Melbourne artist Elizabeth Barnett has a distinct style when it comes to still-life painting, one that brings forth her stunning exhibition Preservation now showing at Modern Times. Documenting intimate domestic surroundings she characterises these with seasonal plants and treasured objects, capturing the impermanence of experiences and the resonating memories of home life. We take this opportunity to chat with Elizabeth about this showcase of these semi-biographical works, her artist’s practice, the rewards of motherhood and the challenges in creating her largest work to date!
Thank you so much for taking the time to chat to us today! With your new exhibition now showing in the gallery space, seeing Preservation all together how would you best describe the subject matter and content of this work?
I started this body of work during Autumn when we were bottling tomatoes and we had a lot of Fowlers jars in the kitchen. I chose foliage and flowers from the garden, the bush and the occasional florist’s bloom. I would use these to set up loose arrangements to take into the studio. Art books, books on sailing, philosophy and craft books became the plinth for the arrangements. These books were foundational for me, in a sense they have allowed my ideas and thoughts to flourish, so to have them become the supportive structure for these floral arrangements felt appropriate. The flower blooms are a physical representation unfurling from the potential and promise of the ideas and knowledge held within the texts they sit upon. The palette is very moody in this work to reflect the deeper and richer colours in the local landscape here in winter.
What would you say is the central theme for Preservation? How did this come about?
This work encompasses preservation in a culinary sense but also refers to self-preservation and of capturing moments in time and bottling ideas and impermanent experiences.
As a female artist and mother I am constantly returning to ideas surrounding the split between motherhood and creative life, living in a semi-rural area and in harmony with the seasons. It’s always been important for our family to preserve the food we grow, and it was whilst bottling summer tomatoes that the exhibition’s title came to me.
Self-preservation and herbal remedies are enduring sources of inspiration. When taking a break from caring responsibilities I often find myself walking around my local neighbourhood, collecting handfuls of gum leaves, bound for arrangements in jars, an action I never questioned or pondered deeply until I started painting them as subjects. Through the act of looking and putting paint to stretched linen, ideas percolate and memories come to the foreground before receding again, the remnants preserved.
Considering the split between motherhood and creative life as you’ve suggested, do you feel that this body of work has become autobiographical in a way? Is that an important factor in your work do you think?
My work is always somehow autobiographical. The light and seasons really affect the way I paint, especially since moving to the country where we experience the seasons more acutely. In autumn we are pruning, clearing up from summer, bottling and stacking wood. Winter becomes a more inward time spent indoors with family and the bush beyond our paddocks becomes moody and darkly hued.
Can you tell us a bit about what led you to being an artist?
I’ve always wanted to be an artist since I was a child. I don’t think I ever questioned that I wouldn’t be an artist. When I became pregnant and had my first child I really worried my identity, as an artist would be swept aside. I think this desperation to prove myself as an artist has meant that I have since created my best work. Probably the lack time factor makes me more efficient and more intuitive with my work. Now that my children are no longer babies, I am much more okay with my split responsibilities to my family and also my art practice.
How has this body of work challenged you and how did you overcome these?
For this show I wanted to challenge myself and make a large diptych so that the viewers could really immerse themselves in the scene. I love the idea that objects became larger than life and the clutter of the table consumes the viewer. It was quite physically demanding to paint at such a large scale so I had to be more mindful and keep up my yoga and fitness practice throughout.The other challenge was time, not having every day in the studio can be frustrating especially when you feel like you are onto something and then you have to put the brushes down and go and pick up kids or make dinner, but that’s life and you have to take deep breaths, make some notes and hope that the inspiration is still floating around on the next studio day.
I often get lulls or flat days, but I have to keep making and either push through the feeling or go to bed early and hope that tomorrow is a better day. I often go for a run or walk to change the atmosphere if I have a deadline and I often find this helps a lot.
It’s hard to not become immersed in the sheer size of the diptych, but do you have a favourite work from this series?
I really do love the diptych ‘Preservation‘. It was satisfying to complete such a large and richly detailed painting. I also love ‘The Artist’s Handbook of Materials and Techniques‘ because it feels like a “painter’s” painting. It’s about acknowledging process and materials in my practice and the painters that influence my creative practice.
What does a typical day look like for you?
A typical work day consists of a mad dash to get out the door in the mornings (which has been hard because it’s been so cold this winter), drop the kids at kinder, go for a run with the dog or an exercise session with my local friends, a quick chai and then straight to the easel or drawing board. I then work until I pick up the kids in the afternoon with a tea break or two. Then it’s cooking dinner; get ready for the next day and some knitting by the fire. My studio is in a bit of a thoroughfare to the kids’ rooms so I am always looking at the day’s work in the evening and plotting how to resolve paintings in the next studio session, or I take the paintings out into the hallway or kitchen so I can look at them in a different context and environment.
Are oils your primary medium or do you also experiment with others as well? If so what else are you inclined to use?
I am mainly using oil on linen at the moment, but I still love to use acrylic. I also love watercolour as a medium to work up ideas with and create small paintings as studies. I’ve been making prints again too, mostly copperplate etchings and monoprints. My sketchbook and journal are also integral to my practice. I love experimenting with pottery and have been enjoying a pottery class in my local area for the last 2 years.
Do you have any other influences besides the visual arts that inspire and impact your approach to making work?
I am inspired by so many things! Craft and gardening play a big role in my life and I can’t imagine what my work would look like without their influences. I also love getting out into nature a lot, which isn’t hard around here! Music is also a big influence. My husband DJs and our house is always filled with music. And of course my kids are always inspiring me. The way they draw with reckless abandon and their choices of colours for paintings is always inspiring. I love they way they look at things so intently up close and this informed the larger-than-life details in the paintings.
Sounds like a happening household, what are you and your husband currently playing and reading?
We’re always listening to country or folk music, some soul, Afro beat, electronic or classical piano music. I always have cued This American Life, 99 % Invisible, ABC Conversations, Talking with Painters or some knitting and making podcasts. On my bedside table currently I have “A Life’s Work- On becoming a Mother” by Rachel Cusk, which I have almost finished, “Seeing ourselves, Women’s Self Portraits” and some Artist Profile magazines, Pip permaculture and Taproot magazine.
Are these important things that you bring with you into your studio to be able to create? Or is it silence, coffee..?
About a year ago I joined an exercise group in my local community and after a painful start I now can’t imagine life without a commitment to exercise and better self-care! I found it has helped me to be less tired, and more creatively fulfilled. I also love a chai latte (as I gave up coffee last year- I never thought that would happen!) There is always music or podcasts on in my studio.
Do you see your work as relating to any current movement or direction in visual art or culture? Which other artists might your work be in conversation with?
I don’t feel like that is for me to say, certainly there are many artists that inspire me, and there are many contemporary painters whose work I love. The landscapes and still-lifes that I make tap into such a rich vein of history, where references cut back and forth repeatedly. You’ll see many referenced in my work, from Miro to Matisse and Bonnard and Australian painters like Elisabeth Cummings and Grace Cossington-Smith.
And finally, what’s next in your practice!?
I am still inspired from this body of work so I will continue painting and further exploring these ideas. I made an etching print recently and it reignited for me my love of printmaking after a few years’ hiatus. I would love to get back into making more prints again!
Thank you so much for taking the time to tell us about your work and inspirations!
Elizabeth Barnett is a contemporary artist based in the Macedon Ranges, Melbourne working primarily with painting, printmaking and illustration. Her new exhibition, Preservation is now showing in our Fitzroy gallery until 16 September.
05 – 16 September 2018
Modern Times Gallery
311 Smith St,
Fitzroy VIC 3065
View more details here.