Arts Advocate

Distinguished watercolorist Barbara Ernst Prey opens gallery just over the Vermont border


Barbara Ernst Prey with “Waterlillies” (28″x40″) and “Maple Sugar” (22″x40″)

Visual artist Barbara Ernst Prey has opened a gallery in Williamstown to provide an opportunity for all to experience the celebrated collection of her painted works over the past 40 years.

A distinguished watercolorist, Prey has accumulated nearly every artistic honor one can earn. She’s the only artist to have been appointed by the president of the United States to the advisory board of the National Council on the Arts, the advisory body of the National Endowment for the Arts.

Her artwork graces the major public collections of the Brooklyn Museum, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the New York Historical Society, and the White House.

(Ernst jokes that to be exhibited at the White House you have to either be dead or have painted the White House Christmas Card, which she has.)

Her paintings also are on exhibit at the Kennedy Space Center and at American embassies worldwide. An advocate for the arts with a global vision, she also has a gallery in Maine and a studio outside New York City.

Prey graciously set time aside to speak with SO Vermont Arts & Living about her extraordinary success, her role as an arts advocate, and her fondness for painting New England.

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Q. Why Williamstown?

There’s a family history there. I graduated from Williams and now am also doing some teaching there, but more importantly, my daughter is also attending Williams. So I have a real connection to the area. Actually, all of New England is great inspiration, and I look forward to spending more time traveling the back roads looking for good spots to paint.

Q. How did you first become interested in art and painting?

Really, I think my love of painting came from my mother: She was head of the design department at Pratt Art Institute before I was born, so I grew up with a large studio in my home and a mother who was incredibly gifted and creative. I remember her outside at her easel, painting, and going on painting trips with her. We also went to many art museums together when I was young. Naturally, I wanted to be like her. I learned so much from her. I remember painting in her studio on Saturdays, listening to the opera where I had a table set up next to hers.

Q. How do you describe your work?

I’m known for my watercolors, and I think I chose watercolor so as not to compete with my mother, who preferred oils. I’m trying to push the watercolor medium to new levels. Watercolor is a lot like jazz: there’s a lot of improvising and things happen that are unexpected.

With the opportunity to travel around the world and study and experience great art — thanks to a Fulbright Scholarship and, later, in Asia as the recipient of a Henry Luce Foundation grant — I’m fortunate to be able to bring back what I’ve learned and to synthesize it to make it my own. People know me for my landscapes, but I also paint interiors, architecture, and people.

Q. I know you are an advocate for arts education. Why do you think arts education matters?

The arts open up new worlds and give you a tool that you will have with you for life, something that is inside of you. The arts are part of the fabric of who we are as human beings and speak to our soul.

I am forever grateful for grade-school arts classes. I started playing the piano at age 5, which has given me a great, lifelong appreciation and love of music. It makes me sad when I hear that the arts programs are cut in schools. I think these decisions are shortsighted because they don’t realize all the side benefits of self-esteem, creativity, teamwork, problem-solving, and directed “daydreaming,” [and are a] wonderful way to detach from stress.

Q. Will you be painting more in Vermont now that you are so near?

I really love Vermont and spent time skiing, hiking, and painting [here] when I was younger. Now, with my daughter at Williams and my son at Dartmouth, I spend a lot of time going back and forth through [the state].

When I first started out I did line drawings and artwork for The New Yorker and other publications, and Vermont was always a great inspiration. Actually, one of the paintings I painted in Vermont is on exhibit at the [George W.] Bush Presidential Library and Museum in Dallas.

Q. What advice do you have for young visual artists?

Continue to work at what you love to do. Places like Vermont are great creative incubators, affording unusual opportunity to figure out who you are and what you want to say. Try and see all of the great art you can, find your voice, be sure this is really what you want to do. I know I took a day job for 10 years as an illustrator before I could really just paint. Don’t be afraid to do that.

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