In Charlotte, this artist paints pretty pictures on ugly subjects like climate change

Charlotte artist Barbara Schreiber was to have been one of six resident artists at the McColl Center for Art + Innovation this summer, but the COVID-19 outbreak made that impossible.

Instead, Schreiber is content to be in exile at her Third Ward home. She has a studio there, in a separate upstairs apartment, where she has been spending considerable time.

The lockdown hasn’t hindered her creativity; it may have made her even more prolific. “I have a residency mindset now,” she said.

Schreiber always works “flat” with a sheet of paper on her table rather than canvas-on-easel. Her supplies — palette, acrylic paints, brushes, ruler, scissors — surround her and sometimes wind up on the surface of the painting.

What sounds like a messy process yields refined results. Schreiber’s paintings, which she describes as “pretty pictures and ugly subjects,” show us a world that’s out of control, yet they’re rendered with what looks like supreme control.

“Narrative and illustrational,” is how Charlotte artist Barbara Schreiber describes her style. Some of her work focuses on climate change and habitat loss. “Even going back to childhood,” Schreiber said, “my work has always combined the pretty picture and the ugly subject.”
“Narrative and illustrational,” is how Charlotte artist Barbara Schreiber describes her style. Some of her work focuses on climate change and habitat loss. “Even going back to childhood,” Schreiber said, “my work has always combined the pretty picture and the ugly subject.”

Color and dark humor

Chaos and mayhem are part of the universe she creates, but her paintings aren’t chaotic. Her work often contains animals — lambs, coyotes, flocks of birds. And her titles reveal the sometimes disconcerting subject matter: “Domestic Disturbances,” “This is the End of Me,” “Flaming Grenade.”

It sounds depressing. Yet Schreiber is delightful. She inherited her “cheerful disposition” from her father, who made jokes on his deathbed, she said.

There are cheerful elements to her art – bright sunflowers, birds in flight, pink-and-orange mesas. Schreiber’s made-up world is filled with color and maybe even humor. Dark humor, but still. Even the rabbits hightailing it out of a 1950s-style ranch house (“The Rabbits Leave,” 2018) that has burst into flames are apt to make you smile — before you catch yourself.

Charlotte artist Barbara Schreiber painted “Eminent Domain” in 2018. Initially, she thought it should contain birds of prey. But she painted over them after seeing coyotes lounging in her urban backyard.
Charlotte artist Barbara Schreiber painted “Eminent Domain” in 2018. Initially, she thought it should contain birds of prey. But she painted over them after seeing coyotes lounging in her urban backyard.

Pretty picture, ugly subject

“Narrative and illustrational,” is how Schreiber describes her style, before adding, and “possibly control-freakish.”

But not entirely; she doesn’t make preliminary sketches or even choose her colors before she begins. “Everything I do happens right on the surface of the paper,” she said. She’s always revisiting, revising, changing her mind.

For instance, when she started “Eminent Domain,” she thought it would contain falcons or other birds of prey. But then she saw coyotes lounging in her urban backyard. (She wasn’t alarmed. She sympathizes with them: “They were here first.”) When she got to work the next day, she painted over the birds and added coyotes.

City-dwelling coyotes aren’t happy subject matter. “I’ve always been drawn to pathos, depth and beauty of things that are serious or often sad,” Schreiber said. “But I have a cheerful nature, so that combination manifests itself in all my work.”

She grew up in Baltimore and said her teen memories of 1960s civil unrest are mixed with idyllic childhood memories, which include frequent family road trips in a metallic blue station wagon.

“Even going back to childhood,” she said, “my work has always combined the pretty picture and the ugly subject.

This piece by Barbara Schreiber is part of her Fire Diary series. It’s called “Plaguewear.” She started the ongoing series in 2018.
This piece by Barbara Schreiber is part of her Fire Diary series. It’s called “Plaguewear.” She started the ongoing series in 2018.

Playing with fire

Had the McColl residency happened in May, it would have been Schreiber’s second stint there. (The residency is now scheduled for June 7-Aug. 3, 2021.)

Claudia Gonzalez Griffin, the McColl Center’s director of residencies and programs, said the selection panel was drawn to Schreiber’s interest in climate change and habitat loss. “Contemporary art is often a response to the artist’s environment,” she said.

Schreiber is an astute observer of her environment. She’s also a voracious reader. She loves books “about people who are in places they have no business being.” Paul Bowles’ “The Sheltering Sky” and Peter Matthiessen’s “At Play in the Fields of the Lord” were especially pivotal to her painting.

Schreiber’s characters often look out of place. Wild birds aren’t supposed to fly inside houses. The neighborhood coyote shouldn’t be giving us a knowing glance. Not when a little girl in pink awaits her bus just across the street.

Two other sub-genres she loves reading about: residential development encroaching on wildlife habitat and fire science.

Fire had already become a predominant motif when she read about a phenomenon her work seems to have intuited.

“I had been doing these ‘fire paintings’ before I ever came across the term ‘wildland-urban interface,’” she said. “And doesn’t it almost have a poetic quality to it?” The term refers to a transition zone between unoccupied land and human development. Communities in that danger zone are at risk of catastrophic wildfire.

“Flicker at Work” is an acrylic on paper that Barbara Schreiber painted in 2019.
“Flicker at Work” is an acrylic on paper that Barbara Schreiber painted in 2019.

Love and loss

Schreiber moved to Charlotte in 2004 when her husband, Bill Ribarsky, took a professorship at UNC Charlotte. He died as a result of a bicycle accident.

“Since 2017,” she said, “there has been a large measure of mourning” in her work.

The McColl Center’s Griffin sees a parallel between the loss of Schreiber’s husband and her work dealing with habitat loss. But it’s not overt. “You have to read her work,” Griffin said. “She uses beautiful, happy colors, yet there’s a darkness there. You have to pay attention.”

People do, which delights Schreiber: “The fact that the work doesn’t end with me, that it takes on a life of its own in the presence of others, is really gratifying.”

Schreiber’s work has been shown at Atlanta’s High Museum, the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem, the Mint Museum and around the world.

Her paintings go through what she calls “a process of ruin and rescue.”

“There’s a lot of messing around and indecision, a lot of addition and subtraction,” she said.

When you look at a Schreiber painting, it appears completely thought out. But the truth is: There could be 30 layers of paint underneath the surface. In this world of Schreiber’s making, danger lurks around every corner and disasters happen frequently. But it’s all so lovely, you might not care.

Beautiful disasters

See Barbara Schreiber’s work on her website, barbaraschreiber.com and at Toshkova Fine Art Advisory in uptown Charlotte (tfa-advisory.com). Toshkova is hosting an online exhibition of Schreiber’s work June 30-July 13.

This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.

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