Francese: ‘We didn’t realize what a big job it would become’
“We didn't want cute teddy bears. We wanted something substantial.”
That's how Diana Francese recalls some of the planning by parents and staff for the Bristol Elementary School mural back in 1999.
“We didn't realize,” she added with a rueful grin, “what a big job it would become.”
Even as the mural got underway that June, Francese said there were expectations that kids would paint it and it would be done before school started the coming fall.
That was before Francese and others saw artist/parent Kathy Halstead Barnes in action. “On the first day of summer vacation, we (parents) showed up with our kids,” said Francese, whose three children have all go ne to Bristol. “The very first image she painted was Richard C. Bristol (the school's namesake). When we saw how good she was, we let her do it (the mural). We became her assistants.”
It wasn't a total surprise. Barnes had been a college art teacher who had sold a number of portraits and paintings over the years.
As the weeks went by - although various people dropped by to help at different times - the regular crew became Barnes and Francese, with planning inputs from Principal Steve Ferguson and then-art teacher Kathy O'Neil.
Francese found herself becoming steadily closer with the ever-upbeat Barnes, helping her with simple painting chores like backgrounds and borders and in just staying on task. “She was a typical artist,” Francese said, “not very organized. She just wanted to paint.”
It was August when the awful news came. Barnes, 42, was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer. Doctors gave her four months to live.
“Of course everything changed,” Francese said. “It was no longer a neat school mural, but her legacy.”
Despite the situation, Barnes did not try to hurry up and finish. Far from it. Francese recollected the day she found the artist “painting something and she had it in the wrong decade.” For a while, Francese watched Barnes work, not wanting to point out her mistake. Finally, she managed to blurt it out.
“She said 'OK,” and painted over it,” Francese said, still impressed. “Then she moved down a few feet and started over.”
Still, there was no denying the project was in a race against time.
Though Barnes beat the four-month prediction, “she was failing rapidly,” Francese said. Her hair had fallen out and her legs were weakening. Some days she was simply too sick to come in.
In January 2000, the school dedicated the 486-square-foot mural. It wasn't complete, but people wanted to make sure the recognition was given while Barnes was still alive. “It was a pretty good party,” Francese said. “There were 300 people.”
At last the 146 main images were done. Along the way, Barnes continually refused requests that she put a self-portrait on the wall. Finally, she partially relented, painting in a depiction of herself painting Francese.
Because the mural had included so many elements of spontaneity, there was no way to technically determine when the job was done. Francese still thinks there could have been more infill. But no one was about to dispute Barnes when she came in one day and said, “We're done.”
In August 2000, Barnes passed away. She had beaten her doctors' prediction by eight months. “If she didn't have this project, she wouldn't have lasted,” Francese said.
Francese, however, is not done. As a volunteer, she's working in conjunction with Bristol librarian Joan Grant to complete the web site documentation for the mural. “The images need to be researched and written about,” Francese said. “Steve (Ferguson) jokes that I've got a lifetime contract.”
Her volunteer effort has also taken the form of giving mural tours to individuals and groups. She said it's gratifying when visitors point to one item or another in the mural and say things like “I remember this” or “I used to ride on this train.”
And somewhere, it's nice to think, Kathy Barnes is probably gratified, too.
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