As a young boy, John Barber often traveled with his family from their home in Danville, Va., to North Carolina’s Outer Banks. It was there that Barber first experienced the draw of the water as an artist.
“When I was 7 years old, on vacation down at Cape Hatteras with my family, we’d been up to the lighthouse,” recalls Barber. “There was a gentleman sitting under an umbrella, painting a small oil painting of the lighthouse and ocean. I was enchanted that someone could take these bits of paint and create this on canvas.”
The memory of the scent of the paints and the salty sea air is still vivid for Barber; that moment set him on a path to become one of the most celebrated artists of the Chesapeake Bay region.
Now a Richmond resident, Barber has spent dozens of years painting the bay — and the people and vessels that call it home. His work, a combination of commissions and subjects of his own choosing, often includes watermen, lighthouses and skipjacks in locations like Baltimore and Annapolis.
Though he’d long been entranced by the ocean, Barber’s introduction to the Chesapeake didn’t come until he was a young adult. In 1965, he moved to Richmond to study art at the Richmond Professional Institute (now Virginia Commonwealth University). One weekend during college, he was invited to a weekend party at a house near Deltaville, a small town on Virginia’s western shore.
During that weekend, Barber observed the bay, inspired by its unique characteristics.
“I realized in that environment, mankind meets water and works upon the water,” he says. “It’s an intimate relationship between the two.”
Over the course of his career, Barber has received numerous awards and honors, from a 1985 commission to create an oil painting for President Reagan to a 2009 Distinguished Service Award from the National Maritime Historical Society. In 2014, Barber’s body of work and his contribution to the maritime community was honored in a 50-year retrospective in Deltaville, where his appreciation of the bay began, and where he and his wife now own a home.
Barber’s career has been filled with highlights that make great stories. He’s sailed with (and painted for) the late Walter Cronkite, painted en plein air in Italy, and created lasting relationships with the captains and crews of the skipjacks he made his subjects.
Even after so many hours on the water and at the easel, he still loves his work. “I absolutely love every day I come to my studio. It’s my life’s pleasure,” he says. “It’s been a wonderful situation for me. I love what I do.”