Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Tin Men

George Barnes and Allen Hale find the purity of art

By Kay West

MAY 3, 1999:  "I'm a bare walls kind of person," says George Barnes--an odd statement from an artist who, with his partner Allen Hale, creates works of pure metallic whimsy. Barnes and Hale are folk artists, and they have the credentials to prove it. Neither has extensive art training. They work only with materials they find on hand. They make objects they like before they wonder if someone else will like them, too.

The two artists rarely leave their rural home, except when they run low on the barbecue, Mountain Dew, and cigarettes they need for sustenance. They do not venture out. They have few friends. Only recently did they get power and running water.

Barnes and Hale have simplified life in ways which some might find eccentric. But they don't care. They have found a lifestyle suited to a single purpose: creating art.

They have the folk artist's eye--that ability to see form and beauty in a bunch of scrap metal someone else has thrown away. The duo shows undisguised disdain for many of the artists in the folk art category. With one eyebrow arched, Barnes scoffs, "Some people call themselves folk artists and they put everything they do together with power tools. If you ask me, a folk artist should be able to go out into a field with nothing and come back with something. Just about everything we do can be done anywhere, without anything but a butter knife, a hammer, a nail, and tin snips."

Barnes, nattily attired in pressed khaki shorts, cotton sweater, and a beret, and Hale, wearing worn dungarees and a T-shirt, are sitting on a contemporary leather sofa at Outside The Lines, the Belle Meade gallery that carries their angels, fish, mobiles, bugs, birds, sheep, llamas, and anything else they fashion out of metal scraps. The reclusive partners have reluctantly agreed to speak about their lives and their work to a stranger, which would be anyone outside of their immediate circle, an intimate party of about five, not including their families.

Barnes and Hale look at the world outside the one they have fashioned with a wary eye. Barnes is huddled up on one side of a large, black dog; Hale is snug up against the other side. The dozing canine appears to offer them some sense of security. They have come to town in their battered pickup truck to deliver more pieces to gallery owner Robin Cohn, whom they count as one of their very few, and very dearest, friends.

Photo by Susan Adcock

The pair shows up several times a week, Cohn says, sometimes as often as daily, to deliver new work. A few months ago, she found them on the front step of her home, ready to help out after her recent back surgery. Sometimes she finds them in her back yard, ready to offer their assistance on outdoor projects. "I never know when they're going to come or what they're going to bring. I just take everything they bring me. Right now, they're in a fishing mode, so we have lots of fish things."

Since Cohn's gallery opened and she began representing them in late 1997, Barnes and Hale have become her biggest sellers. She is convinced they have what it takes to become nationally recognized, exhibited, even collected. A local collector sent Bill Ivey, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, a Barnes/Hale piece for Christmas.

But fame and fortune will have to look hard for George Barnes and Allen Hale. Until recently, the two led a life of near complete isolation, in a rundown farmhouse in Pegram. They now live in Portland. They do not court callers--not even Cohn. They figure they have about four or five friends between them. They spend their days driving backcountry roads, searching alleys, and rummaging dumps for discarded materials they can rework into art.

"You'd be surprised," says Hale, "at what you can find in a dump. We ride through alleys and country roads. We have our special spots. We've gotten old gutters, down spouts, old tractors, just about anything. You should see our reject pile." Their chosen medium could easily be interpreted as a metaphor for their lives--two admitted misfits who have rejected conventional wisdom and metamorphosed into artists.

Growing Bonsai

Allen Hale, 29, was born in Michigan, but moved to a farm in Liberty, Tenn. with his parents, brother, and two sisters when he was a teenager. "It was a working farm until we found out it wasn't going to work," he laughs. "Then we moved to town, but not much of one. There wasn't anything there." He was interested in art and learned to paint oils, acrylics, and watercolors in weekly lessons with Betty Jo Smotherman in Smithville.

