The art of adaptation

Erica Barker has challenges, not disabilities. Her art comes from her soul.

Posted: July 11, 2007

Erica Barker wants you to like her art - but not just because she produced all those sketches and acrylics with pencils and brushes held between her teeth.

"People ooh and aah bigger when they find out that I paint with my mouth," says the 32-year old near-quadriplegic, whose first-ever exhibit will open Friday evening at the Crepe and the Ribbon cafe in Haddonfield. "But I don't want the focus to be on that."

Barker is wheelchair-bound, with very limited use of her upper limbs. She believes that had she not been born with arthrogryposis multiplex congenita - which caused her muscles and joints to never fully develop in utero - she would be an artist anyway.

"I believe my artwork would be of the same caliber if I could use my hands," she says, "because it comes from within me. But I think it would be much, much different because my experiences would be different."

At 5, she was placed in foster care by her single mother, who was raising two other children. Her mother has since told Barker she would not have been able to take care of her. By age 8, she'd been adopted by Richard and Diana Barker of Haddonfield, who had already taken in many handicapped children. She arrived at the household on the day of brother Tony Barker's birthday. She was so exuberant that he still calls her "the loudest present I ever got."

"What I learned most from the Barker family is that disability is a challenge, and nothing more," she says.

Barker graduated from Haddonfield Memorial High School and, at 21, moved from the family home into her own apartment at a barrier-free Cherry Hill complex. Fiercely independent, she has taken classes at Camden County College, but only intermittently because of financial strains and transportation problems. (She dreams of someday driving a car equipped with a joystick instead of a steering wheel.)

And there are her huge physical needs, requiring attendants to visit three times a day to help her go to the bathroom, bathe, dress and prepare meals.

Of course, she's also taught her aides the proper way to clean paintbrushes.

Still, when you need as much assistance as she does, says Barker, you can't afford to be moody. And art helps with that, too.

"Nobody wants to help a grump - somebody who is bitter and depressed," she says. "Most of the time, I don't allow myself to feel my emotions because I need to be diplomatic."

Her artwork, she says, is a way to express that frustration, anger, sorrow. Especially during the last five years, when Barker experienced two losses she describes as "galvanizing - a one-two punch."

On Halloween of 2003, her adoptive mother, Diana Barker, was killed by the biological father of a child she had adopted. Then, a little more than a year later, Erica Barker's identical twin, who had not been given up for adoption and suffered from bipolar disorder, committed suicide.

"Painting," she says simply, "probably kept me from going crazy."

Her art then was dark; a drawing dedicated to her twin titled False Hope features a bare tree and a noose hanging from clouds.

Lately, she's working in bright colors. A favorite recent piece called Transformation shows a cocoon about to burst against a starry night sky. That painting, she explains, represents the close relationships she has recently developed with her birth mother and two surviving sisters she had never known.

"You can," she says, "become something else."

The 4-foot-10-inch, 80-pound Barker is not, she says, who people often think she is. Such as the waitress who took one look at Barker a couple of years ago and asked her friends whether they knew what she would like to have to eat. Insulted, Barker went into action. "I fulfilled the stereotype," she says. "I proceeded to drool and put on a whole act."

Until moments later, when she informed the waitress dryly that it was all a put-on, and that "the lights are on and I'm fully cognizant."

Almost as annoying but easier to forgive are those who view her as heroic.

"When people tell me I'm an inspiration," says Barker, "I say, 'Take me off that pedestal. I'm afraid of heights.' "


If You Go

Erica Barker's artwork can be seen at the Crepe & Ribbon cafe, 116 E. Kings Highway in Haddonfield, from Friday's 7:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. opening until Aug. 5.

Hours: Monday-Saturday, 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sundays 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Information: 856-428-3111


To see a video of Erica Barker at work painting, go to


Contact Inquirer photographer April Saul at 215-854-2872 or asaul@phillynews.com.

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