"In this world of globalised instant imagery, I believe painting continues to maintain a significant and meaningful role in recording the permanence of humanity."
Elizabeth Barden is a Contemporary Figurative Artist, was born in Brisbane, Queensland Australia, in 1965, to a father who possessed a brilliant, exacting and inventive engineering mind and was passionate about sailing. In his own time, he built boats and her mother continued a family heritage of being an accomplished ‘maker’ of many things. Elizabeth Barden was expected to be able to help construct things. In her teens, she was screenprinting her own fabric to make into her own clothes that she had designed.
Her parents instilled a strong work ethic and the idea that if she were going to do something, do it well. Lessons in patience and persistence were also delivered. She is now infinitely grateful for this foundation of integrity and grit.
Somewhere in Elizabeth Barden's childhood, her creative tendencies were recognised and encouraged, in as much as she was given materials, time and space. She was also fortunate to have had a teacher who insisted on being able to draw with accuracy and confidence. She became qualified as a Secondary School Art teacher. She majored in painting and drawing, with tutors who were recognised in many prestigious awards and collections. She spent many hours in the life drawing classes. Eventually, she found a new home in Cairns, Far North Queensland.
Elizabeth Barden has been a six times finalist in the Portia Geach Memorial Art Prize, twice a finalist in the Shirley Hannan Art Award, twice a finalist in the Lethbridge Art Prize, a finalist in the Kennedy Art Prize, a finalist in the inaugural Brisbane Portrait Prize, in the Lester Portrait Prize, and most recently The Darling Portrait Prize. Highlights for her have included being represented in the Australian National Portrait Gallery with her portrait of indigenous performer Christine Anu ‘Waiting For Zipporah’, in the Cairns Regional Council collection, the Cairns Gallery, Emmanuel College at the University of Queensland, in various private collections nationally and internationally; and to have participated in group shows in Australia and internationally.
Elizabeth Barden’s artwork is simply exquisite. She captures the moment. She captures the expression, the feeling, the mood. You feel that you are in that same scene and can comprehend every bit of emotion flowing through. There is no room for mistakes or misunderstandings, her paintings depict a sense of sincerity that is not only visible, but felt. Her artwork offers you an honesty that we can all relate to. Viewing her paintings is viewing a part of someone’s life, someone’s experience. The subjects in her paintings become real, and somehow personal to your own life.
Q. Do you remember the first art you made? What was it and how old were you?
A. My parents (who would not be biased at all!), would describe how I would always draw people, and in relatively realistic proportions compared to other children my age, with proper hands and feet. I can’t remember a time when I did not want to draw figures. I was exposed to the superhero figures in comic books, and I was captivated by ballerinas, more by the still photos of them rather than the dancing itself, and in retrospect that provided an early study in the anatomy of humans.
Q. What’s your best childhood memory?
A. My childhood featured more beaches and swimming than anything else, Christmas holidays were spent with several generations of extended family at a ramshackle house owned by my great-grandmother on the Sunshine Coast and I have many great memories of those sand and salt-water days. There was no television, we read books and comics, played board games. I could never win at Monopoly, so I would excuse myself to a quiet corner to write poems and to draw. I saw a great deal of Australia’s coastal areas, due to travel for my father’s sailing competitions, the travel was slow, by car, and again I would read or draw to fill the hours.
Q. How and when did you first become seriously interested in art?
A. At the time that I began to realize that I wanted to paint and take those pieces to an audience, the commercial galleries around Cairns were mainly catering to a tropical décor aesthetic. I have always been interested in people – bodies and faces. I chose to work in other fields for my income, to be able to paint what I wanted to paint. For many years I taught private art classes. I gained the confidence to apply for solo exhibitions.
My first two solo exhibitions at the Cairns Gallery were figurative. The first was ‘A Shore Thing’ inspired by a lifetime of growing up around water - sailing on it, swimming in it, holidaying near beaches. The second was ‘Seeing Secrets’ which drew upon my people watching and the intrigue of never really knowing what people hold within.
I am increasingly captivated by telling the stories of people, in painting individuals, thereby giving them a voice through public engagement with the works and the sharing of their lives and backgrounds.
I hope that my portraits reveal me as an observer and a storyteller. I invite people to ask about the story, to celebrate the beauty or strength of character. These become part of our collective story and history. In seeking suitable subjects for my paintings, I have met with people that I would not otherwise expect to meet. It has been life-enriching to connect with the most inspiring humans.
Q. Is the artistic life lonely? What do you do to counteract it?
A. Although I often refer to my ‘Hermit’ studio life, we are in a time where we can now easily communicate with the most incredibly inspiring and generous artists from all over the globe, and that sense of belonging and support is a wonderful thing. I am inspired daily! We can also harness various platforms to share, market and sell our work, which is a constant learning curve.
Working from my studio in Far North Queensland, I am particularly motivated to fight the ‘tyranny of distance’ which impacts on the fine art practices of regionally based artists, and to actively encourage and inspire other artists to do the same, to overcome the challenges and grapple with the logistics involved in exhibiting on a national level and beyond. I hope to cancel the notion of underrepresented and replace it with underestimated.
Q. What have you had to sacrifice for this career?
A. There was a period when life got a little too hectic for me to be able to find the headspace to paint to the level of quality I demanded of myself, let alone the time and finances.
I had to make peace with putting my fine art practice aside for a while, however I could never abandon the creative side – I taught and facilitated art workshops. I knew that my time would come. As soon as I was able, I returned with conviction to my studio, and I am not easily prised away. I turn down many social invitations, however my friends are very forgiving and supportive of what I do. I tell them they are welcome to drop by my studio, and to please bring coffee and cake. Every now and then I have to peel off the painting clothes and head out to the world at large! You do need to find your own balance.
Q. Apart from your art, what do you love doing?
A. Despite painting myself as a hermit above, I have two beautiful border collies who ensure I breathe fresh air every day. I love animals. I must make time to be active and outdoors, I love hiking, and having my breath taken away by nature. I have had a few injuries from being a little too adventurous at times. Having had a thumb and a fingertip re-attached, no one can accuse me of having precious artist hands. Family and friends mean everything to me, and I am happy enjoying great food, wine, travel, coffee, music, dance – life!
Q. What does 'success' mean to you?
A. I consider myself successful as an artist and as a person when I feel the self-satisfaction from knowing I have done the best that I am capable of at that moment, and I have the desire to try even harder next time.
Q. What personality trait has gotten you in the most trouble?
A. I think the personality trait which serves me the least is not uncommon, I have had to have my own internal dialogue to believe in myself and to put any anxieties into correct perspectives. In this industry you must learn to be resilient, and understand that you are positioning yourself to be wide open to subjective appraisals of what you do and what you produce. Self-promotion does not come easily but is absolutely necessary.
Another trait which is a both a strength and weakness when viewed from different angles, is the tendency to want perfection.
Q. What is your philosophy in matters of art and what advice would you give to the next generation?
A. I believe in having an inquisitive and optimistic mindset. I will always strive to improve my knowledge and learn new techniques. I have travelled a good deal around Australia, but it is only in the past decade or so that I have really been able to travel overseas. I want to travel as much as I can and immerse myself in painting and learning. It is most certainly still a bit of a journey; however, it has been instilled in me that you don’t have to be moving fast, you just have to be moving forward. Make a plan, act with purpose.
I am very encouraged that there seems to be a worldwide interest in contemporary figurative realist painting. I see it as addressing a need to identify with others and have a sense of what others are experiencing, sharing that which ties us all, finding empathy and compassion in the common human elements