Whatever gifts Hale exhibited then weren't enough to lead him to believe he could make a living as an artist, so he first followed a more traditional route to success. He studied at Vanderbilt, MTSU, and ITT, becoming an electronics engineer. He designed computer programs for the federal government for a few years. In his spare time, he made artificial bonsai trees, then tried the real thing. "I had to kill a bunch of them to learn how to do it. The best one I've got now is an American Cedar. It's about the hardest bonsai to raise. It's almost 10 years old and still in a 4-inch pot."

When Hale decided he wasn't cut out to be a government man, he started a landscape business before opening a floral shop in LaVergne with a partner and lover. He had, he says, "made a life for myself."

George Barnes, 30, is one of 17 children in a combined family. His mother had five children in her first marriage, his father seven in his. Barnes is the third of five in the third set. His identical twin brother is a mechanic.

Raised in and around Madison, Barnes began drawing after a kindergarten teacher handed him an orange crayon and told him to color in a circle.

"I went to town with that crayon. I know that art has always been inside of me." He started high school at Whites Creek, but dropped out in the ninth grade when the school wouldn't allow him to take his elective in art. "They stuck me in music," he says, raising an eyebrow again. "I still carried my art into the art teacher's class, but I couldn't take her class. That wasn't right. So I left." He eventually got his GED, but to make a living he began cooking.

When he was 18, he was working the afternoon shift at the Charlotte Pike Waffle House and met a waitress there on the night shift. "I always cleaned up and made things nice for her when she came in. I could tell she liked me. She was always making eyes at me across the counter." She was 39 years old, her parents had recently died, and she was living alone in their Pegram farmhouse. Barnes was living with his uncle and tired of it. "We were both lonely. We married for companionship," he says. "Not for love."

Three years ago, Hale and Barnes met at a party in East Nashville. "We stayed up all night talking," Barnes remembers. "I knew right then that we would be together," says Hale. "That very night I gave up my flower shop and my partner. George and I have been together ever since."

Hale moved into the farmhouse with Barnes and Barnes' wife, who, despite the platonic nature of the spousal relationship, was not enamored of the arrangement and moved out shortly after. Their first artistic collaboration was Indian jewelry and dream catchers. "We bought feathers and beads because they were cheap," says Hale. "If you can bead, you can make Indian jewelry." Their retail operation was set up on the side of Highway 70, on a concrete slab that was all that was left of a store Hale's father used to run.

One day, a friend brought a truckload of heating and air conditioning metal duct to the farm. The two looked at the tin, cut it into sections, bent it, turned it, put a roof on top, and called it a bird house. They priced them at $5 and hung them up on the clothesline beside the dream catchers.

"Things that hang, that was key," Barnes says. "That, and the price. Everything was $5. We'd $5 people to death. All we needed was $15 a day--$5 for food, $5 for two six-packs of Mountain Dew, and $5 for cigarettes. People ask what our inspiration is. I tell them you can't beat starvation for inspiration."

The bird houses sold well, becoming larger and more elaborate. The partners began looking at metal in a new light. They began making pieces out of whatever they could find. A torn down barn was the genesis for their signature work--tin angels.

"Old barns are a great place to find material," says Hale. "George went over and picked up a piece of rusty old tin and started bending it. The next thing you know, it was an angel." They began visiting stores and galleries in the area, looking for someone to buy their angels.

"We had people laugh right in our face," says Barnes. "But then we met Robin and she liked our work. So we bring her everything."

Cohn says they just walked in the door one day and wanted to show her their work. She went out to their truck and told them she'd take whatever they made--a deal the two artists have never refused.

"I sell everything they bring me," she says. "Their work isn't just something you hang on a wall or put on your mantel. People like to touch it, to see how it works. Their work is a discussion piece. And it brings such joy to people. Children love their work as much as serious collectors. I think it's because the two of them are so childlike themselves."

Degree of Fame

Barnes and Hale have a prodigious output, particularly considering the living and working environment they choose.

When an ice storm knocked out the electricity in the farmhouse some winters ago, and codes would not approve the wiring, Barnes simply decided he could live without it. A few years ago, he decided he didn't need water utilities. The couple had a telephone for a little while until someone called at 3 a.m. two nights in a row. They had their phone service cut off the next day.

