He was a sixteen year old junkie. Nothing mattered except the drug and a powerful unrelenting need for more. Barry Masteller was a child of divorce. His mother worked hard to take care of him and his sister, but there wasn’t much money. His Dad drifted in and out of his life, but wasn’t a consistent force. He wasn’t an angry kid – he was a lonely kid. Heroin filled the void. By the time he was arrested he was shooting up everyday. He would go through withdrawal in a jail cell. “I got so sick,” he says, remembering it like it was yesterday. “But even after that hell, the desire, the powerful desire to shoot up again was there, and I knew as soon as I got out, the first thing I was going to do was stick a needle in my arm.” Fortunately two things happened to stop that: he was sent to the California Youth Authority, and while he was there, he discovered painting. Now, 46 years later, Barry Masteller says, without a doubt, art saved his life.
The lonliness in Masteller’s life has always been a double-edged sword. Although it would lead to his almost deadly drug use, it also formed the foundation for his art and has been a factor throughout his life. “I’ve always been a loner,” he says. “As a kid I used to like to go off by myself and watch the trees. I used to like to dig these holes big enough for me to crawl into and then cover them up. I would have just enough of a peephole that I could look out. I wanted to know if the environment would change if I weren’t there. I tested that out by digging these holes and just watching nature. I realized that my presence does, in fact, affect nature. It was important to me to have one foot in and one foot out. I think that also made me aware that there is a mystery in life and that nature is full of mystery. And that translates to my paintings. Even as a young painter my work was very surreal. I was interested in what was going on subconsciously in that mysterious realm.”
He made the decision to be an artist and has never wavered, but he needed the unconditional support of his family, and he got it. “Painting anchored my life. It created an opportunity for dialogue between me and my family. It became something we could all rally around. My father, mother and sister were incredibly supportive.” Out of the drug induced darkness, he also reconnected with his father – a relationship he still cherishes today. “My father blamed himself for not being there for me, but he had another family, another life. He did try to make up for it later. After I got out of the Youth Authority we spent a lot of time together, and we were really close until he died. I was only 24. He died of a heart attack. It was so devastating I couldn’t paint for two years. I would go into my little studio and sit in front of a canvas and I would try. I did finally get the nerve to do a painting of him in different aspects of death. It was a morbid painting, but I was able to get a lot out.” Masteller was learning to paint himself out of the dark places – a talent he would use often throughout his life.
A career turning point came back in 1975 when Masteller entered a juried show at the Monterey Museum of Art. Not only was he accepted, he won “Best in Show.” He pocketed some cash, but he also got his first museum exhibition. He had just six months to pull together enough work to fill the museum’s main gallery. “I didn’t have enough paintings,” he says. “I had to work every day for a solid six months. I put myself under the gun, and that’s when I learned the work ethic.” Fast-forward several decades and nothing has changed; he still works hard at his art every day.
Masteller is best known for his moody landscapes. He has painted a lot of them over the years – his Earth and Sky series, his most prolific by far, currently numbers in the 600’s – and every canvas has its own story to tell. Masteller doesn’t paint specific places, but he is always influenced by what he sees in nature, and he pays attention. “I rarely do a drawing first,” he explains. “Usually when I start a new painting I like to go into it with a wet brush, rather than sketching it out first. I generally don’t know where I’m going, but I might have a clue. Perhaps there is a composition or a landscape that’s stuck in my head, but it’s very subconscious.” Many of the landscapes are painted in that quiet time between day and night, when the colors are just a touch more vibrant, when the shadows are a tad longer and more mysterious and the mood is reflective. They pull you into a place that is familiar and foreign at the same time, and in the process, take you on magical mystical tour of Masteller’s soul.
The Boulevard series is a departure for Masteller, but he insists the paintings are no less landscapes than any another canvas he has painted. “They are urban landscapes,” he explains. “Really the only difference between them and my other landscapes is they are more linear.” He started painting the cityscapes after spending time in New York and San Francisco. The paintings are all views from hotel windows in the early morning hours. Tension and tranquility share space on the same canvas, and Masteller likes it that way. “You think of traditional landscapes as being something peaceful and the city as something violent, but the landscape is equally violent in its own right, and the city can be equally as peaceful. You go out on 57th Street or Park Avenue at 3 a.m. and you don’t see a car. You don’t see a person. It would be just like being out in the forest. It’s fantastic.”
Masteller’s studio is his sanctuary. He puts on a little jazz (he himself is a sax player) and lets himself go. It’s a large space attached to his treehouse-like home in the hills of Aromas, California. He exhibits regularly these days in both galleries and museums, and although he likes that part of the art business, he is clearly most comfortable in his studio. “I really like people a lot,” he laughs, “but I always think of that line in the movie “Barfly” when Faye Dunaway is in the bar with Mickey Rourke and she says, ‘Do you like people?’ and he says, ‘Yeah, I like people. I just feel better when they are not around.’” He is kidding – sort of. Painting, for him, is absolutely necessary, and he needs to be alone to do it. “You have to have both worlds. You can’t have a crowd in your studio, but if you want to put your work out there in the real world, you have to have your foot in both places. I enjoy showing, but I spend a lot more time in the studio than I do in galleries simply because it takes a lot more time to do the work. It’s not really a question of choice. The only way I could choose to be more out in the world would be to choose to spend less time in the studio, and then I wouldn’t be producing as much work. That would be difficult for me.”
Interestingly it was music, not painting that pulled him out of Southern California. His first wife’s father was lead alto with the Don Ellis Orchestra, and in 1966 they were playing the Monterey Jazz Festival. Masteller, his wife and baby daughter all piled into the car and made the trip. “We took a look around and decided that this is where we wanted to live. Four years later we were finally able to make it happen. My father died and I inherited a little bit of money which allowed me to quit my job, move and buy a little house.” It was little – only 900 square feet for a family that would soon grow to four kids. He added on and renovated and somehow came up with about 1600 square feet. It wasn’t big, but there was enough room for the growing family. “It was an adventure house,” he says. “Lots of nooks and crannies. The kids just loved it.” The family sold the house several years later and went on to something bigger, and eventually the marriage failed as well. As he has done throughout his life, Masteller turned to his art to help get him through the rough times. “I just went to work,” he says.
For a man who used to say he didn’t want a family he has ended up with a huge one – four kids, two step kids, nine grandchildren and one great grandchild. He laughs as he counts them off. “There have been a lot of choices and changes along the way, but at least one major choice, that I made when I was sixteen years old, I’m still doing today. I’ve learned how to adapt my life around that. I love my family, and I love my work.”
Masteller and his second wife, Marianne, have recently installed solar panels on their property to help offset huge electric bills. Marianne is a potter and her kiln eats up a lot of juice – to the tune of about $1200 a month. The solar system cuts that down to next to nothing and fits with the couple’s sensibilities about the environment. They do what they can to stay green. They both work at the house, but independently. Barry spends most of his time in the studio. He says he’s getting ready for a big purge soon. Periodically he burns paintings that he feels don’t measure up. “It’s important for me to edit. It’s like taking out the trash. I build a big fire and start tossing. It’s cathartic.” The pivotal painting of his father dying ended up in one of his bonfires. Originally he tore it up, thinking he might use parts of it in other paintings, but then he finally just got to the point where it was time to let go. Masteller has spent a lifetime reining in his demons, and finding transformation in the process. “I’m a lonely person. If I was in the middle of New York City I would still feel lonely. I also have an addictive personality. I’ve just learned how to deal with it.” And for the most part “dealing with it” has meant putting a paintbrush to canvas – art has been and always will be his salvation.
Written by: Erin Clark