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Photos by Jeff Falk.
Barbara Strawser is a self-taught professional artist who makes a living at painting. She hasn’t worked a day in her life.
Not that drawing and painting can’t be grueling and taxing and time-consuming. It’s simply that Strawser loves what she does. It’s who she is.
“That’s what I do,” said Strawser. “I have since I’ve lived in Schaefferstown for 35 years. Yes, I do make a living at it. Some people do think what I do is a hobby. Here I am. I’m just a self-taught painter. But I am a painter. It’s what I do. It’s just one of those things. It’s not the easiest of things. Some people collect my work.
“I’m not rich,” continued Strawser. “I am a true artist. I am not rich in money. But I’m rich in what I do.”
With roots in Berks and Lancaster counties, and a resident of Schaefferstown, Strawser is a local through and through. But her paintings are experienced and enjoyed worldwide.
For 35 years, Strawser has shown and sold her paintings at the Kutztown Folk Festival, in Tennessee, and in Europe. A painting of hers hangs in the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Of some of the pieces she has sold to psychiatrists, Strawser said: “They’re nothing disturbing. They’re pleasant to look at.”
“I really don’t know,” said Strawser, when asked about the number of paintings she’s created over the years. “But I know my paintings when I see them. I know a man who has 30 of my paintings. It’s a big collection, and some day I’d like to make a book out of them. Sometimes they hold their value real well at auction.
“I just paint what I love,” added Strawser. “It happens that other people like them. I’m not painting to sell them. If you know me, you know my paintings.”
People relate to Strawser’s paintings because of their inspiration and influence. Some of her favorite subjects include gardens, early Pennsylvania German Architecture, chickens, houses, mermaids, plants, roosters, angels, and farms.
They all reflect Strawser’s heritage and how she sees the world around her.
“Something speaks inside of me and I work at it,” said Strawser. “It’s evolved. I paint what I see. It’s not exactly how you see it or someone else sees it. It’s my impression of the world. I paint things I love the most. From the 70s until now, it’s different.”
Depending upon the detail, their scope and how much time she invests in them, Strawser’s paintings can fetch anywhere from $250 to $5,000, or more. She has also been commissioned to create paintings, putting her personal creative spin on suggested subjects.
“One time around Christmas, I was driving and I saw a gray fox,” said Strawser. “It was Jesus’ birthday, and I made a painting of the gray fox and the baby Jesus. I had never seen a gray fox before and I had never drawn a gray fox before. It was like a gift from the universe to me. It was inspirational. Our brains take pictures of things. That’s how sometimes paintings come to me.
“I love the earth and everything to do with it,” Strawser continued. “I like that color. I love looking at people working in gardens and working in the earth. I’m very much in tune with the earth and all the things around us.”
Possessor of a civic-minded approach, Strawser has also donated many of her pieces to worthy local causes and organizations. She is currently working on a painting that will be turned into prints and sold to help fund a new kitchen at Historic Schaefferstown.
“Lebanon County is very important to me,” said Strawser. “I love living here so much. I always want to be here, as long as I can. My heart is in Lebanon County. I think it’s so important to get young people interested in history. It can last their entire lives.”
Two rooms of Strawser’s Victorian-style home serve as galleries for her art, and she maintains a working studio up the street.
But the creative process is a tricky one. Sometimes, Strawser will indulge the inspiration to begin a project, and then come back to it at a later date and time.
“I used to go to the studio for five hours a day,” said Strawser. “When you get a momentum working, it’s a really good thing. I have a big pile of paintings that are in the making, and I’ll put them aside. But I can also do a painting in a short period of time.
“Sometimes I don’t do it right away,” Strawser added. “Some of the stuff is three-quarters done. It’s hard to stay on the path. This life is a test. Not every day is perfect.”
Before moving to Schaefferstown, Strawser grew up in the area of west Reading. She always loved art, painting and being creative, but she never pursued formal training for her talents.
“I’m a self-taught painter,” said Strawser, 75. “I have a high school education. I read, and I liked knowing about art and the folk art of this area. I remember looking at things, and then wanting to draw them and paint them. I was very inspired from the time I was in high school. I knew I always wanted to be a painter.”
Fast forward 50 years, and life has happened for Strawser.
Currently, she is caring for her aging and home-bound mother. While much of her former creative time is now dedicated to caregiving, she has found that her work can also be therapeutic and freeing.
“I’m still working, but it’s like my wings are clipped,” said Strawser. “Sometimes the wind goes out of my enthusiasm. Sometimes it doesn’t come out as fast as it used to because I’m giving out so much. But I will always paint. As an artist, you’re always an artist.”
Strawser has never wavered from pursuing her calling, from employing her gifts. The payoff has been living a life on her own terms.
“I didn’t go to art schools and I didn’t go to college,” said Strawser. “I was always embarrassed about that. I had a hard time getting good grades in school. I think I was a little bit of a day dreamer. But I’m doing what I’ve always wanted to do. That’s something. I’ve gone to a lot of places, and every day I’m inspired. It’s never the same. It’s always changing. I love looking. I never get tired of viewing the earth.
“I know what I have is a real gift,” concluded Strawser. “I know that I’m blessed. My life isn’t everybody’s life. It’s my life.”
A life filled with painting, inspiration and creation.