Artist Profile: Barbara Mastej and John Ransom

By Greta Cobar

It might not be breaking news that Venice attracts artists and fosters creativity, but take a moment and listen to the story of Barbara Mastej and John Ransom, who for nineteen years have watched their love, creativity, co-habitation and body of work steadily grow in a green little bungalow in the Canals.

Beachhead: Why do you create?

Barbara: It’s a compulsion, I can’t stop. Not one day goes by that I don’t make something.

John: It’s something that needs to come out – like an exhale.

Beachhead: Are you a vehicle?

Barbara: I’m a radio. I think that there’s something in my make-up that’s like a receiver.

While John paints abstract surrealism, Barbara experiments with just about anything and everything from realistic paintings to collages, sculptures, mosaic, thread, and so on.

John: Barbara is the most creative person I’ve met in my life. I describe her as the artist in the true sense of the word.

He described their life together as a puzzle piece, where things need to move around to make space for other pieces to move from one place to another. I could see how they graciously move around each other in order to move forward, together. Having met while working in the advertising business for Saatchi & Saatchi, they’ve lived in the same little house on the Canals for the past nineteen years, and are now running their own advertising company while trying to make a living off of just selling their artwork.

Barbara: We were the only people in the agency that lived in Venice, everyone else was afraid of Venice back then.

Beachhead: What’s your definition of good art?

John: Commercial art is mind manipulation. I think that when something evokes an emotion, it’s good art. My abstract paintings are meant to allow the viewer to go to dozens of different places. When someone hangs one of my pieces in his or her place, they may ultimately find secrets in the painting that reflect secrets in themselves.

Barbara: One of my current projects is a series of portraits of popular Venice residents like Suzy Williams, Sponto, Frank Lane, Robert Harris. On some paintings I work for long periods of time, some come quickly. Although they need to be recognizable, the portraits are not photo-realistic and I consider them done when they exhibit that intangible quality of personal energy.

Beachhead: John, your “Top of the Bottom” – the “Ravens” series depicts realistic-looking birds in an other-wise abstract painting.

John: Yes, I often include one realistic element in each painting. It gives people a reference point, and then the mind can imagine things. My observation of ravens and crows in their day-to-day life was the inspiration for the “Ravens” series. These majestic birds exhibit certain behavioral traits that I most admire in humans. They are independent, yet communal. Intelligent animals, they train their young and maintain expectations of fellow members of their flock. Their generally business-like demeanor does not seem to prevent them from experiencing the exhilarating aspects of our planet.

I am drawn to the contrasts and the majestic feelings that I get when I look at John’s work, and I smile at the familiar Venice faces so well illustrated by Barbara. 

Beachhead: Barbara, how did the Venice series get started?

Barbara: When the community I loved so much gentrified and changed around me, I discovered that painting was a way to channel my grief for the loss of friends and landscape. Matt Frost was the very first portrait I did in my Venice series. I didn’t know him, but had always wanted to photograph his cottage with all of the interesting stuff he displayed all around the outside. The place (no longer there…now it’s a tall concrete structure) was on a corner, so you could look at it from several sides and see all sorts of cool things. I was afraid to introduce myself to Matt at first, because he was quite an imposing figure. However, one evening, I asked John to come along, and we happened to see him walking across Ocean Avenue and go into Kim’s Market. He turned out to be really cool. When I asked if I could photograph him in front of his house, he said “Sure!” Turned out he had just found out that very day that the little house had been sold, and he was being forced to leave. It took me a good two and a half years to finish my portrait of him. He used to laugh and say he hoped he’d live to see it, when I’d see him around the old hood once his house was leveled. At last, I sought him out when it was finished, and had him come over. His eyes actually teared up when he saw the painting, and we were friends after that.

Beachhead: John, where do your visions and your inspiration come from?

John: Traditionally trained and a surrealist at heart, I paint from concepts, visions and dreams. The translation of thought into images is the core of my work. I avoid figurative subjects unless they play a requisite role in my concept. I find abstract work a much more direct expression of intimate emotions and sensations, as well as a better conduit to convey them to others. Visual context and feelings aroused are left to the interpretation of the viewer.

I really enjoyed both John’s and Barbara’s art pieces, but I actually got a real kick out of meeting them and seeing how they are able to work together on all of their advertisement projects like two perfect pieces of a puzzle. It’s nice to go to a little cottage on the Canals and feel completely content with the creativity and harmony of the place, inside and out. 

John: The only yelling that goes on in this house is me yelling at the computer.

Their artwork is now displayed on the patio at Hama Sushi until the end of February. The art gallery in the Cadillac hotel is currently being renovated, but some of their paintings that were exhibited there in a previous show are still hanging in the lobby of the hotel. For more about John and Barbara see ,,,

Categories: Art, Greta Cobar

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