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A Dream Undeterred: The Legacy of Painter Curtis Barnes, Sr.

Smaller Curtis Barnes, Sr self portrait.
Smaller Curtis Barnes, Sr self portrait.

For four decades, Curtis Barnes painted almost daily. His large and small canvases vibrated with bold colors and strokes that he composed into portraits, cityscapes, abstractions and always, masks. Masks on faces, masks in the background, hidden masks in rhythmic patterns.

“The masking plays a huge part in his visual representation," Judith Huacuja, professor of Art History at the University of Dayton said. “The notion of masking, when you tried to hide oneself when you went out into social spaces, and to learn the ways to sort of unmask and become truly proud in who you are as a Black person in America, that meant quite a bit to him.”

According to his son, Kevin, he brought that pride to his role as a father, teacher and mentor.

“Pop’s studio was downstairs in the basement of the family home," Kevin recalled. "We called it 'the Tomb'. It was his incubator. The Tomb was also where Pop held court. Family, friends, students, fellow artists, whoever, we all found ourselves there, with him, talking about art, music, world events, about life and all that contains. All this was a constant stream of consciousness that our dad translated on the canvas.”

After his artwork began piling up, Curtis' children started talking to him about the business of art and the legacy of his work.
After his artwork began piling up, Curtis' children started talking to him about the business of art and the legacy of his work.

Over the years Barnes sold very few paintings. They piled up in his studio, in the garage, and later in a rented storage space. His daughter Diana told me how her brother and sister, Curtis Jr. and Denise, began to talk with their father about the business of art and the legacy of his work.

“Now dad didn’t want to have anything to do with that part, dad wanted to just paint," Diana said as she chuckled. but they saw something a lot bigger than just being in that basement, and they wanted to broaden it, and take it as far as they could take it.”

So the pair formed a business to promote their father’s work. They had success showing his work at local galleries, but eventually exhausted all the opportunities in the area. After that, the paintings sat in storage. In 2015, Denise passed away. Then in 2019 Curtis Barnes himself died, leaving Curtis Jr. to promote his father’s legacy.

Curtis Jr. had a close friend, Zachary Armstrong, a painter who was mentored by Barnes.

“I was so young when I saw the Tomb, it was the first professional working artist studio I’d seen," Armstrong said. "That does something to you and stays with you. He was the first person I’d ever met that took painting that serious and doing it every day. The last couple years of his working life I was building small stretchers for him and bringing those over to him, and you couldn’t build them fast enough, he would paint over them if I didn’t bring them.”

Armstrong began to achieve success as a painter, and he would tell his galleries about a prolific, unknown artist from Dayton, Ohio, but there were no pictures of the paintings, so he had nothing to show anyone. Then last year, the Contemporary Dayton gallery asked to show Barnes’s paintings. Curtis Jr. and Armstrong took that opportunity to photograph them. There were five hundred paintings.

Armstrong showed the photos to Copenhagen-based private museum and collection Faurschou. They were interested, but with COVID, couldn’t travel until early 2022 to see the paintings in person.

“When we saw the works, we agreed right there and then that we had to show these in New York," Christian Faurschou said. “These works, they’re truly great works. It felt unreal that there was this capacity and these many works sitting in a storage unit in the middle of Dayton. It was unbelievable.”

And that’s how Curtis Barnes got discovered. But just as his father’s work was about to get its big break, Curtis Jr. died.

Faurschou agreed to represent the work going forward, and this September, along with the work of Zachary Armstrong, and world-renowned artist Robert Rauschenberg, the paintings of Curtis Barnes, Sr. will premiere at Faurschou’s exhibition venue in New York City.

Susan works as visual artist, arts writer, teaching artist, and audio producer. She lives in Cincinnati now but loves, misses, and often visits the Miami Valley. You can find her visual and audio works on her website www.susanbstudio.com.