DANVILLE -- Look at one of John Barry's paintings, and you're bound to wonder how it was created -- what tools did the artist use to layer the multihued swirls and lines that don't quite resemble brush strokes or the work of a palette knife?
The answer is as unconventional as the artist himself. His work, called traction painting, uses wheels to apply paint to surfaces ranging from asphalt to canvas to fiberboard. Barry skates, bicycles and even uses a walker to create vivid, abstract works of vibrant color.
"I don't have a specific image in mind; I do have a palette," he said. "What I do is a type of performance or process art, whereby the act of creating it is more important than what you end up with. There's a lot of serendipity involved."
Barry will be among the artists participating at the 15th annual Art in the Park event set for this weekend at San Ramon's Central Park, 12501 Alcosta Blvd. He will demonstrate his technique over the course of the two days.
At 65, trim with close-cropped silver hair, Barry is eloquent and soft-spoken. A retired writer and editor, he began dabbling in the visual arts in 2007, creating whimsical, 3-D multimedia pieces he calls visual puns. He eventually joined the Alamo Danville Artists' Society and in 2011 began to think about painting. Despite a bad back and a self-described inability to draw, he was drawn to large-scale projects.
"In my less decrepit days I used to skate a lot," he said. "It just seemed like the idea hit me one day that you could take roller skates and use them as a paint application mechanism. I decided to see if it could be done. "
Barry placed a piece of plywood over a drop cloth, filled small tubs with latex house paint and stepped into an old pair of in-line skates, sloshing around in the tubs until the wheels were covered with color.
"My first work was this 2-by-8 sheet of plywood -- which I eventually put on the door of my shed," he said. "It was kind of enjoyable."
After more experimentation, he began considering equipment that would give him similar results with less back strain.
"I do mainly bicycling and walking for therapy, so I started thinking maybe a bicycle was preferable to skates, but it's hard to dip a bicycle into a basin of paint," he said.
An old bicycle -- festooned with beads and glitter from a previous art installation at Diablo Valley College, seemed perfect for the job. Today, a handmade wooden platform behind the seat holds a large repurposed plastic jug with holes drilled in the sides. Tubes fitted in the holes run to each wheel and provide a constant stream of paint as Barry pedals his way around his canvas. He straps smaller water bottles with similar tubing onto his in-line skates. Each "Bainting," or "Skainting," as he calls them, can take a couple of hours to several days and involve multiple layers of paint, sometimes interspaced with a wash of gesso, a primer coat he occasionally applies between color layers.
Barry's original traction painting still adorns the door of his shed at his Danville home, while a 4-by-14-foot work -- a swirl of green, purple, orange and black -- is displayed on a living room wall. The house is filled with colorful and whimsical art, much of it his own. He describes his unusual paintings as process and performance art, and said he hopes to be able to inspire young artists to follow their own artistic concepts, no matter how unusual. One of his ideas is to produce a video of his painting technique featuring talented BMX bikers, who could take traction painting to a new level, he said.
Barry's work, while unusual, is a perfect example of an artist using a lifetime of experience to create something new and valuable, said Bill Carmel, a colleague of Barry's and a multimedia artist in San Ramon who has taught art at Humboldt State and Southern Illinois universities. He's never seen anything quite like Barry's work.
"There are many artists who have media processes like this, but as for anyone using technology like this, no," he said. "You look at the actual image, and if you don't know how he did it, you're intrigued, and that to me is the essence of what really great art is about.
"I believe in public art, in artists who can engage with the community because they have a unique perspective," he added. "How could that go wrong?"
In addition to the challenge of getting paint on the canvas, Barry faces another obstacle familiar to many abstract artists -- how to recognize when a piece is finished. The answer, he said, is anything but concrete.
"You just know when it's done," he said simply. "You have to look at it periodically. Sometimes (the result) is planned, but more often it's serendipity, happenstance or an accident."