To mark her Spring exhibition at The Biscuit Factory - artist Barbara Peirson talks to us about her creative process, how her surroundings and childhood memories manifest in her paintings, and how her art practice harmoniously intergrates with home life.
In the Studio with Barbara Peirson
Tell us a little about yourself...
I grew up in Newcastle and after a few years at the People’s Theatre Youth Theatre went to Drama School and became an actor. I spent many years touring with theatre companies both nationally and internationally but have always painted wherever I am. I am now based in the Essex coastal town of Wivenhoe, which has become an artists colony, although the landscape is very different to the North East its also on an estuary at the edge of the North Sea, here the sea and land merge in mud flats, marshland and flooded fields
What drew you into the life of an artist?
I had a great art teacher at school, the Church High, she encouraged me to believe I could do it. The art rooms there were then in the attic in a house along Tankerville Terrace in Jesmond and I loved spending time there whenever I could, it’s where I felt happiest. I think I’ve always tried to recreate that environment wherever I’ve lived ever since.
The Curve of the Bay
After the Swim
How did you work during lockdown?
I have a home studio, and having that space in the house was a life-saver during Lockdown because I could carry on working. The whole family were here - I have three off-spring in their twenties, and cooking became one of my main activities to help keep everyone’s spirits up so being next to the kitchen was very handy.
Where do you create your artwork?
I have two studio spaces. One is in my house, which used to be a utility room. It’s next to the kitchen so I can start painting as soon as I’ve made a cup of coffee in the morning and put a load in the dishwasher. I can hang the washing out or chop some vegetables when I’m waiting for a layer of paint to dry.
I also rent another larger space a two minute walk down the road in the village business centre. There’s a buzzing community there, a music studio, a printmaking studio, bakery and cafes not to mention the MicroGym, poodle parlour and the framer - all my needs in one place! It’s also a stone’s throw from the estuary which provides most of my visual inspiration.
I always feel excited when I’m at work and try to keep alive a sense of experimentation and playfulness. I love the feeling of solitude when I’m working but it’s also great to be able to step out and have a chat with someone in passing.
What can you see and hear when you are in your studio?
In the early morning I hear the seabirds calling from the river, leter in the day I hear the comforting buzz of people at work all around me or I play music when I need to be more in my own head.
What does your process involve - how does a piece of your artwork transition from idea to finished piece?
I paint every day, it's the first thing I do when I get up. I don’t really start with an idea, I try to bypass the planning/thinking part of my mind which tends to be a constraint so I start with experimentation - with the paint itself.
I start each day by squeezing paint onto a palette and putting it straight onto a board almost before I’m fully awake and out of the marks that happen, the textures and colours, I’ll see an image appear usually from memory or imagination - a bit like seeing faces in clouds and I work with that. What follows is then a process of reworking and building layers until the marks that were there in the beginning have usually disappeared.
Working mainly in acrylics the layers dry quickly. I have several paintings on the go at the same time, some of them take days to finish, most of them weeks or even years!
How much do your surroundings influence your work?
Every day I go out along the estuary where I live to watch the ebb and flow of the tide; migrating birds swooping in and out; small fishing vessels leaving and returning; mists descending and dispersing. People arrive and leave, sometimes alone, sometimes in company. Back in the studio I aim to recreate the feeling and atmosphere of the landscape, the vastness of it. Then I wait for figures to appear in the painting, seemingly of their own accord, prompted by memory, imagination or old photographs. I try to capture the transience and stillness of the present moment.
Moon Over the Water
Tell us a little about the latest collection you're exbiting at The Biscuit Factory...
I’m really happy to have work at The Biscuit Factory because it’s a homecoming, a return to my roots. So in my imagination I revisit all of the favourite places of my childhood, mainly the Northumbrian coast.
I was an only child and my parents would take me out on trips to the countryside or seaside every weekend whatever the weather. It’s really the spaciousness of Northumberland that I recall mostly, the huge beaches, the vast moors, the big sea. That sense of feeling small in the landscape and the breathtaking wonder of it is what a mainly comes through in the paintings I think.
Do you have a favourite piece from your new collection?
My favourite pieces are always the ones that seem to happen without me and I’m not sure yet which ones they are. I’m really enjoying making bigger pieces in response to the bigger space at the Biscuit Factory and I am exited to see what they’ll look like when they are on the walls.
What is your favourite piece of art or craft that you have in your own home?
The walls and surfaces at home are covered floor to ceiling - in a pretty haphazard way - with works by dozens of artists, and I'm pretty attached to most of it.
The Artists Support Pledge, which was started during Lockdown by Matthew Burrows as a way to help artists keep afloat, enabled me to buy pieces by artists whose work I'd never otherwise have been able to afford.
However the work made by my children is the most treasured.
What does the rest of the year hold for you?
It's a busy year ahead probably because so many galleries are opening up again fully after the Pandemic. I'll have pieces in exhibitions in galleries from Cornwall to the Highlands but this one at the Biscuit Factory is pretty special to me.