In Fords in Four, we ask an alumnus four questions; he shares insights and stories. In this blog post, artist Will Barker '05 traces his career path from the NFL to art, acknowledges the mentors he met at Haverford, and shares his hopes for how he can use art to give back to local communities.
Can you recount a memorable Haverford experience or faculty member?
Some of the more memorable teachers I had at Haverford were very influential in my life. Teachers like Dr. Brownlow and Dr. Ehrhart were people who had pretty unique pasts, especially since they had served in the military, and so their classes were not the standard, read-the-text history courses. Instead, they would tell the experiences of their lives and how they related to the history they were teaching. Hearing their stories really resonated with me.
Dr. Cox and Coach Nostrant were also hugely inspirational figures to me. They are among the people who I respect most in my life, just truly good and honest people. The life lesson I learned from all of these great teachers and mentors – even if I didn’t always recognize it in high school – was how to be true to yourself and follow your heart. They were people who followed their own path.
Lastly, the friends I made at Haverford were hugely influential in my life. Some of my best friends I went all the way from kindergarten to high school with – that’s such a strong bond to build. We literally grew up together and went through all the trials and tribulations of being a teenager together. Our class was small compared to other high schools so we really got to know each other, and those friendships continue to this day.
Can you discuss your career path from reaching the NFL to now pursuing a career as an artist?
Looking back, I think everything leading up to my playing in the NFL was like following a path that had already been paved for me. Through high school and college, my life path was sports, and I went all the way to the professional level of football. Basically, when you get to that level, your entire physical and mental bandwidth has to go into your profession.
But when I was in my second year playing in the NFL, all the players entered a lockout due to a collective bargaining disagreement. This meant that there was no spring football that year, which gave me time to reflect and find other things to do. It wasn’t like a huge epiphany moment, but I wanted to take time – and thankfully had a nice cushion from the NFL – to access what I wanted to get out of life. I decided it was the right time to explore myself and the country and see what else was out there.
I had always been a doodler, since elementary school, and had a natural talent for drawing. I remember getting a lot of positive feedback from Mr. Fox and Ms. Nelson. And in the NFL, I would doodle in my notes during team meetings and would draw or paint to find peace and an escape from the stressful world of professional sports.
Once I decided to stop playing with the Dolphins, I had a lot of time to fill. My grandmother had just moved apartments and she actually commissioned my first art piece, because she wanted one of her walls painted with the view she had in her last place. I really enjoyed the creative process, so I ended up taking classes through the Museum of Art in South Florida and started painting and drawing a lot more. A year and a half later, I actually ended up having a solo art show and opportunities such a traveling art shows and commissions for other pieces kept coming from there.
I moved out to Colorado a few years ago, and for some sustainable income I got jobs in the adult beverage industry. But when the COVID-19 pandemic started, we were all furloughed last March. That gave me time and space to continue to pursue my art and propelled my art career to where it is now. I’ve gained enough of a following and support creating murals and other commissioned pieces that I’m ready to pursue art full-time and see where it leads me.
I’d like to use my creativity and give back to some of these communities by brightening up a corner or bringing some life back to what may have been a dark alley or rundown wall. But more than that, I hope I can also bring awareness and acknowledgement to those neighborhoods and to certain issues that people in the city are facing that are so important.
Do you have an overall message or theme that you want to convey with your art?
Ultimately, I engage in art because it’s good for my mental health. I enjoy it and it’s fulfilling for me to use my brain and try to capture a scene. I hope my art gives other people emotional contact, and they can find relief or humor out of it. With my paintings, I try to convey a comical narrative with series and characters that people can respond to. I like to get inspiration from Denver, where I live – the beauty of the mountains, or something else, and create a scene which is humorous but connective, and blends real life and fantasy in some way.
As far as any of my murals go, that really comes down to the community where the work will be shown. Denver has a great arts culture, and the city government really prioritizes public art like murals. Getting community support and especially community involvement for these kinds of pieces allows an artist like me to bring light to that specific neighborhood.
I’d like to spend the rest of 2021 more focused on these kinds of community-based public art projects. A couple months ago I did a big mural across from the Denver Mission and catty-corner from the Samaritan House. The city of Denver is expanding, but parts of it are not so great. I’d like to use my creativity and give back to some of these communities by brightening up a corner or bringing some life back to what may have been a dark alley or rundown wall. But more than that, I hope I can also bring awareness and acknowledgement to those neighborhoods and to certain issues that people in the city are facing that are so important.
What advice do you have for other young alums or current students?
I think the biggest thing is not to get caught up in the Haverford School or Main Line bubble. There’s so much out in the world, and so many opportunities you may not have heard of yet. I think you should definitely enjoy the time you have there, but to make the most out of it, you need to explore what you like, and explore the world around you. Like my old teachers taught me, you need to be true to yourself. I made my big decision in my own life to give up sports and pursue what I was really passionate about, but I learned back at Haverford how to stay true to what I wanted. If you do what you’re passionate about, life will give you success.
Will Barker ’05 is a self-taught fine art painter and muralist living in Denver, Colo. After a brief career in the NFL as an offensive lineman, he dove into exploring his passion for art and has been building on those skills ever since. He is interested in working with businesses and individual clients to provide unique murals that will enhance neighborhood culture and attract business. His website is www.willbarkerart.com.