If you haven’t heard of Del Kathryn Barton, Cate Blanchett will make sure you will. A two-time Archibald prizewinning artist with numerous solo exhibitions under her belt, Barton is an artist whose body of work stems from her embracing and boldly baring her vulnerabilities as a mother, a woman, and a human being. Each figurative painting is an opulent mosaic of the human condition rendered timeless by its overwhelming minutiae and pristine craftsmanship. Always looking for new mediums to play with, Barton has just released her first live action short film RED starring none other than Cate herself.
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Red is your first live-action short film. What made you want to explore this new medium?
After the realization of my first short animation film The Nightingale and the Rose, a very challenging and protracted project (and now totally addicted to the medium of moving image), I wanted to make a work with more speed, intuition and immediacy… I imagined that life-action might allow for this. How mistaken I was!
What was your biggest challenge as a live-action filmmaker and why?
The first and obvious challenge I suppose is finding funding. Red began as a self-funded smaller studio-based project, but after I received funding through the Sydney institution AFTRS I began to think more ambitiously about a richer and more layered interpretation of the central story line. After the luminous Cate Blanchet came on as my lead for the character of "Mother" we were able to secure some more significant patronage for the project through the art world, hooray! As a creative I welcome challenge, so the further “challenges” are a valued part of the working-surface in dreaming big. Having said that, I am a fairly shy person, so the challenge to engender confidence, belief and trust from my extraordinary team given my inexperience remains an exhausting journey.
Did you get any advice from film directors before directing Red?
No. I enjoy the contradiction of attempting to step forward with a kind of vulnerable confidence into ambitious new mediums. My hope is always that this will bring some sort of unique energy and indeed sincerity to the final result.
You’ve collaborated with many Australian celebrities including Hugo Weaving, Mia Wasikowska and now Cate Blanchett. What’s your secret?
There is no secret, its just about asking……….
What was it like to direct Cate Blanchett?
Directing/collaborating with Cate remains a true creative highlight for me! She has an immense presence and power on set. I consider her to be an artist of the highest order. In truth I was determined to “under-direct” her. The performance she gave in the end really went so beyond anything I could have asked of her! BOOM!
You’ve described Red as an ‘uncompromising celebration of female power’. What is female power and why is it so important to celebrate it?
In the context of Red I have attempted to celebrate “female power” as a poetic, indefinable and elemental force, something so multifaceted and full of shade that it needs to be felt, not articulated!
Red is inspired by the fact that Australian red back spiders eat their male counterparts after mating. Is misandry necessary when celebrating female power?
Misandry is NEVER necessary “when celebrating female power”! One of things that makes the red-back spider utterly unique is that the male actively participates in his own death, gently summersaulting to place his abdomen into the female’s mouth after mating. It is a collective/participatory act speaking to universal energy – life’s instinct towards life! The preservation of the species!
Speaking of Australian red back spiders, Australia is known for its concentration of venomous species: What’s your poison of choice?
Coffee, coffee, coffee… alcohol and then more coffee… I am also a shameless workaholic.
Gender identity is more diverse then ever. There are more shades of grey than ever. In your opinion, is this progress, or more labels? Why?
For me the bottom line is if more diversity/fluidity and/or alternatively, specificity of definition, helps somebody feel more at home and at peace within their skin then it’s a high five from me!
According to the way people have been voting lately, they seem to be growing more and more tired of political correctness and progressive thinking. In your opinion, why do equal rights always seem like an uphill battle?
These are such subtle issues in my mind, as someone that has always aligned themselves with progressive thinking and optimistic belief in equal rights across so many social issues I do also find myself weary of too much political correctness. Sometimes it’s like a type of rigidifying conservatism or something.
Why is art so important in instances like today, when most countries are in a state of economic/social crisis?
It is my belief that art across all mediums and expressions feeds the life blood of all human life. Creative energy is fundamental to human existence and the continued evolution of our species; our capacity to love, to reimagine, to interpret, to believe, to question. I could go on.
Your art is opulent, eclectic and extremely detailed. One can easily get transported into an alternate world when admiring your work. What is your process? Is it touch-and-go or is it all planned out?
It’s a constantly fluid interplay between those two states. That said, once the work has the architecture of the drawing cemented, it is mostly about a long conversation with the work, they are my companions for so long. I try to listen to them, to slowly breathe and build them into a life they have asked of me, as much as it is a life I have imagined for them!
Where do you draw your inspiration from when creating such elaborate and intricate work?
My strength and weakness is that I find myself stimulated constantly by almost everything. The circuitry in my brain can be very challenging in this way. It is my understanding as I get older that this is partly why I have to spend long periods of time alone in controlled environments (my studio). I start to implode with stimulus if I am in the world for too long.
I have always suffered from debilitating anxiety (frenzied working periods) and growing a more considered and realized practice became my way of remaining grounded and not spinning out! This morning when I woke I was looking at my colorful patchwork bed spread that had fallen on the floor during the night, the way it had fallen and folded over was an explosion in my mind and senses, compositionally, figuratively… I live with these moments happening fairly constantly… but this is how I roll and it’s always a bit much actually!
Womanhood seems to be an overarching theme. What about womanhood inspires you so much?
In many ways I am an artist that has always been moved to make work as a direct experience of life. Mostly this has meant an erupting awareness and curiosity about what it means to inhabit a woman’s body, my woman’s body.
You use a variety of different materials when creating your work. How do you go about choosing which material you want to work with?
This happens fairly organically. I enjoy the richness and indeed comfort of my core practice with the painting and drawing but I am also constantly restless and thrive on experimentation and new creative journeys. That idea of dead-serious play or something. There is always a lot going on in the studio and increasingly in collaboration with other studios and workshops. I welcome failure also, it brings discipline, electricity and sincerity back to the core practice.
You seem to be a practical artist. Even your stunning animated short film The Nightingale and the Rose seems to be all handcrafted. Have you ever thought about going digital?
I am not sure how practical I am, but I do certainly have a deep love for the handmade. I always look for a kind of materiality that has vulnerability and therefore (for me) an increased emotional integrity. I do work across some digital platforms, photomontage works realized in Photoshop and the film work (even though the modeling is mostly done by hand) are always beautified in Flame and grading suites etc.
What’s your take on digital art and digital artists?
I don’t think I have a “take”. I am thrilled by great work across all mediums! Art is my religion!
You seem to have little to no presence on social media. Is that a conscious decision? If so, why?
Yes it is conscious and mostly because I am a shy, private introvert. It’s also about minutes in a day. I am a hard-core working mum where every minute counts. But then sometimes I wonder if I am being cowardly?
In your opinion, is the Internet endangering the arts by making it so accessible or democratizing it? Why?
The Internet is nearly the best thing ever!
What’s next for Del Kathryn Barton?
So much awesomeness! In the most immediate future I have just received funding for my first feature film, FLOWER. I will have my first solo show in NYC in July and then a show in Berlin. I have my first museum survey show coming up also at the National Gallery of Victoria and a bunch more stuff! I am so blessed and pumped!
INTERVIEWED BY RALPH ARIDA