Lenore Barnett tentatively signed up for a six-week art class three decades ago. Within a few short years, she made a name for herself — her award-winning oil paintings hang in private collections, galleries, and public spaces regionally and nationally. This in itself would be remarkable, even if you didn’t know that she took that first class at age 62, after raising her family and pursuing a successful second career in real estate.
At 90, she is still very much at work, painting every week and showing her work at Firefly Craft Gallery in Flat Rock. She insists her age doesn’t matter a bit — what matters is that she simply gets to work. After all, she says, people regularly mistake her for being in her 70s, at most.
Barnett’s luminous, figurative canvases walk a line between photographic and impressionistic. She calls it “soft-edged realism.” Lights glow, shadows flicker, and the world seems alive with movement. She says she’s fascinated by contrast — “it may be contrast of light, of texture, or of design. It’s something that I see that immediately says, ‘Capture this! Don’t let it go away!’”
Her figures and interiors seem lit from within, evoking the work of Edward Hopper. Landscapes lean toward classical French Impressionism, with soft brush strokes and atmospheric lighting. She often works from her photographs — composing the images on the camera, then cropping and editing them before painting — capturing moments from walks in nature, the Low Country of South Carolina, and trips to Europe.
Barnett’s musical laugh rings out as she describes her busy life: her love of music and art, home renovations, engagements with friends, and her most recent project, a children’s book she wrote and illustrated in ink and colored pencil. It’s the playful tale of a young boy whose crib comes to life and flies away. She has another in the works that she plans to finish as soon as she markets this one.
Her paintings are a reprieve from this fulfilling, if sometimes difficult, life. And the time she sets aside to paint is sacred. She says the process calms her; it even relieves physical pain. “My work takes on a life — and a mind — of its own,” she says. “While I’m working, everything else is blotted out. What the painting is doing, it’s a sense that it’s painting itself. … I’m surprised by what comes out. I look at it and I think, ‘Well that’s interesting. I don’t really remember doing it that way, but that’s what it should be.’”
Barnett’s voice softens as she talks about the artists in her family — including her son and her late husband. If she regrets anything, it’s that she didn’t begin sooner, when her husband could have witnessed her success. (He died 15 years before she even began.)
“Had I really been able to see into the future, I would have gone to art school. I would have started much earlier. I would have gone much farther than I have now. Every artist says, ‘I’m not good enough’ no matter how good you are, not matter how many people say, ‘Oh your work is wonderful,’ you’re not good enough to yourself. I remember my husband saying that. He was never satisfied — but he was awfully good.”