Elizabeth Barlow draws inspiration from the natural world creating hyperrealistic flower paintings as a reminder to pause and pay attention to the sublime in the ordinary. Her work is currently on display at the Monterey Museum of Art, pairing her flora portraits with pieces by artist Susan Manchester to draw attention to California’s ecosystems.
What do you like most about working with flowers in your current painting practice?
Elizabeth Barlow: When I moved to Carmel-by-the-Sea from San Francisco in 2016, my world shifted from bustling, vibrant city life to a world of verdant forests, sea air, and year-round flowers. I felt an intense longing to create portraits of the natural beauty surrounding me, so I began my Flora series. As I worked on the series, I realized that flowers are potent symbols of the incredible power of this earth’s life force, strength within seeming fragility, and the astonishing ability for rebirth and re-emergence that lies within all living things. These paintings are a wake-up call to pay attention to beauty because it will transform how we walk through this world. By slowing down and looking at things sincerely—in my case, by painting flowers—I find my days filled with awe and delight. Flowers and beauty have awakened me from a “sleep” of busyness into the wonder of presence.
How do you choose what flower to make the subject of a painting?
Elizabeth Barlow: Often a painting begins with an intense desire to paint a particular flower, one I have seen on a walk in my village or a friend’s garden. But sometimes, I want to paint flowers that evoke a memory of a particular place or a moment. Last year, I visited the rose garden at La Mirada, one of the properties of the Monterey Museum of Art, and was allowed to collect roses throughout the summer. I created a painting for the exhibition titled “Mornings at La Mirada” to record on canvas the almost overwhelming beauty of those roses. It reminds me of a line from a Mary Oliver poem: “And can you hear the almost unbearable sound of the roses singing?” I wanted to capture the intensity of that great beauty.
Is there anything you’ve learned as this series unfolded?
Elizabeth Barlow: I continue to be astonished every day that something as seemingly insignificant as a flower (in terms of its size and power) can carry such a powerful life force within it. And I am increasingly beginning to understand that beauty has a rightful place in our lives because it can return us to ourselves (our true selves).
You’ve mentioned, “Looking at a flower can transform your life. It certainly has with mine. “Are there any experiences you can share?
Elizabeth Barlow: Because I now spend my days painting flowers, I also spend time living with flowers. Flowers are miraculous at every stage of their lives: fresh buds, full blooms, and fading beauties. I always have flowers in my house and studio now; they are potent reminders to pause and look at how things unfold. Some people pay for apps that remind them to breathe or pause in their busy days. Flowers are my daily reminders of the miracle of being present, if only for a moment.
Can you tell us more about the story that inspired your painting Phoenix Rose?
Elizabeth Barlow: A few years ago, someone asked me to create a painting for a home on a vineyard in Sonoma, California. The homeowner and his wife lost their previous home in the 2017 Wine Country Fires, barely escaping with their lives. The fire destroyed everything; the only things surviving were the vines and one rose bush. Even more, tragedy followed when the wife died several months later. But then something amazing happened. That single rose bush began to bloom gloriously. The homeowner decided to build a new house on the same site and asked me to create a 6-foot painting of that rose bush for the home. I took hundreds of photos of the roses to reference my artwork, but I didn’t want to paint a replica of the rose bush. I tried to capture the strength and resilience of this beautiful living thing. We titled the painting “The Phoenix Rose” because it literally rose out of the ashes. Flowers lure us in with their beauty and then offer powerful lessons of hope, renewal, and strength within seeming fragility.
How important is it for you to spend time in nature?
Elizabeth Barlow: Living by the sea amid this coastal forest has changed my life utterly. Each day I walk from our home to my studio. Even in the dead of winter, I am surrounded by birds, swaying cypresses, and coastal mists. This walk reminds me that I am just one small citizen of this earth, along with my fellow citizens, the crows, the pines, and the waves. It is as if I was asleep for a long time (dazzled by my exciting urban life), and now I am wide awake.
Phoenix Rose by Elizabeth Barlow
Another essential aspect of your studio practice involves rituals and meditation. Are these part of maintaining a creative life or the result of it?
Elizabeth Barlow: Ah, this is such a great question! I began an intense meditation practice when we moved to Carmel-by-the-Sea. And it has absolutely influenced my creative life. My meditation practice has strengthened my “letting go” muscle. I can better let go of those pesky monkey mind thoughts and return to the wonder of the present. And, of course, being focused and aware of the present moment is the only place we can be creative. My rituals of brewing my beloved green tea, turning on my studio music playlist (classical and jazz), opening the blinds to the garden, and preparing my palette are all ways of announcing, “I am here, awake, now, in this precious moment.”
What’s next for you?
Flora Fauna is still on view at Monterey Museum of Art through April 16, 2023. I am working on several very exciting commissions this year for private collectors and also creating new flora paintings for my gallery, Andra Norris Gallery, where I am having a show in September. I have a feeling that some of the paintings are going to be ethereal and white. But who knows? They might have something else planned!