A Physical Connection



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— Julia Munemo

Barbara Ernst Prey ’79—whose watercolor paintings hang in private and public collections including the White House and NASA headquarters—was commissioned to paint Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Arts’ Building 6 ahead of its opening this month. The painting, which depicts the interior of the building before it was renovated into gallery space, measures 9 by 16 feet, making it one of the largest watercolor paintings in the world.


“The biggest challenge was finding big enough paper,” says Prey, who eventually found high quality paper stock in England that came in huge rolls. She mounted three panels onto a wood base in order to create a working surface that would not warp with either the humidity in Williamstown—where she painted the piece over the last nine months—or the paint itself. In order to minimize dripping, which can’t be hidden or painted over in watercolor, Prey leaned the mounted paper at a slight angle as she worked in her studio. “If you look closely, you can see a few drips,” Prey says.

The project was a homecoming for the artist, who studied art history and Baroque architecture under long-time art professor S. Lane Faison Jr. ’29. Prey says Faison continued to mentor her after she graduated from Williams. “I visited Lane once, and he said he wanted to show me something,” Prey says. “He took me inside the old Sprague electric building—which was completely empty—and said ‘Just look at this space.’” The pair that had studied and written together about German Baroque architecture couldn’t get enough of the old factory building, imagining what it would become.

Of course, it became MASS MoCA, one of the largest museums of contemporary art in the country. “Being asked to return to MASS MoCA to paint the interior of this building, after studying art and architecture with Lane, who was the first person to show me the building, feels like a wonderful coming together of all the threads of my life,” Prey says.

Most of Prey’s work is based on plein air color studies and sketching, but she says she felt at home working inside MASS MoCA from the very beginning. “A year before I started painting, I spent long winter afternoons inside the building, shivering because there was no heat, and doing color studies of the space,” she says. “I collected chips from the peeling paint on the columns and mixed those into my own paints, so the piece has a physical connection to the space it hangs in.”


Prey, who received a 2008 presidential appointment to the National Council  on the Arts, the advisory board of the National Endowment for the Art, says, “The painting is a piece of art in itself. But it is also a means of supporting the arts in the Berkshires, because MASS MoCA is an anchor in this community.”

Building 6 opens May 29 and features work from artists Laurie Anderson, Louise Bourgeois, Jenny Holzer, Gunnar Schonbeck, Robert Rauschenberg and James Turrell. Prey’s painting will hang in the entryway of the second floor, where it will help visitors imagine how the space looked before it was renovated.

“The architecture, the light, the colors and the different textures of the space in Building 6 are all compelling subjects,” Prey says. “This piece pushed my boundaries as an artist, opening up new perspectives on watercolor painting.”

Read more about the opening of Building 6 and Prey’s artwork.