Interview by Madeleine Dore
Photography and art supplied by Del Kathryn Barton
Del Kathryn Barton
When viewing artist Del Kathryn Barton’s enchanting paintings, I can't help but wonder what her dreams must look like. 'I really do have great dreams,' she admits. 'And they are all a bit too much sometimes. I don't really know where it all comes from, but there is a lot of weird and wonderful juice happening!'
The longing to be the free and wild protagonists in her paintings creates somewhat of a conundrum in her life, she adds. 'The idea of riding a blue bunny across the universe is pretty cool, but because I can't really experience that myself I will make a painting of a lady who can.'
But the longing is far from signalling discontent with her reality. When I ask Del to imagine what her life would be like if she pursued a career in rock climbing – the only passion to almost contend with her art – she held back a laugh. 'I think I'd be married to a hot climbing man, I'd be twenty-kilos lighter than I am now, and probably wishing that I pursued the life of an artist.'
You know you're onto a good thing when you imagine the life you could have had and end up wishing for the one you've got.
Exhibiting since 1995, Del has twice been awarded the Archibald Prize and her work is represented in major museum collections in Australia. Her recent foray into animation is now screening at ACMI and reimagines Oscar Wilde’s The Nightingale and the Rose in her enchanting signature style.
While all of her work is labour intensive, she said working on the film brought her close to breaking point. Yet she relishes taking on such momentous tasks because ‘things have to hurt so good.’
'I'm very good at editing out the hard things in my memory. I'm a natural born optimist, so if bleeding that much and suffering that much helps create something that feels true and you really believe in, then yeah, let's go again!'
One of the most striking qualities about Del is her laugh – it's warm and unobstructed. The way she disperses advice is similar – direct on matters others would dance around: 'There is no reason to create it if you are not fully engaged and constantly trying to evolve the practice.'
Now living within blocks from her studio, her partner’s office and her 11-year-old daughter and 14-year-old son's school, Del describes recently moving and downsizing as ‘life changing’.
'Every minute of the day counts – I never thought I'd be that person, but at this stage it’s true.'
Del works hard, evident as she steps us through an average week, but it’s with energy, feeling and focus. Her refreshing view on life, creativity, and human emotion is ultimately as stunning as the work she creates.
In some ways my week is very organised, but every day is different due to the thrills and challenges of being a working mum.
My eating habits are usually the same. What I do doesn't sound that healthy to be honest, but I like a little bit of plain Greek yogurt in the morning – I feel like it just does something nice to my tummy. Then I pretty much smash coffees – double shots or triple shots – until maybe 11am. I love that full on vibe coffee gives you.
I usually have help with the kids Monday and Tuesday, so my partner Chris and I both hit the start of the week pretty hard.
Monday is my sacred, sacred creative day – it is the only day that I get to work solo these days, which has been a little bit hard.
Ideally, I'm in the studio by 5.00am, probably 6.30am at the latest – if I'm not in there before then I'm really anxious just because that day means everything to me. I’ll be in the studio for 10-14 hours on a Monday and I try to ignore my phone and emails and just get into the zone. I don't find that hard to do – what is hard is coming out of the zone.
If I wasn't a working mother, that would ideally be life every day! I'm a total, self-confessed workaholic. I feel as equally blessed to be a parent, relationships are really important to me, but I could pretty much work 24/7 until I die!
"It is all a bit contradictory in a way, but I think the working life has to be – I'm a dogged hard-worker, but my work also has to have an elasticity to it."
But I've adjusted to having just the Monday as “Del day” because the road that I am on with my film work is an increasingly generous and exciting one and it means that I have to be a bit more grown up and strategic. That doesn't always work, the wheels do fall off and there is only so much strategy you can bring to any creative life or creative project, but I am very good at being spontaneous and flexible as well. It is all a bit contradictory in a way, but I think the working life has to be – I'm a dogged hard-worker, but my work also has to have an elasticity to it.
My gallery manager Liz works from home on a Monday but comes in on Tuesday. We have worked together for years and we really do have a pretty amazing creative alchemy. She is one of the very few people in the world I feel like I can be in a room with and not be distracted – I can be in that really deep, creative place.
Again, I like to start early on a Tuesday because I’m not on the school run or worrying about school lunches, so I’ll get to the studio between 6-8.00am. I'll still be on the big beats with the paintings or the drawings, but it is a little bit of everything.
Everything is so deadline driven. We are at the end of a two-year film project and on deadline to finish it for October this year.
My husband and I tag-team from Wednesday to Friday with the kids and doing school drop offs and pick ups, which is really important to us. We are a really great team and we have had to make some pretty big choices along the way about where we live. What was life changing for us two years ago was relocating and downsizing – our home is now two minutes from my studio, and ten minutes from Chris's office and the kids' schools. My whole life exists within five minutes from home.
Every minute of the day counts – I never thought I'd be that person, but at this stage it’s true with managing the kids schedules as well.
I have two more assistants that work in the studio Wednesday to Friday. It has been an evolving journey learning to work with people. I don't think that I'm a natural boss, but about ten years ago my gallerist at the time said, ‘Del, if you don't start working with people, you are going to kill yourself.’
"My days are sort of like juggling and tap dancing – I think that is energising for me, but it does drive other people a little bit crazy because we will be working on something and boom, suddenly we’re moving onto something else."
I have an all-or-nothing sort of mentality. Because I abuse my body with caffeine in the morning I will do something really nutritious for lunch. I was brought up vegetarian – I'm not a vegetarian now – but Chris doesn't have the same love for vegetables that I have, so I tend to have a huge veggie hit at the studio.
