Robin Barker Purnell (1951- 2008) was born near Boston, Massachusetts in 1951. She graduated from Massachusetts College of Art in 1975 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree as a painting major. The general trend in many art institutions in America at that time was away from classical training and towards abstraction and personal expression. As a student, Robin’s work was abstract and she was committed to the idea of “stream of consciousness” in her painting.
Following a four month period of study in Greece with Aristotle Solounias, a Greek painter, graduate of Cornell University, and art historian Wolf Kahn, she became convinced that a foundation in classical art training was an absolute necessity.
After many years of personal study, visits to museums to study the works of the Old Masters and exploration of techniques past and present, the artist found the challenges of realism so intriguing and demanding that abstraction lost all interest to her.
She lived and worked in Liberia, Russia (Moscow and St. Petersburg), Austria, and Kazakhstan as well as her home base in Washington, Virginia. Robin’s experiences in the former Soviet Union span the years from 1982 to 2000; from Brezhnev to Putin. The dramatic social changes, the opening of the culture and society to foreigners as well as the revival of the once forbidden past has had a deep affect on Robin’s work. During her three-year stay in St. Petersburg from 1989 to 1992 she was able to immerse herself in the rich, cultural atmosphere of that very artistic city. Robin was the first American artist to have an exhibition at the Catherine’s Palace Museum in Pushkin, and the Dostoyevsky Museum in St. Petersburg. She was also the first American to study at the Mukhina Art Institute, studying life drawing and anatomy with Russian artist Alexander Kondraitev. Robin was very active in the rapidly changing art scene of the city and participated in numerous group shows with Russian artists and received a great deal of publicity from Russian press, television, and radio.
In 2004, the artist returned from a three year stay in Almaty, Kazakhstan, again witnessing the rapid social change occurring in the once “hidden” Central Asian countries. Traveling in Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and widely in Kazakhstan, she had the opportunity to witness the incredible color and diversity of cultures. Often traveling across the steppes on horseback, she met and recorded the lives of the nomadic and semi-nomadic peoples living in the harsh environment of the windswept plains. The Kazakh face, character, history, and exotic scenes of everyday life form the basis of her Central Asian work. White in Almaty, she was warmly received by her fellow Kazakh artists and was invited to participate in many group exhibitions.
In conjunction with her foreign themes, the artist worked on a series of portraits of the people of rural Rappahannock County, Virginia. The works were a long-term project by the artist to visually record the lives of an interesting mix of Americans: farmers, musicians, stonemasons, lawyers, dancers, and tradesmen, all who live and work side by side.