Free To Good Homes

“My goal is to help get you out there for the world to see and appreciate.”

– John, email to Barbara 09/28/2012

Vol I of Barbara’s biography is now complete. CHRONOLOGY (108 pages, cover image above) is an annotated beginning-to-end timeline of her life told entirely in her own words. Approximately 80% of the material is previously unpublished.

I am delighted to offer bound copies of CHRONOLOGY free of charge to close friends and acquaintances while supplies last. Books will be mailed directly from the publisher and usually take 2-3 weeks for delivery.

If interested, please submit your request – limit of one per individual; subject heading should be “Barbara’s Biography” or something similar – along with a mailing address to:

John Hayes

THE PREFACE below provides an overview of this ongoing project. Expect more volumes in the near future.

Years ago on a social media site I longingly noted that if ever there were a biography yet unwritten I would love to read, it would be Barbara Sparhawk’s. Little did I realize one day I would end up writing it myself.

Well, I suppose technically this is Barbara’s autobiography, told almost exclusively in her own words from an extensive email correspondence compiled and edited with her permission and blessings.

Ours was a “pen-pal” relationship that quickly blossomed into something deeper and avalanched into an exchange of nearly three-quarters of a million words. Barbara and I frequently discussed the need to document her life and work but it wasn’t until after she died that I was able to sift and extract, select and organize her observations and insights and memories and reflections into the discrete chunks which comprise this effort:

  • A biographical CHRONOLOGY of her life
  • A collection of CONVERSATIONS about Art and Life
  • A RETROSPECTIVE portfolio of her paintings

In correspondence Barbara was not consciously crafting her own biography, but she delighted in sharing narrative recollections vividly imagined and richly described, vignettes and snippets and bon mots that I have been privileged to mosaic into a remarkable CHRONOLOGY. Her unique style of writing, which never plods or disappoints, is perhaps best described as a kind of muscular prose that is unafraid to weep.

As an artist Barbara was kindled from within by creative passion. She put not just words to paper and pigment to canvas, she lived and breathed the avant-garde role of cultural explorer, embracing lifestyles as varied as speechwriter/press secretary to Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro in New York to living out of her car and painting plein air on cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean at Big Sur, California. She sought out the new and the different, plunged into and absorbed and learned from each experience, and in the riveting collected reflections and CONVERSATIONS one can almost hear the Brooklyn accent as she constantly exclaims: “What a life I live!”.

Barbara’s oeuvre will forever be flawed and incomplete. Incomplete because most of her early canvases fledged and dispersed without documentation. Flawed because she was admittedly a poor photographer. As a photog myself, I weep at the injustice of so many of her digital snaps being out of focus, doubly tragic because as a self-described “expressionist” artist – i.e., fond of distortion and exaggeration – there is no way of telling whether an image is inadvertently fuzzy or if the original painting was stylistically blurred. The final vexation like salt on a wound is that most extant images are copies uploaded to social media and hence low resolution, thumbnail sized. Barbara’s visual legacy is thus inherently at risk but Photoshop has been enormously kind to her images in RETROSPECTIVE.

This closing the gallery and being near death was pretty unsettling, still so.  I’m packing and handling and examining the work of a lifetime and was pretty sure that if dead on the spot most of it would be thrown away or casually stuffed somewhere, but gone and that’s horrifying.  Still so.  What does one do?  It’s not right, not what I expected, and it takes me by surprise.  Do I sell, gift, destroy what’s in hand? Do I shrug it au revoir?  This needs some answering.  Some book making at least, some documenting.  I know I’ve had quite a life, and it apparently serves in some ways to inspire others which is very moving to me, so it should not be a life tempest-borne to oblivion. Yet look how fast we all vanish, even the most flamboyant, important, precious to any life, gone so fast. 

This posthumous account of Barbara’s life and work is an attempt, futile or not, to resurrect a life “tempest-borne to oblivion.” Readers will delightfully discover, I submit, that Barbara’s was:

  • A life lived on the edge where the risks are greater but the rewards are priceless.
  • A life spent saying ‘no’ to compromise and ‘yes’ to distant horizons.
  • A life bristling with the ‘courage to be’ and practiced in the art of joyful engagement.

