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Jack Barkla designed sets for the Guthrie Theater, for Dayton's eighth floor, for Bachman's flower shows. He worked with wood, with paint, with magnolias.

But no matter the material, he made magic.

Secret gardens that revealed themselves suddenly. Slanting staircases that propelled actors across the stage. Flowering pavilions that conjured far-off lands.

At the height of his career, he was fashioning seven sets at once, eventually tallying 1,200.

"His work was everywhere all the time," said Peg Guilfoyle, former production manager at the Guthrie. "He was central to our community."

The modest magician behind Minnesota's most extraordinary spectacles, Barkla died March 29 of chronic encephalopathy. He was 83.

"Jack was an extraordinarily talented visionary," said Jon Cranney, who worked with Barkla at the Guthrie in its early years. "I've often said that if Jack had stayed in the theater and did what needed to be done, he could have emerged as one of the top designers in American theater."

But Barkla never left for New York City. And after 25 years, 13 of them without a vacation, he left theater.

Instead, he painted. Hundreds of paintings that, like his sets, varied in style.

Tucked into one: the bill from the Grand Rapids, Minn., hospital where he was born for $55.

Barkla was an only child who "spent a lot of time alone with his imagination," said Thomas Olson, his domestic partner and onetime theater colleague.

As a kid, he set up shows on his kitchen steps and built sets for his puppets. He drew on the floor, building a nest of pens, paint and papers. By the time his parents bought him a desk, he said, "I had gotten thoroughly used to working on the floor."

Barkla earned a degree in art education from the University of Minnesota in 1965, teaching there for a decade. He took a job at the Children's Theatre as prop master but ended up designing shows.

"Some designers look for a pretty picture," Cranney said. "Jack, he understood the dynamics of movement on the stage."

He invented sets that fit the action, solved the puzzles and hid the tricks. His goal was to draw attention to the director, playwright and actors' intentions, Olson said. Never to himself.

"Be that as it may, there would be a lot of people who left the auditorium going, 'What a fantastic set,'" Olson said, chuckling. "There were times when you went, that was just incredible, just beautiful, just perfect."

His sets for the Guthrie's 1975 season, which included "The Caretaker," "A Streetcar Named Desire" and the first production of "A Christmas Carol," stunned.

"There was not a Jack Barkla style," said Duane Schuler, an acclaimed theatrical lighting designer who got his start at the Guthrie. "He could work in almost any style, grabbing the core idea of the play and running with it."

Barkla's design for "A Christmas Carol" might be "the most perfect design solution I saw in my life," Guilfoyle said. The fluid set toggled between locations and times. It complemented the costumes. Its door — a key piece of the plot — popped up and disappeared in an instant, thanks to a pulley system.

"Magic doesn't always happen," she said, "but it definitely happened on that show."

Barkla created spectacular stories for Dayton's eighth floor auditorium, the Holidazzle Parade and the Bachman's flower shows. They were whimsical in their effect and precise in their detail, said Dale Bachman, the fourth-generation CEO.

"His work on sets was always for the benefit of the actors," Bachman said. "In our case, the plants were the actors. He did everything to respect the horticulture."

A few years back, for the first time, Barkla exhibited and sold his paintings.

Several looked a bit like a theater set, curtains pulled to the side.

"With painting you have a record of your own thoughts, and that remains," Barkla told the Star Tribune in 1986. "With theater, nothing exists except the memories and a few photographs.

"When I die I want to leave some works."