Whether crossing paths with a gun-happy Kentucky miner or young foosball players in Seattle, Susan Barker’s art exhibit Goin’ to California: My Motorcycle Diaries proves that road trips are about journeys rather than destinations.
Barker’s crisply rendered watercolour paintings at the Kiwanis Gallery in the Red Deer Public Library, were completed over the past year. But the photos that inspired them were taken over the last 15 years, as the artist and her husband, John, travelled across North America on motorcycles.
Barker unofficially joined the biker brigade in 2000 after encouraging John to buy a Harley-Davidson. The Red Deer couple’s three kids had grown up and left home, and she thought it would be a novel way to see the continent.
“There’s freedom in riding a bike. It’s a whole different lifestyle,” said the artist, who purchased a smaller Harley to join John on the road to Maine, Utah or Vancouver Island.
The couple are always battling the elements on their journeys; “Sometimes it’s so hot your lips explode in sun blisters,” said Barker. At other times, she’s worn a wetsuit and electric vest under her leather gear to keep warm and dry.
Either way, she brings a small notebook and camera.
Barker records various encounters and sensory experiences in her diary — the smell of the ocean, scent of ripening canola, clover or lavender fields, the pungent stink of manure. The camera is used to record images of “things I’d see that were beautiful,” said the 59-year-old.
Barker turned 27 of her road trip photos into paintings, which are accompanied by text from her journal.
Since “snippets” of life are of most interest to Barker, her compositions hone in on details — a yellow post-it note with directions stuck to the inside of her husband’s windshield, the reflection in his goggles, a boat mirrored on water in California Reflections.
A solitary seaside bench in Nova Scotia is shown in Hirtle Beach, while young foosball players from Washington State are shown in Rockin’ the Tornado.
Barker captured the white crosses of a roadside graveyard in the Crowsnest Pass, the vintage appeal of an abandoned ’60s-era Volkswagen van, and other bits of “real life” she’s travelled by.
Some interesting characters have turned up along the way — one of them was Gene Wickers, a retired coal miner from Kentucky. Barker depicted his tattooed forearm and hand gun in one of her paintings. Wickers revealed that he’d like to travel to Canada someday, but was cautioned about bringing his loaded Luger and 32-calibre guns, which were hidden in his boot holsters, across the border.
“We told him they will confiscate them. … He had no idea. He knew nothing about Canada …” recalled Barker, with a laugh.
The artist said she was always creating pictures while growing up in Novas Scotia and her native Alberta, but put painting aside after marrying and having children. In 2000, she took an eight-week evening course in watercolour painting with Red Deer artist Susan Woolgar and art again “took over” her life. She’s since won awards at juried art shows.
While Barker sold her motorcycle last year after having a premonition she’d used up her “little bag of luck” and should quit while ahead, she hasn’t given up road trips. She continues to travel on the back of her husband’s bike — which makes it easier for her to focus on the world passing by.
Goin’ to California, presented by the Red Deer Arts Council and public library, is on until Aug. 23. A First Friday reception will be held on July 3 from 6 to 8 p.m. in the Kiwanis Gallery.