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Senior Lifestyles

Life on canvas: Longtime Los Altos artist Helene Barber continues to see art in everyday life

Ellie Van Houtte/
Town Crier Los Altos artist Helene Barber uses a variety of media in her work. The 60-year resident first became interested in art at the age of 4.

Los Altos artist Helene Barber fondly recalls the moment she caught the bug to create works of art.

A 4-year-old Barber found herself one day with a purple crayon in hand, drawing large scrolls on the freshly papered wall near the entryway of her parents’ home in Santa Rosa.

“My parents had just hung this paper, and I can remember, believe it or not, these great arm movements,” said Barber, a 60-year Los Altos resident who grew up in the North Bay during the Great Depression. “I was making these circles and I was so happy. But money was an object and they didn’t have any to repaper.”

Because of the lean times during the Depression, the crayon scrolls stayed on her parents’ wall well into her teenage years. The desire to create art, however, did, too.

“I was totally obsessed with drawing and painting. … Sometimes you just have no choice,” said Barber, whose work has been featured in solo and group exhibitions from Los Altos to New York City. “I’d be studying my French lessons and I’d be doodling all the time. I guess it was a compulsion, I don’t know.”

But what began as an obsession as a child eventually turned into a full-fledged career as an artist who creates her work through a wide variety of media, from etchings to oil- and water-based paints. The Artist’s Equity Association, the Art Commission of San Francisco and the San Francisco Art Institute, among several others, have recognized Barber’s work throughout her decades as an artist.

“I was serious about it – I always have been,” Barber said of her career. “I’m not interested in cutie-pie stuff.”

Early career

Barber noted that her long career as an artist included a pause or two in between. At age 18, she began attending The California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland and soon found herself taking on an entirely different identity – as mother and wife.

Instead of focusing on art, Barber married her husband, Perry – who returned home from serving in the military during World War II. The couple later became parents to three children – two boys and a girl. Barber found the need to put her artwork “off to the side” as a young mother – if only temporarily.

“I knew I had to put it aside, she said, “but when the last one went to school, I pulled out my easel, I set it up and I was suddenly painting.”

Barber noted the reaction she received from her older son – then a first-grader – when he came home from school and suddenly learned of his mother’s closely guarded love of art.

“He was indignant,” she said with a chuckle. “He’d never seen the easel out and had never seen me painting. … It was like, ‘Who is this woman? This is my mother and what is she doing standing at this easel painting?’”

In her 30s, Barber began attending outdoor art shows throughout the Bay Area in a bid to sell her work and fund her return to school at the San Francisco Art Institute. She later found a willing partner in her husband, who helped her budding art career by taking on various tasks such as packing and shipping original and commissioned artwork to galleries and clients around the country.

“It was a surprise,” she said of her husband’s interest in her art. “I had no idea that this is how it would all come together.”

The artist becomes the teacher

In her 40s, Barber found herself taking on yet another role out of necessity – teacher – when Perry died suddenly in 1970 from heart complications.

“I could no longer depend on selling my work or just exhibiting it,” she recalled.

Aside from exhibiting and selling her art, Barber began teaching various art courses at Pacific Art League of Palo Alto, where she earned the 1987 Kenneth Washburn Distinguished Service Award for Teaching. She later taught courses at Mountain View Los Altos Adult Education.

These days, Barber can be found twice a week teaching art to seniors at Hillview Community Center. She said the classes offer others the opportunity to foster a passion for art and escape from problems in everyday life.

“I really enjoy the people – and they’re serious about their work, which helps,” she said. “They’re very thoughtful people.”

As for Barber, the inspiration to create and teach art continues – even in her later years.

“I’m not as hale and hearty as I used to be,” she quipped, “but I do still make it to my classes.”

Artist Helene Barber - Photos by Ellie Van Houtte/Town Crier

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