By VICTOR SLEDGE November, 2022
In Mary Oliver’s poem, “How I Go Into the Woods,” as she explores the landscape in solitary stillness, she writes, “I can hear the almost unbearable sound of the roses singing.”
For painter Elizabeth Barlow, it’s just one of the many quotations she keeps in her journal, and it’s a line that carries the same air that flows through her work.
In her upcoming exhibition Flora Fauna, alongside artist Susan Manchester at the Monterey Museum of Art, Barlow will feature paintings from her Floral Portrait series. The series explores and extrapolates the beauty of flowers in our world, and, within the context of the exhibition, uplifts the beauty and fragility of treasured ecosystems.
“Every painting of a flower can carry a deeper message than the surface beauty of a flower,” Barlow says.
Barlow does paint for beauty’s sake, and she’s intentional and forthcoming about that, but, more importantly, she also acts as a conduit to what blooms from that beauty.
Her hyperrealistic, representational paintings of the flowers that surround her life take the traditional practice of natural, still life painting and stretches it out to give life and meaning to what can be found between the budding of a rose and the hanging of a canvas.
There’s a parallel between her process and the nature she’s working with that creates a symbiosis in her work.
She explains that her process is meditative and meticulous to such an extent that she never quite knows what the painting is going to look like until the painting itself tells her. It’s a process that takes a release of control and an embrace of surrender. Through a ponderance on peace and pause in her work, she too eventually starts to hear the flowers in her work sing to her on their own terms. In the same way, Barlow says, “You can’t just summon nature.”
Barlow describes the process of scavenging for just the right pieces of nature to introduce to each other in a composition and how she waits for the right lighting to photograph them—either in the perfect morning light or the golden hour of the late afternoon—before she can start her paintings. She’s at the mercy of the clouds, the sun, sometimes even the world around her and what it chooses to produce.
The same release of control in Barlow’s work build is the same release of control that’s inherent to the nature she works with. For Barlow, this has created a respect and sense of acuity for the world around her, from which she believes everyone can benefit.
“The longer and slower I look at a flower,” she says, “it also teaches me to look at another human face in another way.”
The way Barlow lets her process breathe, the way she can step back and yield to these elements that she can’t control in her work—these meditative qualities spread to not only how she looks at nature but all other living beings around her. “For me, painting flowers is transformative because it changes how I walk through the world trying to perceive more deeply,” she explains. “It deepens my reverence for how precious everything on our planet is.”
Barlow remembers a commission she completed for an owner of a vineyard in California in 2017. The vintner and his wife had narrowly escaped a wildfire in the middle of the night, driving away as the flames chased them over the hills. The only things that survived the fires were the vines and one rose bush.
When it was time to rebuild on the property, the man, whose wife had also unfortunately passed months after the fire, had come back to the property to see the rose bush miraculously bursting with fresh roses. He commissioned Barlow to create a six-foot tall painting of the rose bush that she eventually titled The Phoenix Rose for the rose bush that quite literally rose out of the ashes.
The Phoenix Rose still rests in the vintner’s new home on the vineyard. The painting is indicative of the invaluable life Barlow subsumes in her work.
“Painting it, I realized that these flowers really are metaphors for the human spirit,” she says. “Life on this planet is fragile, but it’s also powerful. It’s experiences like The Phoenix Rose in Barlow’s work that strikes her with a genuine reverence for her artistry as well as the life that inspires it. Of course, it takes time to develop this reverence through such a detailed and conscious practice, and she reached that point by simply showing up.
Barlow is inspired by people devoted to their craft, who, no matter what, punch the clock in their studio, office, gym—whatever—every day. She admires this consistency so much so that as she paints, she listens to audiobooks, often about other creatives and their work, and she embodies this persistence she so much appreciates in others.
“We have to show up and do the work,” she says. And it’s not lost on the people who know Barlow how unwavering her work ethic is. She often gets compliments about her estimable discipline. “It’s not discipline,” Barlow says, though. “It’s devotion.” Devotion to her process. Devotion to nature. Devotion to beauty: the world and the people around her. As an artist and a person, the pace and patience of her work is an act of devotion to whatever she may meet in the process
Even further, it’s an act of devotion to what her viewers may meet in that process. In Flora Fauna, Barlow hopes they’re met with a more profound understanding of the beauty of life in the world and what it means to hold veneration for such an expensive beauty. “I hope it’s a door to something deeper for the viewer. I hope that I can lure people in with beauty, and, hopefully,” she says, “they will see not just the beauty of the painting but of the world.”
Barlow’s paintings will be shown in the Monterey Museum of Art’s Flora Fauna exhibition, along with work from Barlow’s friend and fellow artist, Susan Manchester, from December 8, 2022 to April 16, 2023.
You can learn more about Barlow by visiting her website here.
Victor Sledge is an Atlanta-based writer with experience in journalism, academic, creative, and business writing. He has a B.A. in English with a concentration in British/American Cultures and a minor in Journalism from Georgia State University. Victor was an Arts & Living reporter for Georgia State’s newspaper, The Signal, which is the largest university newspaper in Georgia. He spent a year abroad studying English at Northumbria University in Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK, where he served as an editor for their creative magazine before returning to the U.S. as the Communications Ambassador for Georgia State’s African American Male Initiative. He is now a master’s student in Georgia State’s Africana Studies Program, and his research interest is Black representation in media, particularly for Black Americans and Britons. His undergraduate thesis, Black on Black Representation: How to Represent Black Characters in Media, explores the same topic.