Verona Barrett is seen here with “White Poppies,” one of her beautiful watercolors now on display through mid-July at Center on the Hill, 8855 Germantown Ave. (Photo by Louise E. Wright)

by Louise E. Wright

Registered nurse Verona K. Barrett wasted no time transitioning from one career to another. In September 2003, just a month after retiring from Independence Blue Cross, where she’d worked as a case manager, Barrett enrolled in art classes.

“It was a purposeful decision,” she explained. “I wanted to put some quality time into something that I enjoyed and had been encouraged as a child to do.” The watercolors currently on display at the Center on the Hill reflect the wisdom of that decision.

Yet the artist hasn’t made a clean break with her former profession. References to nursing pepper her conversation, and she identifies “creativity” as the link between her scientific background and her artistic talent. “Medicine is creative,” she observed. “You have to be a little creative when you’re giving patients care. Patients all have different needs. In order to help them, you have to understand them.”

Creativity notwithstanding, medicine demands precision, and Barrett ties this in with her art as well. With respect to style, she describes herself as a realist. “If you see something pretty, why make it something else?” she asked. “I’m not into just splashing color; I like people to see what it is.

“Maybe that’s part of the nursing in me,” she speculates. “Nursing is very definite. You don’t make things up. I’m not good at making things up.”

Barrett, 77, lived in Roxborough off and on until moving to Chestnut Hill seven years ago. Her unusual first name, that of the Italian city that serves as the setting for “Two Gentlemen of Verona” and “Romeo and Juliet,” reflects her grandmother’s love of Shakespeare. With an artist for a grandfather and a photoengraver for a father, Barrett became interested in art at an early age. Yet, although her family encouraged her to draw, she received no formal instruction.

In her teens, Barrett toyed with making a career of art but ultimately decided against it. “I was aware,” she admitted, “that you had to be a really good artist to be able to support yourself.” Instead, recognizing her gift for “taking care of people,” she turned to medicine. At 17, she joined six of her Roxborough High School classmates in the nursing program at Roxborough Memorial Hospital, from which she received her R.N.

Barrett has no regrets. “I embraced nursing,” she declared. “I made a great life out of it. Nursing gave me the opportunity to do a lot of things. I met a lot of people; I had a good time.” Along the way, she worked at Bryn Mawr Hospital and the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania (HUP), completed a B.S. in Health Care Administration at Philadelphia University and, having the foresight to realize she couldn’t work on hospital floors indefinitely, earned a Case Management Certificate.

Art, however, remained a part of Barrett’s life. She would draw decorations for the hospital nursery at Christmastime and, when her first daughter was born, took classes at the Manayunk Art Center. She found another outlet for what she refers to as her “artsy interest” in modeling, graduating from Barbizon in 1995. It was only natural, therefore, that upon retiring she would venture down the road not taken so many years before.

Barrett began her studies with Chestnut Hill artist Dolores Campbell, who gave her a grounding in different approaches and techniques: sketching, pen and ink, and live model among them. Three years later, Barrett was ready to move on, eager to create landscapes rather than the still lifes that, she said, Campbell favored.

Since then, she has taken classes at the Woodmere Art Museum with Howard Watson, whose work has been commissioned by such well-known figures as former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. “I wanted to do landscapes, and I wanted to do watercolors,” Barrett declared, “and that’s what Howard Watson is all about.”

All of the works on display at the Center on the Hill are watercolors. Barrett says she prefers the medium because “the colors are so rich.” In addition, it presents a challenge: “With oil,” she believes, “you can cover up your mistakes. With watercolor, you cannot. You have to be careful what you put down.”

Painting also provides Barrett with a sense of accomplishment. Unlike some artists, she likes to frame and hang her works although she struggles to find enough wall space. No wonder then that, faced with the prospect of her current show, she inwardly rejoiced: “Oh, great! There’s a place for them [her paintings] to be for a month.”

Barrett finds inspiration in nature, especially the sky. Identifying herself as “a sky person,” she brings up nursing again: “When I worked on the 14th floor of HUP, I always looked forward to giving morning medication because I got to see the sunrise.”

One of her favorite works in the show, “Fall Sunset, Delaware Bay NJ,” features the darker, more robust colors she’s now leaning toward. “A Walk to the Beach,” another favorite, reminds Barrett of happy times spent at the shore when her daughters were little. Several other pictures reveal her love of gardening.

Barrett values the Woodmere classes not just for Watson’s input but also for that of her fellow classmates. She mentioned the Impressionists, who would gather in coffee shops and share ideas. “Artists understand each other’s art work,” she pointed out.

Barrett’s watercolors have also been exhibited at Manayunk Art Center, Spring Mill Presbyterian Village and the Hill House library. Her work will be on display at Center on the Hill through mid-July in the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, 8855 Germantown Ave., weekdays from 9 to 5. More information at hmohaupt@chestnuthillpres.org or call 215-247-8855.