Isabelle (Barbara) Fiske Calhoun, 94, painter, cartoonist, and cocreator of Quarry Hill Creative Center (Community), died April 28, 2014, at Brookside Nursing Home in White River Junction.
She was born in Tucson, Arizona, on September 9, 1919, daughter of an old Southern family, patriots during the Revolutionary War. A great-uncle, Charles S. Venable, was Robert E Lee’s aide during the Civil War.
Her mother, Belle Jones, and uncle, A.V. Jones, came west from North Carolina in around 1912, seeking a cure for his tuberculosis. They homesteaded a ranch, the Double J. Belle rode horseback to town and back, nine miles each way, to her work as a newspaper reporter. There she met her future husband, John Hall Jr., an editor from Mobile, Alabama. A.V. died in 1915, and Belle, who no longer had anyone to care for, married John on March 20, 1918. When Barbara (then called “Babs”) was 6 months old, John died of Spanish influenza.
Her mother, who never remarried, was eventually elected clerk of Pima County Superior Court, a position she held till her death in 1951.
Barbara was educated in Tucson schools. Possessed of a vivid talent for drawing and painting, she later attended art school in Los Angeles, then moved to New York in around 1940.
She met Irving Fiske, playwright and freelance writer, in Greenwich Village, around 1943. They at once fell in love. During WWII she was drawing “Girl Commandoes” and other strips for Harvey Comics. She had to draw under the name “B. Hall” as cartooning was “a man’s profession” at the time. However, all the male cartoonists were in the Armed Forces.
She also painted in egg tempera and pastel. She was a figurative painter, who loved landscapes and the human form, in opposition to the abstract expressionists such as Jackson Pollock (master of the splatter painting) who were also painting in the Village at that time.
On January 8, 1946, she and Irving Fiske married and on April 10, 1946, bought a farm near Rochester. They opened it as an artists ‘and writers’ retreat for anyone with an open mind and a freethinking attitude. There were (and are) few rules for life at Quarry Hill. No spanking, neglect or verbal abuse of children is permitted and no hunting, fishing or harming of animals is allowed, though no one is compelled to be a vegetarian.
For years Barbara taught art to children from town. Many have fond memories of these lessons. In 1950 she had a daughter, Isabella, and in 1954, a son, William, who died in 2008. They never attended any school (until college) but were taught by Irving, who was a graduate of Cornell University, and by reading the things that interested them the most. Barbara taught them about art and its history.
She wanted a gallery of her own, and in 1964, with her last $75, Barbara opened a storefront, the Gallery Gwen, in New York’s East Village. There she exhibited her paintings and those of friends. Irving began to give talks on philosophy, psychology and religion there, and, as a result, many who came to the talks came to visit Quarry Hill. During the hip era of the 60s, Quarry Hill became a mecca for the young and hip, many with artistic aspirations.
Many Quarry Hill People had children in the 1970s and ’80s. Quarry Hill created its own school, the North Hollow School. Several of its students eventually became valedictorians at Rochester High School. By the 1990s, Quarry Hill had a population of approximately 90 people. The present population is about 25-30, but it is still visited each year by many people from all over the world, who consider it their second home.
In the 1970s, Barbara divorced Irving Fiske and created Lyman Hall Incorporated (named for a distant ancestor who signed the Declaration of Independence). The corporation now owns and runs Quarry Hill. Barbara left Quarry Hill for a time and opened a gallery in Randolph. In the 1980s, she attended Vermont College in Montpelier, where she obtained an MFA in art history. One of her mentors was Dr. Donald W. Calhoun, a Quaker sociology professor at the University of Miami. Barbara also became a Quaker, and they were married at the Miami, Florida, Society of Friends on April 9, 1989.
The two remained happily married till his death in 2009, living at Quarry Hill in the summer and in Florida in the winter. Don eventually had to go into a nursing home in Berlin, Vt., as he was hemiplegic from an accident some years before. Irving Fiske and the Calhouns became friendly.
Barbara spent the last years of her life at Quarry Hill, looked after by a group of caring helpers and her daughter, Isabella, and son-in-law, Brion McFarlin. She was an inspiration to all who knew her in energy and artistic ability. Her cartoon work appears in The Great Women Cartoonists by Trina Robbins (Watson-Guptill, 2001), and she has a place in the online cartoonists’ museum Lambiek Comicopedia, based in the Netherlands. Her paintings appeared in many shows over the years. Most of her paintings are in the Fiske Family Archives at Quarry Hill.
Barbara is survived by Isabella and Brion McFarlin. She also leaves four grandchildren and one grandson-in-law, two daughters-in-law, and two great-grandchildren. Her passing is a loss to her many friends and admirers of her art.
In lieu of flowers, donations to the American Friends Service Committee, 1501 Cherry St. Philadelphia, PA 19102, to any food shelf, or to any no-kill animal shelter in the state of Vermont, or to the Rochester Public Library, Rochester, VT 05767, would be gratefully received.
—Isabella Fiske McFarlin