Nearing the end Barbara wrote:

I have a kind of vague hope to organize all my work and set things in order but I don’t know if I’ll make it, though I have felt more lively and that I just might live to 100.  Most of my relatives made it into their nineties.  I certainly ought to outlive the bastards.

She did not outlive the bastards. In the last four years of her life Barbara underwent quadruple bypass heart surgery, radiation and chemotherapy for brain tumors, was diagnosed with Stage Four lung cancer, and fell and broke her hip. She died at age 74 in 2018.

All people disappear, as Barbara noted above, no exceptions. She was not widely known in life, and likely that will not change now she’s gone. I suspect not more than a handful will stumble across this biography. And that’s okay. I compiled and edited it for Barbara.

Here it is, kiddo. I miss you.

A Christmas Story

Oh what a life I lead!

I woke with a start at yesterday’s dawn and thought, Oh my God! There’s something magic going on! And I don’t actually know what it turned into as the day transpired except the excitement never quite left.

What did happen was that late afternoon a young man, 20 years young, came into the gallery. He was in a sort of dissolute wandering and within minutes had burst out much of his sweet troubled confusion. Most of which was attributable to being 20.

He was on a mandatory hunt for a job. His parents, with whom he lives here when he’s not at UC Santa Barbara surfing and getting a degree in the most odd Environmental Sciences (holy shit) had sent him on a mission in some sudden panic their boy would never be able to earn a living and threatened to withhold funding his upcoming trip.

He has been restless in their presence and it upset them. He doesn’t really want to stay in college. He wants hands-on adventuring. He’s scheduled to go to Thailand in three weeks for several months to study all the usual idiot stuff, credit-earning, of eco this and that and sustainable whatevers. And surf. He has no success with the girls. (I have to laugh, whoever has success with mates!) He got himself off psychotropic drugs to deal with his ennui PRESCRIBED BY THE UNIVERSITY!!!!!!!!! Mother of God the world’s gone mad. And finds he likes having moods after all. Tall, good looking, slim athletic kid I am sure Trevor sent me.

He’s been drawing and painting on his own, watercolors, and writes poetry.

Well, obviously he landed in the lion’s den and I couldn’t restrain myself from encouraging him to abandon all pressures of conventional satisfying idiot planning of his life and go climb a mountain. (He’d said he thinks he’s just got something figured out and then turns around and the mountain he thought he was on top of looms even larger and he’s on the bottom.)

It was so exhilarating. And he was really engaging in a lovely way with what I was saying. He felt one removed from all his friends who seemed so complacent on the paths they were on. Including the girls . . . I asked if he was drawn to women who fit somebody else’s picture and he allowed that they had seemed very happy with the lives they had and not interested in much otherwise.

Then in the midst of my revealing the possibilities of the world he might not have considered (including tales of travel, looking at my Gandy Dancer, an astounding art teacher I had and what I learned from him) Old Tom came wobbling in, announced as is his habit, I’m Ninety!, and I made the young man, Peter, sit down and had Tom sit down and I sat down and I made Tom regale the espionage-riddled story of his midnight hospital escape. Which Peter really liked. We were all laughing so hard.

After which I said (as Peter had half-heartedly tried to escape the old fogeys earlier) that he was free to leave at any time . . . and Tom got up, pleased with his relevance to a new generation, and Peter and Tom left. Before departing Peter stopped at the gallery door with me and said everything looked different to him! You could see it on his face. I recommended a couple of places he could get short term holiday work, and the whole place was aglow.

Essentially I think I told him what it has taken me so long to learn which is to kind of step aside from the problem and observe it with a clear distant-making eye. Here he had parents who loved him and would likely support anything he wanted to do. But they want to see him on some good track and relax about their son, and feel as if they’re good parents who have given him what he needed. And in the mix all the dopey business of how it looks on the outside. And if he could figure out what all that required and satisfy it he would stop feeling torn in so many directions (I assured him that was normal and the product of youth and worth celebrating) and go about doing whatever the hell intrigued his dear heart.

What a Christmas present.

And it made me think again about the children’s book I’ve half begun called, What Does It Mean To Be Good. Which I mainly thought to direct at 7-8 year old’s but it’s probably a good life-long shove also for the parents brave enough to read it out loud to the little ears around them.

All day painting yesterday, really lovely, Peter and Tom’s perfect interlude, and picturing you now heading across vast expansive steppes of Tex.

