Will Barnet ©JoAnne Kalish
We were taking a flight to Austin, Texas to photograph their first F1 Grand Prix. I was reading The New York Times and a painting of Will’s caught my eye, as I was turning the page. It was the Obituary Column – Will had passed away the day before (November 13.) We all knew it was coming but it really really hit me hard. I had spoke to Will the week before in hopes of getting together but sadly it did not work out.
I first met Will Barnet when I had an assignment to photograph him for ART & ANTIQUES MAGAZINE, back in 2005 and we’ve been friends ever since. He was an exceptional person – warm, generous, extremely talented yet humble. He’d always go that extra mile to make you feel special. With all his accomplishments and stature he never failed to ask how I was doing, what kind of art I was making, and how was Joe? He always made me feel special.
For those of you not familiar with his work, Will’s body of work ranges from universal family scenes, often but not always, using his wife, children,and pets as they connect with each other. On the other hand, his paintings go in other directions as well, exploring abstracts and the connection that can be made using bold colors & form. During this time, he was influenced by the artwork of American Indians. Will’s been a Printmaker, as well as being an Art Educator for many years. I’ve heard stories of how he’s influenced a generation of young artists. His kind, generous nature is not common in the art world but Will was his own person. It did not take away, from who he was, to share with others. He welcomed the opportunity. After the Great Depression he was very involved in the federal art project heading up the WPA, which helped artists sustain a living while continuing to make their art. He has been the recipient of many awards. This past February 2012, President Obama Awarded him the Medal of Arts for his lifetime achievement.
One Saturday, I called and asked if I could stop by to say hello. He said that he was sorry but he was going to a friend’s gallery opening and we’d have to make it another time. Joe and I decided to check out some shows ourselves that weekend and who, did we stroll into but Will. It was so important for him to see what was going on at all times.
On another day, I was in the neighborhood and called him to see if I could stop by to say hello. He said, “give me a few minutes I’m coming down, meet me at the entrance of my building.” His son Todd who I met for the first time was with him. It was a beautiful day and we sat in Gramercy Park talking like old friends reminiscing and sharing how we met. We had a good laugh about how, after I had done his portrait, I did not realize, until just before I left, that my face was covered (and I mean covered) with blue paint. All during the shoot he had found it very amusing but never said a word to me. That same day sitting in the park, he told me, that of all the famous photographers that had photographed him over the last eight decades, my photograph was his very favorite and truly the best. He then followed this statement with – including the portrait that Arnold Newman had done of him. I wish I got it on tape! Over the years, Will requested that my portrait be used alongside his work and it has been used in many museums and galleries and I’m truly honored. Recently it was used as the iconic opening photo in the book WILL BARNET AT 100.
This past New Year’s Day my cell phone rang and it was Will calling to wish Joe and myself a very Happy New Year. It was a wonderful surprise! I will cherish that phone call forever.
Will Barnet & Photographer JoAnne Kalish 2011