Artist George Dombek has a particular fascination with barns, especially those of his home state of Arkansas. That’s why he set out to paint a barn from each of the state’s 75 counties. The result of that project is a new book, which is expected to be published soon by the University of Arkansas Press.
Raised as a coal-miner’s son in the Arkansas River Valley town of Paris, Dombek has degrees in art and architecture. When it comes to his barn paintings, though, the subject’s structural integrity is not necessarily a priority.
“Some of the best barns I’ve painted were almost falling down,” he said. “I’ve never been trying to document barns per se. I’m trying to make a painting.” In a recent interview at his studio near Fayetteville, Dombek noted that the project has been challenging because the once commonplace structures are disappearing from the state’s landscape. “In certain areas, it’s been hard to find a barn,” he said, adding that this has led him to stretch the idea of what a barn is and include other “barnlike” structures, like a church or a shed. “I love just going down roads to see where they will take me,” he said.
Dombek’s primary medium is canvas and watercolor, though his art takes many forms, including a bronze sculpture of a bicycle in a tree at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville.
Dombek describes his artistic process as “a fine-tuned investigation” that focuses on the positives, not the negatives.
His works are precise, focused and complex all at once. Dombek is controlled about what he paints; nothing is haphazard or unplanned. The colors are vivid and rich.
The hidden elements of his works are just as important as the obvious ones, and often there are details that he adds to tell the story he wants the piece to tell.
His subjects over the years have frequently involved trees, wood, rocks, birds, butterflies and abstract human forms. Family is very important to Dombek; his 9-year-old great-grandson, Locklyn, also appears in many of his works.
His current barn series returns the 71-year-old to a subject he found fascinating more than four decades ago as a fourth-year architecture student at the University of Arkansas. It was 1973 and the course was historical preservation.
“We were assigned a project to document a building type in Arkansas,” Dombek recalled. “I went back to Paris thinking I could document the coal mines, but they were all gone.”
Although the coal mines of the Arkansas River Valley/Ozarks area were gone, he found himself inspired by the barns he saw along the way on the road back to Fayetteville. He decided to document, architecturally, the barns in Arkansas. Though his advisor was not enamored with the idea, Dombek pursued it and photographed two binders full of barns; binders he still has and refers to today. This was a creative turning point for him.
Dombek said his advisor recognized the value of the project and procured a grant for his student to spend the summer traveling the state to continue his study. Two years later, while in graduate school studying art, he painted his first series of barns. Soon thereafter, Dombek earned 38 awards for the paintings, the first of dozens to come.
Recently, Dombek said he spent about a year studying an old barn on his property and photographing it. The barn dates back to the 1880s or 1890s. One of his out-of-studio projects is restoring it, board by board, nail by nail. Dombek has been gathering old hardwood from barns and other structures from the period. So far, the barn has been shored up with rock along its base to keep critters out. There’s a skylight and there will be a climate-controlled glassed-in space upstairs where he’ll create a gallery the public can visit.
Art and architecture
Dombek’s dual degrees in art and architecture have served him well.
He often taught the two subjects at the same time. When not teaching, he created his own art. From San Francisco to Ohio, Florida, Italy and Saudi Arabia, he taught and painted.
In 1994, at age 50, he decided to turn to art full-time. He used his expertise as an architect to design and build a house, a studio and a gallery for his painting on land he’d purchased in Northwest Arkansas. In 2000, he built his studio, and completed a gallery in 2012. These well-designed structures are works of art themselves. Today, he owns 26 acres filled with hundreds of trees he’s planted over the years, trees that have turned hay fields into a wonderland of mostly native vegetation.
Critical and commercial successes have followed him home. Dombek now employs three full-time assistants. His work has appeared in more than 600 collections and in over 100 exhibitions throughout the world. Locally, the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville commissioned Dombek to create the aforementioned cast bronze sculpture “Tour de Apple Tree,” now featured along one of the museum’s nature trails, and the museum has acquired several Dombek paintings for its collection. He has garnered 80 awards from such organizations as the Southern Arts Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts Regional Visual Arts Fellowship, the Florida Arts Fellowship, the Marie Walsh Sharpe Art Foundation, and the Pollock-Krasner Foundation.
Asked why he focuses on one subject, such as barns, and paints it over and over, he replied, “Isn’t this what most artists do?” Then he smiled and added, “You don’t tell someone you love them once. You tell them time and time again.”