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This Hudson Valley Artist Draws Inspiration From Natural Surroundings

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Photos by Julia Whitney Barnes

Multimedia artist Julia Whitney Barnes creates masterpieces using cyanotype techniques and unique materials like plants and bricks.

Art seemed inevitable for Julia Whitney Barnes. The colors of the Hudson Valley have inspired her since she was a child.

“I can’t imagine my life where I am anything but an artist,” Whitney Barnes says.

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Julia Whitney Barnes

Whitney Barnes started her career as early as high school, when she practiced screen printing, making fabrics, and designing clothing. Being a part of a family where her father is a poet and her mother a lifelong musician, creativity has always been encouraged. By the time she moved to New York City to attend Parsons School of Design, she soon found a new love for art. She avoids constraints in her work, experimenting with a variety of new techniques and mediums, including watercolors and oil paintings, which she still uses today.

It seems simple to start one project, finish it, and move on to the next, but that’s not how most artists operate. In a given week, Whitney Barnes works on oil paintings, stained glass, and installations. She enriches all of her projects with a piece of the Hudson Valley. 

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“I always had an interest in plants,” Whitney Barnes says. “When I moved to the Hudson Valley, I wanted something that felt more intimate. So, I started focusing on the plants around me.”

Although cyanotype has become one of Whitney Barnes’ most dominant techniques, she only started delving into the art form two years ago. Cyanotype is a photographic printing process that produces a cyan-blue print. Astronomer John Herschel originated the technique in 1842. It was used widely throughout history to make blueprints and art. 

When creating cyanotypes, Whitney Barnes typically uses local flora from the Hudson Valley. Walking into her backyard, she will select ferns, poppies, petunias, daffodils, and a variety of other plant species. Next, she will press them for inspiration and use in her projects. She also receives plants from her neighbors and has been collaborating with two historic gardens, Locust Grove in Poughkeepsie and the Shaker Heritage Site in Albany. 

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In her collection, Whitney Barnes estimates that she currently has thousands of plants. She keeps the plants in her studio to press and examine. After looking at the different plant species, she picks different ones out to use in her current body of work.

“I carefully arrange elaborate cyanotype compositions at night and utilize long exposures under natural or UV light to create the prints,” Whitney Barnes explains. “Once the unique cyan imagery is fused, I meticulously paint the exposed watercolor paper with multiple layers of watercolor, ink, and gouache.”

Gouache is a method of painting that is similar to watercolors. However, the main difference is that gouache is more opaque. White paper and drawings underneath typically show through when a layer of watercolor is applied. When using a layer of gouache, the paper will hardly show through.

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Pieces by Julia Whitney Barnes on display at Carrie Haddad Gallery in Hudson

Working on many cyanotypes at once, Whitney Barnes rotates them depending on her inspiration at the time. Many of her cyanotypes are blue and white, which is traditional for the technique. She also creates some with gold and toned tints, and others with full color. 

Starting last year, Whitney Barnes began creating prints of her cyanotypes after many people showed interest in purchasing her work. The prints are labor-intensive, but she enjoys the intimate aspect of sending her work to others. With every print sold, she writes the person a handwritten letter to make her art more personal. 

She completes most of her work in the studio at night, after she puts her children to sleep.

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“I love to come and see what I have done before I go to sleep,” Whitney Barnes says. “I will come up at midnight and paint for another 30 minutes.” 

Converting her attic into an art studio, Julia Whitney Barnes embraces what she has. Since her husband is also an artist, he works in the basement studio downstairs. The couple reserves the two main floors of their Hudson Valley home for living. It helps offer a good work-life balance. 

Although her home studio doesn’t have high ceilings like she was used to in Brooklyn, it features two skylights. The natural light allows Whitney Barnes to be present in her work and comfortable in the space. Although her home studio isn’t large, it is her own. Renovating the studio to uniquely cater to what she wants has been part of what makes the space so special. 

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Moving from Brooklyn to the Hudson Valley allowed Whitney Barnes to immerse herself in projects that had previously been put on the back-burner. For about a decade now, she has been working on a project called the Hudson River of Bricks. 

“When living in Brooklyn, I noticed that brick edifices were demolished and carted off to points unknown,” Whitney Barnes says. “I began collecting bricks from destroyed buildings as reference images. Once I observed the variety in ‘stamps,’ I discovered that the bricks were made from Hudson River clay.”

The installations created by Whitney Barnes bring attention to the history of bricks made in the Hudson Valley River area. For her installations, she is creating scale versions of the Hudson River by using bricks from more than 250 brickyards. Each brick has a unique stamp marking.   

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Installation at the Trolley Barn in Poughkeepsie

For one of her installations, she glazed one brick from each brickyard in a range of green and blues hues to represent the Hudson River’s colors as it reflects the sky. Whitney Barnes cleaned each brick and then painted the brickyard name and location on the side in the underglaze. Next, she put the bricks in a modern kiln. After that, she glazes the bricks and fires them one more time before they sit for a week to avoid cracking. 

“In the largest version of the installation, each glazed brick is put in the geographic location along the sculpted river where its brickyard existed,” Whitney Barnes explains. 

 Another version of the installation includes glazed bricks in alphabetical order to show variations brick makers used over time. With every brickyard, there are slight differences in the fonts, depth of bricks, and clay body colors. 

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The ultimate goal for Whitney Barnes is to permanently install the Hudson River of Bricks project somewhere in New York State. Before she does that, she wants to have an example of at least one brick from every brickyard that existed along the Hudson River. The 150-year-old bricks pose some challenges. For instance, Barnes only uses stamped bricks in the project. 

“The progress for my installation has slowed down because the more bricks I have, the harder it is to collect the ones I don’t have,” Whitney Barnes says. “I think I’m up to almost 300 brickyards and I have thousands of stamped bricks.” 

While still working on the Hudson River of Bricks installation, she is also busy with other projects in the area. NYSCA recently awarded Julia Whitney Barnes with an artist’s fellowship grant for her project “Planting Utopia.” Check out the project by visiting the Shaker Heritage Site in Albany and at the Albany International Airport in June. 

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For “Planting Utopia,” Whitney Barnes has collected specimens from over 150 plants growing in the herb garden at Shaker Heritage Society. The site is the first Shaker settlement in America. The herb garden serves as inspiration for a series of her artworks that will be presented inside and mounted on the exterior of the 1856 Brick Drying House at the Shaker Heritage Site. 

Whitney Barnes is also creating an herbarium from the garden. She mounts each plant and compiles them into a book along with historic imagery once the project is complete. Whitney Barnes’ work will be on display at the Shaker Heritage Site for about one year and at the Albany International Airport for three years. 

Starting on April 6, a large collection of her work will be available for in-person viewing at the Carrie Haddad Gallery in Hudson. There will be an opening reception on April 9 from 5 to 7 p.m., and her works, such as cyanotypes, paintings, and prints, will be on display in the gallery through the entirety of April and May.

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“I want the content of my work to be a powerful experience, not only because of the historical moment in which they were made, but in that the process speaks to a kind of gutting and reconstituting,” Whitney Barnes explains. “The final work isn’t the object, but instead, a record of my will to bring it back.”

Related: Claverack’s S.U.N.F.A.R.M. Uses the Hudson Valley as a Natural Canvas

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