Saltwater Portrait

Barbara Petterson: Lewes artist at home in original brush factory

Recalling a lifetime of creativity
March 17, 2020

It’s only fitting that an artist live in a former brush factory.

Lewes painter, jeweler and woodworker Barbara Petterson already owned a home on Jefferson Avenue when she bought the original brush factory on McFee Street for $8,500 in 1972.

“I found it and had to have it, but it was a disaster,” she said. “The Hockers owned it. They lived behind it and used the building to store bikes and other junk.”

The one-story Fred L. Myers Co. brush factory was built about 1932 and originally operated on McFee Street. The factory moved to Kings Highway, where it was run by Tom Hocker, and later became Hocker Manufacturing. 

“They manufactured the little brushes inside rubber cement bottles,” Barbara said. “We found dozens of them under the floor during the remodel. An old ship ladder led to the factory’s loft, and we replaced that with stairs.” 

At the time, Barbara was newly married to Bob Petterson, an architectural engineer she met in 1971 while she was renovating her Washington, D.C. rowhouse.

“My cousin Larry was helping me with it. Bob had been working in Chicago and moved to D.C., and Larry was the only person he knew. He met me with a crowbar on my lap, and it was all downhill from there!” she laughed.

The pair traveled between D.C. and Lewes for four years while they renovated the dilapidated old factory. Then they lived in the small structure while a connecting main home was constructed. After that, the factory became Barbara’s art studio.

In Lewes, Barbara flourished as a painter, taking photos of area beach and agricultural scenes, and re-creating them in her studio with bright, crisp acrylics. She continued to sign her work using her maiden name, Fiock, because she was already an established painter when she married Bob.

“Painting keeps me off the streets. I’ve never been bored,” she laughed. Among her favorite scenes to paint was a Route 9 junkyard that is no longer there. “It’s all houses now, so I have these paintings for historical reasons.”

Barbara focused early on a career in fine arts, attaining degrees from University of Maryland and American University. “Much to my parents’ chagrin,” she said. “They all worked in science fields.”

For a year, Barbara worked in Korea as a civilian in uniform for Special Services, the entertainment branch of the American military. She also served more than three years in Germany with the service. Paintings of Korean scenes and people line the walls of her studio and home.

“We did arts and crafts and entertainment,” she said. “It was a neat way to serve the troops.”

Following her service, Barbara set her sights on teaching art, first at Marjorie Webster Junior College, a finishing school for girls in D.C. When founder Webster passed away, her brother took over, and Barbara didn’t want to work for him.

“I got an interview at Model Secondary School for the Deaf at Gallaudet University,” she said. “The president was a big, happy Texan who hired me although I had no experience with the deaf. I had three sign language lessons, and that was it. The kids were really nice about helping me learn.”

Barbara taught for more than 20 years at the school before retiring permanently to Lewes in 1992. In addition to painting, she dabbled in woodworking, crafting toy trains for her grandchildren, and clamshell jewelry.

After retirement, Bob became active in Lewes civic affairs, consulting on town projects including design of Canalfront Park and Lewes Public Library. 

A Lewes Yacht Club member, he collected more than 500 burgees - flags representing recreational boating organizations - in his worldwide travels with Barbara. They, and a collection of Barbara’s paintings, hang on the Yacht Club walls. After 45 years of marriage, Bob passed away in February 2018.

“I’ve seen a lot of changes here,” she said. “Some for the best, and some not, but it’s been a wonderful place to live.”

  • The Cape Gazette staff has been doing Saltwater Portraits weekly (mostly) for more than 20 years. Reporters, on a rotating basis, prepare written and photographic portraits of a wide variety of characters peopling Delaware's Cape Region. Saltwater Portraits typically appear in the Cape Gazette's Tuesday edition as the lead story in the Cape Life section.

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