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 John Farrar  (1928 - 1972)

About: John Farrar


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Lived/Active: District Of Columbia      Known for: society portrait painting, religous subjects

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Following are excerpts from information posted online by Black Art In America on November 5, 2010 at 5:17pm

"African American artist John Farrar's family finds his work a troubled legacy"

Heirs of sadness

Painter John Farrar was a troubled genius. For his family, his creative legacy could have meant comfort. Instead, it's meant more than a few troubles of their own.

John Farrar was a country boy barely out of puberty when he won the Washington Times-Herald's outdoor art fair in 1942, quickly becoming one of the most promising black artists of his generation. Within a few years, his work would be exhibited alongside that of Jacob Lawrence, Elizabeth Catlett and Loïs Mailou Jones. He would beat noted abstract artist Romare Bearden in a prestigious art competition in Atlanta. And his work would be included in a major exhibition of 19th- and 20th-century African American art in New York.

And then, just like that, he was never heard from again.
Farrar kept painting, but only when his alcoholism and schizophrenia permitted. He spent his adulthood as a ward of the state, either in prison or in insane asylums. On the rare occasions when he was free, he wandered the bars along U Street, channeling his substantial talent into drawings that he traded for drinks. When he died at St. Elizabeths Hospital in 1972 at 44, his personal belongings consisted of $1.30 and more than 60 paintings of unknown value.
His story would have ended there, a tragic footnote in some art history textbook. But it turned out to be a prologue to more misfortune and heartbreak for his niece and nephew, Sonja and Adrian McCoy, art world novices who took on the task of safeguarding his legacy.
While their Uncle John Farrer stayed with them from time to time, Sonja and Adrian's memories of him are hazy. Sonja recalls her mother fussing at him once to leave their house. She still has a poem he wrote for her when she was a baby.
Brother and sister are more familiar with the paintings their uncle gave their mother, Maggie McCoy, especially the handful that hung on the walls of their Brightwood home when they were growing up. There was a somber rendering of The Last Supper over the mantel in the living room, and an image of a dour-looking baby in a halo called Christ Child in Sonja's bedroom. In the dining room was Ola's Dolls, part of a series of brightly colored paintings featuring rag dolls with clownlike faces.

The pieces were products of one of their uncle's longer stints at St. Elizabeths. Before he was ill, he was known for his portraits of society figures, black and white, and for everyday street scenes that subtly captured life in segregated Washington. But later in life, Farrar turned inward, and his choice of subjects ranged from the religious to the bizarre. The weirder stuff -- such as a set of paintings of children with blurry faces rendered in short, angry brush strokes -- stayed in the basement, wrapped in newspaper. Whenever it rained heavily, Adrian remembers running downstairs to save them before the basement flooded.

Adrian and Sonja took charge of the paintings, 63 in all, when their mother died in 1972. For years, Sonja kept the paintings under her bed in her Silver Spring apartment. Then Adrian had them, stashed in a closet in his wife's house until his divorce in 2006. In 2007, Sonja left her job as a meeting planner and relocated to North Carolina to be closer to her son Sean and his two daughters. After she moved in with her son last year, Sean moved most of the paintings to Virginia Beach, while Adrian kept a few in Washington.

Most of the McCoys' paintings are not on par with the handful of Farrar pieces that belong to the seminal Barnett-Aden Collection of African American art, now owned by billionaire Robert Johnson. But theirs is the largest collection of Farrar's work. The rest of his considerable output is scattered, remnants of a disordered life.

A local art collector who wrote a 2003 scholarly article on Farrar, says he knows of about 100 Farrar paintings in existence, mostly in private collections. One painting, for example, originally sold to Times-Herald publisher Eleanor "Cissy" Patterson, ended up in the hands of a local collector, who picked it up at an estate sale for her former son-in-law, muckraking journalist Drew Pearson.

"When I get a name," Farrar promised his sister in a 1962 letter, "[the paintings] will be worth something."

Farrar was prone to making overblown statements about his art. They riddle the multiple phone-book-size files documenting his many stays at St. Elizabeths. But he received some posthumous corroboration in the mid-1990s from the late Adolphus Ealey, the former curator and owner of the Barnett-Aden Collection. Ealey appraised the paintings the McCoys own at a combined high value as did some others.

At the time, Adrian and Sonja were not in a rush to sell. Both of them were working. They thought they could afford to wait for the right offer. As their economic situations have changed for the worse, however, the temptation to sell has grown stronger. So far they have chosen to hold out for selfless and selfish reasons. They want to protect the value of their uncle's work. They also want to maximize their profit.

Their patience may yet be rewarded. But art insiders aren't so sure. A local art dealer and gallery owner who showed pieces from the Barnett-Aden Collection in January 2009, including one by Farrar, said families of dead artists frequently overestimate the value of their relative's work.  He said that even for living artists, "unless the whole machinery of the art world turns in favor of that artwork regardless of how good it is, [the value of the art] is hard to get across."

The people who most covet Farrar's work remain his family. Distant cousins proudly claim him. However due to family strife, some of John Farrar's paintings are missing. Sonja realized this, and when she told Adrian, he became enraged, and now the couple retained an attorney to help retrieve some of the missing art. About a dozen of them were found at a Baltimore Gallery, but that still left 13 paintings whose whereabouts are not known.

Of all of these problems, Sonja said: "I am worried he would think I am not a good steward," she said of her uncle, sobbing. "I should have devoted more time to research. He deserved it, the recognition. I pray he can forgive me."


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