Interview with Brenda Barnum: From Farm Girl to Serial Painter

Chicago painter Brenda Barnum was born in 1955 in Hartford, Wisconsin. During the 70s, she was employed as a layout artist in the advertising department at Boston Store in Milwaukee. She attended The Minneapolis College of Art and Design from 1978 to 1980. In 1980 she transferred to the San Francisco Art Institute and lived in San Francisco until 1984. In 1984 she relocated to downtown Chicago.

Exhibiting nationally and internationally since the early 80s, she is represented by Thomas Masters Gallery in Chicago; Butters Gallery in Portland, OR; and Walter Bischoff Gallery, Stuttgart, Germany. She lives in Rogers Park with her partner, Steve Press, their dog, Elote, and Bob the parrot.

Brenda Barnum Demonstrating Her Painting Technique

ArtStyle: You were born in Kettle Moraine area of Wisconsin. Would most Americans know where that is?

Brenda Barnum (BB): No, I think people in Wisconsin would know it but nobody else would. The Kettle Moraine area was formed by the glaciers; it is filled with lakes, ponds and rolling hills. I was born in Harford. When I grew up there, the population was about 3000. I really spent a lot of tome in Barnum, Wisconsin, on my grandparents' farm. It is in southwestern Wisconsin, on the Kickapoo and close to the Wisconsin and Mississippi rivers. It had a population of perhaps 30.

ArtStyle: Is your last name (Barnum) connected to this land?

BB: Yes, my great, great grandfather acquired a lot of farmland. It's actually an unincorporated village, but it's on the map. My parents both grew up on farms. They had had enough of it. The work is hard and financially very difficult. Farm fields and pastures surrounded our home but we lived in “town.” My father worked as a farm consultant for awhile, then sold life insurance, and kept a Dixieland jazz band on the side. He played trombone. My mother was a housewife — she stayed at home and took care of everyone and every thing.

Elote. Oil on canvas, 36” x 36”. Courtesy of the artist.

ArtStyle: The imagery of the farmland, the smells, the sensations, and the atmosphere from your developing years must be so potent. Are they reflected in your art?

BB: I think it's hard to avoid the subconscious images that you acquire when you're young. Even when I try to do something very different, I notice a repetition in imagery, movement, and rhythm.

ArtStyle: How and when did you decide to become an artist?

BB: I think it was the finger painting in kindergarten. I always drew as a kid and continued throughout high school. After high school I studied commercial art and design. I knew it would be difficult to make it as a painter.

ArtStyle: After working as a commercial artist, you attended the Minneapolis College of Art and Design and majored in film and painting. What were your experiences at that time?

BB: I was studying painting but was very interested in film. I was good at editing and enjoyed working with images in sequence, but preferred the immediacy of painting. I was working in a figurative mode — large scale. I was very ambitious. It was the late 70's — punk rock era — and the paintings had to be big, “bad,” and figurative. Minneapolis was a wonderful learning experience. But the winters were lousy, so I transferred to the San Francisco Art Institute.

I had just married a fellow student/painter, Wesley Kimler, who was originally from Minneapolis. We needed a new experience and warmer weather. I studied at The San Francisco Art Institute for a year and a half and then I dropped out and lived on my student loan money. Wesley attended school for three days and quit. I had my own painting studio and basically worked on my own. There wasn't a grading system. Anything you wanted to do was okay. I felt that they weren't teaching me anything that I couldn't learn on my own — the only way to learn how to paint anyway. I did take my work in for critiques. I studied with Robert Colescott and he was very supportive and amusing. The influence of the Bay Area painters — Diebenkorn, Joan Brown, David Park, Oliverra — was very inspirational. There was a great sense of humor, a lot of energy, and color.

We Fee

Wi Fee. Oil on canvas, 16” x 20”. Courtesy of the artist.

ArtStyle: Where did you live and work in San Francisco?

BB: Originally in the Mission district, which was an education all in itself and then to a loft space in the American Can building, a huge industrial building across from the Bethlehem Steel Yards, where a lot of artists worked and lived. It was pretty rough. You had to walk down a long hallway and take a freight elevator up three floors in order to take a shower that you shared with 20 other people.

ArtStyle: Did you find artistic osmosis there?

BB: I was busy just trying to pay the rent and keep up with the financial part, which of course I still am, 30 years later. I never felt like I belonged there. I had that mid-western work ethic and everyone else seemed to be taking the day off to go to the beach. The Can Building wasn't legally zoned for live-in studios, so eventually all the artists had to move out. After a while I got tired of all that and decided to move to Chicago.

ArtStyle: What was the “magnet” that pulled you back to Chicago?

