Artist finally finds time to do what she loves

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, October 21, 2003

For years, Barb Butler knew she wanted to paint with watercolors. But finding the time to do what she loved was another matter.

It wasn’t until she retired eight years ago that she was able to devote as much time as she liked to her “hobby.”

“Little did I know I’d make it a full-time job,” she said with a laugh.

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There will be an exhibit of about 30 of Butler’s watercolors at the home of Mary Ellen and Don Johnson, 331 Willamor Circle, on Saturday and Sunday. Open house hours on Oct. 25 are from 3-6 p.m. and on Oct. 26 from 3-5 p.m. Also hosting is Gladys Lehman, Butler’s mother. The public is invited.

Mary Ellen Johnson said she once asked Lehman if she knew her daughter was so talented. She told her that as a girl and young woman, the talent was evident. She just needed to find the time for it.

Butler began taking watercolor workshops soon after retiring from Riverland Community College. The first one was in Wisconsin. Then she took some workshops from Frank Zeller, who would become her mentor.

“After that, things started to take off,” Butler said. She’s now known for her florals and houses, although she also dabbles in landscapes and abstracts.

“Landscapes are difficult for me,” she said. “But I’ve become much more comfortable with them.”

And since taking some abstract workshops, she has learned how important shapes are, which helps her in all her paintings.

“I’m a workshop junkie,” she admitted.

Butler also shares what she’s learned. She regularly teaches classes at the Albert Lea Art Center.

Mary Ellen Johnson became interested in Butler’s art early on.

“She had a small pile of paintings,” Johnson recalled. “I was just amazed.”

She had to have one. “I knew at the time it was a ‘primitive Barbara Butler,'” she said. “I knew she wouldn’t stay this way.”

After viewing an exhibit of Butler’s at the Austin Art Center, Johnson said, “I wanted them all.”

Butler painted the home in which Johnson grew up in Illinois. Then she painted just the doorway.

“I knew I couldn’t keep both paintings,” Johnson said.

So she gave the painting of the door to her brother, who still passes by their childhood home each day. She said he and his wife had been looking for a painting to go over the fireplace in their bedroom.

Johnson wrapped it and sent it to him. “His wife said the look on his face was unbelievable,” she said, adding the colors in the painting were perfect with the colors in the room.

“It was its home,” Johnson said. “So I have two favorites. I just don’t live with one.”

Butler said her favorite painting is always the one she’s working on.

Johnson said she’s heard of other people hosting open houses for their artist friends, and wanted to do this for Butler for well over a year.

After the exhibit at the Johnson home, Butler will have an exhibit at the hospital in Ames, Iowa. It’s her second one there in recent years, thanks to former Albert Lea residents Karen and Keith Barnes. “You just can’t beat friends,” Butler said.

She’s also exhibited at the Albert Lea Art Center, in the Naeve Hospital Gallery, and in the Gulf Shores, where she and husband Tom spend the winter months. She’s been featured on the local Christmas CD cover and in the national PEO Sisterhood magazine.

“I have paintings all over the U.S. now,” she added.

She admits she wouldn’t be able to do nearly as much as she does if it weren’t for her husband.

“He keeps a file of every painting I’ve ever done,” she said. “He does the framing and takes care of the bookkeeping. And that’s just fine with me.

“I just want to paint.”

(Contact Geri McShane at, or call 379-3436.)