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FRAMING HIS LIFE

Jack Barrett's existence is linked to his artwork, and he's not ready to give that up just yet.

Jack Barrett has filled countless sketchbooks, inch by inch. His paintings span whimsy and darkness, tiny canvases and tremendous walls.

"It's a terrible urge," Barrett says. "A hunger."

In his prime, he would grab a can of Campbell's mushroom soup, gulp it down, and rush into the studio. Now, there's no rushing.

He's 78, under hospice care at home with severe pulmonary hypertension. An oxygen tank helps him breathe. His wife and a wheelchair help him get around.

His eyes are crystal and fierce, like his mind. If only the rest of his body knew.

Barrett is 6 feet 1, but seems diminutive in his easy chair, surrounded by his massive art. He's renowned in Tampa Bay, where hundreds of collectors own his pieces.

He doesn't talk much about his illness or dwell on the inevitable. He just keeps painting. He wants to make it to a big art show in his honor, scheduled for next October, called "A Soul's Journey."

"That's my goal, then God can take me."

- - -

He paints clowns; the thought of hiding behind a mask intrigues him.

He paints birds, forever haunted by the time his father made him kill one as a child. He has killed people in war, but only regrets that bird.

He paints people. People are where the soul resides. He can't do still life. Bananas don't have souls.

His pieces take a month to finish, or sometimes just a day - depends on how his body feels. And sometimes, the "divine guidance" that inspires him takes a while to hit.

A motorized lift helps him to the upstairs studio in his St. Petersburg townhouse. On the bad days, Louise brings him pads to sketch in bed, but he prefers to paint big. She recently bought him a 36- by 48-inch canvas.

He has been working this canvas for a month. He's not sure what it will become - right now, it's half-finished, a mix of grids and human shapes in crimson, yellow, blue, green, white. He hopes for errors, fortunate paint drips that lead somewhere brilliant. But he keeps scraping and starting again, never satisfied.

"How can I improve it?" he says. "Is something wrong? It's not always easy."

He wants a bigger canvas for Christmas.

- - -

Long ago, Barrett's life came close to ending.

Home life was contentious, and he joined the Marines to get away. On the battlefield in Korea, his weapon jammed.

"I was kicking it with my boot to get one bullet off. They told me to fall back."

But the fight was raging, and he still had two belts of ammo. He crawled out into the open and stood up erect.

Bang.

"Barrett's dead!" someone yelled.

His lung had collapsed, and he was fighting for air. His helmet came off. Inside, Barrett had taped photos of his family.

"I could see their photographs rolling down the hill. I said I wasn't going to die, g-- d-----."

He survived an emergency operation without anesthesia. He sucked water from a cotton ball.

He couldn't sleep alone in the dark for 33 years.

But he didn't die.

- - -

An acquaintance once told Barrett how to live a long life.

1. Don't smoke.

2. Don't drive

3. Don't live where it's cold.

At one point, Barrett was up to three packs a day.

But he made good on the other two. He made Florida home. He never got a driver's license. He rode in the back of the public bus and sketched pictures of riders and people hanging at stops.

After the war, he worked for commercial art studios in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and New York. He drew a comic strip, designed patterns for fine china, taught art to schoolchildren.

In 1970, Barrett joined the staff of the St. Petersburg Times, doing illustrations for the newspaper. He stayed for 20 years.

"I was doing everything I ever dreamed of doing at the paper," he says. He met celebrities, did countless portraits - Sammy Davis Jr., Frankie Lane, Liza Min-nelli, Jimmy Carter, Barry Mani-low. But then came technology.

"I just detested doing artwork on a computer," he says. "I was slowly discovering that fine art is where I belong."

He was growing, he says. He still is.

- - -

Barrett sketched his wife, Louise, on a cocktail napkin the first time he spied her across a piano bar. She still keeps the napkin in a special envelope.

She liked his blue eyes. His kindness. His humor. He looked like Kris Kristofferson, but had the wit of a character actor.

"The guy that trips over himself," he puts it. "Or in the Westerns, there's always a grubby little guy with a cowboy hat."

Barrett had one request of his wife.

"I loved her very much, but she had to understand that I love my art, too. She has to accept what I do. She has to realize how deep this art business flows."

He gets frustrated when young artists slack off. He wishes so badly for their energy.

"You almost have to be fanatical," he says. "Art is not a thing that you think, 'I'll do it today and maybe I'll do it next Thursday.' "

Recently, his paintings became a little darker, with more black. But then he started feeling better, and the color came back.

He says all artists go through dark phases.

Stephanie Hayes can be reached at (727) 893-8857 or shayes@sptimes.com.

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