Self-Taught Pittsburgh Artist Gets First Solo Exhibit At Age 89

Mar 6, 2019

Not every self-taught artist gets a solo exhibit. Fewer still earn the privilege at age 89. 

So you can excuse Chuck Barr for being a little disoriented.

"The Art & Zen of Chuck Barr and 12 Other Self-Taught Artists" continues through March at the Irma Freeman Center for Imagination, 5006 Penn Ave., Bloomfield. A closing reception with artist talks and live music is 7-10 p.m. Thu., March 28.

“I don’t know how I feel about it ’cause I’m so excited. It’s my first big show I ever had,” he says. He laughs. “I’m just out in outer space about it.”

Barr is slightly built, his beard silver, his thinning hair in a short ponytail; he laughs readily and expresses a youthful enthusiasm for all things creative. He’s standing in galleries of the Irma Freeman Center for Imagination, in Bloomfield, during the opening reception for “The Art & Zen of Chuck Barr,” featuring more than 50 of his paintings and sculptures. It’s a highlight of his half-century making visual art and music, seldom with a thought to making any money off either.

The show happened because an old friend of Barr’s introduced him to independent curator Pat McArdle, who specializes in work by self-taught, or “outsider” artists.

“He took me over to his house and I was knocked out, to say the least,” says McArdle. The Highland Park home Barr and his wife, Mary, have shared for 28 years is full of Barr’s abstract and impressionistic paintings. “I like Chuck, and Chuck and his art are one and the same. They’re exuberant, they’re color[ful], they’re full of life, and they sing. They put a smile on everyone’s face, mine included.”

Music and art have been Barr’s lifestyle for some 50 years – though his work as a street musician and self-taught artist has been largely unremunerated.

He was born in Beechview, in 1929, into a family where everyone, he says, played piano. Barr loved jazz; he started on drums, then got hooked on tenor sax.

His father, he says, beat him and his older brother, Tom. When Barr was 16, he and Tom ran away to Chicago. Barr tells a wild story of briefly living there just after World War II: staying in “fleabag” hotels for 50 cents a night, working night turn in a factory spray-painting toy guns, and playing alongside his piano-pounding brother in a West Side nightclub till the wee hours.

Barr lasted only two-and-half months in Chicago – too much beer and pot, he says – and returned home “a skeleton.” Barr’s brother would die of tuberculosis, at age 27; Barr himself recovered, but his efforts to fit into the postwar economy were unsuccessful. Sandwiched around a two-year stint in the army during the Korean War, he tried everything from moving furniture to selling vacuum cleaners, and even baby photos, door to door.

“I was trying to prove to myself that I could fit in,” he says. “And it never worked.”

While his mother had encouraged him to take art classes as a child, and the whole family played music together, Barr says, his father derided his saxophone playing. “My father would tell me, ‘You’ll never make nothing out of yourself. All you do is make noise all day long,’” Barr says. “So that made me question, ‘Hey, wait a minute man, is this good, this art, or is this bad?’ So it sort of confused my mind. So I been confused ever since. But I decided to give into the art, and be a beautiful soul, and be myself, and the heck with him.”

After leaving the military, Barr married, and he and his first wife had two children. The marriage ended in divorce, and in the 1960s, Barr found himself, now in his 30s, living communally among the students and artists of Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood. He took up visual art, and busking on flute and saxophone; he still has a copy of a 1980 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article, headlined “Spring’s Rambling Minstrel,” that describes him hanging out around the Carnegie Library’s main branch and Flagstaff Hill, playing music al fresco and offering free lessons on the instruments to anyone who was interested.

For years, Barr has lived off Social Security checks.

“They consider me disabled,” he says.

“They realized he had a problem holding a job,” says his wife, Mary. They’ve been together since 1973.

Their home in Highland Park greets visitors with a hand-painted sign propped on the concrete front steps directing delivery people to the side door; the sign is lavender, and decorated with smiley faces and orange flowers.

The open-air porch is stacked with some of Barr’s paintings from over the years.

Many of his materials are reclaimed.

“When they tear down walls, I pick up pieces of material and paint on them,” he says. “When people buy their paintings, they get ’em cheap at the 5-and-10, and get rid of them and throw ’em on the sidewalk, I pick those paintings up and paint over them with my soul, and keep the frames, and then I paint the frames.”

Inside are many more artworks – hung on the walls, perched on the mantel. An array of flutes lies on the dining room table, the rest of which is covered by folders, envelopes and artworks in progress. Beneath the table are several hand-drums; against one wall sits an upright piano. A framed photo on the mantel shows Barr about 40 years ago, dark-haired and playing flute outdoors at the Three Rivers Arts Festival.

Barr makes art daily, drawing with a ballpoint pen and painting with acrylics and pastels. Many works are abstracts, but some are impressionistic. One is painted on a breadboard.

“This is a picture of Molly, we had a golden retriever,” says Barr. “She died at 12-and-a-half years old. Now this is my wife, Mary, reading. There’s her hand, there’s her face and there’s the book. So what I’m trying to do with my art is unite the animal world with the human and make them one. That’s why when I made this painting I tried to incorporate the dog with her body as one. And here’s another example.”

“I don’t follow any formula with my colors, I follow my instinct,” he says. “My instinct tells me paint it blue, I paint it blue! It tells me paint it green, I paint it green!”

He calls his art “musical.”

“I would say it’s jazz rhythms, you know, like these lines that go around like that, it just makes me think of – boom boom boom, like maybe a bass solo, boom-boom-boom-boom-boom.”

(Barr says he doesn’t busk much anymore, but he still plays music. “I sit down to the piano, and I’ll be playing four, five, six hours without stopping,” he says. “It’ll be getting daylight. And if Mary, my wife, didn’t tell me, ‘You better stop, man!’ I would play all the next day, probably!”)

There are hundreds of artworks in his house, including sculptures in found materials from wood and clay to stone. Some works are technically still in progress. “This painting here could be done in the ’70s, yet it’s never finished,” he says. “You could see I’m trying to develop it with that little white cat. You could say my work is never done.”

Barr’s approaches to life and art are closely linked. “So I’m trying to, you know, understand myself and not condemn myself, put myself down, but realize, ‘Why does something have to be so perfect all the time?’” he says. “And like sometimes I look at a painting and it’s unfinished and I see that unfinished painting as being a great painting because it’s unfinished! There’s some beauty in that space that’s left, that’s not filled in. So maybe it’s all right!”

“The Art & Zen of Chuck Barr and 12 Other Self-Taught Artists” opened March 1. (Barr had the Center’s big front room to himself.) As part of Penn Avenue’s monthly gallery crawl Unblurred, it was well attended.

Some visitors were old friends of Barr’s, including Giuseppe Scalomagna, a former neighbor who now lives in Oakland.

“I met Chuck when I was still a teenager. More than 20 years ago,” said Scalamagna. “One of the things that attracted me is his free spirit, right? … He’s always able to bring a lot of joy to the people around him, through his music, through his art, through his personality. It’s all part of him. He’s always exuding this energy, you know?”

With McArdle’s help, Barr is realizing some income from his paintings: five were sold at the opening, a sixth online. At the event, however, Barr seemed to be basking mostly in the validation of exhibiting his work.

“I feel like I’ve climbed this happy mountain, and I’m climbing up the mountain, and holding onto the mountain, and the mountain represents happiness, like freedom, self-respect, dignity, and like finding yourself, being true to yourself, and accepting yourself,” he said.