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Painting College History: An Interview With Carolyn Barnard

Visit the alumni house on campus and a painting hanging in the reception office is likely to stop you in your tracks. In it, a young Sen. John F. Kennedy strolls past Boyle Hall in stride with the Rev. Dennis Burke, O.Praem., ’26, then president of St. Norbert.

It’s 1960. Kennedy is on the campaign trail; Burke is showing him around campus. Both men are smiling.

The affection Green Bay artist Carolyn Barnard (above) feels for one of the subjects of her 1998 watercolor shows in the light on his face and the poise in his stride. And it’s not the dashing politician – it’s the man in the white habit.

It was Father Burke’s own suggestion that first prompted Barnard to imagine the piece. That, along with three other paintings of the campus, would ultimately be commissioned to mark the college’s centennial. But Barnard’s admiration for the college’s second president has roots that run much deeper. 

“[Father Burke] took my first confession,” says Barnard, who came to Catholicism not when she married the late Michael Barnard ’44, a Catholic himself, but rather when she was good and ready.

“I became a Catholic because I wanted to become a Catholic,” she says. 

When she converted, she brought her whole heart with her. “I fell madly in love with the Church,” she says.

She might say the same of watercolor painting, which she also took up in adulthood. Growing up in Milwaukee during the Great Depression, she’d been an accomplished violinist, but raising four sons and four daughters born over a span of 14 years left no time for practice.

Instead, on Thursdays, a woman came to her home to care for her children while Barnard studied painting with Bill Juhre. He had been a syndicated comic strip artist in Chicago and Milwaukee prior to moving to De Pere.

“I’d never painted before in my life. I was a rank beginner,” Barnard says. “I wanted to paint in oils, but I couldn’t stand the smell of turpentine.” Thus she turned to watercolors.

It makes perfect sense that today her studio and her kitchen run together.

“I was chained to the stove,” she says of the years when her children were young. “I seated 10 for meals three times a day.”

Still, she found time and inspiration to paint. “When they were napping, I would read books and learn,” she says. “I always had a camera on me. I would take a lot of pictures, throw them around the floor, and draw my original sketch.”

Many decades later, in her seventies, she used much the same process to create the centennial paintings – the one of Burke with Kennedy, one each of Old St. Joe’s and Main Hall in winter, and one of the entire campus viewed across the Fox River at sunset.

“I was [on campus] many, many hours, just sitting there drawing,” she says. She also worked from a black-and-white photograph taken the day of Kennedy’s visit.

“I would put on jazz – our wonderful, wonderful American jazz – and then I would paint until I couldn’t stand anymore.”

The college unveiled her four paintings at its centennial gala in 1998. “It was the biggest night of my life,” she says.

Barnard was delighted when, shortly after the event, Burke, then 93, arranged a lunch for the two of them. But the lunch never happened. Burke died on Dec. 19, 1998, just before they were set to meet.

Prints of her St. Norbert paintings still hang in her gallery of a home, among dozens of her other works. The only thing in which she takes greater pride is her family.

Sept. 2, 2014