My days are sort of like juggling and tap dancing – I think that is energising for me, but it does drive other people a little bit crazy because we will be working on something and boom, suddenly we’re moving onto something else. But the people I work with now have adjusted to my eccentricities, and I think that keeps it fun and interesting too.
From Wednesday to Friday my hours are more normal I suppose, working from 8.00 or 9.00am till 5.00 or 6.00pm. In the evening Chris and I might cook – that old ‘C’ word!
I grew up in the country and dinner was really important, everyone sitting down and sharing their days, and so I do cherish that grand vision of having dinner together. We do have the odd TV dinner, but mostly we try to eat as a family and achieve that probably three nights a week.
Eight hours sleep is not enough for me – I need a lot of sleep and I always go to bed early. Chris tucks me in before the kids and then he will usually work till midnight. I do have periodic insomnia, but I usually sleep really well. Depending on how exhausted I am, I might play Words with Friends before bed. I'm obsessed with it so that's my thing at the end of the day.
I work six days a week and leading up to a deadline sometimes seven. Chris is workaholic too and his work is very demanding, so again we just sort of juggle. It sounds like we never see each other, but we actually have a great relationship and really love each other. He is a nerd, a very cerebral nerd, which is hot.
"I’m always working in a way, but at the beach the ideas turn over in a much more restful, supported way. The urgency goes away, which is a relief."
We both love the water and needed an escape hatch, so as a gift to ourselves five years ago we got a little nest up at the beach. It is close enough to our lives that it is not epic drive, so often the family will go up on the weekend and Chris and I will be driving up and down a little bit. Once we are there it really is a totally sacred place for our family and our bodies and minds. I’m always working in a way, but at the beach the ideas turn over in a much more restful, supported way. The urgency goes away, which is a relief.
BEHIND THE SCENES
On how our greatest strengths can be our greatest weakness…
I’ve always had the belief that our greatest strengths are our greatest weaknesses. Hard work is what keeps me sane in many ways – that might sound a bit strange. I'm very good at making big decisions very quickly and I don't look back. I've always believed in the potentiality of commitment, when you truly commit so many extraordinary things become possible – I’m not a hesitator, I'm not a procrastinator, if anything I am too urgent and I might die young! [Laughs]
But it has only been in more recent years that I realised I do suffer from clinical anxiety and I have been living with that and managing that my whole life without having a paradigm around it. So I think that urgency – which isn't always a nice place to be – has come from living with and managing anxiety.
On having a love affair with your work…
When I start something, there is an energy and commitment akin to a love affair. I am really passionate about it and I will fight very hard, but then if I do discard something, I discard it quite brutally and ruthlessly and it is suddenly totally dead to me. Big time. [Laughs] Life is way too short for that after all – I'm an all-in or all-out kind of person.
I feel like the energy and the integrity goes out of the work if it there is no play and risk. I rate those experiences quite highly because you don't want things to become too laboured and repetitive. You just start to die inside otherwise.
"Life is way too short for that after all – I'm an all-in or all-out kind of person."
On human emotions and longing…
Feelings and human emotions are in many ways all that we have to give meaning to our lives. I have always felt things really deeply and that informs my work and who I am.
I just received funding to produce a feature film which will unpack a lot of these ideas about longing and what sort of energy it can bring to our lives – does it enhance or deplete or fracture us? Is it deep or is it superficial?
There is a certain wanting and desiring part of me, but at the same a strong moral compass is really important. All of those things can conflict and there is so much discipline and pain, but also pleasure.
On not pushing yourself to be an artist…
If you are a young, aspiring, creative practitioner and you do have a lot of blockage, then maybe it's not the right journey for you, actually. It might sound a little bit ruthless, but I feel that if you can live without your work you will be a happier and more fulfilled person living without it. But if you can't live without your work, then you just have to fucking go for it and trust the work and give everything to the work and it will find a way, I really believe that.
"It might sound a little bit ruthless, but I feel that if you can live without your work you will be a happier and more fulfilled person living without it."
On giving yourself a deadline for your career…
From quite a young age, say 18 or 19, I knew I didn't want to turn 50 and be a bitter, failed, creative. I am ambitious and the career aspect of my art practice has always been really important to me, so I created a set of goals and gave myself ten years to realise them. I said to myself that if I turn 30 and I haven't realised these things that I would re-train in something else.
I always felt that maybe I couldn’t have a passionate career doing something else, but I could have a fulfilling career in something like psychology.
On the experience of hitting breaking point…
I think breaking point is a combination of physical and mental breakdown. Mostly I sort of teeter on the edge of one or the other, but when they come at the same time, that’s something else entirely. Last Christmas I didn't realise how rundown I was – I basically couldn't get out of bed for two weeks and I thought I might have depression or have had a breakdown, but it did turned out I had pneumonia and didn't realise it. So the wheels really did fall off at the end of last year.
On being on the edge of the art world…
I am not a great networker – I get quite anxious and do suffer social anxiety when going to openings and things. Of course that was a really important thing to have done as a young, emerging artist, but I am very content to be in the art world as least as possible now. I feel like I've kind of earned that for myself.
I don't really draw energy from the art world – I feel very grateful to have my place in it and it is comprised of so many extraordinary people, but I am happier being on the edge and being a bit reclusive. In fact, my perfect vision for my working life once the kids are grown up and settled is to work rurally. A connection to the landscape is really life-giving and important to me.
"Feelings and human emotions are in many ways all that we have to give meaning to our lives."