Barb Ahlbrand Still Painting at 74

April 24th, 2015  |  Published in April 2015

At 74, Barb Ahlbrand is still painting and exhibiting.  She won Best of Show with the painting “Shirt 2” at the Golden Ticket Artists Exhibition at Clifton Cultural Arts Center in 2014.  The prize includes a solo show, entitled “:encompass:  encircle:  embrace:” on display from March 20 to April 23, 2015 at the center.  

The exhibit features several paintings which focus on figurative art.  Paintings of horses are in the main gallery on the second floor of the center.  Horses symbolize power to Ahlbrand.  She juxtaposes them with restraints, such as ropes and wires.  Ahlbrand started stenciling horses and drove to Falmouth, Kentucky to see the animals in the countryside.  Although she demonstrates figurative art mainly in this show, she concentrated on abstraction for most of her career.

“When I began with abstraction, it was thrilling to leave realistic rendering to one side and work with pure elements of space, line, color and motion.  Abstraction made me free to use uninhibited brushwork and to compose at will.  It demanded to be big and bold … and then to be small and stringent,” said Ahlbrand.

Aileen F. McCarthy, her mentor, was an acolyte of Frank Duveneck’s.  Ahlbrand said that her “art is powerful and reduces to basic shape or content. The medium is very direct.”  Her use of color and form play off against each other, and is a recurring theme throughout her work.

Artists who influenced her style include Robert Ryman, an American painter identified with monochromatic painting, minimalism and conceptual art.  Other artists who motivated her were Joan Mitchell, an abstract expressionist painter and print maker (1925 – 1992); Cy Twombly, an American painter known for his “automatic writing” (1928 – 2011); Tom Towhey, a local painter who specializes in contemporary surrealism; and Kay Hurley, a contemporary American landscape artist, known for her brilliant and vibrant color.  Ahlbrand said, “My drawings and paintings are only partially my creation.  They are from my point of view, and they seek to make a connecting loop with the viewer.”  Her art combines aspects of others, so that she is a vessel for a plethora of ideas and styles.

Highlights of her career include The Painters Group Show at The Carnegie in 2005; the Abstraction Live Group Show at The Carnegie in 1997 and Texas National 95 at Austin State University, Texas in 1995.  She has won a number of awards, including First Place, YWCA Flower and Garden Dreams, Cincinnati and Judges Award, Art on The Square, Cincinnati.  She participated in the Taft Museum of Art/ArtWorks Artists Reaching Classrooms, a Scripps Howard school project and The Overture Awards Program at The Cinergy Foundation.

Ahlbrand doesn’t see why digital art wouldn’t be viable in the current market.  She still attends artists’ shows at the Cincinnati Art Museum.  “I go for the special exhibitions,” she said.  Ahlbrand cites Clifton Cultural Arts Center and The Carnegie as places for younger artists to exhibit.  Some of these artists have to decide whether to stay in Cincinnati.  Although she has painted for a long time, she doesn’t think there’s enough support in this area to sustain younger artists.

A graduate of Notre Dame Academy in Park Hills, Kentucky, she took a few art classes in high school.  Her main influence was artist and teacher McCarthy, who gave private lessons in charcoal, pastel and oil.  She took drawing, painting and print making at Northern Kentucky University.  In addition, Ahlbrand studied at the Art Academy of Cincinnati and Baker Hunt Art and Cultural Center in Covington.  She ended up specializing in drawing and painting.

By 1990, Ahlbrand felt ready to look for a gallery, although she didn’t receive a formal art degree.  She rented a small space in Northside with colleague Halena Cline for $100 per month in the 1980’s.  Other artists had studios at the Pendleton Art Center.  After five years in Northside, she moved to Pendleton where she has enjoyed the association with other artists as well as the traffic that Final Friday brings to her studio, where around 500 people view and buy artists’ works.  Those who want to work and sell often thrive there.

She doesn’t see an art rift between the old and new “because it is all a journey and a spiral.”  Ahlbrand listens to music by such composers as Bach, Cage, Glass and Satie when she paints.  She likes music which is pulsing and repetitious.  “I don’t think my work is influenced by any ideology, except that which has become my exclusive amalgamation of years of searching and thought.  I am in support of feminist issues, but my art is not a conduit for it,” said Ahlbrand.

As a student of art, she is working her way through the world of ideas as best she can.  “It takes time and faith; time to learn and understand and faith that I will have a vision to bring that makes it mine,” she said.

–Laura Hobson


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