In ancient Damascus, roads wind across the barren landscape, one leading to the foot of a staircase and a gate welcoming visitors to the marketplace. Some opt to climb to the buildings above, seemingly growing out of the rock face.
As they climb, others might join in the journey, leading to the synagogues where they will pay their respects and join other Jewish scholars discussing the Holy Books.
This scene and many others live in the heart of Mukwonago resident Barbara Beier, who captures the past in her large scale and often life-size movable murals. Her art is painted on Masonite in sections that can be refitted or recombined to suit a setting in another location. She captures the ordinary fulfilling their ordinary lives, but in an extraordinary manner.
Throughout November, Beier’s reflections of the Holy Land and Israel are being displayed at Landmarks Gallery & Restoration Studio in Milwaukee.
“I obviously romance the past in my paintings,” she said. “I think back 2,000 years and research what archaeologists found on walls, streets, lintels on gates and add back what the scenery looked like back then.”
Beier’s inspiration stemmed from an invitation to teach music ministry in Israel for three years in the mid-1990s. The trips, history and culture permeated her soul, and her Via Dolorosa mural was the first to emerge from her brush.
A visit to Cornwall, England, offered images for ancient towns and villages populated with characters of her imagination. Trips to Ireland, Scotland and Wales expanded her creativity while she learned of their early culture.
“My work is realistic, but stylized. I want to create the ambiance of the era,” she said. “I paint large and people often say that they feel as if they can walk into my paintings. My style is bold and very free. Sometimes even I don’t know where my art is going. I inhale the scenes and exhale the art.”
Her most profound worked stemmed from a prayer and ended up as her interpretation of the Transfiguration, a grandiose 8-foot by 8-foot movable mural, that Beier considers her signature piece. In order to portray it as realistically as possible, she used live models to create the characters of Jesus, Elijah and Moses.
“I have done this before and sometimes people just appear at my door and will pose for me when they know I am working on a painting,” she said. “I have a friend who is a seamstress who designed the clothing for me to fit the period and has made the clothing in all sizes with many different headpieces.”
The inspiration to paint the Transfiguration happened more than a year ago, and Beier was unable to shake the vision, nor the reason why she continued to think about it nearly every day.
“I had this picture in my mind of three figures in a circle and a year went by; I had done other exhibits, but hadn’t tackled the Transfiguration. One day, I just couldn’t control it and found myself painting it – and I didn’t know why,” she said. “I feel as if the Holy Spirit just took over. It wasn’t an easy thing to do spiritually, and it was scary to draw a 4-foot Jesus facing out. Each time I look at the painting now, I see the man who posed for the painting, except for the face and head, and that’s where the vision of Jesus took over.”
Beier’s formal art education began at age 8 as a student at the Notre Dame motherhouse in Milwaukee. She excelled quickly, and in high school won Journal/Sentinel calendar competition awards and scholarships to the Milwaukee Art Institute. She minored in art and majored in liturgical music, Scripture and theology at Alverno College, and earned her master’s degree in composition at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee.
Until 2005, Beier served St. Margaret Mary Parish as the director of music and liturgy. While she is a full-time artist, she continues to play the organ for Mass, rotating among three or four parishes in the Milwaukee Archdiocese.
“Since I was a little girl, music and art affected me so deeply that when other kids were doing foolish things, I was into my music and art,” she explained. “It is who I am – it’s my identity and I can’t even separate it.”
While Beier paints nearly every day, she finds that she is unable to paint for long stretches of time, as spiritually and emotionally the work is exhausting. Most projects take six weeks to two months to complete.
“I compare it somewhat to the story of where Jesus was in a crowd of people and when someone touched him, he felt the energy go out of him,” she said. “It is like that when I paint. I feel my energy going into the painting at a fast pace. There was a time a few years ago when the Village of Mukwonago asked me to do a major painting for the fall harvest. It was a big size and I managed to finish it in two days. It was a major painting and I was pretty happy about the results, but then I felt very depressed and nervous afterwards. It took me a while to realize that this work – physically, emotionally and spiritually – drains me. I was blowing part of myself out into the work.”
Beier’s Landmark Gallery showing, titled “Antiquities,” features the ecumenical paintings of The Transfiguration, The Damascus Gate, Kidron Valley, Descendants of Ishmael, and Fishing Boats at the Sea of Galilee.
“This is a biblical showing, but is not specifically Catholic or any other religion as I did not want to eliminate anybody,” she said. “I would like this art to be available to any denomination, including Muslims, because of our commonality. I am careful not to make anyone feel out of place. For example, in some of my work, the Christian will see Jesus, but a non-Christian might see him as a shepherd. I hope people will be interested in seeing my work, my life’s passion. I get so much joy out of what I do; I am a very enthusiastic person and it is uncontainable.”