Barbara Ernst Prey lives for art. When we reached out for this week’s interview she had just finished installing a piece at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCa). “I was commissioned by Mass MoCa to paint the largest watercolor in the world and we just installed it,” she said of the piece. At a staggering 10’ x 16’, “I don’t think anything like this has ever been done in watercolor. I’ve been working on it the last year and a half and just finished it and installed and it looks amazing.”
Prey was appointed by George W. Bush in 2009 to serve on the National Council on the Arts, the advisory board of the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA). Prey says she’s “happy to see how many people have stepped forward to support the arts” following media coverage regarding possible defunding of the NEA. She has a painting in the chairman’s office of the NEA, in Ambassador Haley’s office at the United Nations (UN), in the lobby of the U.S. mission to the U.N., at the Kennedy Space Center and NASA headquarters, just to name a few. She’s also done cover work for The New Yorker. Her exhibit Out Painting will be on display at Old Westbury Gardens June 2–5 and Prey will give a gallery talk there on June 4.
You’ve said there’s a story behind all your work. What the story with this one?
I actually know one of the fishermen. They had taken me to an island to paint and while I was off painting they were collecting buoys. So when we were leaving that was the image I came back with—these young guys just starting out as fishermen walking in front of me carrying their buoys.
Do you generally work from photographs?
I try to work from life as much as possible and I like to work on-site.
Do you prefer one media to another?
I’m known for my watercolors; I love my line drawings; when I go out east I like to do on-site oil painting.
As someone who has been involved in art most of your life, if there were one painting or piece of art from history that you wish you could have created, what would it be?
I was an art history major so I have a wealth of context for my work. I think I would choose the Sistine Chapel as I’ve spent the last couple months climbing scaffolding and on ladders to finish the MASS MoCa commission.
Is there one piece of advice you received from another artist you’ve always carried with you?
My mother was head of the Design Program at Pratt. She was my role model. I grew up painting in her studio and would go out painting with her. She never gave me any advice—she always encouraged my to do what I do. What I’ve learned from the example of my mother is how to be an artist.
Your work has been displayed, or is on display, in all type of prestigious institutions all over the world. Is there one place that is most special to you?
To be in the permanent collection of the White House is exciting because usually you have to be dead. I’m fortunate that there are a number of wonderful places my paintings have been on exhibit.
Is there one place you’ve yet to display where you’d like to?
The Whitney or the Met.
Visit barbaraprey.com for news information about the artist.