Genevieve Barbee-Turner

    Genevieve Barbee-Turner

    Prolific artist and 2007 Carnegie-Mellon University graduate Genevieve Barbee-Turner has always known where she was going. At age 4 she decided to be an artist because, she says, “it was the only option for me.” At age 16 she realized that the 9-to-5 grind was not for her. She only applied to CMU because, as she explains, “it has an art program inside the school. My art is so important, I wanted to learn other things, inside an institution where I could get other inspirations.” She admits, though, to probably being the only student who ever graduated from CMU without having taken a math course.

    Today she has her own art business, Ki11erpancake, creating personalized communications for small businesses and nonprofits, from business cards to murals. But don’t think solely in terms of pretty lettering, not from Barbee-Turner. Her work captures the essence, the spirit of each organization, which can be immediately understood by the most casual observer—the business expressed as art. She does it by carefully listening to her clients, figuring out who they are and what they want, the work flowing organically from what she hears. Barbee-Turner calls it “visual- based storytelling” or “community-based illustration,” with the result being all about the organization.

    “The Chariot” (card from the Bridge Witches tarot deck).

    “The Chariot” (card from the Bridge Witches tarot deck).

    Barbee-Turner learned how to listen at an early age. “I spent a lot of time around the dinner table quietly listening to people talk about their lives, what they were doing and feeling,” she notes. The skill of being able to understand others by careful focusing with an inner ear carried into her art practice.

    “I love helping people use illustration to tell their stories,” she explains. “How do you want to connect with your audience in a meaningful way? People come into a brewery to get beer, but what experience do you want them to have? What about a pizza shop? Maybe the owner is a really cool, funny person, maybe a bit goofy with a sense of humor. So I might do an illustration of people surfing on rivers of cheese, or a volcano erupting pizzas.”

    A beautiful, and somewhat emotional, example of Barbee-Turner’s work is for Community Human Services at 2525 Liberty Avenue in the Strip.  The organization works with people in need, those who are homeless, or experiencing mental illness—certainly those who are struggling in their lives. Rather than concentrate on weaknesses, Barbee-Turner interviews the customers about their strengths. After listening and learning, she realized, for example, that the woman shown in her Jessie artwork is excellent at advocacy, both for herself and others; the grids in the illustration seem to represent paths of progress forward for each person shown, with the “balloon” symbolizing her advice. Another customer was a young man who has excellent acting skills. Barbee-Turner “stitched” the images of these two people together along with other work, put them on vinyl, then had the whole applied as a mural at the CHS offices. Per her plan, the art makes a powerful, immediately comprehensible impression (see mural illustration Jessie and Shaq’juan).

    Jessie and Shaq’Juan (mural for Community Human Services in the Strip).

    Jessie and Shaq’Juan (mural for Community Human Services in the Strip).

    Barbee-Turner loves her work and loves Pittsburgh. Originally from Chesapeake, Virginia, she came here first at six months old to stay with family when she was evacuated from a hurricane. She’s been coming here ever since.

    “Pittsburgh is not just about pierogies and sports. It’s too easy to dwindle Pittsburgh down into one note,” she states. “It is beautiful here. I was recently down at the Heinz History Center and looked up to where the side of Polish Hill blends into the Strip District, and I thought, ‘This is amazing, the fact that we have this wonderful view.’ I often look down the Mon, especially where it meets the Ohio. The colors are purple and red and there are beautiful little houses peeping out. I could look at that for days. I’ve travelled but there’s nothing like Pittsburgh. I just want to talk about it all the time.”

    In a sense, she has, through her playful side with a Pittsburgh-inspired tarot deck. Readily available, the set is called Bridge Witches, a fanciful interpretation of our city and the town-within-a-town neighborhoods that all can enjoy. “The Chariot” card features Mayor Bill Peduto on a bike holding a banner. Barbee-Turner mentions, “The coat of arms for Pittsburgh is emblazoned on it. He moves forward with the Allegheny Cemetery sphinxes on either side.” “The Page of Trees” from the tarot deck is about communication and carrying news. “This card is based on my neighbors and their teenaged children. Teens have their own way of speaking and I can see little teen dramas play out around me on my block as the years go by,” says the artist.

    As can be seen, Barbee-Turner works in today’s popular cartoon-like style, with open, uncluttered space and distinct, but sometimes ethereal, renderings of people and objects. There’s an explosion of intense, heavily saturated, often clashing tones of color. Barbee-Turner says that the Fauves, the “wild beast” artists of the early 20th century (a group that included Henri Matisse and Georges Braque), had a significant influence on her oeuvre.

    “The Page of Trees” (card from the Bridge Witches tarot deck).

    “The Page of Trees” (card from the Bridge Witches tarot deck).

    Barbee-Turner’s work is far from ordinary, sometimes pushing the envelope, sometimes going a little sideways, always immensely imaginative. And she puts all that creativity into glorifying Pittsburgh and—above all—enhancing the mission of her clients.

    Contact Genevieve Barbee-Turner for a consultation or to purchase a tarot deck: hello@ki11erpancake.com; 757-553-2660. Online, visit ki11erpancake.com and bridgewitches.com.

    Cynthia F. Weisfield is a freelance writer whose articles about art and food appear regularly in multiple publications. She is a graduate of the University of Chicago and has recently completed a biography about noted abstract expressionist artist Sonia Gechtoff. She lives in Mt. Lebanon.
    Photos courtesy of Genevieve Barbee-Turner