing, I am not hiding behind anything. If I have a feeling, an issue, whatever, I just put it out there. That is what I think is the power of it. I really believe in art as a form for transformation. Not just for the creator of the work, but for the viewer of the work.

It is a way of living through the feelings of your life and evolving, really. And not being afraid of things. It would be easy to say this pain of the passing of a child is too much and therefore I am going to distract myself and go to the movies a lot and I am going to do whatever one might do to distract one's self. We don't have a TV. I have never had a TV. I just don't watch that stuff. I don't believe in distracting yourself.

What we are calling it is the opposite of distracting one's self. It is being alive in the moment -- every moment. And if it is pain you are dealing with, deal with it and work through it. Allow the work to be respectful of that process.

How do you want to be remembered?

Pause) I am not asked that question every day. Mr. (Bill) Turner when I was young and I would be struggling with something, I would often call him and he would counsel me on it. One time I was struggling with something in my family and relationship and he said, "Well, Bo, what is the loving thing to do for the most number of people?" His way of phrasing it was a servant leadership way of approaching it. In a way, it is what has formed much of the transformation that is going on in Columbus right now.

For me, it is a holistic way of thinking -- if every decision we make, we base it on what is good for the whole, and I think that is the way we need to operate.

If we are going down the street and we are just lazy and throw trash out and think nobody is ever going to see us, OK. Our actions can't be as such. If everybody just did what we did, it would be impossible to drive down the street. Every action we take has to be thought of -- does this make the whole better or not? So, you have to have a sense of responsibility.

And the way to help the whole system is each person at what level they are is doing the best they can do.

If you are doing the best we can with the worldview -- whether we are a religious person, a scientific person, a Baby Boomer, a post-modern thinker, whatever -- then you are the best person you can be. The important thing is to find connection between you and those who are different.

So, how would I like to be remembered? Hopefully, I won't have to be remembered for a long time. ...Just someone who tried to stay true to their core temperament and left the world slightly better than they found it. That is all we can hope for: To leave the world better than we found it.

Chuck Williams

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