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Born to be an artist PDF Print E-mail
Written by MITCH MAERSCH   
Thursday, 12 October 2017 15:58

Barbara Jean McHugh’s favorite subjects are her ‘best friends’—plants

There is no questioning where Barbara Jean McHugh’s passion lies.
One look at her decorated barn in Newburg and conversation about her hobby and career reveals all.
McHugh has been an artist her entire life.
“I was lucky to be born knowing who I was,” she said.
The Newburg native grew up working on 4-H photo projects and sharing her father’s artistic talent in a makeshift darkroom in their basement.
“We’d make photos on top of the freezer,” she said.
Known as “the artist” in high school, McHugh took as many art classes as possible, instead of science or physics.
She took art classes at the Layton School of Art in Milwaukee, now the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, which she said, “taught me how to see.”
McHugh is self-taught in several mediums, sometimes using a unique tool in the absence of a more common one.
McHugh loves photography but didn’t have a good digital camera, so she improvised by putting her subjects — usually flowers — on a six-color scanner.
“I did lots of experimenting and it looked really bad,” she said, “until I discovered the black box.”
With the scanner cover up, putting a cardboard box over the scanner provided a black background and kept the depth of field and the flowers’ texture.
“It’s mysterious. It looks like you’re in the garden at night with your flashlight,” McHugh said.
The first year she tried scanography, as it’s called, she entered an 8x10-inch piece to be juried by the Cedarburg Artists Guild.
“Usually, paintings win,” she said.
But this time, McHugh’s scan earned a blue ribbon. The juror was amazed by how McHugh created her work.
“Well, that encouraged me to keep going,” McHugh said. “I don’t do it to win prizes. I do it because I love it.”
Some plants get scanned twice, while others up to 12 times to get the photo just right. McHugh scans at 600 dots per inch (dpi), since 1,200 takes too long and soaks up too much memory.
“You have to have a lot of patience,” she said.
Beyond the scanner, tools range from duct tape to books — “a lot you don’t see” — to prop up her subjects.
“I call it playing in the sandbox,” McHugh said.
It’s the perfect combination for the former 10-year Master Gardener.
“It’s like portraiture, but of plants. I like that I’m spending time taking photographs of my best friends out in the prairie,” McHugh said.
She doesn’t have to travel far by design. After living in California for years, McHugh came back to Wisconsin with her husband. When they pulled into the driveway before they bought their five-acre farm, “we decided we’re not leaving this place,” she said.
For a time, McHugh lived in Banner Mountain, Calif., along the Sierra Nevada mountain range, in a cabin with no water or electricity only accessible by walking — “a hippie’s dream,” she said.
A friend gave her a 35-millimeter camera, and McHugh did album covers — doing everything from production design through handling the negatives — for musicians like Jonathan Richman and Ron Wilson, who founded the famous drum solo on the song “Wipe Out.”
While McHugh tried Xerox art — putting faces, hands and other items on a copy machine — and won ribbons, which later led to her interest in scanography.
McHugh loves other kinds of art too. She does lumen prints by pressing flowers and plants on different kinds of paper. After hours or up to a full day, the imprint on the paper is a piece of art. McHugh has won ribbons for those as well.
She has since acquired a good digital camera, which she keeps with her at all times. Her favorite times of day are five minutes after sunrise and five minutes before sunset.
She follows in the footsteps of her father, who worked third shift and would travel home catching sunrises in the mist.
During a difficult year, McHugh said she forced herself to take a photo of something beautiful each day. She developed a following on Facebook of people looking for her daily photo.
After lending her camera to her daughter, McHugh used an old digital camera for Port Washington’s photo day. Duct tape held in the battery, and turning the camera on required a hard push of a button, but McHugh managed to get two quality images in a graveyard.
“It’s not the camera. It’s the eye,” she said.
Now, McHugh loves old tractors, trucks and buildings, and offers a variety of photos for sale.
McHugh’s professional career has been in graphic art, designing corporate logos and brochures, and doing pre-press and design work.
For the last 12 years, she has worked at the gas station in Newburg and at a florist in West Bend in summer. The former provides a five-minute commute, a low-stress job, insurance and time to pursue her real passion; the latter provides more subject matter.
McHughes’ barn is one of 37 stops on the Covered Bridge Art Studio Tour this weekend, featuring artists in Port Washington, Grafton, Saukville, Newburg, Cedarburg, Mequon and Thiensville. It runs from 4 to 8 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday.
For more information on the tour, visit

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