Myron Barnstone: A Life's Work by Jennifer Sheehan Contact Reporter Of The Morning Call
Myron Barnstone didn't want to influence his students. That's why he didn't hang his own masterful works at his art school, which he operated in Coplay for nearly three decades. He truly believed his students should develop on their own.
"It was so important to him to have his students learn to have their own honest voice," said Barnstone's daughter, Cat Barnstone Szafran of Frederick, Md.
Barnstone, who died in late October of complications from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease at the age of 83, had a profound impact on the Valley art scene, helping launch the careers of many in both fine and commercial arts.
Much of the Lehigh Valley is just now learning of Barnstone's death. Szafran, Barnstone's only child, has spent months dealing with not only the passing of her father but also the task of deciding what to do with hundreds of his art pieces and how to carry on his legacy.
An obituary for Barnstone is planned for publication in Sunday's Morning Call. Szafran says a "celebration of life" is planned to mark the one-year anniversary of Barnstone's death, scheduled 3 to 10 p.m. Oct. 21 at his former art school.
His love of art started at the age of 11. He grew up in Portland, Maine and went to a commercial art school in Boston. But he realized commercial art wasn't for him and instead looked to attend a fine arts school. The best way to pay for it was through the G.I. Bill., so he enlisted in the Air Force. At the time, the Korean War was underway.
Even during his enlistment, Barnstone's life in art took shape. He painted scenery used for a play, "Conquest of the Air." He was sent to become a propeller mechanic, and through learning those mechanics he saw structure and systems that shaped the way he would teach art years later.
After leaving the Air Force, he went to Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art at the University of Oxford in England. While he was at Ruskin, Barnstone discovered the work of French sculptor and painter Andre Lhote, and Charles Bouleau, author of "The Painter's Secret Geometry: A Study of Composition in Art."
He became a follower of the system of dynamic symmetry, a proportioning system and natural design method that uses dynamic rectangles, including root rectangles based on ratios or the Golden Section. The Golden Section uses portions, sizes, scale, all determined through a precise application of a geometric system. Many great artists, such as Leonardo da Vinci, used the Golden Section to craft their pieces.
Barnstone traveled to Italy, France and elsewhere in Europe, visiting museums. He became an artist in France. His anti-war, anti-nuclear works got him noticed.
He eventually found his way back to the United States and chose to put down roots in Allentown because of the nearby colleges, its parks and its proximity to New York City.
Barnstone briefly taught at The Baum School of Art and later at Moravian College and Lehigh University. In 1977, he started his own school in a studio across the street from Hess's Department Store. In 1982, he rented two floors of a former cigar factory in Coplay, where he taught nine-week courses on the foundations of art, including drawing and color theory.
Over the 30 years of his school in the Valley, he taught about 70 students a semester. His students ranged from preteens to adults, who often would sit in the same class and seek advice from each other.
Barnstone's way of teaching wasn't one of high-fives and big hugs. His training was rigorous and he believed in giving honest, nothing-held-back criticism.
But over the years, many of his students said they appreciated and learned greatly from that honest, tough-love approach. "It's the things that I learned from Myron that I feel set me apart," Frank Hanner, a Coopersburg native and one of Barnstone's students, said in a 2014 interview. Hanner is a character supervisor at Walt Disney Animation Studios and worked on blockbuster films such as "Frozen" and "Tangled."
For Barnstone, artistic skill arises from training and hard work. "He would be asked what made him motivated to work," Szafran said.
"He would say 'It's my job. I don't need motivation.'"
In 2014, the struggling U.S. economy took a toll on enrollment at his Coplay school and he closed it.
"I wasn't ready after 35 years of teaching to close down, but the economy hit me in the back of the knees and knocked me to the ground," Barnstone said then.
He moved from Whitehall Township to Maryland in late 2014 and lived there till his death Oct. 29. Since then, Szafran has been working to honor her father's legacy.
She moved to Maryland nearly 700 of her father's pieces, ranging from pen and inks to acrylics and oil paintings. She's working with a major studio in Maine to open an exhibit of more than 50 pieces.
The course DVDs are still being sold to carry on her father's teaching. Szafran also is working to create a program of "master guides," or people who would be able to provide one-on-one feedback to students who take the DVD course.
She's also hoping to publish a book of his essays on art theory and design, as well a coffee-table book showing his pieces and telling his story.
"There are very much two sides, the master teacher and the master artist," Szafran said. "The legacy will be that we make the master teacher and the master artist each have its own story and then they will intertwine."