BB: There was something intriguing about being back in this city — the architecture, the weight of it all. I was surprised because we thought that it would be another little stop, maybe a few more years of school and then on to NY. I had a lot of wonderlust when I was younger, and it was hard to stay in one place for a long time. But, I fell in love with Chicago after my first few months here. It's a comforting city. It was rather dark and dirty at the time and I loved that too. There were a lot of affordable loft spaces for artists in the early 80s, so it was very easy to set up a working / living space. We considered studying at The Chicago Art Institute. (Back then, San Francisco, Minneapolis, Kansas City, Philadelphia and Chicago Art Institutes were all in the same union so students could travel around, study at different schools, and not lose their credits.) Instead of continuing with school, we rented studios and started painting.


Recliner. Oil on canvas, 16” x 20”. Courtesy of the artist.

ArtStyle: How did your work change in Chicago?

BB: My work became more industrial. I lived in the Des Plaines-Fulton building and had a perfect view of the Sears Tower and the Chicago skyline. It was a rough living space but worth the inconveniences. I worked with a lot of aluminum radiator paint. My main imagery was abstracted skyscrapers. I still used the figure but it was slowly disappearing. Eventually it was distilled down to torsos and I-beams.

ArtStyle: So where is the “farm girl” in this?

BB: She left. I was in the heart of the city. There was nothing green, none of that influence at all.

ArtStyle: Were you still working in the expressionistic mode at that time?

BB: Yes, large brushstrokes, very “drippy.” Then in the late 80s, once again, the downtown artists were forced out of their live-in loft spaces. My marriage wasn't working, and I eventually moved to the north side of the city. It was more residential, greener, and I had a garden for the first time as an adult. I began doing some flower studies, and my work took on more organic forms. I was still showing larger abstract paintings, and hiding the flower series, as I was a little insecure about working in a representational mode again.

Tulips. Oil on canvas, 36” x 60”. Courtesy of the Artist.

ArtStyle: How do you feel about those flower paintings now?

BB: Now, 15 years later, after pushing them and mastering my craft, I'm perfectly fine with the subject matter. They were somewhat successful financially. A number of images were published. I was able to quit my day job and put a down payment on my home.

ArtStyle: How would you describe your present work?

BB: I work on 3 different series. This helps break the repetition. One addresses floral concerns.

Rosebud. Oil on canvas, 48” x 36”. Courtesy of the artist.

Another abstracts or “deflowers” those images and reflects what's going on in my life at the moment. Right now they evolve around my interior space: still lifes with mechanical forms, reclining women on Steve's vintage marshmallow sofa (which is impossible to recline on by the way).

Finally, a “pile-up” series is about sensory overload, multitasking, and the clutter of existence.

Pile Up. Oil on canvas, 16” x 20”. Courtesy of the artist.

The third series is inspired by my Xoloitzquintle (Mexican hairless dog). He hangs out with me all day and is hard to ignore. He's also “naked” and has an amazingly sculptural form. It's good drawing practice. It's easy to paint something you adore.


Xolo. Oil on canvas, 36” x 60”. Courtesy of the artist.

All of the series overlap and play off of each other. It's a good learning experience.

ArtStyle: You seem to be very interested in the process of creating art. Is the goal important?

BB: The process or the journey — that's where the fun is. I need to have a show or a deadline in order to finish things. So, I like the goal but I always keep “starter dough” — unresolved or beginnings of paintings around for fuel.


Larry. Oil on canvas, 48” x 36”. Courtesy of the artist.

ArtStyle: Could you talk about 1997 when you met Steve and about your life in Rogers Park since then?

BB: Steve comes from a family background of art and collecting. He's very supportive. He has a good — albeit quirky — sense of design, which helps me break out of my mold. He is an emergency room physician, but he had a modern design / vintage furniture store when I first met him. He juggles a lot of different interests. I'm fairly one sided; I'm just a painter. I can be and have to be selfish with my time.

The Rogers Park move has been very healthy for both of us. I was getting tired of being in the city, so I think it really saved me living half a block from the beach, walking the dog by the lake every morning. I don't have that “stuck inside” winter depression anymore. There is a different sense of space and openness in my work that reflects this. I understand why painters love to create seascapes.

ArtStyle: What does it take, in your opinion, to be a good painter?

BB: Time, diligence, mastering your craft, imagination, lack of fear, and a great deal of faith.

ArtStyle: What would you do if you absolutely knew that you could not fail?

BB: Make paintings without worrying so much.

Brenda Barnum’s upcoming shows: Biro Restaurant, Sheboygan, Wisconsin, Dec. 2007; Thomas Masters Gallery, Chicago, group show, Jan. 2008; Websters Wine Bar, Chicago, Feb. 2008; Architrove, Chicago, March 2008.

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