Field hockey captain Erin Barno works on a painting of her mother during field hockey practice at Cameron Stadium. She renewed her love of art during three Magellan Projects in Europe and Costa Rica.
Field hockey force uncovers calling as artist
At 5 feet, 10 inches tall, Erin Barno ’13 is a force on Washington & Jefferson College’s field hockey squad, where she ranks as the sixth-leading scorer in the program’s 40-year history. The spirited team captain, who teasingly brags about being able to bench 135 pounds, “no problem,” lights up at the memory of her team’s crowning achievement—winning its first conference championship last year along with a coveted national tournament bid.
“It was huge considering that, just four years ago, our team barely had enough players to take the field,” said Barno, who was responsible for scoring the game-winning goal against top-seeded Nazareth. “It’s crazy to see that growth and be a part of it, and I feel like at a small school like W&J, you’re able to take part in those things while excelling in academics.”
With a rare combination of talent in mathematics and art, Barno exudes the same confidence on the field as she does in the studio, trading in her jersey for a paint-splattered smock, spending long afternoons and late evenings in Olin blissfully absorbed in her artwork.
While Barno’s passion for art has been life-long—her childhood paintings of red cardinals and lush forests adorn her parents’ central Pennsylvania home—the high school honors student did not envision a future that included art upon entering W&J.
Though she had considered applying to art schools, Barno’s family and friends convinced her to pursue a major in education. “They thought I should be a math teacher and that my grades were too good to ‘just’ paint,” she said. Yet an art history course at W&J, followed by another course in drawing, helped change Barno’s mind. When her professors encouraged her to apply for a Magellan Project, she said, “The first thing I thought was, ‘I want to see pieces of art. I want to paint. I want to draw.’ That was an innate instinct.”
The month-long excursion that Barno, then 19, planned to France and Italy the summer after her freshman year was her first time abroad. “That trip sparked my love for traveling and wanting to explore,” said Barno, who immersed herself in the cultural offerings of Paris and Rome while comparing the classical and neoclassical architecture of both cities.
"That trip sparked my love for traveling and wanting to explore."
However, what cemented Barno’s decision to pursue art as a career was the six weeks she taught at the Cloud Forest School in Costa Rica the following summer. It was her second shot at a Magellan Project, and Barno saw it as an opportunity to “test the waters” of a future in education. While she said she “had a blast” designing art programs for the students, she was most moved by the conversations she had with local Costa Rican artists.
“That’s when it clicked,” she said. “When I first came to W&J, I was very tentative. I wanted to go back to central Pennsylvania; I wanted to teach; I wanted to live two doors away from my mom. Of course, there is nothing wrong with that, but after doing these Magellan Projects, I realized I’m not supposed to do that. I’m supposed to travel; I’m supposed to paint; I’m supposed to challenge myself. The Magellan Project really brought me to where I need to be and, I think, to where I always was meant to be.”
"I’m supposed to travel; I’m supposed to paint; I’m supposed to challenge myself."
For her third and final Magellan Project last summer, Barno returned to Europe to research 19th-century art, comparing the work of British romantic painters like John Constable to that of French impressionists like Claude Monet. Traveling to London and Paris, she relished the opportunity to view her favorite artists’ collections in person at the museums before visiting the exact sites where the works were created, calling the experience “mind blowing.”
Back at the Olin art studio, Barno is drawing inspiration from a different, more controversial, source—the issue of negative body image in today’s young women. “Being at a college or on a women’s athletic team, you know body dissatisfaction is a problem,” she said. “I’ve had friends battle eating disorders and experience massive body changes because they lack self-confidence and feel like they’re not beautiful.”
To address the issue, Barno is creating pieces that cause the viewer to question society’s standards of what is and isn’t considered beautiful. “They’re supposed to be disarming, not necessarily appealing, images,” she said of her latest works, which pair different faces and bodies into unexpected combinations. “It creates that conversation about negative body image that I think needs to happen.”
Using art as a “force of social change” is the kind of work Barno wants to pursue in graduate school. While she is targeting programs in Boston, Chicago and New York City, the mathematics and art double major is approaching her future in the same way she tackles a difficult math proof or painting—with an open mind.
“If you throw me a proof I have no idea how to do, I focus on the facts. What can you do with what you have? It’s not something you want to struggle over, it’s something you want to play with. You’ll come up with the best solution that way,” Barno said. “It’s the same with painting. You might have an original idea, but once you start working with the paints on the canvas, you can come up with something better if you let yourself go through the exploration.”