Georgia painter Bo Bartlett makes his first feature film

"Crowd Scene" (2020) oil on linen, by Bo Bartlett.
Courtesy of Miles McEnery Gallery, New York City
Caption
"Crowd Scene" (2020) oil on linen, by Bo Bartlett. Courtesy of Miles McEnery Gallery, New York City

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

A Southern Gothic melodrama blends autobiography and fiction in the style of this American realist’s paintings.

For decades Columbus, Georgia-based painter Bo Bartlett has practiced a form of gorgeously rendered realism.

His paintings are epic, theatrical and often feature a kind of uncanny Americana reminiscent of the work of Andrew Wyeth, Norman Rockwell and George Tooker but with a distinctly magical realist edge.

Bo Bartlett and his wife, painter Betsy Eby, on the set of "Things Don't Stay Fixed" set in Columbus, Georgia. Eby is executive producer and provided music for the film.
Courtesy of Running Stag Productions
Caption
Bo Bartlett and his wife, painter Betsy Eby, on the set of "Things Don't Stay Fixed" set in Columbus, Georgia. Eby is executive producer and provided music for the film. Courtesy of Running Stag Productions

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

His paintings have been collected by museums and exhibited in galleries around the country. One, “Leviathan,” a characteristically surreal, unsettling image of a beached whale whose bloody interior holds a young man (Bartlett’s son Man), will be included in an upcoming exhibition “Extra Ordinary: Magic, Mystery and Imagination in American Realism” at the Georgia Museum of Art.

Bartlett’s artistic skill has allowed him to travel the world, meet fascinating people like film producer Dino De Laurentiis, director M. Night Shyamalan and actor Dennis Hopper (the latter both collectors of his work) and even his art world hero, the autobiographical realist Andrew Wyeth.

In 1996 Bartlett made Wyeth the subject of his first film effort, a documentary narrated by actor Stacy Keach, “Snow Hill.”

When he was studying painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Bartlett says, “I had a dream that my paintings started moving.”

“Perhaps it was just an inner need to push the visual image further,” says Bartlett.

Now, after this long and distinguished career in the visual arts, Bartlett has tested his creative mettle in a new realm. His 35-years-in-the-making film debut of “Things Don’t Stay Fixed” is the product of a long desire to see his paintings “move” he says.

Cast and crew of "Things Don't Stay Fixed" including Atlanta actresses Tara Ochs (center) and Melissa Saint-Amand (far right) with director Bo Bartlett (third from left).
Courtesy of Running Stag Productions
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Cast and crew of "Things Don't Stay Fixed" including Atlanta actresses Tara Ochs (center) and Melissa Saint-Amand (far right) with director Bo Bartlett (third from left). Courtesy of Running Stag Productions

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Written by former Alliance Theatre artistic director Sandra Deer and starring Atlanta actors Brenda Bynum, Tara Ochs, Melissa Saint-Amand and Desi Evans, “Things Don’t Stay Fixed” centers on a restless photographer Sam Grace (William Gregory Lee) who returns to his southern hometown. He hopes to stop his daughter Nina (Saint-Amand) from what he sees as a misguided marriage.

Bo Bartlett's painting "Draw Out The Child," (2019) in oil on linen.
Courtesy of Miles McEnery Gallery, New York City
Caption
Bo Bartlett's painting "Draw Out The Child," (2019) in oil on linen. Courtesy of Miles McEnery Gallery, New York City

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

"Things Don't Stay Fixed" star William Gregory Lee holds Jonah C. Miller.
Courtesy Indican Pictures/Lionsgate
Caption
"Things Don't Stay Fixed" star William Gregory Lee holds Jonah C. Miller. Courtesy Indican Pictures/Lionsgate

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Against the backdrop of a grand antebellum home, where his mother-in-law Agnes (Bynum) and sister-in-law Kate (Ochs) and Nina all live, Sam contemplates past tragedies including the long-ago death of his wife. The dramatic final act steeps the film in an air-of-mythic tragedy in keeping with the mood of Bartlett’s paintings and the film melodramas of Douglas Sirk, mixed with bursts of the kind of southern whimsy found in Flannery O’Connor’s “Wise Blood.”

Atlanta actresses Melissa Saint-Amand (center) and Tara Ochs (right) in a scene from "Things Don't Stay Fixed."
Courtesy Indican Pictures/Lionsgate
Caption
Atlanta actresses Melissa Saint-Amand (center) and Tara Ochs (right) in a scene from "Things Don't Stay Fixed." Courtesy Indican Pictures/Lionsgate

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

It’s hard to miss the connections between Sam Grace and Bartlett. Both have a thing for white oxford shirts and khakis. And Sam returns to his wife’s family home much in the way Bartlett, and his artist wife Betsy Eby returned to Columbus in 2012 to live in Bartlett’s childhood home.

“Andrew Wyeth taught me how to be inspired by your own life, by your experiences, and how to get it into the work,” says Bartlett.

And the sense of loss that hangs over “Things Don’t Stay Fixed” has also played a part in Bartlett’s life. He lost his youngest son Eliot, at age 27 from an accidental overdose. “It was one of the things that catapulted me into going ahead and making the film. I needed a project to dive into, to get lost in,” he says.

The film is, as you would expect from a painter of Bartlett’s skill, visually accomplished — a bit grandiose — with a romantic, timeless vision of the South.

“At its heart, this is a film about grief, and finding joy and beauty in the midst of it,” says star Saint-Amand (“Ozark”), who also grew up in Columbus and now lives in Reynoldstown.

Bartlett says he always knew the film had to be set in Columbus because of its influence on his own life and art. “The light is gorgeous,” he says, “like nowhere else in the world,” says Bartlett, who has had the good fortune to study the effect of light in Florence, coastal Maine and the Middle East.

Saint-Amand agrees: “To me, Columbus has always had a little bit of magic that I have yet to find anywhere else.”

Tara Ochs (“Selma”) definitely sees the connection between place, paintings and film: “It’s maybe a little like Bo’s paintings,” she says. “He just sees beauty in every human moment, no matter how imperfect.”

Stars William Gregory Lee, Melissa Saint-Amand and Brenda Bynum in a scene from "Things Don't Stay Fixed" directed by Bo Bartlett.
Courtesy Indican Pictures /Lionsgate
Caption
Stars William Gregory Lee, Melissa Saint-Amand and Brenda Bynum in a scene from "Things Don't Stay Fixed" directed by Bo Bartlett. Courtesy Indican Pictures /Lionsgate

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Before he began production on “Things Don’t Stay Fixed,” Bartlett sought out fellow Pennsylvania Academy of the Arts alum and painter-turned-filmmaker David Lynch’s feedback. Bartlett says Lynch gave him two pieces of advice.

One: “Only work with people you like.”

Bartlett followed suit.

The second piece of advice?

“Keep your eye on the donut, not on the hole,” Lynch told him.

“Genius!” Bartlett says. “We kept working, kept moving, and things fell into place.”

WHERE TO WATCH

“Extra Ordinary: Magic, Mystery and Imagination in American Realism”

Through June 13, 2021. 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursdays; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturdays; 1-5 p.m. Sundays. Free timed tickets. 90 Carlton St., Athens. 706-542-4662, georgiamuseum.org.

“Things Don’t Stay Fixed”

Streaming from $5.99 on YouTube, Google Play, Apple TV and VUDU.