You can’t easily sum up Barbara Johansen Newman’s career. Throughout her life, she’s dabbled and succeeded in no fewer than seven art disciplines. That’s enough for two lifetimes!
What could inspire one artist to reinvent themselves so many times?
We think we’ve figured out the puzzle that is Barbara Johansen Newman. Or at least the edges.
Let’s take a look!
The Story of Barbara Johansen Newman
As far back as she can remember, artist Barbara Johansen Newman made portraits. We say “made” because she didn’t just paint. She’s worked in illustration, puppetry, fibers, scenic design, doll-making, fabric design, and painting.
After attending college to study painting and printmaking, a chance meeting changed Newman’s path.
Bil Baird, famous for the “Goat Herd” sequence in The Sound of Music, taught puppetry at Newman’s college. The experience inspired her to create a puppet theatre with her husband, Moonberry Puppet Theatre. For several years she created original puppets, worked as a scenic artist, and wrote scripts for their theatre.
Puppetry inspired her to create soft figures and dolls that didn’t need manipulation. After a few years and several awards and exhibits, she changed tack again. As an illustrator, she created editorial cartoons and ads for corporate clients.
These experiences, and three children later, led her to begin illustrating children’s books. After over two-dozen books and several little detours, another significant change came.
Newman returned to her first love, painting. Now she creates portraits from life and her imagination on canvas and wood. She’s never far from storytelling. Newman also makes assembled frames that give a sense of where her characters come from.
Just like her dolls, her paintings are more than just two-dimensional objects. They have a life of their own.
What Inspires Barbara Johansen Newman’s Art?
Newman’s inspiration comes from her imagination. Like her puppet creations, dolls, and illustrations, an idea is all it takes. Flights of fancy inspire her to paint portraits unlike anything else.
Often, the story behind the portrait exists only in her mind. Viewers are left to fill in the pieces and stories behind her unique creations.
Frequent motifs in her paintings are vines, the natural world, tattoos, and cigarettes. Many of her portraits are of transgender or non-binary characters, and what’s unique about these portraits is that the characters’ whole lives exist in them.
Has Barbara Johansen Newman Written Any Books?
Out of the over two-dozen books she’s illustrated, Newman also wrote and illustrated three of her own. Raising her sons inspired her to create stories she wanted them to hear. And so we have Glamorous Garbage, Glamorous Glasses, and Tex and Sugar.
This book tells the story of cousins Bobbie and Joanie, best cousins and best friends. Like many children with messy rooms, Bobbie’s mother has had enough. She gives Bobbie two weeks to clean up the clutter. Joanie helps Bobbie try to solve her problem by going to garage sales.
Their goal is to transform the cluttered little kid room into something extraordinary. Using mixed media, Newman illustrates the story with vibrant colors and exquisite attention to detail. It’s easy to imagine Newman as a child doing some of these same things!
Cousins Bobbie and Joanie are at it again. Joanie gets glasses, and Bobbie wishes she had them too. Joanie has the opposite reaction and feels self-conscious. Bobbie tries to solve the problem in hilarious ways.
In the end, the girls find a solution that pleases them both. Newman’s illustrations are brightly colored and delightful!
Full of little details that keep adults engaged, children will love the ingenuity that Bobbie employs.
Tex and Sugar
We like to think of Tex and Sugar, two country music crooning cats, as stand-ins for Newman and her husband. These two felines from the sticks try to make it in the big city as solo musicians with little success. Only when they meet up and begin working together do they find success.
Like all good kids’ books, this one has a message. “Believe in your dreams, darlin, you know they’ll find you.” Illustrated in Newman’s multi-media style, this tale is touching and sweet. And just like the two cats, Newman and her husband’s meeting lead to the creation of their puppet theatre and a whole lifetime of adventures.
What Are Some of Barbara Johansen Newman’s Art Pieces?
Illustration is one thing. Discussing Newman’s art requires a different approach. Because of her storytelling prowess, Newman packs a book’s worth of detail into each painting. It’s hard to stop at the surface with these.
One of Newman’s assemblage pieces, Harbinger, focuses on a woman and an owl. The owl perches on the woman’s arm while she looks sideways at it, uneasy. The owl stares straight ahead at the viewer, unnerving and wise.
Using wood found around her house, Newman incorporates the colors of the pieces into the painting itself. What looks like real owl feathers adorn the half-circle board at the top and look like they could have come from the owl in the piece.
Man In Straw Hat
Newman’s latest works are endearing and controversial in one breath. Man In Straw Hat appears to be an older man wearing what appears to be a woman’s robe and straw hat. He sits in a folding chair, cigarette in his hand, looking out at the viewer. A palmetto bug sits on the table next to him.
Maury, the name of the man, is unperturbed. The piece of nature in the painting comes in the form of spider plants creeping in around the edges. Taken by itself, the portrait could simply be a man mourning the loss of a loved one. Taken in the context of the next piece, it could be something else.
You Are My White. You Are My Blue.
Newman created this piece for an exhibition celebrating Pride month at the Bowersock Gallery. Featuring a couple in color-coordinated blazers, the work references the blue and white china arranged behind them. The couple in the painting looks out at the viewer, a hint of a smile behind their eyes.
The artist’s eye for detail shines in this portrait. Each plate is beautifully rendered, and even the wallpaper and tablecloth warrant a second look.
These two pieces represent a trend in Newman’s body of work. Presenting same-sex couples and characters in mundane, everyday settings serves a purpose. For many Americans, humanizing LGBT+ individuals can help to break down stigmas they may not even understand.
What is Really Really Retro?
What if we told you that Barbara Johansen Newman has another artistic outlet? Shocking, we know. Really Really Retro is a business Newman started to market her designs to companies looking for something new. With all of her illustration experience and hundreds of patterns created, Newman decided they needed a second life.
Inspired by the 1950s and Space Age design, these images are available for licensing and product development.
Where Can I See Barbara Johansen Newman’s Art?
The best place to see Newman’s art is her Instagram page. Regular updates mean you get to see her work as soon as she shares it. You’ll also find much of her work on her website, including dolls, paintings, and more.
With decades of diverse work under her belt, you’ll enjoy exploring what’s on offer. You can also purchase her paintings directly from her. It’ll be hard not to buy them all!
Mysterious and Meaningful
Barbara Johansen Newman’s latest works are a joy to look at. Her decades of illustration experience and character design expertise allow her to create gorgeous assemblage pieces. Mystery surrounds the characters she creates, and that’s part of what makes them so perfect.
Inviting the viewer to use their imagination engages viewers and creates bonds between the subject and the audience. These are powerful, accessible, meaningful pieces of art. Newman’s a masterful storyteller, and we want to hear them all.
Which of Barbara Johansen Newman’s stories is your favorite? Tell us in the comments!
Outside Folk Gallery
You can explore folk, street, and outsider art in our personal collection at Outside Folk Art. We’re celebrating these creatives and giving voice to rising black, Native, immigrant, and working mother artisans.
We’ll also be offering pop-up shows and collaborations with small museums, so be sure to follow us to discover the where and when!