KOKOMO, Ind. — Most artists portray George Washington Carver as he was known to the world — as the most prominent Black scientist of the early 20th century.
When J.C. Barnett III took up his watercolor pens to draw Carver, and other important figures in Black history, he took a different approach.
“I wanted to speak on them from the standpoint of what I see of them, versus what the world sees of them,” said Barnett, who is a financial aid counselor, Veterans Affairs certifying officer, and co-director of the Black Student Center at Indiana University Kokomo.
“I wanted to speak about the man or the woman behind the individual the world knows,” he said. “For George Washington Carver, I spoke to the fact he was a gentle man, a quiet man, who spent a lot of time alone. There are accounts that even though he was a genius, he interacted with people in a way that he was gentle and kind. I wanted people to see that side of these important Black figures, and do them justice by speaking to who they were, and what their character was.”
The Carver portrait kicked off an ongoing series of people significant to Black history. So far, he’s depicted not only Carver, but Madam C.J. Walker, the daughter of sharecroppers who transformed herself into the first female self-made millionaire in America; and James Baldwin, a novelist, playwright, essayist, poet, and activist. He plan to continue adding to this series.
“I take pride in thinking differently,” Barnett said. “It’s not often you hear people speaking about these historical figures in this way. There are documentaries and books that touch on those facts, but what you are going to see is what they’ve done for society, or what they’ve created. I want viewers to see beyond that, and take a look at who they were as people.”
Barnett’s work recently was featured in a virtual exhibition as part of the campus’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. commemoration, in partnership with Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc., Omicron Phi Omega Chapter.
“It means a lot to me as an artist, when I put my heart into a piece,” he said. “I just want people to be able to capture what I see. For people to express appreciation for my artwork in a piece I’ve done, it means the world to me, because I put so much of my energy into it.”
Barnett’s love of art began when he was a young boy, he said, taking after his grandmother, who doodled on notepads at home. He took art classes every year at Kokomo High School, and then continued those classes at IU Kokomo, while earning a business degree.
He wasn’t sure what he wanted to do as a career, recalling a meeting with Catherine Barnes, his advisor, in which he told her that all he wanted to do was make money.
“She said, ‘Anybody can make money, but what do you love to do?’” he said. “It was really after that conversation that I found some direction.”
He loved coaching and mentoring young people, so he found opportunities to follow that path while also working as a teller at a local bank. His coaching and business skills came together when he joined the financial aid office at IU Kokomo in January 2018.
“I’m able to impact the lives of individuals and students on a daily basis, and I feel like I’m making a difference every day,” he said.
While art may not be his career, it continues to be a blessing to him, offering an outlet for his creativity. It also became a refuge in 2020, when IU Kokomo employees shifted to working from home because of the COVID-19 pandemic. He and his wife were home with their four children, ages 12, 7, 5, and 2. He appreciated his family’s support in allowing him time to draw and paint.
“We’ve been in the house a lot, and you reach a point you can only play so many games, and you can only watch so much TV,” he said. “It was time for me to start creating something. Any time I had a moment to myself, it went to my artwork.”
He’s creating online albums of his work, as an outlet to let others see and enjoy his work. Currently, it can be viewed via Facebook by searching Wear That Hat Artworks.
“I’m appreciative of the opportunity to express my thoughts, and share my passion for art,” he said. “The opportunity for people to be able to see it means a great deal to me.”