Made in Cola Town
Tripp Derrick Barnes makes a splash in NYC
Photography by Steven Swancoat
In his one-bedroom studio apartment on Manhattan’s upper west side, Columbia native Tripp Derrick Barnes paints to a different soundtrack every day. Whether he’s listening to hard rock while throwing paint onto canvas, or classical music while curving and swirling his brush, Tripp makes a living through his art despite very little formal training.
Before college, Tripp didn’t take any fine arts classes. He sort of stumbled into his skill through a required course at Savannah College of Art and Design. While majoring in film and sound design, he took a life drawing class that involved sketching nude models.
“My professor walked by me during the first or second day of class and said, ‘Look at all that creative energy; you’re like Picasso!’” Tripp says. Before that day, he didn’t know he had any type of fine arts talent. The same professor, Nancy Doolan, encouraged him to take a painting class — and that’s the extent of his formal training in fine arts.
While working on a gesture sketching project in Nancy’s class, Tripp didn’t seem confident at the start. “At first his drawings were a little awkward,” Nancy recalls. “It was new, and he wasn’t familiar.” But when she told the students to get creative with an “abstract tapestry” with a page full of multiple sketches, Tripp’s excitement was palpable.
“He had a little pile of things all around him, and his easel was like a little studio,” she says. “It was like he couldn’t stop, like he had tapped a well. He generated this energy that was infectious, and the whole class was more active and creative than they would’ve been otherwise.”
Tripp, now 27, had a passion to create at a young age. The streets of his childhood — surrounding Heathwood Park — provided the backdrop for his amateur films. Equipped with an Hi8 video camera, Tripp and his closest friends, who called themselves “the crew,” made some 300 films inspired by favorite TV shows or movies such as Napoleon Dynamite.
“He always had a camera or a firework in his hand,” says Russell Fowles, a childhood friend of Tripp’s who also lives in NYC now. “He’s simply a unique person. I’ve seen him grow up and mature, but he’s really kept his creative, young mindset.”
Growing up directly in front of a park let him run free, Tripp recollects. “It was the perfect setting to do amateur film. All of us were the class clowns and would try anything.”
The adventures didn’t stop there for Tripp. He graduated from SCAD in 2010, and during the next year he spent six months traveling the world. “It makes you appreciate everything you’re given, and it’s something you never forget,” he says of the travels that took him from Europe to Egypt, on to Israel, Jordan, Thailand, Laos and finally Japan. “People who barely knew me let me come into their home, and they accepted me for who I am.”
His stepdad, Ned Barnes, who’s had a huge influence on Tripp, says when Tripp got back to the United States, he had clearly been inspired. He immediately wanted to move to New York City.
“He is absolutely out there taking a gigantic risk, and I’m really proud of him that he would even consider doing that,” Ned says. “I call him a people collector. He accepts everyone at face value, and people just gravitate toward him.”
When Tripp moved to NYC at the end of 2011, he not only collected people but also a variety of exciting opportunities. In 2012, he worked on films such as The Dark Knight and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty as a team leader production assistant. “It was amazing to work with the actors and incredible to see the thousands of people it can take for just one scene, on and off camera,” he recalls. “In film, you have to rely on a lot of other people.”
Tripp, however, wanted to work more independently. He vividly remembers the scene that propelled him into his full-time work as an artist. In 2013, he reached out to his friend Eliza Murphy, also a Columbia native, who lives in NYC and works at Good Morning America. An editor there, Eliza showed the producers Tripp’s work, and they invited him on the show.
“When I got to GMA in Times Square, Lady Gaga rolled up next to me with 3,000 screaming fans outside,” Tripp says. After appearing on the show, he landed several commissions right away and realized he could make a career of it. He attributes his success to the use of social media, boasting nearly 20,000 loyal Instagram followers.
Coined “PopNeoism,” Tripp’s work blends abstract expressionism and pop art; his talents are complemented by his collaborative partner, Steven Swancoat. Tripp met Steven, an OB-GYN who spends his spare time on his art, shortly after moving to NYC when they were neighbors in a six-story brownstone. They worked together in the spacious basement-laundry room of the apartment building. “We would go down there and throw paint together,” Tripp says, explaining that he tends to paint more abstractly, while Steven is more minimalistic.
According to Steven, the success of PopNeoism has taken them both by surprise. “If you had asked either one of us a year ago if we thought all of this would happen, we would’ve said, ‘No way,’” he says, adding that Tripp’s enthusiasm is just one of many reasons why he’s so much fun to work with. “He’ll inspire me and get me off my butt for a photo shoot. With Tripp, I get a fresh set of eyes.”
Another colleague of Tripp’s, Jeff Ayars, met Tripp in the summer of 2013, and they quickly connected. Jeff, who studied fine art and film at Cornell University and runs a film production company and comedy group, also says Tripp’s seemingly endless amount of energy is what draws so many artists to collaborate with him.
“He’s always working on something,” Jeff says. “Whether it’s a new painting or finding an organization to pair up with, he’s always using his art to better others and raise awareness.”
One such organization, Art Start, is an afterschool art program serving underprivileged children in New York’s Five Boroughs. Tripp and Steven did an art show at actress Susan Sarandon’s ping pong lounge, SPiN, to benefit Art Start and raised several thousand dollars. As a thank you to Susan for the venue, they did a personal portrait of her which now hangs in her home office.
Tripp says her reaction to the painting was an emotional experience for him. “She’s a legend. To have someone at that level of talent and stardom look at your work and like it enough to hang it in her own home is an amazing feeling.”
He’s excited for the opportunities ahead, too. “There are many more adventures to come,” he says, noting he’s faced challenges and expects there will be others. “If I lose a big commission, I just keep taking chances. I don’t care if I get shot down. Two days go by, and two other projects come along.”
A year and a half ago, Tripp was diagnosed with Lyme disease, rendering him unable to work for three months. Then, several months later, he suffered through the excruciating pain of a herniated disc. Both experiences only made him more focused as an artist.
“Life is short and precious,” he says, recounting what he learned through these ordeals. “Knowing that life could be gone in an instant makes me get up in the morning and know I can give my creations to others to make them happy. When someone buys a painting and smiles, or when I donate a painting and it lights up their eyes … nothing can replace that feeling.”
Caroline Barnes, Tripp’s mother, says his drive to succeed and passion for his work make her proud. “He is now pursuing his dreams in one of the greatest cities this world offers. What will be fun is to watch where his talents and personality take him.”
Tripp’s wisdom for aspiring artists is, “Don’t ever stop making art, take risks, always keep a positive mental attitude and never let something or someone hold you down.”
Ned Barnes notes this determination in Tripp. “He’s taken the road less traveled. He wants to make a difference, and he believes that all of the risk and sacrifice are worth it.”
Only recently discovering that Tripp was painting full-time in NYC, Nancy Doolan says she was thrilled. “I can’t tell you how gratifying it is,” she says. “I’m just happy I had something to do with it.” A couple of years after having him in her class and two months before he had contacted her with an update, she spoke at an art conference in New York. “I showed the conference attendees Tripp’s work and told them how he had burst into creative flourishing,” she says. “I even wondered out loud what he might be doing at that moment, saying that he could very well be showing at a gallery right here in New York, not knowing he was in fact — almost simultaneously — making his debut on Good Morning America!”
Nancy adds that Tripp’s friends at SCAD were asking for some of his drawings, and he was giving them away. Realizing something special was happening, she seized the opportunity to ask for one of them, and he happily gave it to her — she’s held onto it ever since.
“He went way beyond the parameters of the class,” she says. “I recognized that this was only the beginning.”