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Art

Meet Will Barker, Former NFL Player and Rising Denver Mural Artist

How the onetime professional lineman went from winning games in the trenches to painting contemporary Western art—and where he’s planning to put his stamp on Denver this year.

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If you’re wondering what it takes to perfect your craft, any self-help guru might point you to the “10,000-hour rule”: the theory that if you dedicate that much time to deliberate practice, you’ll end up as a professional in that field.

Cliché as that rule may be, it’s front of mind these days for Will Barker, the 33-year-old Pennsylvania native and burgeoning Denver artist, whose playful paintings of cowboys and trippy mountain landscapes could be seen on walls throughout the Mile High City this past year. “It’s one of those things where, if you put in enough hours—you know, the ‘10,000 hours’ saying—at some point, something will change,” he says. And more than one year removed from the onset of the global pandemic that pushed him to pivot to art full-time, Barker’s work has certainly changed to his liking. “I’m kind of at that turning point now, and all that work is paying off.”

On this particular April afternoon, Barker sits and sips a cold brew just one block away from the site of the next major mural space he secured to paint the weekend of May 22—a shipping container serving as an extended seating area in front of Odell Brewing Co.’s and Block Distilling Co.’s Larimer Street outposts, right in the thick of Denver’s thriving River North Arts District. And with nearly half a dozen similar projects lined up for the summer, Barker now knows a thing or two about putting in the hours to see the fruits of your creative labor. But his 10,000-hour path to the reach peak of his game was a bit more bumpy and winding than his art lets on—possibly because he had already been down the road to pursue perfection before.

One of Will Barker’s murals on Galapago Street, near Denver’s Art District on Santa Fe. Photo courtesy of Will Barker

Growing up a competitive lacrosse and football player in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Barker’s sights were always set on what he saw as the ultimate athletic achievement: “If you can go pro, go pro.” And after the 6-foot, 7-inch offensive lineman wrapped up a successful college football career at the University of Virginia and made the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ roster (he’d originally signed with the Dallas Cowboys) as a free agent in 2010, he thought he’d finally made it where he was meant to be.

Mere months after playing his first games as a Buc, however, his work on the field—and his passion for it—came to an unexpected halt. In March 2011, a collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and the league’s players association expired, launching a labor dispute between players and owners that created a four-month-long lockout. So for nearly the entire offseason following his rookie year, while he wasn’t allowed to practice or workout with his team, Barker stayed busy making art.

“I just had all this time on my hands,” Barker says. And as someone who was doodling and drawing constantly when he was younger, he says that shutdown gave him the chance to try new mediums and discover more about the creative process beyond what he learned in school growing up. “I always got the push from my teachers to pursue [art], but it was always sports first. So [during the lockdown] I just kind of started drawing more and messing around with paints.”

NFL owners and players eventually reached an agreement later that summer, bringing an end to the lockout. Shortly thereafter, Barker was waived from Tampa Bay and signed to the Miami Dolphins to kick off his second season. But by that point, especially after the few months off, he already had an understanding that his efforts as a football player weren’t meant to be his magnum opus.

“I mentally checked out. I was just kind of ready for some other sort of fulfillment, because I had reached that point—that pinnacle—I’d been trying to get to for so long. And then I’d gotten there, and it was kind of like, now what?” he says.

While in Miami, Barker took up an art class at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale and began painting commissioned pieces for family members. After the 2012 offseason, heading into his third year, he knew what he wanted to do next. “I felt like I was wasting my life, and wasting my body…I was just done.”

That fall, Barker decided to leave the league and go all in on art. He left Miami for Vermont to “check out,” “live that simple life,” and paint every day out of a studio he rented. “I was figuring it out as I went,” he says. “I was trying to describe myself as an artist, and it was all so new at the time. I just kept at it, kept at it.”

After several years sharpening his skills and getting some experience under his belt with his first exhibition at a rural Virginia gallery, Barker eventually packed his bags and followed his friends to Denver in 2014. As he adapted to the new digs, Barker relegated his art to a side hustle once more, focusing just on commissions and a few art shows like First Friday Art Walks in Denver’s Art District on Santa Fe, while working full-time production jobs at the likes of Mile High Spirits and Rocky Mountain Soda Company.

Barker still used his art to explore his newfound sense of place, especially through his particularly personal series, “Monkey Business,” which follows the shenanigans of a chimp character dressed in tails—or as Barker describes it, a circus monkey. “I just used that as an avatar, if you will, of my own self, being a football [player], and this old form of entertainment, and then moving on from that and essentially exploring the afterlife of that career,” he says. The pieces also became his sort of “ode to Denver,” Barker notes, with most of them featuring recognizable parts of the Denver cityscape.

Most of his other paintings center on Western themes, often bringing a contemporary twist to nostalgic subject matter. “The Wild West is the jumping off point,” Barker says of his other major inspiration. “There’s so much history in Colorado, especially. And that’s something that’s always interested me—that time period, late 1800s, early 1900s—everyone was moving out here and just winging it.”

Barker was winging it, too. He continued painting sporadic commissions and began playing around with spray paint and murals during his free time. Then, much like the NFL lockout that corrected his course exactly 10 years prior, Barker was handed an unexpected opportunity. The COVID-19 pandemic brought the world, and much of Barker’s full-time work, to a standstill. Once again, he found himself with time on his hands and a choice to make.

“I think I was really fortunate because I had all of this [art] that was on the edge—that I couldn’t quite push over, and I couldn’t quite lean into,” he says. But after doing the math, Barker determined that he’d be better off financially—and personally—if he simply went all in on art again and started cranking out the commission inquiries that had poured in during quarantine. “Once all of this time came up, it was literally just like opening the floodgates.”

Barker’s certainly keeping that momentum going with his first brick-and-mortar solo exhibition at The People’s Building in Aurora through May, along with a slot at the upcoming RiNo Summer Showcase Series in July. Barker says that Denverites can also expect to see some of the personal themes from “Monkey Business” making their way into more public venues around the metro area. He even plans to weave in some commentary about homelessness, the devastating effects of the state’s wildfires, and the city’s cultural scene. “[Public art] is not just an expression of yourself—it’s an expression of that particular community and that identity,” he says. “I think it’s really cool.”

And while he waits to hear back on more applications for mural festivals and public art opportunities around town, Barker is mostly busy relishing his new nine to five.

“This is what I really want to be doing in my life,” he says. “After all this time off and all these other jobs and experiences, at the end of the day, I can definitely say this is what I want to do.”

For updates on his upcoming murals and shows,  follow Barker on Instagram @willbarker.art, or visit his solo show at The People’s Building, available virtually through May 31.

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