Hoo-rizons: Crafty Alumnus Goes From the Dallas Cowboys to Painting Cowboys

Hoo-rizons: Crafty Alumnus Goes From the Dallas Cowboys to Painting Cowboys

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As a third-grader, former University of Virginia football player Will Barker used to get caught doodling. Lurking in the margins of whatever he was working on were sketches of monsters, robots and just about anything else that popped into his head.

Most of the time, Barker’s teachers would tell him to stop. One teacher, though, would never call Barker out for it. In fact, she did just the opposite – she encouraged him to continue.

So Barker did just that. He kept doodling through middle school, high school and even at the University of Virginia.

“It was always just a hobby, I guess you could say,” he said. “I didn’t think much of it. It was always ‘sports first.’”

But that all changed after Barker decided to take an introductory drawing course during his final year at UVA.

As part of the course, Barker would sit on the Lawn and draw whatever struck his fancy.

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Barker says an art class he took at UVA was instrumental in him becoming an artist. (Contributed photo)

Some assignments, such as sketching spheres, weren’t that exciting, but Barker said they helped him learn things he knew very little about – like depth, tone and shading.

“It kind of sparked that fuse,” Barker said. “I started to draw with more purpose and direction instead of just doodling in the margins.”

Today, Barker – a Pennsylvania native who played on the offensive line at UVA from 2006 to 2010 before a stint in the NFL with a few different teams – is a contemporary Western art painter in Denver. His paintings and murals of cowboys and mountain landscapes are on display throughout the city.

An avid outdoorsman and cyclist – he bikes to his downtown studio every day – Barker said Denver is his muse.

One of Barker’s favorite pieces is of two cowboys playing cards.

“The cowboys are kind of like a narrative, I guess you could say,” Barker said. “I try and tell a narrative with every piece.”

The nostalgic aspect of the Wild West is a predominant theme in Barker’s work. (Contributed photo)

Barker said ideas just come to him.

“When I’m hiking, I always picture how 150 years ago there was probably some dude on a horse, a couple cowboys moving a herd in these areas, kind of like the nostalgic aspect of the West,” Barker said. “That’s the thing that drew me to Colorado. I’ve just always liked that nostalgic, Western feeling, whether it be through movies or cowboy toys when I was a kid. It always had that draw. Colorado is quintessential Wild West.”

Barker grew up just outside of Philadelphia in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, attending the Haverford School, where he played football and lacrosse.

From a young age, Barker – whose aunt and uncle attended UVA – wanted to become a Hoo.

Initially, the 6-foot-7 Barker hoped to play lacrosse for the Cavaliers, but through an introduction by former Hoos men’s lacrosse coach Dom Starsia to former football coach Mike London (an assistant on Al Groh’s staff at the time), Barker wound up playing football.

Barker, who never missed a start in his four seasons, was part of an outstanding offensive line that featured future NFL first-round draft picks Eugene Monroe and Branden Albert, along with Jordan Lipsey and Ian-Yates Cunningham.

Barker said his fondest memories include defeating the University of Miami, 48-0, in the last game at the Orange Bowl in 2007, and then going on to play in the Gator Bowl.

“We had a great time,” said Barker, whose younger sister, Lila, a former lacrosse player, graduated from UVA in May. “It was a great group of guys. Everything jelled. We had a lot of fun. That was why I played football. That was it.”

That “it” factor wasn’t quite as palpable in the NFL.

After being cut by the Dallas Cowboys, who had signed him as an undrafted free agent, Barker played for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for a season before moving on to the Miami Dolphins.

There were some memorable moments, such as making the Bucs’ active roster, playing in a few games and being a member of a colorful Dolphins team with Chad Johnson and Richie Incognito that was the subject of the HBO reality series, “Hard Knocks.”

“That was a wild experience,” said Barker, alluding to the series.

Still, overall, playing in the NFL didn’t get Barker’s juices flowing the way playing at UVA had, and art was always in the back of his mind.

During the 2011 NFL work stoppage, during which players and owners negotiated a new collective bargaining agreement, Barker took an art class at a community college in Ft. Lauderdale. That was when he realized a career change was in order. With some money saved from his NFL career, Barker decided to retire from football, move to Vermont and open his own art studio.

Barker had quick success when he showed some of his acrylic, watercolor and oil paintings – part of a series called “Monkey Business” – at an art show in South Boston, Virginia, and sold a few pieces.

Barker helped kickstart his career with a series called “Monkey Business.” (Contributed photo)

However, he decided making a full-time career out of art might be too challenging and eventually moved to Denver to become a production manager at a distillery. Barker then worked as warehouse manager at an organic soda and seltzer company until he was furloughed at the start of the pandemic in March 2020.

That’s when Barker, who had never stopped creating art – he had been selling his work on the side during his entire time in Denver – decided he needed to once again follow his passion.

“It was one of those things where you ask yourself, ‘Is this really what I want to be doing?’” Barker said.

Barker decided to go all-in on art, and when his employer offered him his old job back last summer, he declined.

To celebrate the decision, Barker hiked the Colorado Trail with a friend for a month. And a few months ago, Barker – whose work can be found at willbarkerart.com or on Instagram @willbarker.art – opened a studio in downtown Denver.

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“I love it,” said Barker, who will marry his fiancée, Kelsey Kidd, in September. “It’s really hard and there are times of uncertainty. You are working project-to-project, which is a little more uncertain than getting a paycheck every two weeks, but it’s what I want to be doing; it’s what I want to be known for and something I want to do for the rest of my life.”

Barker still gets a chuckle out of all the doodling he did when he was a kid. Recently, he came across a sketch of his own hand that he did when he was in the sixth grade.

“I was like, ‘Wow,’” Barker said. “It was very impressive – even at what I would consider my own standards today.

“I guess I had that skill and never quite realized it.”

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Whitelaw Reid

University News Senior Associate Office of University Communications