Myron Barnstone: An art career in perspective by Jennifer Sheehan and John Moser, Of The Morning Call
To Myron Barnstone, artistic skill is not genetic or a divine gift, nor is it learned through faithful copying. To be a master artist is not to be simply "creative."
Skill, no matter what medium, is based on years of rigorous training, mastered through the understanding of the structured, geometric systems used by artists such as Picasso, Michelangelo and Da Vinci. "I give them a toolbox," the Whitehall Township man says of his students.
Barnstone, who led an esteemed art school in Coplay for three decades, is now enjoying retirement. But his legacy lives on in the dozens of students who have gone on to successful careers in the art world.
How he began
Barnstone started drawing figures at age 11, in Portland, Maine.
He lived in Portland until high school, after which he went to a commercial art school in Boston.
"I said, 'This is not for me,'" Barnstone says.
He wanted to attend a fine arts school and decided 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.
At one point during his service, he was sent to Japan, where he spent two years as chief clerk in maintenance.
While there, he met art students who helped him find space to teach figure drawing two or three times a week. And he immersed himself in Japanese art.
"It was a very enriching period of years," Barnstone says.
After leaving the Air Force, he went to Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art at the University of Oxford in England, which he says disdainfully was then "a school for debutantes." He was there for three years.
"It was young English boys, and young girls coming to Oxford to meet young English boys, and ex-G.I.s. They weren't terribly serious art students." But also among them was Ronald Brooks Kitaj, who became an internationally famous artist.
Barnstone was elected president of the sketch club, and "having gotten it, I decided I needed to" do something. He invited English artists and writers Eric Newton and John Berger to critique students' portfolios and asked teachers to exhibit their works.
"It awakened a level of energy that was latent," he says.
Formation of his approach
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."
"These books revealed the secret geometry," he says. "Underlying the traditions of design were thousands of years of geometry. The work thrived in Renaissance art and that of the Egyptians. It's extraordinary and it wasn't being taught."
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 of the early great artists, such as Leonardo Da Vinci, used the Golden Section to craft their pieces.
"I made it my business to learn as much as I could," Barnstone says. "No trained artist ever scribbled. They all used those systems."
Barnstone eschewed sketching and instead embraced the arts as a systematic design. "Picasso used all of these traditional systems," Barnstone says.
He traveled to Italy, France and elsewhere in Europe, visiting museums. He became an artist in France.
"When I went to Paris, I didn't bring any paintings," he says. "So I stayed in a room for six weeks, painting and painting and painting until I had a collection." He also had pen-and-ink drawings he did in Spain.
He found five galleries that would exhibit and sell his work. It was the anti-war, anti-nuclear subject of his work that got him noticed.
"The Parisian press lit up," he says. "Boy did I get attention." He says people lined up around blocks to attend his shows, and galleries extended them.
Barnstone in the Valley
Barnstone eventually found himself with a wife and family and moved back to the United States. He looked for a safe city "close to New York — not close enough to smell it, but close enough that I could get in any weekend."
He says he originally considered Reading but driving through Allentown, he saw "all these parks and colleges," and decided to come here.
He first stayed in an apartment on Hamilton Street, right around the block from Baum School of Art. Despite what he describes as a lack of credentials, Barnstone found a job, briefly teaching at the Baum School, and later at Moravian College and Lehigh University.
He started his own school in 1977, in a studio right across the street from Hess's Department store. In 1982, he rented his space in Coplay, the site of a former cigar factory. He had two floors of space totaling 10,000 feet.
He taught nine-week courses on the foundations of art, including drawing and color theory, "this whole program of highly structured instruction," Barnstone says.
Over the 30 years he taught in the Valley, he estimates he taught about 70 students a semester.
His student ranged in age from preteen to adult, who often would sit in the same class and seek advice from each other.
His students' success
Tough. Honest (brutally so). Life-changing.
All words used by Barnstone's students, many of whom have gone on to successful art careers.
Joseph Castle, a California-based sculptor and photographer, was a student at Barnstone's studio for many years. Instruction was rigorous, Castle says. "The military is easy compared to that," he jokes.
But Castle says the structured training made him the artist he is today.
