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July 26, 2007

Quiet custodian swept up in possibilities of his private art

It might be easy to overlook Barry Weathersby ... he's a quiet, humble, unassuming man who goes about his business without much to say. But, if you overlook him, you'll be sorry.

Weathersby is the custodian charged with the maintenance of Strauss Hall, which houses the College of Education at the University of Louisiana at Monroe, and at times he works in the library. He's worked for the university for 24 years.

On an average day, Weathersby sweeps and mops the halls, cleans the restrooms and does anything else necessary to keep his buildings in tip-top shape, but it's what he does after hours that many people do not know about.

Weathersby, 48, is an artist. The only formal training that he has had were two elementary school art classes. But after being discovered by the curriculum and instruction department of the College of Education at ULM, he's illustrating Christmas cards, a children's book and teaching materials.

Associate professor Peggy Jelks first learned through a co-worker that Weathersby had a hidden talent. She sought him out and asked to see his work. Jelks said when she saw what he could do, she was amazed. Since then Jelks has used his artwork in her early childhood classes, which instruct aspiring teachers on teaching art to young children. "I use his work to show the stages of art," Jelks said. "I show the students the progression of art from the scribble stage to the Barry stage."

Weathersby uses mainly a pencil and regular copy paper to create his masterpieces because it's more economical. Weathersby just recently got his first set of drawing pens. "They draw much smoother than a pencil," he says.

As he flips through his manila folder where he keeps his work, there is an incredibly detailed picture of a soldier crouched down behind a wall, religious works and sketches of a red shouldered hawk which he drew for an educational activity book currently being distributed by ULM.

He says over the years he's drawn thousands of pictures, everything from animals to nativity scenes and soldiers to snowmen. But don't ask him to pick a favorite, because he won't.

"Picking a favorite puts limits on me," Weathersby said. "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. What a person sees is inside his own mind," said Weathersby, who is a bit of an armchair philosopher as well.

Weathersby is reluctant to share his work because he feels that he can always make improvements to any drawing.

When someone compliments him on his work, he ducks his head and quietly says, "Thank you." Only the slight smile on his face lets you know that he too is proud of his work.

Teachers in the education department have asked Weathersby to illustrate the phonetic alphabet for classroom instruction. Professor Lisa Guidry is moving to Las Vegas and plans to take Weathersby's work with her.

"I don't call myself a professional," he said. "It's a natural gift from God." But if the department of education has anything to say about it, his non-professional status may change.

Jelks would like to help him put together an exhibit of his works, maybe in conjunction with the art department at the university. She wants to make sure that Weathersby's humility does not get in the way of a chance for his work to be recognized. "I kind of have to nudge him along," she said. "He tends to hold back."

ULM professor Phyllis Sanders asked Weathersby to illustrate a children's book that she has recently completed and is shopping to publishers. Sanders said he brought the book "Ma, There's a Rooster in the House" to life. "He's the best-kept secret at ULM," she said. Sanders plans to share any book profits with Weathersby.

But, no matter how far his artistic talent may take him, Weathersby plans on working at ULM until he retires because he loves meeting people.

"God puts people who know things together," he said. "When people mingle, they can learn from each other."

Besides Barry's incredible talent and unquestionable work ethic, his co-workers at ULM think that he serves to remind them of a much bigger idea.

"We need to slow down and recognize everyone's ability," Sanders said. "We need to get to know one another whether it be in the building where we work, or across the hall."

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