"I don't mind using 35 cents to call someone when I need to," says Barnes. "We don't call very many people and now we don't have to answer a phone and talk to anyone we don't want to. I'm thinking about getting a beeper. That way, if I want to call somebody back I can and if not, I can just say I forgot to turn it on."

At the Pegram farmhouse, they collected rainwater and had a cistern. A wood burning stove provided heat and a generator powered one light in the kitchen and a small television so they could catch their favorite shows: Star Trek, Nova, and Jerry Springer.

"I can feel pretty good about myself when I see the problems those people have," says Hale. "Living without electricity started out as an inconvenience. But I'm a better person for having learned I can live without it."

About a month ago, Barnes' divorce became final, and his ex-wife got the Pegram farmhouse back as part of the settlement. Barnes was familiar with the Portland area, having lived there for a while when he was in junior high. He knew there were some retail and business spaces on the old Highway 52 that had been empty since the new Highway 52 was built. He and Hale recently moved into an old grist mill. It's one big room with a separate bath, running water, and even electricity. They've painted the interior walls terra cotta, and the woodwork a cobalt blue. They still have no refrigeration or stove, so they go to the grocery store in their battered pickup truck once a day for canned barbecue (Sweet Sue is their favorite brand), sardines, cookies, Mountain Dew, and cigarettes. Someone gave them a toaster when they moved and once in a while they toast a piece of bread. Another house gift, a crock pot, has yet to be plugged in.

Barnes and Hale argue about which one of them will go into the market, as neither one much enjoys interaction with strangers, no matter how necessary. A big night out might be a trip to Burger King or a movie, but only if the theater is empty enough that they don't have to sit close to anyone else. They've been known to leave before the feature starts. They have unique but disciplined work habits as well.

"We each work on our own things, but we help each other when we need it," says Hale. "It can be a real battle though."

They spend about 60-70 hours a week in their studio, the walls of which are covered with patterns and sketches and drawings. "I don't even know what some of them are, there's so many. We start working when we get up. Then we work until we're tired," Hale explains. "We do at least one piece a day, but sometimes we do 30. It depends. We're pretty selective about what takes up our day. Now that we don't have to depend on the sun for light, we can work later at night."

In the relative hullabaloo of Portland, they do have to contend with neighbors now. Barnes' grandmother still lives there and has told friends about her grandson-the-artist and his work. A mural of two mules pulling a wagon that Barnes painted on the exterior wall, as well as an 11-foot tin dragon hanging outside the studio also announce their presence. There's still no welcome mat at the front door.

"I hung a cow bell on the gate so I'd know when someone was coming. It's our privacy fence. We keep the doors shut almost all the time, but people still came by and knocked. That's died down a lot now. They were just curious, I guess, and now they pretty much leave us alone if the doors are closed."

The artists have found new sources for material in their new home as well. The rural location provides plenty of fallen-down barns. The Home Depot in Rivergate is a little farther than they care to drive in an area more congested than they like, but the local hardware store is happy to order the wire they need.

Their dream is to eventually get a large bus and make it into a mobile studio. Then they would travel the country, find materials along the way, set up wherever they felt like stopping, and bring their work to the public. When they were ready to leave, they could just pack up and be on the road for as long as the Mountain Dew, Sweet Sue, and cigarettes held out.

They give plenty of thought to where their work might take them. "People like our metal work," says Hale. "It's fascinating for them to see us turn a piece of junk into something. And we're accessible to a lot of people. We want to be available to every customer, from a working man to a neurosurgeon. Because of the way we live, there's no pressure on us right now. But I worry about what might happen if we got well-known or famous. Then people make a lot of demands on you and your time. I wouldn't want that."

Barnes, on the other hand, thinks a certain degree of fame wouldn't be a bad thing.

"We have everything we need right now," he says. "I just want to get where I'm going with my metal, wherever that takes me. I'd rather be famous than rich, because I want to be remembered. When people think of me, I want them to think of me as an artist."

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