“I’m inspired by nature — landscapes, seascapes or architectural things that have been shaped by time and weather.
“But what really excites me is the juxtaposition of light and shadow.”
The words of Saint Lucian-born artist Sophie Barnard, whose body of work over the last 20 years includes powerful landscapes, intricate still lifes and emotive abstracts. Through them she captures the underlying essence of the Caribbean in strong lines and vivid colours. Details are exposed yet gathering shadows leave some questions unanswered.
A retrospective of her paintings reveals a versatility in both subject matter and execution as she has grown and matured: a study of multi-coloured rocks smoothed and polished by the flowing water of a Saint Lucian river; a series of weather-beaten wooden doors and windows with rusting bolts and galvanise roofs casting shadows on peeling, painted shutters; rural Barbadian scenes of cane arrows full of movement and shifting light and others of neatly tilled fields overlooked by majestic royal palms; still lifes of coconuts and breadfruit so vibrant and realistic you want to reach out and pick them; a green fishtail palm silhouetted against an azure sky; ancient windblown and gnarled trees bent and shaped by the relentless Atlantic breezes; and startling abstracts interlaced with poignant quotations about love in French.
The offspring of a Saint Lucian father and English mother, Sophie spent her early years between Saint Lucia and UK where she was educated. During that time she “dabbled” with art, winning a number of junior competitions and taking art at A- level at age 15. However, it was to English literature she turned to gain her degree from Birmingham University.
But her artistic talent was not to lie dormant for too long: “While in the UK, in my early 20s, I began working in oils with palette knife but when I returned to the Caribbean I quickly realized that oils take too long to dry, plus,” she says, and with typical humour, adds, “I had a number of Jack Russells and dog hair and oil paint do not go together! So I switched to acrylics which I have used ever since.”
Today Sophie Barnard works mainly in fluid acrylic Golden paint which allows her to get the clear intense colours she likes. “It’s also UV protected which is good for the Caribbean—so many paintings can fade oddly after a few years,” she explains.
Once settled back in Saint Lucia, the enterprising young artist embarked on the establishment of Zaka, a successful business specializing in painted, carved wooden masks, birthing chairs and other artworks using rejected hardwood. Exhibitions at art fairs in the Caribbean and further afield in France brought recognition for the work produced at Zaka.
A significant highlight (and challenge) of Barnard’s artistic career during this time was an invitation by the BBC to submit a painting to be included in an exhibition entitled “The Iconography of David Beckham,” being mounted at the renowned Christie’s auction house in London.
Barnard’s language is colourful as she recalls her reaction to the brief: to depict a Caribbean-inspired view of David Beckham. “For a long time I just could not imagine what I could do…..” Until, eventually inspiration: “ I painted a young Rasta, wearing a red David Beckham football jersey, sitting on the prow of a wooden fishing boat!”
The painting was very well received and did well at auction resulting in extensive coverage by the BBC and further interest in Barnard’s work. It is with a sense of regret, however, that she recalls missed opportunities; firstly, to be interviewed by the BBC—“ I completely froze when the big fuzzy microphone was put in front of me” ; and secondly, not being aware of copyright laws to protect her painting from being used for commercial purposes all across Europe. “It was a learning experience,” she remarks, resignedly.
In 2005 an older and more mature Barnard, now a single mother of an eight-year-old daughter, moved to Barbados. “At first I went back and forth between Saint Lucia and Barbados but gradually I began to spend more and more time in Barbados and eventually established a home and studio in the rural parish of St Joseph.”
The style and timbre of her work began to change.
“Whereas my Saint Lucian-inspired work is romantic, emotionally hazy with mountains disappearing into drifting clouds, my paintings of Barbados are more in your face with a sharpness and clarity inspired by the openness of the rolling landscape and the mesmeric qualities of the sea.”
Barnard’s love of detail is also a huge influence in her work. However, what excites her most is the juxtaposition of light and shadow. The drama of clouds building behind a sunny field, the silver-white shimmer of cane arrows against dark skies or the flaming colours of sunlit crotons contrasted against the deep purple shadows, play a significant role in her paintings.
Her use of bold colours are perhaps an indication of her forceful personality, yet there are hidden qualities to her work which highlight an emotional sensitivity. By her own admission she is inspired by challenges: “how to achieve realism with the edge of a wave on the sand, the transparency of the water, swirling sand, reflections of the sky—it’s about satisfying myself that I have managed to convey what I wanted to.”
To this end she often does series of similar pieces usually “because I’m exploring aspects of that image or learning new techniques as I go.”
Her series of worn and weather-beaten doors are examples of this. “ I try to convincingly convey an emotion or a moment to get the viewer to see beauty in mundane things.”
But is there an underlying message?
“If you had asked me about the doors a few years ago,” she says, “I think I would have answered along the lines of being fascinated with aging wood, peeling paint, light, shadow, etc. Now, in hindsight I believe that those closed doors, windows and shutters may have had something to do with feeling unable to open new doors at that point in my life.”
Indeed, there is little doubt that Barnard’s work reflects stages and aspects of her emotional life.
Following the death of her mother her paintings were filled with cloudy intense skies—cane arrows, stormy beaches, cloudy landscapes.
Later, a series of abstract pieces, exhibited in Barbados in 2011, are interlaced with quotations in French which, translated, read: “The artist’s heart is fragile, handle with care”; and “Love is dangerous”—an indication that this talented woman’s heart is not on her sleeve but in her paintbrush.
In more recent times she has leant towards more “open landscapes, more expansive views that fit in with the changes in my life. “
It is perhaps significant that one of the earliest influences on Barnard’s artistic journey was Sydney Bagshaw. The grandfather of one of her childhood friends, Bagshaw was an American artist who retired to Saint Lucia in the early Sixties and who together with his wife started the world-renowned screen printing company Bagshaws. He was also the designer of the Saint Lucian Coat of Arms.
“He was very careful with the juxtaposition of colours. His screen-printing work had a crisp clarity to it and he’d talk to us about what made a good composition— e.g. why a print with just bamboo leaves sold better than bamboo leaves and a humming bird. In hindsight a lot of things he spoke about that seemed to go in one ear and out the other may have resonated with me more than I realized at the time!”
But what of the here and now? And what does the future hold for this complex artist?
Now resident in the UK, although she returns to her home in Saint Lucia three or four times a year, Sophie Barnard is slowly coming to grips with an entirely different palette of colours and gradually accumulating new pieces.
“When I first moved here a couple of years ago, I was still painting in my Caribbean style but now I find myself looking into a slightly more romantic landscape.”
As she walks her Bajan dogs in the Oxfordshire countryside, she is discovering a sense of distance in the line after line of hills and hedges, fields and forests. Yet, her work will always be influenced by her Caribbean perspective and heritage. The English palette may be softer and more subtle than the brilliant colours of the tropics but the underpainting techniques she used in paintings like her Croton series to make the colours pop she now finds herself using in her current work.
“Although the light here is very soft—almost gloomy at times—there is a richness and a depth of colour that even while subtle you may not always get in the Caribbean. For example, I find myself seeking out a single pine tree lit by very strong sunlight against a background of darker pines. I guess skeptics will say I am still seeking the sun!”
As she straddles two worlds and embarks on a new phase of her life, Barnard’s artistic journey is also in transition. It will be fascinating to see how it evolves as she combines her penchant for strong, crisp lines and brilliant clarity with more sensitive details, softer light and a feeling that there is something just out of reach, hidden in the shadows of the trees.