Barbara Burns has come a long way to win one of the Arts Institute Group’s top prizes., VALLEY DISPATCH/TORY GERMANN
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BY JENNIFER AMY MYERS, tvalley dispatch staff

METHUEN — In 1969, at the age of 42, Barbara Burns suddenly found herself widowed with six children, the youngest not yet 2. Having not worked outside of the home for 17 years, she found herself in a tough situation, but she and her kids stuck together and struggled through the rough times.

Having loved to draw since childhood, she often helped her kids with their art projects, but never really thought about pursuing an artist’s life for herself and did not have any formal training until the 1980s, when she studied watercolor, pastel, and oil at Northern Essex Community College, University of Massachusetts Lowell and the DeCordova Art Museum School.

Putting aside her passion for art, Barbara made a living by working for the Social Security Administration, often sketching co-workers during particularly boring staff meetings and tedious days working behind a desk.

Barbara Burns wasn’t made to be stuck behind a desk pushing papers all day.

She resumed art classes in the mid1990s and today is an award-winning artist, working primarily in acrylics, living out what she calls her “third life.”

“Well, I’ve really had three lives: before being married, being married and after being married being able to focus on my painting,” said Burns, of Methuen, appropriately sporting earrings depicting the image of the Mona Lisa, which she calls her “good luck charms.”

On Nov. 3, Burns walked away with the Theme Award for her painting “Father’s Day,” at the Arts Institute Group of the Merrimack Valley Inc.’s fourth annual art show at the Nevins Memorial Library. This year’s theme was “Imagine That.”

More than 35 artists from the region participated in this year’s show, the proceeds of which provide scholarships for area high-school students pursuing college art degrees. This past June, $700 in scholarship money was awarded to seven students throughout the area — from Salem, N.H. to Methuen and Haverhill.

Burns’ prize painting depicts her son-in-law and granddaughter, Kelsey, sharing a moment at Boston’s Public Garden. The famous swan boats pass through the background, gliding gracefully in the park’s central lagoon, as a family of ducks playfully wade in the foreground.

“I like for my pictures to tell a story,” Burns said. “Kelsey is 11 now. She was about 4- or 5-years old in the painting, and she still remembers the names she gave to the ducks that day.”

So, what would her husband, Albert Burns, a professor of English at Merrimack College, say about his wife’s “third life?”

“I’m a little crazier than he was,” laughed Burns. “I’m the one who would go out in a snowstorm thinking that I wouldn’t get stuck, and then get stuck. I guess you could say that he was just more practical than me.”

“I’d say he’s probably be surprised and asked me where this came from,” she added.

Several of Burns’ paintings were on display at the show, which concluded on Nov. 12, the most stunning being a scene outside of the Methuen Memorial Music Hall. On a dark, rainy night, music lovers scurry under umbrellas to reach the home of the famous “Great Organ,” the street gleaming with rain so realistic it looks wet, the reflection of a light from the hall’s window dancing on the soaked pavement.

Methuen resident Fred Cochrane, Arts Institute Group of the Merrimack Valley Inc. president, also took the long and winding road to becoming an award-winning artist. An electrical engineer who spent 35 years working in the high-tech field, he dabbled in pen-and-ink drawings and watercolor as a hobby, until the day he decided to scrap the safe career and follow his dream.

“It is not a living that you’re going to get rich at,” he laughed. “But it is more important to love what you do.”

The color-blind artist primarily works in black and white sketches, occasionally throwing in some color when he is looking for that extra challenge.

Cochrane’s drawings, mostly depicting landscapes, many of the area surrounding the Quabbin Reservoir and New Hampshire’s Mt. Monadnock, close to his summer home in Rindge, exude so much texture, they appear in some ways more realistic than a photograph. Every peeling piece of bark from a birch tree is sharp, every intricacy of every tree branch well-defined.

“Texture is everything to me,” Cochrane said. “To be able to draw texture you have to be able to understand it.”

Cochrane’s “Quabbin from Goodnough” won the first-place prize in the “Other Media” category, while he took the Founder’s award for “Prescott Inn Shed.”

Know of a talented person in town? E-mail Jen Myers at jmyers@thevalleydispatch.com.