Painting Plants: Elizabeth Barnett

Words by
Nicola Heath
| March 10, 2017

Elizabeth Barnett paints lush, verdant interiors so inviting you want to step into them, right through the canvas. Saturday papers sprawl across dining tables amid tangles of luxuriant foliage. Plants in ceramic pots, cups of tea and stacks of books offer up scenes of the perfect weekend.

Barnett lives at the base of Mount Macedon on a 12-acre farm that lies on the edge of the Wombat State Forest, with her husband and their two children, Archer, 4 and Beatrice, 1.

Before a bushfire destroyed the property in 1983, the grounds around the farmhouse (which survived the fire) were a regular fixture on the Open Gardens trail. Subsequent owners gutted the place and put in new landscaping. New owner Barnett is still mapping out the sprawling garden, which, she concedes, “needs a lot of love.”

The painter and her family moved to Macedon in November 2015, when Beatrice was 4 weeks old. “I’ve always wanted to live in the country, and I finally convinced my husband,” says Barnett. Life in Melbourne’s inner-city suburb of Richmond had become too busy. After a new apartment block was built nearby, “our street was just getting busier and busier, and you couldn’t park out the front of our place anymore,” she says. “We were just over it.”

Elizabeth Barnett at her show 'Portraits of Early Summer' at Ivy Muse Botanical Emporium. Image - Jessica Tremp
Elizabeth Barnett at her show 'Portraits of Early Summer' at Ivy Muse Botanical Emporium. Image - Jessica Tremp

How is your life in the country different to what it was like in Richmond?
There’s lots of farm jobs to do now, which we love. It’s a lot quieter, and it’s a better community. Our neighbours all have kids and we’ve got gates between the properties, so we can catch up on a regular basis, which is really nice. A lot of the places around us were rentals in Richmond, and there was always people moving in and out. And it’s just so beautiful, waking up every morning to the different light. This morning it was foggy and raining and now it’s brilliant sunshine. It’s really inspiring.

And do you run it as a farm? Do you grow things and have a lot of animals?
We’re still working out what we’re doing. We’ve got five alpacas, we had two babies last year. And we’ve got lots of chickens and we’re hoping to put in a market garden, something enough to feed ourselves and hopefully our friends. We keep having ideas like maybe an olive grove, but while the kids are little it’s really hard to get our feet back into anything massive, so we’re taking it slowly. We wanted to spend a year as well getting to know the farm and the lot and the soil and what’s happening around us so we didn’t jump into something that wasn’t going to work.

Is play and experimentation important to your creative process?
Play is hugely important to my practise. I probably don’t experiment as much with materials and styles as much as with colour, composition and subject matter. I used to experiment more but I feel like I have found my groove with what I materials I use and mediums I work in.

I definitely always want to push my art practise further and further and if that means some days off in the garden then that is what I’ll do.

Walking helps too to think of ideas and dream up new colour palettes, and of course playing with the kids changes the way you look at the world and how you want to paint it.

What do you do in your time away from painting to refresh?
In my time away from painting it is all about the kids and being outside in the garden, creative play with them and bush walking, tending animals and whatever else the kids feel into that day. After the kids are in bed I am all about knitting, music, yoga and hanging out with my partner.

How would you describe your art?
My work is about my immediate surroundings, mostly, documenting the everyday and trying to create spaces that, at first, were like spaces to retreat from the craziness of having a young family, but now they’re more accepting of that world.

I’m looking more outdoors now so I’ve started doing some landscapes and painting the garden. I always find real inspiration in going for a walk, so I started painting the track that I walk.

I want to bring joy with my work in a way, through colour. I think I was a repressed painter for a long time. I studied printmaking and always used a lot of black and white. I feel like the colour is just kind of exploding now for me.

Image - Jessica Tremp
Image - Jessica Tremp

Why did you switch from printmaking to painting?
It was more of a practical decision. When I was pregnant with Archer, I remember going to the print studio one day to do all the processing in the back room, around chemicals, and I just thought, I can’t do this anymore, because, being pregnant, I didn’t want to expose myself to those fumes. I started doing some acrylic painting at home because I was so frustrated that I couldn’t continue my art practice. So I switched to painting and watercolour and really enjoyed it. Then I started selling my work at a little shop at the south Melbourne market, and then had a show, and it went from there. And now I just love painting so much, I couldn’t really go back.

What draws you to plants in particular as a subject for your art?
It was when I started painting at home, I think Arch was really little, and Glasshaus Nursery had just opened up around the corner – an indoor plant store – and I loved it. I’d go for a walk and I’d pop in there on my way home and always seemed to be collecting more and more plants. So it was just what I was painting in the house, and I had lots of plants around, and I loved the form and the different shapes of leaves. They’re really lovely objects to paint. Always different.

Is your house still full of plants?
I wouldn’t say it’s full of plants. It’s quite a large old farmhouse, so my large plant collection feels quite sparse throughout the house, but yes, it’s definitely got a lot of plants. But I’ve turned my focus to the outside garden rather than inside plants. Where we were in Richmond we didn’t really have a yard at all so it was definitely more of an indoor plant garden.

Can you describe your studio? Where do you do your painting?
I paint in the old kids’ rumpus room. That has become my studio mainly because the light in there is the best. It has large south-facing windows and the kids can play at my feet. They have their little table set up for their painting. It’s a really lovely space to work in and it looks out into the backyard, and beyond that there’s the big gum trees and bush, and lots of bird life.

Image - Jessica Tremp
Image - Jessica Tremp

And what does a typical day look like for you?
Every day’s so different. If I’ve got the kids home, we often go for a walk in the morning, or to the park, or just out on the farm here, and I often catch up with a friend who is in Woodend. She’s also got kids the same age, she’s also a photographer so we often help each other out with minding the kids and doing work. If they’re at daycare, I’m pretty disciplined and get straight to work and make the most of the time while they’re being looked after.

A recent exhibition of yours was called “Portraits of Early Summer”. Do you have a favourite time of year?
Probably my favourite time of year is autumn, the long afternoons and low light and foraging for mushrooms in the lovely pine forest at the end of our road.

But I’ve really loved getting to know the seasons more intimately living out on the land. Just the colours; we’ve got this lovely set of gum trees which inspired those paintings in the last show. They turn different colours in different seasons and different times of day. They’re the marker for me for the time of year, in a way.

“Arrangements”, an exhibition of Elizabeth Barnett’s paintings, is showing at Boom Gallery, 11 Rutland St, Newtown, 3220, from March 2 to 25, 2017.

Check out Elizabeth’s WEBSITE / INSTAGRAM

All images shot by Jessica Tremp at Elizabeth’s “Portraits of Early Summer” exhibition at Ivy Muse Botanical Emporium in Armadale (open until March 31).


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