When Winston-Salem native Norton Barnhill was a youngster, he had two dreams.
“I knew I was going to play in the NBA when I was 10-years-old; I dreamed about it,” he said. “I also dreamed I was going to be an abstract artist, but I didn’t tell anyone about the art.”
Specifically, he dreamed of playing for the Seattle Supersonics after reading about the team in a newspaper article. In addition to playing ball, he spent time in his youth painting. His love of art seemed to grow with each creation.
“When God gives you a gift when you’re a young kid, you just do,” he said. “You just do your gift; you don’t know how you do it, you just do it.”
His skills on the court matured as he did. Barnhill attended Washington State University on a basketball scholarship. He hoped that by playing in Supersonics territory, he’d attract the pro team’s attention. The strategy worked. He was drafted by the team before he finished college. But his time as a Supersonic was brief. Barnhill played only five preseason and four regular season games before being cut. He had much greater success in Argentina, where he would play pro ball for many years.
Living in South America and playing in road games that took him around the country and the world was great for the artist in Barnhill. Though his artistic aspirations came in a distant second to his bread and butter (pro basketball), he found time to locate and visit galleries in every city he visited. He kept these outings to himself, never sharing them with teammates.
“I would go by myself because I didn’t want anyone to be with me; they wouldn’t understand,” he said.
His basketball career ended after a painful injury. Barnhill cut a nerve in his elbow during a game when it made contact with a tooth of a player on the opposing team. The accident left him with partial paralysis in one hand.
He came home to Winston-Salem in 1988 and eventually decided to finish college, returning to Washington State in 2001 to earn a humanities degree. He took an art class, and almost instantly, his love for creating art was rekindled.
Barnhill has developed a unique non-figurative style that involves layering paint; he sometimes paints over older works to make them into new creations. Paint layers are so thick on some of his pieces that they resemble a type of sculpture with carved textures.
He said he wants to create textured works that people will want to touch — and buy.
“I was selling my stuff so fast I couldn’t get it into shows,” said Barnhill, whose art sales have ebbed and flowed over the years.
He’s a well displayed artist now, whose work has been exhibited at his alma mater and Winston-Salem’s Community Arts Café and Associated Artists gallery.
His largest local exhibit was in 2011 at the Delta Arts Center. Former Delta Arts Director Dianne Caesar said Barnhill had submitted a piece for an exhibition of local artists that so impressed her that she invited him to present a show of his very own.
“It was a show that everybody loved. We were really quite happy to have him on our walls,” said Caesar, who said that one of Barnhill’s pieces sold even before the exhibition officially opened.
Currently, several of Barnhill’s paintings are hanging at downtown’s Sweet Potatoes restaurant, which regularly features the works of local artists on its walls. He calls the pieces, which will be on display at the restaurant through September and are for sale, his best collection yet.
Each of the pieces is Biblically-based and have spiritual titles like “Holy of Holies” and the “Blood Cried Out.”
“For this particular collection, God said, ‘Proclaim My salvation in your art,’” said Barnhill, a born again Christian. “… I’m tired of pretty paintings because people see my art and they say, ‘Oh, that’s pretty.’ I want my art to mean something.”
Contact Norton Barnhill at email@example.com.