Painter and printmaker Will Barnet received one of the country’s highest honors Monday when President Obama presented him with a National Medal of Arts.

Barnet, 100, has deep Maine ties. Much of the inspiration for his artistic vision derives from his time in Maine, particularly in and around the midcoast area of Phippsburg.

Barnet, who lives in New York most of the year, received his medal in an East Room ceremony at the White House.

The White House cited Barnet “for his contributions as an American painter, printmaker and teacher. His nuanced and graceful depictions of family and personal scenes, for which he is best known, are meticulously constructed of flat planes that reveal a lifelong exploration of abstraction, expressionism and geometry. For more than 80 years, Mr. Barnet has been a constant force in the visual arts world, marrying sophistication and emotion with beauty and form.”

Among others who received honors Monday were actor Al Pacino, country music great Mel Tillis and pianist Andre Watts.

In remarks before conferring the medals, Obama praised artists for their contributions to society, and characterized those honored as “icons” for their courage to “dwell in possibilities.”

“As much as we need engineers and scientists,” the president said, “we also need artists and scholars … to disrupt our views and challenge our assumptions.”

Susan Danly, senior curator at the Portland Museum of Art, said the museum has 13 Barnet images in its collection, though none is currently on view.

“We are very proud of him,” Danly said.

“This is a top honor bestowed on an artist in the country, and certainly Will Barnet is one of the pre-eminent painters in Maine today. He has a longstanding love of New England and of Maine.”

In an interview with the Maine Sunday Telegram in 2002, Barnet said painting had been a way of life for as long as he could remember.

“It’s just a pattern of living that has been a part of me that began very early,” he said. “I had a studio in my father’s basement when I was 12 years old. By the time I was 14, I read every book on the history of art that was available. Today … it’s a continuation of my whole life, of my whole being. It is something that is a natural pattern that flows every day. It’s just a part of me. Every day I have ideas, thoughts or feelings that I like to express.”

Barnet was born in Beverly, Mass., in May 1911 and first came to Maine in 1953.

He has received many awards in his life, including the first Artist’s Lifetime Achievement Award Medal given on the National Academy of Design’s 175th anniversary; the College Art Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award; the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Art’s Lippincott Prize; and the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters’ Childe Hassam Prize. The Maine College of Art also has honored him.

His paintings and prints are included in most major public collections in the United States, including the National Gallery of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

 

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

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