Jack Barkla has dreamed up hundreds of wild and wondrous sets for Twin Cities theaters. But the most fascinating stage he’s designed might be his living room.
Every surface of his Linden Hills rambler is packed with objects that Barkla, 78, has created or collected. Sculptures, puppets and old stage props. Small, intricate models that Barkla carved and lacquered before building to scale. And the dozens of framed paintings hanging from the walls? Barkla did those, too.
The paintings are about to get their first audience.
After decades designing sets for the Guthrie Theater and the Children’s Theatre, the Holidazzle Parade and Dayton’s eighth-floor auditorium, Barkla is putting on his first gallery show. The exhibition, which opens Saturday at Hennes Art Co., reveals the theater veteran’s lesser-known artistic life — one he’s honed since high school. Some of the more than 100 paintings for sale are dark, baroque. Others are clean, cubist.
“An actor who comes onstage, he can be an old Italian man, he can be a Shakespearean character,” Barkla said, explaining his varied styles. “I discovered that’s what I think about painting. I do believe in adapting my style to what I’m saying.”
Some pieces look like stages themselves. In one series, which Barkla calls his “ghost paintings,” partially hidden figures appear in a strange land, where walls float just off the ground, trees appear cardboard-thin and curtains give way to trees.
A painted legacy
For long stretches, Barkla painted only theater renderings. He was busy. At one point in the mid-1980s, Barkla was designing for seven shows and had gone 13 years without a vacation.
“I was lucky, during that time, to produce one or two paintings a year,” he said.
But Barkla enjoyed the challenge of designing a set: “Where the director and the script cross, I just have to color that in as best I can.” He sketched, painted and fashioned little models both to work out the challenges and communicate his vision. On a recent afternoon, he turned in his hands a miniature wooden set he created for “Fiddler on the Roof.”
“I work out the problem of whatever it is while I’m building the model,” Barkla said, so he eschewed assistants. He gently opened up the tiny set to reveal benches, curtains and other tiny details inside. “Trying to do separate drawings from each side doesn’t tell you nearly as much as the model does.”
Such models pop up around his home, a few encased behind glass. On the walls hang his first renderings of his whimsical sets for shows at the Children’s Theatre. In his garage-turned-studio are drawings from Dayton’s storied eighth-floor holiday displays and spring flower shows. More often, though, the models and drawings didn’t survive the work period, he said. “People will take them and spill coffee on them.”
That’s part of what drew him to painting.
“With painting you have a record of your own thoughts, and that remains,” Barkla told the Star Tribune in 1986, when he was planning to step away from set design. “With theater, nothing exists except the memories and a few photographs.
“When I die I want to leave some works.”
Diversity of styles
Barkla’s hand shakes a bit these days, mirroring a tremor his mother developed as she aged. But he is quick to drop to the floor in search of a book. He paints on the floor, too. Usually in the TV room, with he and his partner’s English bull terrier sleeping on the sofa nearby.
“When I was a kid, I never had a desk or a space that was my own, so I always worked on the floor,” Barkla said, building a nest of papers, paint and pens around him. By the time his parents bought him a desk, he said, “I had gotten thoroughly used to working on the floor.”
Barkla’s parents didn’t know any artists, so they weren’t sure what to make of his interest. He earned a degree in art education from the University of Minnesota in 1965, teaching there for a decade. From there he took a job at the Children’s Theatre as prop master, but ended up designing most of the shows. That led to stints at the Guthrie and elsewhere.
Working in the theater was “absolutely marvelous,” but also lonely, Barkla said. He doesn’t find painting to be. “It’s kind of ironic, because I’m alone,” he said. “It’s a place to go to be in a frame of mind.”
Over the years, Barkla’s paintings have shifted in style and tone, filling his studio. “There’s a basement, too,” pointed out Greg Hennes, who owns the gallery where Barkla’s works will be shown. Seeing Barkla’s home for the first time, he was immediately struck by the diversity of subjects and styles. While many Minnesotas know Barkla’s work for theater and Dayton’s, most have never encountered his paintings.
“People need to see this,” Hennes said. “They need to know this body of work.”
One morning last week, Barkla arrived at Hennes Art Co. to see the works out in the world for the first time.
Grouped in one corner were Barkla’s autobiographical pieces which draw on scraps from his past. A photo of him, when he was 2. The bill from the Grand Rapids, Minn., hospital where he was born, for $55. (“It would have been less,” he noted, “but she had butter with all her meals.”)
Barkla took in one wall, with dozens of his paintings hung salon-style, then the next.
“Lots of times you go to a show and you see a lot of paintings that are very much the same,” he noted. “I would like it to surprise people.”