I went to art school in Perth over two decades ago. My drawing lecturers loved me, but the same could not be said for my painting lecturers. Obsessed with line and pen over chiaroscuro, I was actively dissuaded to paint in the style I loved. So, I gave it up. I was a drummer in rock bands and I chose a path of music instead. Then, one winter night three years ago, I saw The Nightingale and The Rose - The Oscar Wilde classic with beautiful illustrations by Del Kathryn Barton. My entire world stopped as I exclaimed aloud, “Who is this!?”.
That night I went home, dusted off my pencils and did my first drawing in 20 years.
The night before my interview with Del, I learnt that same book had recently become a short film. co-directed by Barton and Brendan Fletcher, starring a vocal cast of Geoffrey Rush, Mia Wasikowska, David Wenham and featuring music by Sarah Blasko. The film had just had its world premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival.
With all this and more, Del’s time is precious. She’s a woman with a work ethic that has brought her due respect from all who come into contact with her. It is a lone figure in her studio, behind closed doors where she can freely unleash the worlds and characters that are born within it. Intrigued by this new branch to her practise, I began my chat with Del by asking her what it was like to work with other people.
“I found the collaborative nature of making The Nightingale and The Rose challenging, but equally rewarding. The most stressful part of the process was having to leave the studio - but the good thing was that the team was very committed and we managed the work flow with good communication.
We worked with a combination of stop motion, live action and 3D, so we all needed to make a new language together. The book was a starting point for the animation, so it was really like a moving painting in that way. Technically it was challenging, but I don’t think it was creatively challenging because of that. The animation took three years and there were times when I had to pull back because I had painting deadlines - but I feel like it helped me be in the world more, because I’m typically more comfortable with the door closed and the world at bay.”'
Barton had forayed into film making prior to The Nightingale and The Rose, but with the experience of a fully assembled team and a successfully completed project under her belt, she seems to have contracted the animation bug. I asked her if she had plans to make any more films:
“Definitely; I’m working on two other film projects at the moment. A short film called Red, which we just got funding for, and a feature film. I feel that I’m hooked into making films now. I think it’s about building on and maintaining the right relationships for that to continue. I’m not trained in film and I don’t have the jargon for making films, so it’s all about working with the right people who understand the way I think and talk.
It all really comes down to hours in the day. I would never give up painting, but I really do find the process of pushing my work into other mediums very energising, and it does always inform the core practise which needs to stay alive. I really thrive on finding an element of risk in my practise. I feel that because the core of my work is intensely ideas-based, it feels to me like a natural transition.”
There is so much to glean from a Del Kathryn Barton painting. If you haven’t had the opportunity to see her work in person, the brilliance and awe of her line, colour and forms are not truly known. They are astounding enough in books, but come face-to-face with one and you realise quickly that you are in the presence of master. At the core of this mastery is the powerful expression of her line, which calls to bear all forms and is the true custodian of every work.
As a child, Barton drew incessantly. Encouraged by her mother, it was a way to find inner peace as an anxious child. The love of it never evaporated and, to this day, she refers to her relationship with line as ‘my core to the core’:
“Drawing is the hardest, rawest, most exhausting and most energising part of my practise; it’s not something I can do all the time. It’s a commitment to a journey and an empowered point of execution that connects internally and externally. The energy of the place that I’m in when drawing is a very mindful one and there’s always risks. I draw with permanent markers so there’s no going back, and with that comes a great deal of vulnerability, emotion and presence which goes into the act of making a line.”
As a viewer scanning Barton’s faces and eyes, one comes to believe that both pain and joy are inseparable – and that Del Barton is just as inquisitive as us in making sense of the work and the world it inhabits. I asked her if this was an accurate belief:
“Definitely, and without hesitation I’d say my work is very dichotomous in that way. There’s a lot of energy in that premise. An artist can have their skill sets that are highly developed over the years, but with drawing it’s really about knowing that with your body and not your head. You need to trust your body.”
Barton’s lines manifest as human forms - protagonists into which she places her desires and longings, surrounded in an otherworldly forest by creatures that are both poised and alert. Her human forms are, for the most part, looking away in another state – their stillness striking in context of the movement of patterns in the background, as if it were a game of pass the parcel and the music had suddenly stopped.
“... In the journey that I take with them, I find these beings are creating themselves as much as I am myself. As a child, I grew up in a very idyllic setting and believed in fairies and unicorns but I suppose now, as an adult and a mother I’d probably be more pragmatic about these ideas. But the practise always goes back to that place. I try and kick it in new directions, which I enjoy - but it always finds its way back there."
Barton is a mother of two children, Kell and Arella. When looking at her work both before and after Kell was born, one can see a marked change. Nowhere is this more evident than in the explosion of colour which fills every inch of canvas in fearless and delightful matchings of hues. It would be an understatement to say that her children entirely shaped the future of her practise.
“The gallerist Ray Hughes was very instrumental in helping me understand that drawing was a strength to pursue. Drawing came very easy to me and with that, I hadn’t identified it as my strength. As a consequence of that, I started showing monochromatic line drawings for a few years and all the colour went out of my practise. But living with little people, apart from being exhausting, has a madness to it that suits my way of being in the world. I love the immediacy of them being in the moment. When Kell was born, nothing could have prepared me for the depth of love I had for this child. Before becoming a mother, I didn’t have friends or other family members who had babies. I went in so blind and I think that was a real gift. It turned my whole world upside down and I went straight back to colour.”
In a world beginning to move away from modernism, I pondered if Barton (who grew up immersed in fables) still held them close to heart. Is the contemporary world embracing the fable again?
“I don’t think I can speculate too well on the world, but I do love fables. I’m not much of a researcher but I’ve been doing more research than usual lately, which has been informing my film projects. For me, it’s usually one line out of a fable that rocks my world. The one thing that really interested me was going back and trying to find the oldest versions of some of the very iconic fairy stories. I just loved how dark they were. They’ve now become very sanitised unfortunately. I also believe that children have an amazing capacity to absorb darkness in a way that’s full of light and meaning.”
As for the horizon, I asked her if she had anything coming up between now and Christmas. “I do… I do…” she answers with a weary laugh. “I’ve always got way too many things on. I have a big solo show with a new gallerist called Ardnt in Berlin and Singapore in October, and that’s my next deadline. There will be 20 works all up, including collages which I’ve never shown before as well as the animation.”
How far are you into that?
“Not far enough! I’m in my studio six days a week depending on how my partner is feeling. It’s all very pragmatic. My hours are from 8 to 6, Monday to Friday, with an emphasis on Mondays and Tuesdays. It’s a very well oiled machine. If I’m falling behind - which is most of the time - I try and get here on weekends, but of course I try and balance that with the children’s needs”
My admiration of Barton’s work stems not only from the quality of her finished pieces, but also from the day-to-day discipline that goes into making it at every step of the way. Moment by moment, a larger picture forms of a woman who is devoted and dedicated to her practice, inspiring and giving hope to many of us. As our time was drawing to a close, I told Del of my story, how she inspired me to draw again and I thanked her from the bottom of my heart for helping me breathe.