Art is helping this painter, who lives with a brain injury, soothe the wounds of Ferguson | St. Louis Public Radio

Art is helping this painter, who lives with a brain injury, soothe the wounds of Ferguson

Apr 13, 2016

St. Louis painter Howard Barry is among the many creative people making work around the events of Ferguson.

But Barry’s story has an unusual twist. It starts with his own tragedy, 24 years ago.

When Howard Barry joined the Army in the mid-1980s, he knew he might end up in any number of dangerous situations. He just didn’t think riding his bike near the base in San Francisco would be one of them. But in 1992, he was seriously injured in a hit-and-run, in which a driver knocked him down, ran him over, and fled the scene.

“After seeing the bottom of the car, the next thing I remember is the paramedics cutting my clothes, my boots and things off me,” Barry said.

The crash broke Barry’s jaw and elbow, and damaged his wrist and two discs in his spine. For months, he couldn’t talk or even communicate on paper. After regaining the use of his right hand, he began doodling to release some of his frustration and despair. 

“I would draw almost like you do free-writing, like when you get writers block they tell you just write, just write words,” he said.

Sketches, paintings and action figures fill the studio.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

A serendipitous encounter

Barry's drawing ability got better, but his short temper and shorter attention span didn’t. He took mind-numbing medications while he and his wife Edith pushed for more help. Finally, doctors diagnosed a traumatic brain injury — 16 years after he was hurt.  An occupational therapist told Barry to keep making art, that it might help his recovery.

“She got this bag and started filling it up with art stuff, a drawing book, a coloring book, some charcoal pencils,” Barry said.

In his journal, Howard Barry depicts young and older African-American men who have been killed, ranging from Emmett Till in 1955 to Eric Garner in 2014.
Credit Nancy Fowler / St. Louis Public Radio

Barry didn’t show anyone his work. He certainly didn’t think of it as art; more of a way to express himself, and remember things. In his community college classes, he drew pictures instead of writing notes.

One day, while talking with his school advisor about career choices, a picture he’d drawn of a basketball star fell out of his papers and onto her desk.

“When she saw it, she was like, ‘Is this yours?’ And I said, ‘Yes,’” Barry said. “And then she said, ‘If you’ve got more than these, then all these other things we’ve talked about are going to be a wrong fit.”

She asked him to send his work to some art schools.

“I was pretty sure they were going to say, ‘Stick to your day job,” Barry said.

Instead they encouraged him to apply, but he decided it would be more sensible to go into graphic design. Degree in hand, he set up a home studio, becoming a near-recluse.

Then Ferguson happened.

Pictures go where protesters can’t

Barry drew out his anger and sadness over this tragedy in portraits, including one of Michael Brown’s family, using pages of the St. Louis American as his canvas. In one portrait, headlines with words like “justice” and “healing” float through the faces.

“This is Mike Brown and this is the mom and this is the dad but it’s that broken-down moment where he's cradling his head in his hands,” he said.

The portrait of Michael Brown and his parents painted over pages of the St. Louis American newspaper is behind a small collection of his action figures.
Credit Nancy Fowler / St. Louis Public Radio

As he painted, feelings poured out onto the pages of newsprint.

“That was the first body of work I did that I didn’t hold any pain back,” he said.

At first, Barry made this work in his private journals. Later, he tentatively shared a few pieces on social media that caught the eye of the curator of an exhibition called “Hands Up Don’t Shoot.” Backed by his wife Edith’s encouragement and planning skills, Barry finished 21 pieces for the show. Some are of people shouting. But others, similar to the Brown family portrait, are meant to get the attention of those who’ve become numb to endless images of angry protestors.

“What they’re not ready for is for people to have that same amount of anger and that same amount of passion go directly toward something that’s actually going to change something,” Barry said. “These pictures can go places most protesters  can’t.”

Meet Barry's 'handler'

Edith and Howard Barry pose for a photo in the home studio.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

During this surge of creativity, Edith Barry noticed her husband no longer expressed anger by lashing out or knocking things off a desk.  

“He’s in a peaceful place, he’s more calm,” she said.

But the trade-off was that was she wound up with a new job: his handler.

“Pretty much, that’s what I do, and I mean, I do it all,” she said.

Doing "it all" involves everything from buying his art supplies to making sure he gets his work done on time for exhibitions and commissions. So how does he react when she prods him about meeting a deadline?

“Most times it’s a fight,” she said.

“Sometimes, it depends,” he said.

But Howard Barry says his biggest problem isn’t saying no to his wife — it’s turning down requests for work.

“I’ve said yes to so many things that I’m trying to find that balance where I have time to work on things for me,” he said.

Barry’s current group exhibition, “Visualizing Life: Social Justice in Real Time,” is on display at the Vaughn Cultural Center through June 3.

Follow Nancy Fowler on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL