Interview: Elizabeth Barlow

    Elizabeth Barlow’s series Flora Portraits was recently exhibited at the Monterey Museum of Art. The series depicts hyperrealistic portraits of individual flora that evoke calm, meditation, and awareness for what Barlow calls our “treasured ecosystems.” For Barlow, the series keeps developing as new paintings will be presented alongside artist Susan Manchester in a series named Flora Borealis at the Andra Norris Gallery from the 23rd of September. 

    To discuss the series, Barlow joined us for an interview.

    Hi, how are you and how is the art world treating you?

    Hi and thanks for asking! At this moment in time, I am working very long hours in the studio, 7 days a week, creating new work for an exhibition at Andra Norris Gallery in September. After that, I have commissions awaiting my attention, and those paintings are already hovering in my consciousness and appearing in my dreams. No matter how weary I feel at the end of a long, intense day at the easel, I am grateful that this is what I get to do for my job and that I have the privilege of having “too much” work to do.  

    The Monterey Museum of Art recently acquired your painting “Hymn” for their permanent collection. Can you share the story behind this painting and how it feels to have your work included in a permanent collection?

    “Hymn” is a perfect example of how my work is both carefully planned and utterly unpredictable.  I began painting “Hymn” the way I do all of my work by focusing on the form and structure of the actual flower—this is the planned part of my paintings. Then, as the gardenia took shape on the canvas, it began telling me what it wanted to become, and I tried to respond to that voice—this is the unpredictable part of my work. “Hymn” eventually told me that it wanted to be floating, as if it were a hymn resonating through the air. “Hymn” has a magnetic presence, and when the Monterey Museum of Art announced they were acquiring it for their permanent collection, I was elated and deeply honored but also a tiny bit not surprised because the painting does seem to say: “Stop. Look at me.  Listen.”  

    Your new paintings in the Flora Portraits series look deeply and reverently at the living presence of each flower you paint. Can you describe your approach to these portraits and what you hope viewers take away from them?

    Not long after I began painting my Flora Portraits series, I very quickly saw that each flower is an individual, just like you or me. Once I began exaggerating the scale of the flowers, their individual spirits and voices became more apparent. Flowers are messengers. Their beauty seduces us into pausing our hectic lives for a moment. When we are still enough and look deeply enough at a flower, we will discover messages about hope, resilience, and joy, to name a few. I want my paintings to awaken the viewer from the sleep of our busyness to the messages all great beauty can give.  

    How do you choose the flowers you paint in your Flora Portraits series, and what do you find most challenging and rewarding about painting flowers?

    I am not certain that I choose the flowers, I think that they choose me. When I walk through a garden or local flower shop, there is a sudden frisson, an internal tingling, that I experience when I see the flower I want to paint. The flower will have an allure that is impossible for me to resist. Perhaps that flower’s message is too important for me to ignore? I truly do feel that I am called to paint each flower I select. 

    Flowers are challenging to paint because they are ephemeral, they fade and wither. Since my painting process is intentionally slow, I take photographs that I use as reference while I paint.  But the seeming fragility of flowers is also one of their great messages to us. Yes, they bloom gloriously only to diminish and die, but their life force remains alive though hidden and they blossom again.  

    As an artist whose work is deeply connected to the natural world, how do you see your art evolving in the future, especially in the context of ongoing conversations about environmental conservation and climate change?

    I hope that my art continues to grow in presence and that my paintings will add their voices to the growing chorus of concern about our planet. I want my Flora Portraits to offer opportunities to put down our devices and really look at these living things of great beauty who share this Earth with us. If we can develop a reverence for a single flower, then we can develop a reverence for every creature and every human. An awareness of beauty can transform how we walk through our lives. 

     If you could give any advice to any aspiring artists, what would it be?

    Treat your desire to create as something sacred. Making art is an act of devotion. If you truly listen to that inner voice asking you to make something, honor it by finding the time to show up every day. You don’t need hours and hours,  if you show up every day, your work becomes a practice and will deepen over time. Ballet dancers and classical musicians show up every single day for their art. So must we. It isn’t a matter of discipline, it is practice of devotion.  

    Lastly, what’s your definition of culture?

    Culture is the treasure trove of beauty and wisdom awaiting my discovery each and every day.  No matter where I am in the world, or what circumstances I might be in, there is an opportunity to tap into the miraculous world of culture, whether it be reading a classic novel for the first time, overhearing a snippet of witty conversation, remembering a childhood song, stumbling across a startling piece of street art, or getting lost in a great museum. Culture is everywhere with its gifts, awaiting only our attention.

    Arts in one place.

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