When Brenda Sharkey, a busy hospital executive, began showing up for work happier and calmer — her boss wanted to know: What in the world had caused the shift?
“It’s this class I’m in!” Sharkey, 58, told the boss. Class was a Sunday afternoon course taught by Pete Barth.
A student in one of Barth’s weekday workshops, 13-year-old Mercedes Zobrist, also described a happy transformation. “It’s changed my life! I’ve never been able to do anything like this before,” said Mercedes, a student at Voyager Middle School in Everett.
These aren’t courses in mindfulness and inner peace. They’re drawing and painting classes at the Schack Art Center in Everett.
Barth, an artist in his own right, has been teaching art classes at the center for seven years.
Barth teaches more than a half-dozen courses throughout the year, including painting, watercolors and drawing with pastels and colored pencils. During the summer, he helps teach week-long camps for kids that cover drawing and painting wildlife, sea creatures, and science fiction and fantasy characters.
“People find out about the classes through the Schack catalog or they get them as a gift for the holidays or a birthday,” said Barth, who also teaches at Seattle Central College and South Seattle College.
Every quarter, the Schack offers more than 90 courses, said Shannon Tipple-Leen, the center’s art class coordinator.
Most classes provide supplies, said Maren Oates, the Schack’s marketing and communication manager.
“It removes another barrier — you just have to show up,” Oates said.
“There’s a class for every person,” added Tipple-Leen.
Students of all ages routinely describe eureka moments after learning art techniques such as how to mix forest green, or use an eraser to make a cat’s whiskers look more, well, whiskery.
“I never knew a pencil could create so many different shades,” Mercedes said.
Sharkey signed up for Barth’s drawing class to “loosen up,” and found she could draw and shade a circle. “That was very encouraging!” she said.
A few months later, she followed up and took Barth’s acrylic painting class.
There, she learned how to mix colors to make her palette and paintings more lifelike. “It’s hard to get colors to look really natural. I’m getting better!” said Sharkey, then chief nursing officer at EvergreenHealth-Monroe. She has since taken a sabbatical to “be with family and rejuvenate with painting.”
Barth, 46, landed the Everett gig in 2012 when he stopped by the Schack and showed them his portfolio.
His own work is joyful: A portrait of an orange and brown squirrel captures its cautious delight as it savors a nut in the crook of a mossy tree. And in a small, square landscape, an upwelling of copper cliffs reach into a golden sky and press against the edge of the canvas. In a sci-fi themed painting, a trio of space ships sail through a black and red sky as an approving orange moon looks on.
Barth’s teaching style has him drawing and painting along with students, many of whom — Sharkey included — say they haven’t painted since first-grade finger painting.
“Pete is very step-by-step … a lot of people really like that,” Tipple-Leen said. “People come away with cool stuff, and they have the tools to make it again.”
Barth, a Florida transplant, has been sketching since he could hang onto a crayon. Though as a kid, much of that creativity was unleashed at home.
“There was very little in the way of art education at the public schools I attended,” said Barth, whose parents ran a bagel shop and deli in Tallahassee.
He drew animals, from iguanas at the local pet store to his own menagerie of pets: gerbils, cockatiels and Molly, a Samoyed that “looked like a little white husky.”
“I was interested in animals before I was interested in art,” Barth said.
As a student at Florida State University in Tallahassee, he split his focus between studying animals and drawing them, graduating with degrees in biology and art.
One of his first jobs after college was as a park ranger at Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks in California. But it wasn’t quite a fit. “I liked the outdoors. I liked that I could explore the area and take hikes, but I needed the creative outlet. I decided I wanted to do the art thing,” he said.
Barth moved to the Northwest 10 years ago for the chance to teach full time, settling in Edmonds.
“Pete always says he would have loved to take the classes that he teaches when he was a kid,” Tipple-Leen said.
At first, Barth taught at senior centers, where he learned to “go slowly and be patient,” and at drink-and-draw events, where students sip wine and complete a painting in an evening. Those experiences taught him the value of providing students with a toolbox of basic skills so they could continue on their own. Not everyone is interested in art school methodologies that demand you paint an apple over and over again for months on end.
“Maybe you want to do a portrait of your dog or a yard bunny,” Barth said with a chuckle.
It is true — the Old Masters might spend forever on a canvas. Scholars theorize that it took Johannes Vermeer months to complete “Girl with the Pearl Earring,” one of his most famous paintings. Leonardo Da Vinci is believed to have fussed over the Mona Lisa for four years — who has that kind of time? If they’d taken Barth’s class, they could have called it a wrap in four or five weeks.
Drawing students are introduced right away to the effects of light and shadow on an object. Budding painters learn to mix colors in the first few classes.
“It gives them the tools to jump right in,” Barth said.
Acrylic paints are especially forgiving, and inexpensive. ”If you don’t like the result, you can paint over it,” he said.
At the end of six sessions, students take home a finished painting — and the confidence to continue.
“Artistic license — that’s the degree you earn at the end of my classes,” Barth said. “You can go and draw or paint anything you like.”
If you go
The Schack Art Center, 2921 Hoyt Ave., Everett, is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Call 425-259-5050 or go to schack.org for more information. You may also email firstname.lastname@example.org about art classes that interest you.
Washington North Coast Magazine
This article is featured in the winter issue of Washington North Coast Magazine, a supplement of The Daily Herald. Explore Snohomish and Island counties with each quarterly magazine. Each issue is $3.99. Subscribe to receive all four editions for $14 per year. Call 425-339-3200 or go to www.washingtonnorthcoast.com for more information.