April 19, 2015
I was thrilled to be entering the studio of bay area artist Suzy Barnard on a sunny Sunday afternoon in April. Located in the residential/industrial mix of the Dogpatch neighborhood in San Francisco, Pier 70 is made up of dilapidated warehouses, the city’s oldest and largest shipyard, and the Noonan Building which is home to some 35 artist studios overlooking the bay. The artist who greeted me at the door instantly felt familiar and easy to talk to.
Much of Barnard’s work is comprised of sea and skyscapes often incorporating large cargo ships which lay at anchor just outside of her studio window. The color palette of her seascapes, by now familiar to me, was streaked and smeared everywhere and several paintings in various stages of completion were scattered about.
Barnard’s work caught my attention a couple of years ago when I was working on my own paintings of San Francisco Bay. Her seemingly effortless style and her ability to depict a scene or evoke a feeling with a swoosh of color across the canvas (or in her case a wood panel) both impressed and delighted me. Her gestural organic approach reveals experience, skill and thoughtful interpretation of the subject.
Born and raised in England, Ms. Barnard received her BFA from Bristol Polytechnic. She explained that her studies there were quite academic focusing on studio work alone which incorporated a great deal of figurative work. Barnard says that while classmates who chose to work more conceptually were thwarted, the confines of the program suited her. A self-described “painters painter” who loves color, Matisse, Bernard and Monet were among the artists that inspired her. As Barnard contemplated graduate school, an opportunity to come to the States came in the form of a note under her door from a former professor named Hassel Smith. Smith, a well-known Bay Area painter and contemporary of Elmer Bishop and Richard Diebenkorn, remained a lifelong friend and mentor until his death in 2007. In his note was an offer to come to the San Francisco Bay area to work as an au pair. So at age 22, she came west. After her stint as an au pair, Barnard applied for, and was accepted to graduate school at The San Francisco Art Institute.
When I asked how her personal history has worked its way into her work, she told me of a time when her family embarked on an adventure on board a freighter from Northern England to Mexico, where they lived for 18 months. The voyage lasted for three weeks. Though she was just nine at the time, her memories and impressions of this trip are stamped vividly in her memory giving her a special connection to the sea. So when she secured her studio space on Pier 70 twelve years ago, the ships outside her window beckoned her. They have been her muse ever since. The huge vessels became an endless source of material and an excuse for her to play with and delight in color.
I told the artist that I admired her ability to stay so focused on the ships outside her window. She explained that finding this subject matter is what helped her focus. Barnard had two small children when she moved into the Noonan building studio which made staying centered on the work a struggle. Having a studio was of utmost importance, as was finding the time to work and using that time carefully. Finding subject matter that was right outside her window was a gift. That focus really enhanced her skill and growth as an artist. The fact that these paintings have resonated with other people has also been very nice for her. “Even though I’ve been working with this theme for twelve years now it has changed. It hasn’t been the same thing for twelve years. I’m changing. As I leave behind the image and the work becomes more abstract, I gain another audience. It’s interesting to see how that works. I haven’t had the nerve to be completely abstract. It is always based on something I saw or remembered that I try to distill into an emotional internal color response”. As we talked about the work I thought about how describing a scene is one thing and describing a feeling is quite another.
As we discussed her technique which involves a great deal of layering, Suzy said:
It’s so simple but there has to be some kind of knowledge in your hand as to what you’re trying for. It’s like a weird meditation going back and forth slathering paint off and on. You build a history which can add or detract…it can add delicious surprises or it can look overworked…In theory I work on several pieces at once. They start off with a wash of color to get a little action happening which may or may not come into play as time goes on. Now, it’s not so much about there is this image that I’m going to paint. It’s something I saw on the drive or I’m trying to home in my mind about the little thrill I had about it… or some cool colors that were blending. So I think about starting to build some layers. I use wet on wet to get a reaction or I put one strong color down and wait for it to dry. Either way, I just jump in. It takes a while for it to start talking which is something I’m learning with this more abstract work. I’m not hanging on to obviously representing something I’m much more fluid. I put ships in and take them out. Sometimes I still need a little hint of a ship for a little accent or punctuation. It’s scary to have it so unknown and yet when it’s humming and you’re lost in it that’s the part that you do it for, when you are lost in that crazy process and things magically appear that you never dreamed of.
I wondered if the commercial and economic realities of shipping ever clouds her view. She explained that while there are many things one can project on to the sea and the vessels the ships themselves are poetic. She told me,
There’s poetry in the sea and sea vessels, but these big heavy duty workhorses also have a lot of negative connotations. That is always there. I have this sort of argument with myself over them. Note I don’t paint sailboats. They don’t interest me. These are grittier. I tend to anthropomorphize them. I see them as characters. I have looked at them so much and I get choosier about what excites me. It could be that their position doesn’t work for me and then they turn and capture the light and come to life. They are big polluting monsters and they represent lots of things that we love to hate about the global economy, yet the ships themselves are just doing their job. They have mobility in their single mindedness of what they are trying to do.
A recent trip to the California Desert at Joshua Tree has offered Ms. Barnard new inspiration. “This, (pointing to a work in progress) is messing about with desert. I don’t know what the hell I’m doing yet but the way I’m using the paint is familiar.” We discussed that while the sea and the desert are opposite entities, they do similar things for people. They have mood and expanse. Barnard’s excitement over embarking on a new subject seems to revolve around the new color pallet that the desert offers. “As a desert painter, I want the paintings to be some kind of impression of the colors. I’m still trying to figure it out”. This isn’t to say that she is abandoning the seascapes but she is looking for new means of expression and ways to keep the work interesting. That can be challenging for an artist when there are certain things that are expected of them in a show or a gallery. She is taking a risk by going in a new direction that she feels it is important. I look forward to seeing where this new course will take her.
For more work by Suzy Barnard, see her website at: http:// suzybarnard.com