The art of Pietro Barbera is unclassifiable because it is distinctive. And it is distinctive because it fits into no single category but rather into several categories. This is true both of subject matter and of medium. As he says of himself, “My whole life, no matter what I did, was always different.” This is why to classify him as a “folk artist” as has been done, neither describes his work nor does him justice as an artist. It would be better to say that he combines the qualities of the unknown medieval artists who worked on Notre Dame Cathedral and who labored in Renaissance workshops.
Whether he uses crayon on old plywood as he did in his earliest work, or masking tape and wire, as in the middle period of his sculptures or in his latest abstract geometric paintings, the subject matter is suffused with spirituality. One might even say the works are haunting because they are haunted by souls. They are there in his shoemaker and monk done in crayon on old plywood, in his “cigar store” Indians and carousel horses sculpted in wire and masking tape, in his seascapes and landscapes. They are there in his New York subway derelicts also expressed in rayon on plywood, and in his street scene portrayed on a Levi jean. Such examples merely hint at the range of his art which may be seen in characteristically eccentric places such as coffee and bagel shops in Red Bank and Hazlet, New Jersey, as well as in his garage/studio in Toms’ River. Sometimes he does the conventional thing as to exhibit in libraries and galleries and to give lectures at Brookdale Community College.
Barbera grew up in Jersey City, going only to the ninth grade. He then worked as a musician, an upholsterer of boat furniture and custom cars, a builder of houses and as a mason. He began to produce his works of art in his sixties when he was struck by profound melancholia in the early 1990’s. Rather than defeat him, it, together with his natural skill and sensibilities for nature and human pathos, transformed him into the artist he is today. He can be found as his shoemaker, laboring diligently, if even somewhat furiously, in his studio in Toms’ River.
Professor Emeritus of Philosophy
St. Francis College
Brooklyn, New York