Making pretty paintings that make people happy sounds like a very nice job to have. You’d never know that an existential crisis might arise in such a profession.
For 10 years Whitehorse artist Emma Barr has been making brightly coloured, soft, geometric paintings meant to please the eye and the emotions.
A new series of trees and landscapes done with acrylics and oils on canvas, showing at the Rah Rah Gallery until Feb. 2, are intended to do just that.
“These paintings are harmonious, beautiful and warm,” Barr says. “They’re not trying to challenge you on an idea or bring up an emotion that’s uncomfortable. They’re simply happy paintings.”
You’d never know that Barr was having a soul-searching crisis just before putting her brush to canvas for her new series.
The problem was that Barr stepped outside of her comfort zone to learn new techniques and in the process she lost her creative compass.
In 2010, Barr asked British Columbia landscape painter Dominik Modlinski to mentor her and introduce her to the traditional European style of painting.
“I kind of lost myself as a painter,” Barr says. “Everything that I had learned – as a painter so far – was put into question.”
During the three weeks she followed him through the Yukon bush, painting landscapes his way, she stripped away the techniques that had been working for her since she graduated from Kootenay School of the Arts in 2003.
Barr let go of her own style and adopted the methods that Modlinski was advising. For example, Modlinski drilled into her the idea that a painting needs a distinct background, a middle ground and a foreground.
She hadn’t been doing that before.
Practicing Modlinski’s techniques improved her skills and Barr found she couldn’t go back to the way she painted before, but she couldn’t keep painting like Modlinski, either.
That was the crisis: how to even paint a picture, now.
“It was an emotional rollercoaster,” Barr says. “It was very scary. It was like, I could be making paintings that don’t sell and then I’d have to look at a different career.”
But Barr has come through to the other side.
Her new show at the Rah Rah Gallery features the new Emma Barr. For example, there are seven portraits of trees in the show
“I hated painting trees before,” Barr says. “If you look at my early work, there are no trees. I didn’t think the smaller details (like trees) were important. I liked the landscapes scene, the bigger picture, because it could draw more emotion.”
It’s not just what she paints that has changed. Barr says she has opened her mind, as a painter.
“Keeping it real, as an artist, is hard,” Barr says. “There are some artists that stayed in a zone that was working for them and it’s been 20 years and they’re tired. The motivation can’t be to sell. Because if the paintings don’t sell, then you feel totally sad and like a failure. You need to go through the journey of creativity… to be true to yourself as a painter.”
The opening reception for Emma Barr’s new show The Studio Collection is on is Thursday, Jan. 31. at the Rah Rah Gallery in Whitehorse. The exhibit runs until Feb. 2. The Rah Rah Gallery is located at 6159 – 6th Ave. Call 867-336-2756 for gallery hours.