Generations: Fran Barrish

Fran Barrish has filled her light and airy apartment in Mill Valley’s Redwoods Retirement Community with a variety of artworks, many of which are her own creations. Though a passion for making art winds around her DNA, Fran has led a very eclectic life, from a Midwestern childhood through her long marriage to Bernard ‘Bernie’ Barrish, motherhood to two sons, a career as a social worker, a stint raising sheep in the Petaluma countryside, to life as a professional batik and watercolor artist.

Born in Chicago in 1924, Fran earned her Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of Chicago. She moved West, intending to enroll in graduate school, but instead found her dream job right away, as a group social worker in a unique joint program of the San Francisco YMCA/YWCA, working with groups of young girls.  She was the first Jew to be hired for work with this interracial population.

Fran and Bernie lived in Mill Valley for 7–8 years in the 1970s.  This is when she refined her technique for creating batik paintings. Batik is a method, originating in Java, of producing colored designs on textiles by dyeing them, having first applied wax to the parts to be left undyed. (Full disclosure: this reporter owns a Fran Barrish batik, purchased from the artist in the 1970s.)  

Fran and Bernie joined Rodef Sholom during their Mill Valley years because they liked the people and the services offered by the synagogue. Fran mentions a memorable trip to Israel with Rabbi Michael Barenbaum, and she remembers when Cantor David and Rabbi Stacy first came on board. The family maintained their membership at Rodef Sholom even after moving to the Petaluma countryside in the late 1970s.

Living on three-plus acres, the Barrish family was given some sheep and raised them in a real departure from city living.  With room on the property for a studio, Fran turned her attention to a new, but equally challenging, art form: watercolor; and she continued this practice until fairly recently.

When asked to describe the most important lessons she has taken from all these experiences, Fran points to her years as a social worker and replies “acceptance of others who are different from yourself, whether in behavior, lifestyle, belief systems or attitudes.”  She notes the speed with which the world is changing, for better or worse. But what have not changed are the deep roots and important role of Judaism in her life.

Prominently displayed on the wall in Fran’s living room is a large, earth-tone batik of the Wailing Wall. She remembers looking out from her hotel room window on a Friday afternoon and seeing a group of Hasidic men in their black hats rushing to get to the Wall before sundown. Recreating the scene showed the significance of the Wall and how important it was in their lives. Today the batik illustrates gracefully the way in which our tradition endures through the centuries.