Big Sur, California

The Art of Being Barry Howard

Whether you think of yourself as an artist or not, the life we carve for ourselves can often be our most creative and daring work. However deliberately or haphazardly our masterpiece appears to unveil, and whether we yield to the status quo or fearlessly follow our own true passions, our constant intersection with each other’s lives makes us far more influential than we might like to believe. Usually, it’s the individuals who follow the less-traveled paths that cause the greatest agitation—challenging and inspiring the rest of us to consider our choices more carefully. Barry Howard is one of those people.

I first encountered Barry through a story that came across my facebook feed. He was living out of a gorgeous micro gypsy bicycle caravan that he had designed and built himself. Stationed in Venice Beach, he spent his days painting on the busy sidewalk and selling his work to delighted passerby. At night, just off a trail near the beach, he’d neatly pack things away, roll the top down and settle into his tiny home for the night. Once, a couple of curious cops woke him in the middle of the night to ask what he was up to and oh, had he made this himself? Satisfied with his answer, they apologized for waking him and bid him a good night. Not surprisingly, his blog attracted a lot of followers during those Venice Beach days.  But after a year, it was time for something else, so he advertised his micro gypsy bicycle caravan for sale online. It sold in 3 minutes. “Boom, I almost got whiplash from that one,” he recounts.

His next thing turned out to be Big Sur, which coincidentally, was also mine.

I was driving over the Bixby Bridge one day and saw him painting near the cliff’s edge. A number of people were peering into his white van, admiring the paintings displayed inside. I stopped to say a quick hello and ask him for an interview later. He agreed.

Privileged with the gate code to a private ridge road in Big Sur, I made my way over the summit to a 10’x12’ micro house that was accessible only by a narrow footpath. With a picture window that faced the ocean and fog-filled canyon, this was his current studio and home. He’d only been living here a few months, but 18 years ago, he was the one who actually built this little house.  

Barry first arrived in Big Sur in 1981 and like many, felt an instant, deep love for it. Integrating with the local community, his artistry adorns many private properties along this rugged coastline. But he’s a traveler at heart. And though Big Sur keeps calling him back, his life has been primarily mobile.

For most of his life, he's lived in rolling homes that he has customized himself, from a milk truck to a 1946 International bus to a 1955 Rainbow bus. Custom buses were his thing for a while. He’d take the roof off, cut off the back, raise the roof with bent douglas fir poles then put in French doors and stained glass windows. When he was ready to move on, he sold them. He hasn’t kept track of where they ended up.

Through it all, Barry’s focus has always been art, though he has no formal training. Painting with oils since his early 20s, he learned by studying the work of other artists. Inspired by the surrealists, he painted artificial, other-worldly landscapes in Venice Beach, pulling from memories of Big Sur and the Mendocino coast. Now in Big Sur, Barry paints what’s in front of him, focusing on more traditional landscapes and still lifes. “That’s the metronome of my life – painting,” he says. “Most of my bread and butter has come from being somewhere painting.”

And what a place to be.  “It’s spectacular. The first time I was here, it blew me away,” he says of Big Sur.

I know the feeling.

If you’re lucky, you might find Barry painting in the early part of the day at Bixby Bridge or the vista point just north of Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. You can also follow him on Facebook.