Bob returned the pile of plates I’d given him with a lovely piece of berry pie tucked inside. Oh what a life I lead.

Stormy Weather

Road conditions according to Kate Woods Novoa’s chronicle of “Big Sur News & Events” seem to be deteriorating along Highway One, Barbara’s old stomping grounds.

photo by Cal Trans

Barbara lived & operated a gallery in that area, and frequently painted her surroundings.

The Bridge Is Out

11×14 Oil on Canvas

Artist’s Description

“Not sure where this came from, maybe the perpetual thrill of Highway one and all its marvelous danger. I think the pickup truck has been there a long time, and nobody got hurt.”



The ‘Oddist’

Being an artist was kind of a holy to poor unschooled roughneck kids.

Living above the Black Panthers was no particular treat, but it is cool to remember in the now distant future. Every now and then I’d pass one or more of these guys in the entranceway. These gangsters, what a bunch, and so full of themselves. They cut me a lot of slack. I don’t know if it was my motherhood/infant child status, or so firmly working class waitressing, or that I kept so many animals or what.

Or being an artist. It was a universal and entirely extraordinary thing to New York City. Being an artist was kind of a holy to poor unschooled roughneck kids. There was an aura connected to it. In the whole time I painted at Coney Island, and believe me that was one dangerous hell hole, I was never bothered by any of the gangs, nor was any of my work ever injured.

One day, sitting in front of a small mural I was painting for a game, I hear this guy behind me, ah-hmmm-ing. I was always worried about turning my back on these alleyways. Every one who walked around the place had at least one switchblade. That and steel pipes most common, not guns, guns were more rare but also present.

I turn around.

“So,” says he, “You the oddist.”

“Right,” says I. “The artist.”

“I like that, what you painted,” says he. “You’re good.”

Period. He might have been the big kahuna or an underling gangster in training, but the word was out and even ten years later, more, none of the work I did got graffiti on it!

Two Cats for Sister Barbara

I was a rescue, an emergency, a shelter from the storm. I had [in Brooklyn] as many as seven dogs at one time, and nearly 100 cats. When I moved to Virginia I had 26 cats, hidden from the landlady, and after three years there were six going across country [to California].

Barbara loved animals.

When she was having a heart attack in 2014 and before she sought out medical help, she quickly wrote a message to her two closest friends, which began: “Dear ones . . .  I love you both so much.  I’m afraid I’m dying.”

In agonizing chest pain for at least 24 hours – (Barbara feared loss of independence so rabidly she would often dangerously postpone medical intervention in the belief she could heal herself) – she nevertheless was concerned enough to mention her cat Tommy twice in her ‘dying letter.’

“Don’t let Tommy die please, with help he can make it, he’s trying to live.”

“Tommy had food around 6 pm but he’s not eating on his own. Tommy’s sleeping in the back of the closet on a pillow.”

Tommy had been sick, was in fact approaching the end, and Barbara was worried. Friends were kind enough to take him to the Vet and watch over him but unfortunately Tommy died while Barbara was still in the hospital. 

Oh do I miss Tommy.  I’ve called to him repeatedly, and finally cried a lot.  He was very well cared for at the end, he did not have a rough departure, and he surely knew how much I loved him and would have been there if not prevented.  Oh, John!

The Cat Who Loved Flowers

Oil on Canvas

Thomas Jefferson II (“Tommy”) Sparhawk is herein posed for his long overdue portrait, and I painted him to reflect his constancy of love for plants. When in the garden on cooler days he gravitates toward sun-warmed tile. On adventuresome days he sits sphinx-posture in front of the lawn’s gopher holes, patience of saint. Well, actually, of a feline

But first out he will walk through groves of lily, iris, nasturtium, lavender and geranium so that the blossoms brush him cheek to tail. I have watched him, head tilted back, rub his considerable whiskers alongside plants and slowly, deeply inhale their richness.

Quite some cat. Thomas is a very large and very agile tree climber, 20 lbs plus, which I say to brag. We’re both pleased with the enormity he has acquired staying fit and beautiful.

On another occasion, when Barbara was undergoing radiation and chemo for a brain tumor, the same devotional concern surfaced regarding the care of her new cat, Elspeth.

