Phyllis McGuire | Barbara Ernst Prey reflects on her connection to Mass MoCA and her new giant watercolor

WILLIAMSTOWN — I never expected to meet an internationally acclaimed artist when I was just strolling in my neighborhood.

But one day, a couple of feet away from me, Barbara Ernst Prey stepped out of a car.

As an admirer of the American artist's work — landscapes, seascapes, places of worship, farmhouses, American flags and more, I know that her paintings are displayed in the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Smithsonian Museum of Art and embassies around the world.

Among her accolades and awards, Prey was commissioned by the National Aeronautics Space Agency to create four paintings of space flights, and was commissioned to paint the 2003 White House Christmas card. The latter makes her one of two living females to have their work in the White House collection.

The day I happened to meet Prey, she was in Williamstown in connection with a commission she had received from Mass MoCA to create a monumental watercolor painting on paper, depicting their Building 6.

"We wanted something that would bring the watercolor medium to a new level in America," Prey said, referring to her collaboration with Mass MoCA Director Joseph Thompson on concepts for the painting.

Now at 8 feet tall by 15 feet wide, "Building 6 Portrait: Interior" is the only known watercolor of that magnitude around the world. The unique painting has been exhibited in Building 6 since May 28 when the new building was unveiled.

Prey has homes/studios in New York, Maine and here in Williamstown. "Each location affects my work in a different way," the artist said when we spoke via phone.

"I grew up in Long Island, where we could see the [Long Island] Sound from my mother's studio. My mother was an incredible role model, " Prey said of Ellen Ernst, who was a professional artist and head of the design department at Pratt Institute.

As a young child, Prey started going with her mother to paint alongside her in her studio. Prey had her first juried show when she was 9.

I asked if she believed talent can be inherited. "It's a gift you are given. But you have to work on it,'' said the artist, who graduated from William College in 1979 and later earned a master's degree at Harvard University.

"I wrote my honors thesis with (the late) Lane Faison in Art History at Williams College. Lane was one of the deans of the Williams Art Mafia as well as a Monument Man. ... My thesis was to be the first chapter of his book on Southern German Baroque and Rococo Art and Architecture and I spent many afternoons with Lane poring over architectural drawings and interior photos to examine space," Prey said. "Because of Lane, I continued my studies on a Fulbright Scholarship examining, drawing and looking at art and architecture in Europe."

In Prey's almost 40-year career as an artist, she spent 10 years doing artwork for The New Yorker, many with architectural themes.

In 2015, Prey was excited to start working on her iconic painting of Mass MoCA'S Building 6, but there were many problems to solve in the process before she could even begin.

She explained how one challenge was overcome: "Because watercolor needs to be painted on a slant so the paint doesn't drip, we built special supports and I had ladders and scaffolding so I could paint from top to bottom."

Prey said of the interior of Building 6: "The color, ethereal light and architecture made it a mystical, spiritual type of space." (I think Prey has captured those aspects in "Building 6 Portrait: Interior")

Years ago it was Lane Faison who first brought Prey to Mass MoCA. "He wanted me to see the space; he was so excited about it," Prey recalled. "I remember going through the building with him before it opened so it is a nice circle to come back and now I paint a monumental painting of the new space. It has a very personal connection for me."

Phyllis McGuire writes from her home in Williamstown. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.


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