Using the walls of the 12-Step Club as his canvas, artist Harry Barker re-creates scenes from his memory, the movies and magazines.
The whisper of the airbrush and the palette of paints provide escape from the everyday world.
“Finding seclusion in this noisy, crazy town is impossible,” Barker says. “I can find it when I’m working on a painting. I find peace.”
The club, a haven for recovering alcoholics and former drug addicts, closed in early June, leaving the artist known as Harry B. without a peaceful place to paint.
After eight years, the 12-Step Club on North Wall Street is out of money.
Owner Jerry King wanders through each room, like a kid leaving home. Closing the place was a tough decision.
“I’ll be glad when I don’t have to come around here any more. It’s too hard,” says King.
His dad, Elton King, nods agreement.
“A lot of people have benefited from this place. A lot of people have been helped. It’s impossible to guess how many,” he says.
It was a place for coffee, conversation, and support from friends who understood.
Now an auction crew is busy hanging numbered tags on tables, chairs, the television and even the potted plants.
Harry B., 73, stretches out at one of the booths, his elbow resting on the table.
As the artist lights a cigarette, a member of the auction crew tapes a card with the number “29” on the booth.
“We all enjoyed this place,” Harry B. says, shaking his head slowly. “It’s out of all that crime; it’s safe here. And I don’t think the neighborhood minded us.”
A dozen murals, all signed “Harry B,” cover the walls.
They range from a reproduction of the “Sound of Music” album cover with Julie Andrews skipping across the Austrian hillside to an original commentary on patriotism.
“There’s Saigon Sally creeping around in the jungle, giving away all the soldiers’ positions,” he says.
Harry B. has a story to go with every painting.
There’s one showing a family camping. A little girl is perched on a camp chair, holding her braids by the ends, straight up over her head.
“That’s Cupcake. She’s daddy’s little brat. She’s all hyped up on Pepsi Cola.”
Does Harry B. have children?
“I’m not going to commit myself by answering that,” he answers, grinning.
Born in Texas, his family moved to Washington when he was young. It was the Depression, and his dad was lucky enough to find work helping build Grand Coulee Dam.
Harry B. has always been an artist. His earliest memory is of him at his grandmother’s house drawing with other children. “I drew the best cow,” he says.
In first grade he listened to “The Grasshopper and the Ant” with other students, then drew a picture to illustrate the story.
“Mine was exceptional,” he says, still hearing the teacher’s voice as she pronounced “exceptional.”
Later, if a rodeo or other attraction came to town, he would race out to see if they wanted a scene painted on the side of their trucks and trailers. “I got paid a bit for it,” he said.
Besides painting, Harry B. liked to run.
‘I’d just run,” he says. “Not to anything or away from anything. It was mostly because of happiness. I had a home, family, security.”
His life took a turn when he joined the Navy.
“Being cooped up on the ship affected me. I couldn’t come or go like I wanted,” he recalls.
When the ship reached shore, Harry B. was the first one off.
“You’ve heard of ‘Join the Navy and see the world?’ Well, for me it was ‘Join the Navy and see the bars,”’ he says. “I was lonely, it was a long way from home, I … oh, you can’t make excuses, nobody was pouring it down you.”
Eventually the stress caught up with him.
“After a few years I suffered total burnout, mental exhaustion,” he says. He landed in a veteran’s hospital and stayed a couple years.
“They gave me a lot of drugs. I couldn’t paint. When I got out, I was hooked on Valium,” he says.
One marriage failed, then a second. He came to Spokane to live near his sister. When she died, he was alone again.
His friends and supporters are the people at places such as the closed 12-Step Club.
He’d paint 10 hours a day, sometimes working on a single mural for two or three weeks. Now he wanders through the maze of rooms and looks at his work.
“Some of these were real people. That’s Ed,” he says, pointing to a spinning basketball player in one painting. “Lots of people came through here, sitting, having coffee, waiting for meetings and support groups.”
There’s a game room with a pool table for kids. Harry B. painted the walls with Disney characters for the youngest and 1960s dance scenes for the teens. Vinyl records hang on nails, interspersed with teenage girls in bell-bottom slacks dancing around their record players.
A ‘55 Thunderbird roars through one wall scene.
“Wow, things were good back then,” he says with a sigh.
There’s a white dog in another painting.
“After the ‘101 Dalmatians’ came out, the kids were bugging me to put spots on that dog,” says Harry B. “Every time a movie comes out, they want me to change one of the paintings,” he says.
Now that the club is closed, Harry B. doesn’t know where he’ll go to paint, but knows he won’t quit.
“I like to be liked,” he says. “I get some good comments about the paintings. I get some good attention for a goof ball.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Auction Furniture, dishes, a refrigerator, tables, chairs, couches and more will be auctioned today at the 12-Step Club, 5511 N. Wall St. Preview starts at 8 a.m.; auction at 9 a.m.