[The typo irregularities mimic the decline of Barbara’s mind & eyesight.]



Barbara was ecstatic and immensely grateful that her friend Valerie was caring for Elspeth.

Elspeth on Patrol, Meadow

Oil on Canvas

One year ago Elspeth was a cautious DON’T TOUCH ME visitor, totally feral but smart enough to figure the plate and pillow and shelter was laid out on her behalf, should she design to stop over.

She did.

And then some.

She still does patrol, delivers horrific presents to the doormat, spends her days in the garden and meadow organizing and terrifying rodents, loves a cuddle (not too intrusive), a proper pet, and has her own imposed 9 PM bedtime, inside, on a pillow at the top of the bed above my head.


Remembering the Joy of Being Alive

If I have been allowed to live these five months more to witness such remarkable beauty I better take note of it and act more responsibly toward the miracle.

[8 days after the previous post from March 2015, in which Barbara’s mood seemed to flirt with rock bottom, the irrepressible in her surfaces again.]

I am working hard (and you add so much to my life!) very hard on pulling myself from the yawning abyss, that lip of the crevasse atop the darkness.  And may I report that finally I am making headway.

Yesterday before sundown I raced up steps, then over hills, drove up the roads for the best view of stunning skies, stunning. It has been raining two days, exciting and turbulent rain.

Clouds bigger than elephant herds storming across a black sky, raising up brilliant white thunderheads crafted by precision draftsmen, light rays of pure metallic light variously sifting down onto crests of rolling, lushly growing green, ochre and soft-sueded landscape. 

Big Sur River Meets Pacific

And I thought (how could I not) that if I have been allowed to live these five months more (and etc?) to witness such remarkable beauty I better take note of it and act more responsibly toward the miracle.

I have not paid attention to what are reasonable repercussions to me after this major assault on body and face (open-heart surgery; no exercise or muscle building for five months; considerable eye surgeries including fragile adjacent tissue) and it has all horrified me to suddenly fall apart and feel aged by twenty years. The depth of horror that a narrow miss and near blindness produced is in a league by itself.  I have had red to purple blotches all over my face for a month, horrifying me, not going away, no doctor knowing what or caring or thinking it’s their medication (emergency dermatologist appointment? Mid-April!).

And lo and behold, as I keep walking, even running a bit, doing Tai Chi, hoping, determined, refusing to dissolve to tears, dig a hole pull the sod o’er me and give up . . . something’s getting better. At long last I see myself getting reorganized, even restored.  Thank you Jesus! Today, accurate or not, I feel beautiful again.  Older yes, but I wasn’t ready for 90 and I’m back to the pace of the days of yore. All the severity of skin damage around my eyes is gone. (Why didn’t I know it was temporary, from the work on my cataracts, and my psychological fears?) The creases around my mouth and neck smoothed out.

I don’t know where I went but I left and now I’m back. I suspect I had been harboring panic.  I don’t know that that’s gone but I’m learning to work within the changes and see that merely being alive each day is not a premonition of being dead. In tune with the magically constant, totally idiotic medical term of PRE-everything, what I currently have is pre-death.

I’m starting to actually enjoy the idea of work, not the breathless challenge it has become, the pain of thinking this is all I could do to keep alive and better keep at it and there is no time left to me at all.

Yesterday I actually sat at my drafting table. It is both covered and surrounded by wonderful supplies of every imaginable tool of the trade and I have ignored all since bringing my things to it from the gallery. It was quite thrilling to sit amongst things I love.

Tools of the Trade

I started to plan out some of my books last night and early this morning, half in a dream. What has heretofore been an hysterical list-making by some hand other than my own with which I could not possibly compete, became once more the steadier lifelong joy and prospect of making pleasure.  Oh my God I have longed for this without the satisfaction of remembering the vocabulary to urge it forth from me.  I am wise enough at this point to feel suspicion that it may also come and go and is not fully the resident, but was it? Was it ever a constant? The answer is ‘no’.

I am, I imagine, most of all, remembering the joy of being alive.  And there are many doorsteps on which to lay that sweet bundle.

I have felt ever since being very young indeed that I was on the way to living multiple lives.  And it’s been born out that I have by choice and decision and happy accident gone to many different directions and horizons and choppy seas, some of it conquered and some of it involved taking on a lot of bilge. Each incarnation so very different from the predecessor.