"It all starts in drawing, value and understanding," Castle says. "I was terrible at value before Myron. I couldn't see it at all."
Castle and other former students will tell you that Barnstone is tough but fair, and deeply cares about his students and their work.
"He was brutal but always honest with me," Castle says. "I would rather have someone to tell me that I'm not working to my potential than pretend that I'm the greatest."
Frank Hanner, a Coopersburg native, began taking classes at Barnstone's studio at age 11. The homework was college or adult-level, he says.
"As a child, there are some aspects of his style that took some getting used to," Hanner says.
Hanner says he would go home and put his heart and soul into the homework, which would sometimes take 20 to 40 hours. The pieces would be pinned to the wall, and Barnstone would shout: "No! Wrong!"
That fierce approach helped shape him, Hanner says.
"He is specifically not interested in your feelings, which is really different from what I've experienced in public school and college," Hanner says. "Most teaching revolves around how you feel about your art, which is great. It's good to feel good about your art. But that doesn't make it good. You have to be able to pull it off."
Hanner has definitely been able to pull it off. He found success at Walt Disney Animation Studios, where he supervised both the rigging and technical animation departments on "Tangled" and was the character computer graphics supervisor on the blockbuster hit "Frozen."
"It's the things that I learned from Myron that I feel sets me apart," Hanner says.
Despite having the latest in computer animation equipment, Hanner doesn't have to rely on computer programs. He has a strong foundation in art from Barnstone.
"The computers are just a tool, a fancy pencil that's difficult to hold," Hanner says.
Riegelsville artist Judith Fritchman was a student of Barnstone's from the beginning.
Adherence to the Golden Section freed her as an artist, Fritchman says. She works as an artist creating classical paintings and drawings "from a contemporary viewpoint."
Fritchman says Barnstone has such a passion for teaching, and always has new ideas to share.
"I enjoyed every minute of it," Fritchman says. "I always learned something from him. I had a lot of instruction growing up previously with other people, and this was an entirely new approach."
Fritchman says many of Barnstone's students are now teaching others, sparking resurgence in classical instruction.
"Classical approaches to drawing are now being taught more frequently and more enthusiastically," she says.
Sydney McGinley, a Center Valley pastel artist, was one of Barnstone's first students. She started at Barnstone's original Hamilton Street location when she was 35 years old.
"I was a beginner and I never had any formal education," McGinley says. "I needed to go back to the very beginning. It's like learning to walk. I wanted to learn the foundations of measuring, drawing, composition, value, color."
For McGinley, the strict Golden Section-based instruction Barnstone taught didn't dampen her creativity.
"It was another tool, just like a ruler or a compass," McGinley says. "What happens is you have the tools, and from there you have your own self expression. It's the scale on a music graph where you hang your notes."
McGinley says Barnstone didn't show her techniques for pastels. She had to develop that on her own.
"Myron gave us the foundations of what we needed to develop," McGinley says. "We had a process of how to begin and design with the Golden Section. He gave us so much insight into how to draw, and it's not difficult to work with the mathematics or the geometry."
Three decades later, McGinley is now a signature member of the Pastel Society of America and a master pastelist. She is also a full member of the Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Art Club in New York City.
Her love of Barnstone's methods carried over to two more generations of her family.
Her daughter, Megan, was a student at Barnstone's studio. Megan has taught at Portland State University, (art and design), and she owns a graphic design business with her husband.
McGinley's grandson, Anders, 6, also is working with Barnstone. "I don't know what I would be doing without my instruction from Myron," McGinley says. "I would probably not be an artist. He changed my life completely. I'm 73 now and I get up every day with a passion for my work."
His legacy will continue
Earlier this year, Barnstone decided to close his art school. The economy had taken its toll, and fewer students were enrolling.
"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 says.
He closed the school with a "huge party" around a final class on the practical application of dynamic symmetry, he says. It had 50 people inside the class, with 50 more outside, he says.
While his studio is closed, Barnstone continues to teach.
He now sells DVDs of his classes and sells downloads of them through his website, wwww.barnstonestudios.com. To date, about 1,000 DVDs and downloads of his class have been sold.
"So it continues; it goes on," he says. "It's been a hell of a career. It's been a romp. I've had the good fortune of making friends of serious artists."