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Del Kathryn Barton: Whimsical, Weird and wonderful- Ecstasy and Metamorphosis


Alliterations just come naturally when you are surrounded by paintings that exude from this wonderful, weird world of Del Kathryn Barton. I have been in a studio of color, forms and found objects that belong, I sense, as much in dreams as in reality and perhaps that’s why I feel transformed- as if the paintings in combination with the poetic prose that comes from this artist as she speaks reminds me that the lines between dream and reality are not as defined as we would prefer to believe as we go about our daily lives.

Del Kathryn is preparing for an exhibition to be held at Heidi on November 10. The twelve paintings are completed. At the time of my visit the artist is reaching the end of another long journey in regards to a painting and is somewhat surprised that she has let me see an unfinished piece. She explains that unlike some people who like the tension of having spectators look at a work in progress, she prefer to keep her pieces private until they are completed. Although Del Kathryn comes across as composed and strong in her intensity she speaks of “usually avoiding feelings of vulnerability and being exposed that early showings of work would give rise to”. It’s strange to this outsider to hear someone speak of a fear of rejection when the unfinished painting I am looking out has formed itself as a permanent image within me. The paintings around me were wondrous in composition, color and content and I had to force my eyes away from them in order to focus on my reason for being there.

I’d sought out Del Kathryn Barton because her work intrigues me and because I wanted to learn more about her practice and about the show to be held at Heidi Museum of Art next month. The paintings were done specifically for a book project. This involved her providing paintings not so much to illustrate Oscar Wilde’s famous story ‘The Nightingale and the Rose’ but the works to be its visual embodiment. The story of course have universal themes dealing as it does with love, violence, sacrifice, disappointment, ingratitude and generally the tragedy, its joy and its sorrow, of serving love and being scorned. The nightingale that gives its life for love does so unknowing of the betrayal and ignorance that comes in the wake of his death. Its sacrifice reminds one of Orpheus who in understanding the suffering of love will sacrifice everything in order that the tale is told. The nightingale gives her life to create a rose of blood. The analogy holds perhaps when one experiences the sense and the extent to which Del Kathryn Barton gives of her life to her art. And so when Del Kathryn Barton writes in the foreword to the book: ‘It seems possible to me that the Nightingale is the true artist, she gives completely of her deepest essence’, I am mindful of what She as the artist has given to these paintings.

The story of process can be dreary by not when Del Kathryn explores her own. It appears there are many ‘people’ that inhabit her mind as she works but mostly they divide into two dramatized types. Both are ignited by the necessity to create; it is the work that takes her somewhere and generates its own energy. There is one that emerges when doing the labor-intensive work on the feathers of the birds. The feathered theme of the art-works brought she noted new things to her practice and required great patience. She noted that she enjoyed these aesthetically and felt calm and patient in the process of building them up in all their intricate complexity. Then there is the person who makes the final finish to a work that takes the form of a splattering of paint that is seen on her work. This requires the right kind of mood she insists. It must also emerge at the right time- that moment – in which she wants her work ‘to be teetering on the edge of completeness, still in a state of rawness but built up to that point of saturation … more would destroy it’. She sees herself as now more-knowing when this point has arrived. This other person that emerges at this point is one more rushed at a dramatic moment in which she ‘is harnessing different states of being, taking a risk’. It may occur randomly in the night and requires a particular ‘head-space’.

The Oscar Wilde project is an unusual one for the artist to have taken on in that it was in the first instance another person’s vision (Eleanora). It had a prescribed frame that, Del Kathryn noted, can be equally challenging and frustrating. However Barton was given room to find her own points of engagement. Her selection from the tale were ones that, as she expressed it ‘ juiced me up”. “It is, “ she says, perhaps somewhat sardonically, but not without irony and humor, ” after all a very juicy story”. The fact that there are tears and blood extracted from the nightingale in the service of love is what also drew an empathetic identification from the painter. There is a metamorphosis in this story, which this artist has succeeded in transforming to paint in a manner that adds to Wilde’s story.

In Oscar Wilde’s story the nightingale in seeing the sadness of the student who needs to find the reddest of roses to give his loved one decides to sacrifice his life to create a rose drawn from her blood. At the height of her exchange of life for art and love she gives one last burst of music:

“The white Moon heard it, and she forgot the dawn, and lingered on in the sky. The red rose heard it, and it trembled all over with ecstasy, and opened its petals to the cold morning air. Echo bore it to her purple cavern in the hills, and woke the sleeping shepherds from their dreams. It floated through the reeds of the river, and they carried its message to the sea” (Oscar Wilde).

Wilde celebrates the beauty of the song that brought forth the crimson rose; its symbolism invokes our sense of hearing song. Del Kathryn’s paintings brought forth from her own essence, tell the story for our eyes. ‘Eyes’ exist throughout her paintings as elements in a face and as symbols invoked on nature and objects. She says elsewhere that eyes fascinate her (and indeed one is first attracted to them in her paintings), because they exude things as well as take things in: there are the tears and there are eyes that resonate the dreams from within and from all that the world provides.

These paintings of Oscar Wilde’s story first envisaged by her friend Eleanora, in the end are ‘dreamt into being’ by a unique seer. It is the case that this exhibition will draw vast crowds to Heidi- at first those who know Del Kathryn’s work will go there – but then there will be word of mouth messaging and these extraordinary paintings will be available to all who know how to listen and who want to see into the center of things: The beauty, the terror and the transformations.