You’re a fine example of continual re-inventing.  We share a distaste for boredom and sameness, and a love of challenge and adventure. I love seeing your own taking on and surging ahead.  And the street photographer, the most recent you, is a delight and I can see you loving all its parts.


The New Normal

I may just be good and depressed.  Every day is painful in some new way, something hard to handle, some pain that frightens me. I feel ungrateful and uncharacteristically whiney and none of it makes sense.  I hurt and I want the hurt stopping.  I have things changing with my body I don’t understand or recognize and can’t fix.  

[Barbara writes this a few days AFTER successful cataract surgery, 5 months AFTER open-heart surgery, and 3 years BEFORE being beset by a brain tumor and, eventually, a broken hip.]

I came home and was so hungry I stuffed myself and made myself sick from it, and since this morning have been trying to recover from what I did to me.

Maybe it just felt like too much, maybe I’m getting too much done at once. [Heart surgery, eye surgery, dental surgery] I’m overwhelmed, maybe that’s reasonable.

It’s funny, peculiar funny, odd.  None of the usual remedies come through . . . a longer sleep, a happy day, a good painting session, a good story written . . . things that buoy my spirits. I still don’t feel as if I’m moving up and out and away from the great low hit in September [open-heart surgery], and so much curing is being done why don’t I feel it inside and outside me?

I may just be good and depressed.  Every day is painful in some new way, something hard to handle, some pain that frightens me.  And new doctors for consulting and visiting. See this one see that one. Now my skin’s broken out terribly in blotches, I’m guessing it’s nerves or the heart medicine, the doctor says no, then what is it and it’s horrifying me and why can’t I make it go away. And gaining weight, exercising more and gaining weight. Makes me feel so wretched.

I haven’t felt good for close to a year and I still don’t know what happened to me, how this happened, why.  Or, most of all, how to fix it and finally feel better.

There are a lot of things, critical things that need fixing. Eyes, teeth, restoring muscle, I’m working on a long list.  I’ve been accustomed to feeling strong and hardy and healthy and fit, and now I’m swept away from myself.

Yet here I am having survived by some miracle exactly what kills less fortunate multitudes.  And on the heels of that my eyesight restored [successful cataract surgery], incredible. Think of it! I do think of it.

I was speaking with the recovery room nurse.  Several years ago she got a sudden splitting headache pain in the lower back of her head at her neck.  Her husband said something’s wrong, drove her at once to the hospital, she’d had a brain aneurism that burst!  Flown up to Stanford, operated on, recovered in time, and back at work!  

That seems even more incredible to me, and there we were talking, caring about minutes in a way neither of us had before, yes minutes.  I asked if they’d stayed together through her recovery and return and yes, something which can drive people apart, she said sometimes he looks at her and tears will roll down his cheeks in gladness.  He’s making dinner tonight, they share the dinner duties, she’s in her 60’s and lovely.

Not everything’s perfect she said.  She has some residual paralysis in her face, her throat, scalp. She looks wonderful, her face was mobile as far as I could see, entirely.  She said she can no longer whistle. She can’t gargle.  She said it with feeling because these were things taken from her that she missed and I understood every ounce of that pain. The sense of it, too.

So the trouble I’m in is maybe this desperate lust for perfection, for not being called out for not being 100%, imperfect; vulnerable; some of that wretched history I still need to lose and have not.

I feel confused by the dramatic change I think, and eyesight returned is sure part of it, I mean, my God, the difference is beyond monumental, I may never get over what it is like to see again, and really that it’s been so long since I could. A very long slow process that may have been more than I could stand without knowing it.

Books. It’s an enormous pleasure to be able to read once more.  Oh the printed word!  Page after page of any book. Any time. Any light.

I don’t know John, I feel ungrateful and uncharacteristically whiney and none of it makes sense.  I hurt and I want the hurt stopping.  I have things changing with my body I don’t understand or recognize and can’t fix. I know what small things they are in truth.  I can walk, I can take care of myself. I can still paint and read and write and sing.

And maybe all of it is the new normal.

And maybe fate provided that moment this morning when I got to hear something I needed to hear . . . a survivor of dramatic sudden near-death assault on her good health expressing to me the sadness in her when she said no, she could not whistle any more.