View Artist Statement
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Gallery Direct Interview with LESLIE BARNWELL|
Leslie Barnwell's work shows a deep concern for people, social issues and our place in this world. Using various techniques and styles, Leslie's paintings demonstrate her fascination with colour, pattern, and form. Also a writer, Leslie's book "The Rosemary Suite" tells the story of her friend's courage and struggle with breast cancer.
You have been drawing and painting since childhood. Could you tell us about some of your earliest memories and who encouraged you along the way?
Like most children, I did love seeing marks and colour emerge on the page. And you are right to assume I received some encouragement in this. I remember a couple of pieces from my early childhood. One was a griffin. He was huge and brilliant; he filled the page. I can still see him vividly. I remember that he made me happy. I was quite small then. A little later, age 10 I think, I drew a dense, coniferous forest with pencil crayons. I made the trunks tall and used several colours - yellows, browns, reds, to create the bark. I remember that I didn't really know how to join the trunks to the ground so I sort of created longer segments of trunk that blended into the grasses. My teacher at the time, sadly I don't remember her name, was impressed with this. I guess because I didn't just square the trunks off at the bottom. Naturally I felt pleased with her response.
My mother has always encouraged me and been an example as well. She is an artist. She still leads an art group in her community at the age of 94. One of her early paintings was a favourite of all her children. She told me once that it would not be mine because I could paint it myself. So, at age 18, I accepted the challenge and copied the piece. You can see it in my “Gardens and More” gallery, the one called Cathedral.
Of course I also remember my first prize, a stylized white horse on a moonlit night standing high upon an impossible mountain ledge (God knows how he got there!) I received a cash award at the Edmonton Exhibition. I was 15. That's got to be a rush!
When did you make the decision that you wanted to pursue art as a career and what or who influenced you in this decision?
I think it was a matter of timing. When my second daughter was a baby my husband agreed to help my brother build his house. This meant moving temporarily to the ocean beach house where I'd spent many childhood summers. At the time, I had two children who needed lots of love and attention, but I had no outside-the-house job and I had no community responsibilities. I didn't even have many friends nearby so I had time and an inspiring location. After this we moved to Vancouver for the year. My husband worked on his second degree and I took my work to the Federation of Canadian Artists where it was received and I became a member. I worked hard and entered several juried exhibitions while in Vancouver and had my first individual show there with the FCA before returning to the north. You have to sell your work to show with the FCA so that was more or less the start of it.
What formal or informal education have you found most useful?
I am always watching, listening, analyzing, and experimenting. I think this way of being allows me to receive a lot from others formally and informally. But I return to your first question, "who encouraged you along the way?" I am a teacher myself. I taught elementary school and I home-schooled my daughters. I believe that, while content is wonderful, an environment of respect, passion and encouragement is essential for optimal learning. My mother, of course, was/is an inspiration. Among my formal teachers I'll mention two in particular. One was the woman who taught me the original Nicolaides approach to drawing. I loved the course, the essence of line and form it espouses where one can come to drawing instinctually. And I felt the acknowledgement of the teacher as I pursued the months of drawing that this course involved. I still go back to basic gesture and contour exercises when I draw and I feel both creative and free when I do so. There are examples of these in The Rosemary Suite. Another teacher I remember was Katherine Wengi-OConner, an amazing water colourist. She reminded me not to hold my work too closely. "Remember," she said, "your paintings are not precious stones, they are stepping stones."
What kinds of images did you first start out with and what medium did you use?
As a professional artist I began with watercolour. It is accessible, portable and free from noxious fumes. Though I use a variety of media now, (such as ink, graphite, block printing, silk applique,) watercolour still compels me. I continue to use it in its pure form and it is the base for my woven paintings as well. My earlier images were mainly landscape. Again, I still paint landscape but find extremes from high realism to abstract and non-objective work fascinating too.
What media do you enjoy working with the most and why is it your favourite?
Over many years I have developed my own process of weaving paintings. Woven paintings, though rare, are not unheard of, but my particular process is unique. I guess I love this medium because I have grown with it and essentially invented my version of it. I find it expresses well what I want to say; the medium itself is involved in the meaning of the piece. It speaks of how things are related to one another, the unions and the tensions. It describes our restrictions and how we can use those to advantage. It holds a measure of mystery that is the essence of life. I feel great freedom when I work this way. Both the work and the results satisfy me deeply.
Much of your work combines art and writing. Did your writings evolve with your art or did you write as a means of expression before you used it in conjunction with your art?
My writing and my art were separate strands. In many ways they remain so, but they converge at times, as in The Rosemary Suite. Sometimes a single piece seems to need some language. Often I've been asked to speak at exhibition openings so I write something for that - or I'm asked to speak on other occasions and I create a piece that (hopefully) enhances the talk. My art and writing inform each other too, for instance, the way I think as an artist often shows up in my writing. I write in different forms but perhaps I'm specially drawn to poetry because it is a verbal way of making images.
Your work shows a deep concern for people, social issues and our environment. What life experiences would you say have influenced your choice of subject matter?
