Though he is only twenty-three years old, J. Stirling Barrett is quickly becoming a prominent New Orleans artist. A native New Orleanian who moved to Metairie after spending his early childhood downtown, Barrett possesses talent, charm, and the ability to create art that uniquely yet approachably encapsulates the spirit of New Orleans.
As a child, Barrett’s dyslexia prevented him from excelling at traditional subjects in school, but as he moved from school to school, he developed a talent and passion for art. At Metairie Park Country Day photographer Barry Kaiser recognized the talents of the young artist and nurtured his burgeoning skills, mostly in black and white photographs and gelatin silver prints.
Barrett was still in high school when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, but he decided to make use of the devastation and of his free time to develop his Photoshop skills as well as his now signature photographic collage style. He returned to Country Day and Mr. Kaiser’s tutelage and continued to grow as a student photographer.
Barrett’s first “big break” as an artist was a kismet happening. He was using the darkroom he frequented to print a larger version of a triptych titled By Water, which features Two Sisters Restaurant and the two surrounding buildings, when Mary Fitzpatrick, who was then publishing Preservation Resource Center’s New Orleans’ Favorite Shotguns book, saw his image on the counter and decided to use one of his photographic collages as the cover for the book. Barrett also got his first show at the Preservation Resource Center, and with that the young professional artist had the beginnings of a career.
At only seventeen years old, Barrett had achieved success as a photographer but wanted to continue to develop as an artist. He attended Southern Methodist University’s Meadows School of the Arts as an art major, but when he was required to try too many styles of art and did not have time to produce the photographic imagery he had grown to love, Barrett switched to an art minor so he could focus on photography and printmaking classes. He switched his major to creative advertising, and his focus on Photoshop, typeface, and creating art that engages the masses still informs his artistic process today.
Barrett entered the Main Street Arts Festival in Fort Worth two years in a row and realized that people connected to his work on a number of levels and that he could have a successful career as an artist. After college, Barrett moved back to New Orleans. He was again inspired by the landscape and vitality of the city and its people. This year, he was honored to show his art at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and will have two exhibitions: one group exhibition, opening Saturday, June 9, 2012, for St. Claude’s Second Saturday at the second floor of the New Orleans Healing Center and another in December 2012 at Scott Edwards Gallery on Decatur St. and Frenchmen.
Barrett is known for his photographic collage style, but the young artist does not feel inhibited by it. He continues to develop his style and process, but remains faithful to the collage, which best enable him to uniquely represent the distinct architecture of New Orleans.
Barrett is honored that the public has had such a positive response to his creative process. His photography conveys the New Orleans state of mind and the pulse of the city that continues to draw in communities of artists and people. He encapsulates the architecture and spirit of the city in his photographs of places like Commanders Palace, St. Louis Cathedral, and the (obviously non-New Orleanian) Brooklyn Bridge.
Above all, Barrett wants to create art that everyone can appreciate and afford. His creative advertizing background informs this vision, but elevates lowbrow consumer advertising and photography to a more highbrow scale. Barrett is a “nobrow” artist: he creates art that fits into the historical cannon that is at the same time appealing and affordable to the masses. His art uses familiar images (usually architecture or landscapes) but employs his photographic collage style to enable the viewer to follow the incongruent angles and overlapping photographs to form their own interpretations and connections to the images and places.
Brianna Smyk has an M.A. in Art History. A former New Orleanian, she maintains a passion for the city and its people and writes about arts and culture for NolaVie.