SWANTON — Watching sailboats slowly make their way across Lake Champlain’s waters, with the Adirondacks as a back drop, inspired former Air National Guard superintendent Michael Barkyoumb, 66, to pick up a brush and start painting.
For Barkyoumb, it all started 25 years ago, when he was sitting, drinking his coffee one morning, on the porch of a cabin down by Campbell’s Bay. “The scene in front of me was, you know, kind of nice,” he said, enough for Barkyoumb to pick up a sketchbook and paint what he saw. “Course it didn’t come out, but that’s what started the ball rolling.”
From there, Barkyoumb began watching how-to tutorials on YouTube and bought some books on painting watercolors. “Basically that was my education,” he said.
He eventually sought out feedback on his artwork from other artists in the area, joining a weekly artist gathering in St. Albans. “We’d kind of critique each other’s art and help each other out,” he said.
When Barkyoumb retired from the guard in 2006, the painting increased exponentially, but only between Labor Day and Memorial Weekend. “I don’t do it enough in the summertime because there’s always something going on,” he said, such as a party or mowing the lawn.
However, during those nine months, Barkyoumb is very productive, with evidence of his efforts covering the walls of his office and bedroom in display cases and frames. Those are his favorites, ones that he didn’t give away to friends or family or sell during his annual springtime trip to Maine.
The majority of his work is influenced by bodies of water. “Everybody around here complains that I paint way too many boats and lighthouses and that sort of thing,” Barkyoumb said, but he enjoys the neat lines and shadows that marine architecture provides.
It’s why he chooses to paint 95 percent of the time in watercolors, saying acrylic paints are too loose and oils take too long to dry.
“A lot of people that paint say watercolor is the more difficult medium cause like with oils and acrylics, if you don’t like it, you just paint over it,” Barkyoumb said. “Well, with water colors, you can’t really do that.”
Sometimes, depending on the shade and the color, he can get away with wiping the paint off or rubbing it out. If those techniques don’t prove successful, Barkyoumb follows his motto and flips the paper over, painting on the other side. “It’s only just paper and paint,” he said.
Despite the difficulty of the medium, Barkyoumb persists with watercolors because of their translucent quality. “I just like the white of the paper showing through the paint,” he said. “If you include white spots, it’s very brilliant and just kind of pops out, kind of, what I like to say, ‘Slaps you across the face.’”
Barkyoumb grew up in St. Albans, attended Bellows Free Academy and joined the Air National Guard shortly after, amidst the Vietnam Era. “I kind of wanted to go active duty air force, but I got talked into going in the air guard,” he said.
With almost 35 years under his belt in the guard, Barkyoumb worked for a time in security police, civil engineering and carpentry and for an anti-terrorism unit, doing threat assessments, right after Sept. 11. He said the last job was very interesting, because for the most part, he worked by himself and traveled all over the world, visiting places like Panama, Bosnia and Macedonia.
The jobs were high stress however, so when retirement rolled around, Barkyoumb was ready to slow down and take it easy.
“Painting is a way to de-stress,” he said, which comes in handy when he’s suffering from a migraine. Getting them all his life, the migraines picked up frequency when Barkyoumb served as a superintendent in security police, overseeing 100 guard members.
“That’s when they really came to a head,” he said. “A lot of stress in that job.”
Unlike with surfing the web or reading books, sketching and painting doesn’t give Barkyoumb migraines. “I can’t recommend that people paint enough because it’s a stress reliever and it’s just so enjoyable to see what you accomplished,” he said.
And on top of that, “when you show them to people or you sell them to people, it shows that people appreciate what you’re doing,” he said.
This past year, Barkyoumb joined the Swanton Arts Council (SAC) to start back up a weekly artists gathering. “The response wasn’t that great, which really kind of surprised me,” he said. “I was hoping for a better response, but we’re going to try it again this fall.”
Barkyoumb plans to create an Introduction to Watercolors video for the SAC, complete with footage of him quickly sketching out and painting different scenes to “show people how easy it is.”