Oyster Bay artist Barbara Ernst Prey was crossing the Throgs Neck Bridge on Sept. 11, 2001, listening to the car radio, when she both heard and saw the unforgettable: “I was hearing the news as it was breaking, and I have this vivid image of seeing the towers on fire,” she recalled recently. “I just remember the smoke going across to Brooklyn.”
Prey knew several people who were lost in the World Trade Center’s collapse- a friend from college, the husband of another friend, acquaintances from her childhood days in Manhasset. At first “numbed” an unable to paint, she eventually found her way back to the studio with a series of watercolors, mostly on an American flag theme. “I didn’t paint that from rah-rah patriotism,” she said. “I painted that from the grieving, the collective response I saw on Long Island.”
Thirty-four of the works have been assembled in an exhibition, “The trace in the Mind: An Artist’s Response to 9\11,” on view in the Hutchins Gallery of the B. Davis Schwartz Memorial Library, on the C.W. Post Campus of Long Island University, Brookville. Large and small, they range from a boldly emphatic image of a flag snapping smartly in the breeze, to scenes of white clapboard houses with flags affixed to a front door or barely visible through a side window. Several of the works are water scenes that suggest red, white and blue, but have no American flags at all.
Although the paintings were prompted both by her own mourning and that of the Long Island community, it was in Maine, where she and her family spend their summers, that Prey was able to return to her art. “I was pretty desolate,” she said the other day, surrounded by her work in the Hutchins gallery. Maine had “provided a great inspiration for me in the past.” Going there a couple of weeks after the terror strike, she drove around the state, looking for the inspirational spark.
It first ignited with “Waiting,” an image of two empty red Adirondack chairs on the shore of Monhegan Island. The viewer, Prey said, is “waiting to figure out who’s going to be in that chair, and who’s not going to be in that chair.” It was painted, she said, while many still hoped to find their missing loved ones.
Two images of the big, fluttering flag, both called “Gallantly Streaming,” were painted back on Long Island. After a 30-day mourning period during which it flew at half-staff, “We were raising the flag on Oyster Bay,” she explained. “But what was going through my mind was, it’s so picture-perfect. Everything’s in its place, you’ve got this beautiful day, just like Sept. 11. And the wind was blowing and the flag was snapping.”
Prey’s images of sailboats, also on view, are a natural outgrowth of her own Long Island childhood, which included sails on Manhasset Bay. Even then, she said, she knew she wanted to be an artist. (Her mother once headed the design department of Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.) Prey studied art history at Williams College in Massachusetts, class of ’79; her Williams friend who died on 9\11 had been a year behind her.
After college, she won a Fulbright fellowship to southern Germany, where she wound up as “personal assistant to a Bavarian prince.” Her work there ranged “from archiving their art collection to being a court painter for a while,” she recalled.
Returning to this country, she sold her illustrations to such magazines as The New Yorker and Gourmet, then attended Harvard Divinity School, where she met her husband, Jeff.
There followed a year in Taiwan (with a grant from the Henry Luce Fondation), a longish stint in Pennsylvania, and in 1995, a return to Long Island with their son, now 12 and daughter, 10. It was, she said, “coming full circle, after so many international experiences.”
Commercially successful at age 45 (works in the show typically sell for $20,000 to $40,000), Barbara Prey also is well-connected in government circles. A painting of the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, hangs in the private quarters of the White House. Her work also hangs in the U.S. embassies in Prague and Oslo as part of the State Department’s “Art in Embassies Program.”
Now there’s yet another government connection. Prey was asked last August by the NASA Art Program to paint the International space Station; the finished piece could hang in the Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., or the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, among other possibilities.
“I have carte blanche, which is pretty cool,” said Prey, who is now in the company of such artists as Norman Rockwell, Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol, who commemorated previous NASA projects.
“Just think,” said Prey, as she passed a painting featuring red geraniums. “Here I am, painting these small spaces. I go from painting little geraniums to painting the universe.”
WHERE & WHEN “The Trace in the Mind: An Artist’s Response to 9\11,” through Nov. 23 at Hutchins Gallery, B. Dais Schwartz Memorial Library, C.W. Post Campus, LIU, 720 Northern Blvd., Brookville. Open 2-5 p.m., Tuesday-Saturday.