Not A Surrealist - Just A Tasmanian!
Miss Barsham has frequently been called a Surrealist, a description with which she is uncomfortable. Her paintings are playful and charming, but beneath the fantasy and Gothic imagination is a sharp and ironic sense of reality.
Figurative painting has always been a powerful means of illuminating and commenting on contemporary experience. I use traditional academic techniques and clear, glowing colours to paint heavily-patterned pictures influenced by Medieval tapestries, Durer, Breughel, Romanticism, German Expressionism and modern technology, including video and computer imagery.
I grew up in the bush, looking at twisted tree-limbs making writhing black silhouettes against an evening sky or gleaming white in the mid-day sun. I ran through spiky clumps of sags, picked blackberries and native cherries, explored rocky hillsides and slid down sand dunes. The shapes and colours of the dry forest near Hobart are still my visual world, inspiring and informing my paintings. One day I will capture their true nature.
I like paintings you can walk around in; much of the fun in painting is creating the illusion of a third dimension, but am not interested in a literal representation of the natural world. My work is rather a poetic commentary on the environment and our place in it.
Living in Tasmania, it is difficult not to be interested in the interaction between people and nature. But a major source of inspiration is the landscape, the coastline, forests and mountains.
As a visiting friend declared upon seeing my working surroundings - You're not a Surrealist at all - you're a Tasmanian!
How I Became A Tasmanian
Some of my family arrived in Tasmania with Governor Collins in 1804. By that time, other ancestors had already been at Port Jackson for twelve years; they went back to England, gathered up possessions and a stray brother and sailed back to Tasmania as free settlers. A few more arrived on different ships, and most of my paternal forebears were here by 1850. It has been said many of them were chosen by some of the best judges in England. This gentleman (left) arrived in Van Diemens Land as a compulsory assisted-passage migrant in 1830. He became a prosperous, well-respected member of the community.
My maternal ancestors were an assortment of respectable English professional people and minor aristocrats whose offspring, having disgraced the family, were sent to The Colonies to seek their fortune and avoid further scandal. Here are two of them (right). They packed their artist son off to his uncle in New Zealand, where he became a journalist and illustrator and finally fled to Hobart to avoid his creditors.
I was born on an island in Bass Strait but grew up and went to school in Lindisfarne. Although I have the usual number of parents, important influences on my formative years were my maternal grandmother and four great-aunts.
Three of the Aunts are on the left.
On the right is my favourite photograph of myself with my Grandmother.My Great-aunts were teachers, writers, musicians and amateur painters. They taught me that real life is much more interesting than fiction - then wrote novels, short-stories, plays and poetry that were complete fictions based on their opinions of real life. Reading, art, music and self-expression were encouraged. In "literature evenings", for which everyone (children included) was expected to write something amusing based on a topic proposed by one of the Aunts, I discovered that there are many forms of truth to be drawn from the same set of facts. It all depends on your point of view, and which aspects you choose to emphasize.
What has all this to do with Tasmanian Gothic?
This is my background. I grew up among books, and freely admit to sharing a deep, dark romanticism with the gloomier Victorian novelists, to a love of melodrama and to a black, slightly cynical sense of humour.
I grew up among story-tellers and feel a strong connection to the past, exacerbated by the collection of old photograph albums family members keep giving me.
In my family, photographs are sacred, and never thrown away. Some date back to the 1860s. They have provided the source, directly or indirectly, for many paintings. I interpret them freely, representing what they tell me about the people, the times, and the photographer. They show tough, uncompromising farmers with their hard-working wives and independent children, woodcutters taking a smoko among their axes and cross-cut saws, great-aunts at the beach rugged up with hats, coats and umbrellas. Some of the younger ones I remember as elderly relatives to be visited occasionally on Sundays.
Whether or not I know their names, these people intrigue me. Because they were usually posing for the camera, there is an un-natural stiffness to their attitudes which has the disquieting effect of distancing the viewer. They return my gaze, challenging me and blocking my path into the picture. Sometimes I know the circumstances surrounding the photograph, but more often not. I can see only a fraction of a second of their lives. The rest is mystery - and I am free to invent and paint my own dark and twisted stories exploring the ancient and intimate relationships between people and their environment.
I paint Tasmania, with a Gothic twist. Tasmanian Gothic, OK?
Art, Life and History - Elizabeth Barsham's blogs
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