In anticipation of her most recent series, Figure Painting, we sat down with Toronto artist Barbara Cole to learn about her process, methods and inspiration behind her most minimal work to date.
1) “Figure Painting” is a remarkable title for a series of photographs. What inspired this title?
I have been known to have five, six or even more "working titles" to my shows. This has the effect of driving people crazy – especially my studio assistants. It’s very unusual for me to find a title at the outset that sticks but this one did. Figure Painting embodies the correlation between drawing with the camera in water and messing around with finger paints as a child. It was a fun play on words that sums up my approach to photography.
2) What was the most challenging aspect of creating this particular series?
Working with these talented performers is always quite challenging. Not only do they need to work under the water in a graceful way, but they need to learn how to breath for balance, keep their eyes relaxed and open, straighten their wardrobe and hair, and brush any stray bubbles off their faces and bodies. With Figure Painting they were stripped down, quite literately. Their body was their wardrobe so on top of everything they had to find poses that would cover certain parts of their anatomy.
Technically there are always challenges because every idea requires a new approach. I think you just have to believe that anything is possible and then get your crew on side to see your vision and help with its execution.
3) This series has an unusual back story - it turned out quite differently than you had originally conceived. Can you tell us about the original concept, and how it transitioned?
It was amazing how this show came about. I had worked up big plans for another body of work called WHIRL, based loosely on the idea of a Whirling Dirvish. As is often the case, things underwater work differently. Within moments of the first day of shooting I knew I would have to think of something else. As I looked around my pool-side studio at my crew, and feeling no small amount of pressure, I pulled the Figure Painting concept out of my back pocket…which is to say virtually out of thin air. I didn’t know I had a backup idea until that moment, but I suppose all of us artists do.
4) There is a historical tradition of painters referencing photography, and vice-versa. Are there any artists whose transcendence of the boundary between the two mediums you find inspiring?
The moment I saw the work of French photographer Sarah Moon I recognized how powerful photography could be. Nobody else’s work has ever touched me the same way since. The evocative nature of her imagery still takes my breath away but back then I was totally spellbound. Since the first Sarah Moon photograph I ever glimpsed I understood how the camera could be used for nuance and gesture.
For the past six years I’ve been reading about the talents of past image makers and I especially love the mood and atmosphere of the Pictorialist photographer, Heinrich Kuhn circa 1900’s. He has created without a doubt some of the most beautiful photographs I have ever seen. Kuhn had complete control of the photographic medium.
5) Could you describe how your passion for swimming informs your practice as an artist?
Strangely, I have always solved creative problems while swimming. If this happens early in the swim I cross my fingers for the rest of the swim so that I don’t forget. It is awkward to swim with crossed fingers! The water has been my office since the 70’s and I swim as many days a week as I can. I look forward to what will happen. Sometimes I figure something out that I didn’t even realize needed looking at. Other times my mind wanders and I find I’ve set up the next shoot. All the time I feel energized to tackle life.
6) What advice would you offer to emerging artists?
I would encourage an emerging artist to find their own voice. I believe that is the best way to succeed. There are so many people out there all doing the same thing with various levels of expertise. One creates art for oneself. It’s something that comes from inside you and not the other way around. Manage your expectations so you don’t get discouraged and give up. You are building a practice and that takes time.
Learn more about Barbara Cole's incredible new series here:
Bau-Xi Gallery will be showing a special preview of Figure Painting at the Toronto International Art Fair on Thursday, October 26. Visit us in booth A18 for an exclusive look.
The full series will be on display at Bau-Xi Photo, (350 Dundas St. West, Toronto), starting Saturday, November 4. There will be an opening reception from 2-4pm, and the artist will be in attendance.