On May 26, 2023, I attended the grand opening of the exhibition Bo Bartlett: Earthly Matters at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Jacksonville, Florida. The exhibition featured American realist artist Bo Bartlett and his latest artwork from 2016 through 2021. All of Bartlett’s artwork, displayed on the third floor of MOCA, is made of oil on linen. His paintings focus on people, animals, and landscapes. Through those images, he addresses a variety of issues and topics, such as “precarious environmental issues, war, and displacement, while also celebrating friendship, kindness, familial love, and the joy and freedom of youth.” The goal behind Bartlett’s paintings is to connect his audience to his “appreciation for ordinary moments.”
Bartlett was born on December 29, 1955, in Columbus, Georgia. As a child, his earliest art education was watching his father draw. It wasn’t until 1974 when he was eighteen years old that he traveled to Florence, Italy to study art and was trained by Benjamin F. Long IV. Once Bartlett returned to the United States the following year, he continued his studies in art. He enrolled in the Philadelphia College of Art before transferring to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA). During his studying, Bartlett was inspired by other American realists such as Thomas Eakins, Edward Hopper, and Andrew Wyeth. Tom Butler, who had written an excerpt on Bartlett, claimed he “is an American realist with a modern vision.” Bartlett’s modern vision begins with sunlight.
Bartlett said, “In the South, there is magic in the light. It became a metaphor. The light travels eight minutes from the sun—gives us life and sustains us. Late in the afternoon, the sunlight rakes from the West. All time seems to stop. Long shadows are cast. Everything grows quiet, the stillness of a waking dream. Anything is possible; it is in this moment, informed by the lucid light, that we realize that we make the decisions, that we are responsible for what happens here.”
My interpretation of Bartlett’s statement is that when sunlight bathes us in light, we come alive. The possibilities of what we choose next are in our hands. For Bartlett, once the sunlight shines on his subjects, he’s able to make the decision of how he paints them. He articulated, “When I paint…I try to paint what it feels like to be alive, in this time, now. It is always different…for each painting, but in the end…I want to reach a place…that feels like home.” Therefore, at the Bo Bartlett: Earthly Matters exhibit, I was most drawn to Bartlett’s pieces Motherland and Thin Veil. They were both across from one another featuring sunlight beaming on a senior woman and a group of young girls sitting in a field. They all had their eyes shut and wearing tin foil caps. I had so many questions regarding the women, their closed eyes, and the tin foil caps.
Bartlett claimed, “The tin foil cap is of mind control…in all forms and ideations. Human beings fear the unknown. We wallow in the safety of the known. We want to control our thoughts. We want to keep them safe. We don’t want interference from the outside. “I’ve got my beliefs right here, don’t mess with them.” Our eyes are closed, our blinders are on, and our tin foil caps are securely in place as we live within our private silos.”
After speaking with him, I realized the paintings are about having control of our private selves and keeping ourselves safe from the unknown. I find that to be intriguing and relatable. What we don’t know scares us, unlike the stuff we do know. Interestingly, Bartlett shared how he had live models for Thin Veil. He explained that during Thanksgiving many years ago, he had his nephew’s daughters pose while wearing their very own tinfoil caps in a field in Pine Mountain, Georgia. “They are actors in an open-air play. There is magic afoot. Magical thinking,” he said. Although the sun is a motif within his work, Bartlett probably felt the most connected with this painting because it involved his family.
Every artist has their process and approach to their artwork. At the Bo Bartlett: Earthly Matters exhibit I got to see the early sketches and stages of Bartlett’s paintings Draw Out the Child and Hurtsboro. Bartlett had broken up his sketches for Draw Out the Child into three stages on graphite paper. He labeled all three Study I (2018), Study II (2019), and Compositional Study (2019). He does the same procedure for Hurtsboro, dividing them up into two sketches with a compositional study. However, since Hurtsboro is a painting of five men, Bartlett called his sketches “John and Gumbo” and “Chris and Will.” The exhibit also included a handwritten note by Bartlett explaining the ending description of the painting. In addition, I learned Bartlett is also a filmmaker and his paintings are in his films. For example, Draw Out that Child was featured in his film Things Don’t Stay Fixed (2021), and another film called Hurtsboro is currently in the works where the final scene depicts the painting itself.
“My days are broken into segments. By mid-morning I am in the studio, usually working on a large painting. The concept of a painting takes years to develop but usually about a month or six weeks to complete,” he shared.
I asked Bartlett more about his own process. He completes his paintings in three steps. Firstly, his paintings are “based on references, preliminary drawings, oil studies, photos and the live model, objects, interior or exterior spaces; feeling out the whole painting at once, working from the general to the specific.” From there, he carries on with a compositional study where he draws out each figurine. Second comes the middle stage that Bartlett says, “is the heart of the painting and usually the most difficult, it is where the truth lies.” The heart of the painting is the most technical part. Bartlett acknowledged, “transcribing the energy of the initial light and dark break- up into a more fully resolved passage, in full color, is where the real work is found.” Lastly, the final stage is unification. Here the painting undergoes “a series of glazes” where Bartlett uses “a traditional Ralph Mayer medium.”
It was wonderful having the opportunity to speak with Bo Bartlett at his exhibit. This is the first time I attended an art exhibit and I had a one-on-one conversation with an artist. Of everything Bartlett had discussed with me, there were two elements that stood out to me the most. He voiced, “We’re all originals. Nobody can copy you. You have your inspirations, but you are an original regardless.” His three idols—Eakins, Hopper, and Wyeth—were all alive at different times. And while one learned from the other, and so on, they all became original with their artwork. Bartlett, having known Wyeth, uttered, “Art must wake us up, wake us up to ourselves and one another. Andrew Wyeth’s last words to me were, ‘Keep yourself free!’” Bartlett has the power to paint ordinary moments and make them extraordinary.
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