I have experienced a lot in my life, some of it beautiful and some of it so harsh. I know that all of this finds its way into my work both directly and indirectly. It is also simply who I am and how I respond to life that determines what I choose to focus on and how I express it. It's a matter of constantly looking at where I've been, where I am, where I think I'm going and how I understand myself through it all. And who is there with me, matters too. Out of all this I guess things simply present themselves. If the images and ideas persist - I use them.
As an artist, what has been your biggest challenge so far?
Wow, this is a hard one! As much as I love what I do, there are always challenges - creative, personal, sometimes even political. I'm going to write about Fear in Fragment. It kind of covers the ground on an array of stuff that I come up against. This might take awhile.
First the premise: Basically fear can be a wall. It can blot out light. We cannot see through it or around it. We can't hear well; often all our senses are impaired by fear. How can we reach each other when walls are in place? Prejudice is one of these walls. I believe that if fear creates walls, then understanding can help to break them down. Thus the idea that fear fragments us and understanding can fragment the fear. I wanted to go somewhere with this. Where I went was the justice system. Here the barriers are pretty obvious. And so is the fear. So, over a period of four years I interviewed and drew over 60 people - people working in the system, people in prison and people in neither of these circumstances. Every person gave me a statement to include in the show. Each of these is a gift of self. Here are some of the challenges I faced:
-first, I had to overcome my own shyness, my hesitancy to contact countless people, both to draw and to make it all happen.
-being away from home much more than I liked. This is not just inconvenient for me it is a real emotional challenge.
-making contacts with people who would follow through with me. It wasn't simple, for example, to receive access to several prisons and to get permission to spend unsupervised time with many inmates. I am grateful to those who helped me here.
-I had to build trust - in short order - with each person I was drawing at the time. There were a few I did not fully break through to, nor they with me, but even then they did their best and their contribution to the whole is important. I am still humbled by how open most people were with me. As a result of this show I have made some lasting friends.
-drawing and carrying on an in-depth conversation at the same time was difficult. This seems to be a right brain/left brain battle. It was really hard for me; I found it took incredible concentration. I did get quite good at it. A few people weren't inclined to talk. One person read a fishing magazine and we chatted afterwards. This was much easier but not the norm.
-back in the studio I had to evaluate each set of drawings and create a composition and colour scheme that spoke about who each person was more than what they looked like. I wanted to evoke that individual, so you could know them at a level deeper than just a first meeting. I ended up using multi-faces for many people and incorporated a wax resist process overlaid by flowing washes. I encountered other technical issues when it came to a huge back-lit mural I created with torn paper between Plexiglas, and the bars that were installed down the center of the room.
-having virtually no money to do this. (some payment was given to me on two occasions. I am thankful for that.)
-finding a wide range of alternate spaces to show the work. I wanted it to reach the worlds of all the people who participated. In the end and over another several years I was able to show it in a public gallery, at a judge's conference, at a women's conference, in two prisons, in an inner city church and at a cross-professional conference involving the legal system, and both medical and mental health practitioners.
-keeping the momentum going over the four plus years it took to complete and show this series. So, this was a challenging but really rewarding series, an experience I will always cherish. So many people opened themselves, not only to me but to all of those who viewed the show. And those who saw it responded from a deep place as well. I still believe this is a relevant series. I am so glad that I somehow pulled it off.
Could you tell us about your latest series of paintings and what inspired you to do them?
There has been a hiatus in my series work. For several years I've put energy into individual pieces. Recently I've started a few new series, all still in progress. The last completed series is Wind Water Fire Earth. I created these large woven pieces during a time of change, challenge and deep sorrow both in myself as I faced the significance of aging and in my marriage and later its loss. All of this underlies these paintings. Wind, water, fire and earth are the ancient "elements" that help us come to understand our place in the world. They sustain us and break us. They are gentle and ravaging. They are life and death. And weaving is the work women have done over centuries. It puts disparate things together. I made these pieces large (the largest are 5'x 9'). You can't ignore their presence. When you are in the room with them their size asserts itself. And then you draw near and the intricacy of the work compels you in a different way. There is power and complexity, the obvious and the mysterious. Wind Water Fire Earth has been shown in two great galleries. Now it rests in my studio. I pull the pieces out now and then and after more than ten years I still learn from them.
What other interests do you have besides your painting?
Well, gardens are really wonderful, aren't they? We grow vegetables in a huge garden. Closer to the house we have flowers, ever changing. This is joyful work. And I love to read and to make my way into the water with my canoe. For the record I'm a very good paddler. Being near water is good any way at all. I walk a fair bit and hike some (not so much as I used to), watch birds at our feeder. Music, Plays, and new places are all things I enjoy. I also share much of this with my dear Rusty. And of course, my daughters, my first grandchild, my family and my friends are all important to me. When I keep looking I think maybe the list is endless.
What role do you think your emotions play in the creative process?
My emotions are like the stone, that when dropped into the pond, sends circles pulsing ever outward. Everything shimmers, becomes new when I look in the water then. I see something that inspires me or penetrates my soul. This is the start. This is what says, Leslie, find a way to keep that light, that insight in motion. After this comes the work. The emotion fades in and out while I put my mind and time and skill into it, hoping the emotion will emerge once again when the piece is done, that I will feel it, that you will feel it too.
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