“Distant Light” by Maggie Barnes

Looking at one of Maggie Barnes’ paintings from her exhibit “Bridging The Gap: Staying In A Relationship With Someone Who Has Alzheimer’s” you may see flowers, or a landscape, or perhaps a collection of brush strokes—but you’d definitely feel the emotion. Barnes’ works are abstract, impressionistic, using bold colors and thick application of paint to convey feelings. “I paint like I’m trying to use up my supplies,” she laughs. What you might not sense is that below the surface of the paint is a message. Each painting in the first room of the exhibit had song lyrics painted beneath the final image, invisible to the viewer, but carrying meaning of its own.

“We All Belong,” underpainting and finished work by Maggie Barnes.

Beside the paintings, photographs of the work in progress showed the words that lie hidden. By touching an icon on your smartphone, you could hear the song as though it was rising up through the layers of paint and vanishing as the song ends. “It’s a lot like talking to someone with Alzheimer’s,” Barnes says. “You know they’re under there somewhere, but you only see little glimpses of them. The painting over of the words represents the profound changes in our loved one.”

In the second part of the exhibit were paintings done during sound checks at Dr. Dog concerts. Dr. Dog is the indie band whose lyrics Barnes used as the basis and inspiration for much of her work. “At a sound check, the band will often play snippets of their songs, over and over again,” she says. “There are times when this is all we are given in our relationship with someone who has dementia.”

Emerging into the third and final area, you’d find tables covered with art supplies, where you would be invited to create your own small artwork and pin it to the wall. But to do so, you’d have to take someone else’s piece with you. This too comes from a Dr. Dog lyric: “We’re all in it together now /As we all fall apart. We’re swapping little pieces/ Of our broken little hearts.”

It’s a sentiment Barnes identifies with all too well. Six weeks after her exhibition debuted, her father, who suffered from Alzheimer’s, passed away.

From Wyoming And Back Again

Maggie at work in her studio

Barnes is a fifth generation Wyoming citizen, with a familiar story: she graduated Wyoming High School, went away to college, got married, and after a few years returned to live in the town she thought she wanted to escape. “When I was a year old, we moved into my aunt’s house on the hill,” she says. “My parents lived there until last year, when we finally sold the house. That’s almost fifty years in the same house!”

Her father, Jim McCue, was a fixture in the community during that time, working on the rescue squad, coaching sports, helping produce the Corral Show and volunteering at Ascension and Holy Trinity Church.

Although she took art classes in school, Barnes never dreamed of becoming an artist. “I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do.” She loved music and thought of becoming a therapist, but “the passion for it never really took hold,” she says.

There were other problems as well. She gradually came to realize that she suffered from alcoholism. “I was a drunk,” she says frankly. “I got sober in 2003 and started painting in 2005. During that first year a dear friend of mine, who was also an alcoholic, died. That was harder than getting sober. I knew I was going to drink again, but I picked up a brush instead of a drink.”

She began painting and learning her art, reading every book on the subject she could find. “I painted as obsessively as I used to drink.” Before long, her work began to get recognition. An art dealer in London began selling her paintings; she won an award in the Wyoming Art Show. Her career was off and running.

Enter Dr. Dog

A time came, though, when Barnes began to feel unhappy with her work. “I was painting, but I didn’t love what I was creating. It was just horrible. Nothing was coming out.” At a friend’s, she heard some music she didn’t recognize. “I was like, I want more of THAT.” She went home and downloaded everything by the quirkily named band, Dr. Dog. “I don’t know what it was about their music, but it broke up the logjam,” she says, and her painting found what it had been missing. “I’m painting again, and it’s coming out big and expressive and real and true. New assignments come forth from odds and ends of people with new and different opportunities.”

Grateful for the inspiration, Barnes reached out to Dr. Dog and the band’s lead guitarist, Scott McMicken. With the serendipity that seems to guide so many of her choices, she became friends with McMicken and the rest of the band, even going so far as to donate art to a fundraiser for McMicken’s nephew, and getting other artists to donate as well.

So it felt natural to paint Dr. Dog lyrics onto canvas, then cover them with one of her paintings. “It’s kind of like projecting a picture on the wall, then painting over it,” says Barnes. She created several of these works, never really knowing why—but knowing they meant something important. “At some point, I got the idea to paint at a Dr. Dog show. It was locked in my brain. It was what I was supposed to do.”

Bringing It All Together

By this time, Barnes’ father Jim had already been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. Even as her family dealt with their changing circumstances, Barnes used her artwork to raise money for Alzheimer’s charities. The more she thought about it, the more she recognized the impact in her paintings, finding connections that already existed and creating new ones. She began to assemble her exhibit, a difficult process in itself that took more than a year to reach fruition.

“Bridging the Gap: Staying In A Relationship With Someone Who Has Alzheimer’s” opened at The Eddy in East Walnut Hills on November 12, 2016 for one night only. Hundreds of people toured the interactive exhibit, comparing the paintings with the music they covered, listening to the songs on their smartphones, and creating their own works, their own little pieces. Among the enthusiastic guests were Maggie Barnes’ parents, Jim and Nancy. Jim enjoyed himself, but he would pass away on December 23.

Nancy and Jim McCue, creating artwork at the exhibition, Nov. 12, 2016.

Barnes plans to use feedback from this initial opening to fine-tune the exhibition, add new works based on recent songs by Dr. Dog, create a proposal to send out, and take the show on the road. She would like to see it displayed at Alzheimer’s symposiums, art galleries, and the like, with the devil-may-care aspiration of hitting the big time.

“I’m sending a proposal to the Museum of Modern Art,” she laughs. “MOMA or bust!”

The online portion of “Bridging The Gap,” as well as Barnes’ other works, can be viewed on her website, ArtworkByMaggie.com.

Learn more about Dr. Dog and their music at DrDogMusic.com.