© 2022

A Study of Tenderness and Transformation: With Elizabeth Barlow

Interview, Words MARYAM ARSHAD / MA



Embedded in the warm hues of her California studio, Elizabeth Barlow collaborates with flora on a deeply intimate level. The paintings that flourish here reach out and elicit a unique response, one that connects to these living forms and their abundance of power, force and wonder. Portraits of flora in harmony with their source, luring us in and opening up our senses and thoughts to distinct ideas on renewal and resilience. The beauty detailed by Barlow mirrors the physical compositions created, in turn reflecting her thoughts on the tenderness and transformations of flora.

Flora Fauna is currently exhibiting at the Monterey Museum of Art, California (December 8, 2022 - April 16, 2023).  

MA Flora extends across a broad spectrum of notions, perspectives and intangible ideas.  Does it have any meaning in particular to you? 

EB I often think of this quote by Rainer Maria Rilke: “Learn to fathom what a flower infers.” Flowers are potent symbols of the incredible power of the life force on this earth: of strength within seeming fragility and of the astonishing ability for rebirth and re-emergence that lies within all living things. Even the most tiny and delicate flower carries within it a fierce life force, which deserves our respect and protection. I want the beauty of my Flora Portraits to lure the viewer into slowing down and looking deeply. If we will pause to truly look at the world  around us, we will develop a deep reverence for the living things on this planet and awaken to the wonders of this earth. 

MA Your works are “in collaboration” with each composition of physical flora. To what extent does collaboration occur? 

EB When I begin a new painting, I spend days and weeks searching for the right flowers for my composition. I’m looking for flowers that will work together visually in their size, color, gesture. But I’m also looking for individuals that each convey a particular emotion. It might be joy, tenderness, or poignancy. So, it’s a dialogue between me and my muses, the flowers. I think of each of these flowers as a citizen from another world: the Flora species. 

MA How do you go about selecting and detailing the flora across these works? 

EB This question makes me laugh because when I am beginning a new painting, I get flower drunk. My studio, home, and refrigerator are overflowing with the flowers who are my model muses. I often take hundreds of photographs, always outside in the early morning or late afternoon light. I want to capture the gorgeous long, violet shadows of these times of day. These are my reference photos, and I will use a combination of them for the composition of my painting. I spend many days playing with the flowers, looking for a resonance within each bloom. I want each flower to ravish us with her beauty, yet also hint at something greater.

MA How do materials, textures, colours and emotions intertwine within your paintings? 

EB I’ve always been drawn to the dramatic chiaroscuro and subtle color shifts in the work of Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Caravaggio. But interestingly, my own work is much higher in chroma. I believe that while we see the world using our intellect, our hearts have “eyes,” too. My meditation practice strengthens my ability to see with my heart, to see the “being-ness” of all living things. And apparently, the eyes of my heart see the world in rich, saturated color! That being said, I am thinking about doing a series of white flower paintings next year. I would love to explore living in that world of gentle hues. Stay tuned.

MA How has your location directed your recent works centered on flora? 

EB Thank you, this is a great question! When I moved to this California seaside town several years ago, my work underwent a dramatic transformation. Suddenly, I was surrounded by ocean mists, cypresses, pines, and year-round flowers. I found a studio in a historic church surrounded by a garden in the center of the village. I found myself yearning to paint flowers. Every day now, I walk to my studio from our home, and I am greeted by other citizens of our precious world: roses, poppies, lavender, and bougainvillea. My flora portraits are a wake-up call to pay attention to beauty, because it will transform how we walk through this world. 

MA Can you tell us about your most appreciated flora, both created and physical? 

EB My favorite flower is the rose and my most important painting to date is “The Phoenix Rose.” 

Several years ago, I was asked to create a painting for a home on a vineyard in Sonoma, California. The homeowner and his wife lost their previous home in the 2017 Wine Country Fires, barely escaping with their lives. Everything on the property was destroyed and the only things that survived were the vines and one rose bush. Even more tragedy followed when the wife died several months later. But then something amazing happened. That single rose bush began to bloom gloriously. The homeowner decided to build a new house on the same site and asked me to create a 6-foot painting of that rose bush for the house. I took hundreds of photos of the roses to use as references for my painting, but I didn’t want to paint an actual replica of the rose bush. I wanted to capture the strength and resilience of this beautiful living thing. We titled  the painting “The Phoenix Rose,” because it literally rose out of the ashes. Roses lure us in with  their beauty and then offer powerful lessons of hope, renewal and strength within seeming fragility.

MA Your works will exhibit later this year as part of “Flora Fauna”. What can we expect from this  visual collection? 

EB Flora Fauna will feature my Flora Portraits alongside the drawings of Susan Manchester. Susan and I work in neighboring studios and we share a reverence for the natural world, as well as a dedication to bringing beauty into being. I’ve been working on new paintings for the exhibition all year and I’m particularly thrilled to unveil “Mornings at La Mirada,” a large canvas filled with voluptuous roses found in the museum’s own rose garden. I hope that the exhibition will spark delight as well as provoke a sense of wonder about the treasures of our amazing planet.

Check out Flora Fauna at the Monterey Museum of Art, California (December 8, 2022 - April 16, 2023).



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