February FEATURED Artist: Elizabeth Barsham
30 January, 2019
Elizabeth Barsham lives in a sprawling property on top of a hill in Hobart, Tasmania, which gives the impression of having been forgotten by time. The house is surrounded by Australian bush which is in turn surrounded by a modern housing estate that has been encroaching on her family’s land for several decades. Whilst it’s tempting to classify her genre as ‘surrealist’, she prefers the term expressionist, if a label must be applied. I visited Elizabeth at her home and the following interview gives a real insight into why she creates her amazing work, which she describes as Tasmanian Gothic.
Elizabeth is preoccupied with Tasmanian history. “My ancestors arrived here with the first European settlers, and my paintings draw heavily on the Tasmanian landscape. I also have an unhealthy obsession with industrial archaeology and the traces people have left on the land.
Add to this concerns with consumerism and the environment, a keen sense of the ridiculous and some very dark humour, and you get paintings that art critics have struggled to categorise. I have therefore invented my own genre, and am gratified that other artists are beginning to join in, too.
Europeans have only been in Tasmania for a few generations, having supplanted the original inhabitants. They are now busy exploiting its natural resources, making new stories for ancient hills, islands and rivers. We are at the very beginning of creating a new mythology of this country. Every tree, every rock, every spider and probably most of the possums have their own spirits. So far, I’m not quite sure how these spirits manifest themselves, but one day I’ll manage to paint them.
Children in our family were encouraged to draw, paint, write and play musical instruments, but it was taken for granted that while these were important skills, getting a good job was more important, so I took up a position in the public service. Later, I decided I gave up my sensible job, moved to Melbourne where I found a tutor who had studied painting techniques with Norman Lindsay, and embarked on a career of poverty, frustration and hard work.
In Melbourne, I began photographing and painting demolition sites and superseded industrial machinery – not to mention the ubiquitous abandoned shopping trolley. When I eventually returned to the old farmhouse in Tasmania I discovered nothing had really changed. There was the familiar rusting farm machinery, the sheds full of rotting household furnishings, stored and forgotten years ago, the scraps of left-over building materials and all the other things too potentially useful to throw away.
Every flattened, rotting bit of detritus was once a valued possession serving a useful purpose; every rusted, twisted piece of iron has its own little history, providing a tangible link to the past, a reminder of the transitory nature of material possessions. These things sometimes appear in my paintings as the spirits of lost machinery wandering a broken land.
I am fascinated by broken, decaying things, so am never short of inspiration. Plastic pollution is probably my current obsession (as you can see in ‘A Childs guide to Wilderness’.
For me, art has always been a process of problem-solving where I set myself some arbitrary rules to create an imaginary universe. Most of my paintings are created from imagination. To create an convincing illusion of reality you need to have a very good understanding of the way things work in the real world.
This requires a lot of careful study and observation. For years I attended untutored life drawing sessions, studied books on anatomy and reproductions of great paintings, painted still-life studies and drew incessantly. Painting still-life was an important part of my artistic development, letting me make prolonged, careful studies of shapes, form and lighting effects before going on to apply this knowledge to other paintings.
We asked Elizabeth how she has developed as an artist over the years, and she replied ‘This is a painting of a piece of driftwood I did very early in my career (about forty years ago), and ‘Plastic Apocolypse (next page) is a painting I did from imagination in 2018.
Success for me means getting to the point with a painting where I can no longer see anything in it that needs to be fixed, then coming back into my studio the next day and saying “Wow!” when I see it with a fresh eye. This doesn’t happen very often, but it’s a wonderful feeling when it does. This is one of my “Wow!” paintings – Settlement Day.
On being asked ‘what does being an artist mean to you? Elizabeth replied ‘Being an artist means being obsessed. It means being short-tempered and anti-social, and generally cross at a world that keeps interrupting my painting time or my reading time or my bushwalking time or not buying my paintings. It means missing social events because there is some wet paint that has to be worked on, then wanting to party at two a.m. because I’ve finished the painting – but nobody else seems to be interested. I don’t think I can define the term “artist” because arbitrary labels are among the things that annoy me.’
After a long and successful full-time career, Elizabeth has a vast collection of artworks available for sale, only a small selection can be seen on Artfuly here – https://artfuly.com/artists/elizabethbarsham
On request we can arrange viewings
with the artist in person in Tasmania, or virtual viewings online.