By Mark Reynolds
Milton Artist Barbara Masterson has found a new way to show her art to the world, by hanging her large format paintings on the sides of local barns. Masterson has long been fascinated by the local migrant farm workers, who care for and harvest the crops that are grown in her town. She first noticed them a number of years ago while painting ‘en plein air’ after a few of them wandered into view and became part of her finished work. She found herself questioning why these workers, who mostly are from Mexico and the Caribbean, are so invisible to the wider community of Marlborough and to the Hudson Valley.
In a group of drawings, entitled ‘Beyond the Harvest,’ she posed important questions to the viewer: “Who are they? Can you see them? It’s convenient if the group is invisible [because] we relieve ourselves of concern about health care, working conditions, pesticides, housing [and their] lack of ability to get their own food. What is life like for them? What role do we play in keeping them unseen?”
Since then, many of these humble, hard working people have not only become the central focus of Masterson’s creative life, but they have become her friends. She deeply believes that her art, “can expand our perceptions of these workers; if only by their images in my paintings, the viewer will come to see these persons for the vital role they play in our lives.”
Masterson calls her new group of five barn paintings the “Hands That Feed Us.” She said this idea was born three years ago when friend and fellow artist Laura Martinez-Bianco suggested that she consider displaying her works on barns. A curator in Westchester County put her in touch with the Color Group, a graphic arts company that transformed Masterson’s art into large format, weather proof vinyl pieces. In addition, they were able to hang them on the barns.
Masterson then pitched a number of local farmers to have them up for a year, eventually finding several who supported her idea. She measured each of the different sites and came up with the shape and size for each barn. She noted that the Color Group took only a few weeks to make the five paintings. Each has a name and the title, ‘Hands that Feed Us,’ along with a QR code that brings up Masterson’s website.
Masterson is “thrilled” with the color rendition made by the Color Group, “because that was a big concern.”
Masterson has applied for a $5,000 grant with the Arts Mid-Hudson Group, hoping to offset some of the expenses to make the pieces. Although the grant will not cover everything, “It’s just something I felt I had to do.”
On future art works, Masterson said, “I am just following my heart. When I first started doing this, I thought this [migrant paintings] was going to last six months or a year, but it has now been nine years.”
Masterson said the migrants that she initially painted were a bit skeptical of the entire process, but after a few of them came to her art show at the Falcon in Marlborough, “people knew immediately who they were and I could see the workers stand up a little taller. During a music break, we walked around so they could see the paintings close up and people were shaking their hands; boy that was emotional.”
Chip Kent has one of Masterson’s pieces hanging from his barn at his Locust Grove Fruit Farm, located at 199 North Road in Milton.
“She’s just a wonderful person, so when she asked, it was a no-brainer. She told me what she wanted to do and we made it happen,” he said. “The premise of hanging these on barns is kind of cool and no one else thought of it.”
Kent said the vertical painting of a worker named Peaches on a ladder picking apples, “is like you’re looking through a window into what’s gong on. It’s a neat project.”
Ben and Susan Trapani have Masterson’s piece hanging at their fruit and vegetable stand at 818 Lattintown Road in Milton. Since there is not a solid wall behind it, the art work, which stands at ground level, was made out of a mesh material to allow the wind to pass through it.
Susan said Masterson has painted her workers a few times in the past.
“She asked if we would be interested in the project and we said yes. She does beautiful work and our men love having her there,” Susan said. “We love to support local artists and our men, who work so hard and that’s how it came about; we love it.”