Atop an unusually green hill on the outskirts of Canowindra sits the beautiful old home of a very dedicated painter, Melissa Barber. The house is fringed by a large verandah overlooking the surrounding countryside which is currently glowing bright yellow with canola. In the garden grows fresh black olives, lavender, lemons and date palms. I'm told it's usually a dust bowl out here but due to all the recent rain the garden is overgrowing with lush green grass. I'm invited inside for coffee and cake where I admire all the beautiful old antiques Melissa has collected over the years. I feel as though I've traveled back in time to the 40s. Melissa's artworks decorate the walls of every room. She has an amazing collection of antiques and is slowly restoring the old house to it's original state, reinstalling old stoves and fire places.
Her studio is tucked away in the front of the house where her two small dogs and a cat nap by the open fire. Every available surface is covered in treasures and pictures and traditional Chinese music plays in the background. She shows me the vintage photographs she uses for inspiration and tells me about the characters in her paintings of which most are real people. She has been fascinated by ancient Chinese culture from a very young age as it turns out, Chinese shoes and clothing are dotted around the room. I asked Melissa about her practice to get to know a little more about her.
How long have you been an artist? I’ve been painting professionally for the last 24 years.
Where did you learn to paint? I didn’t go to art school but had a great art teacher at school. Since school I have taught myself via trial and error, continual experimentation and researching a medium.
What draws you to your current subject matter? Why ancient Chinese culture? To be honest I don’t know exactly why I am so drawn to Chinese culture but can say that the interest has been there since I was about 8 or 9. As a child I couldn’t get enough of it and was in hindsight quite obsessed and eccentric about it. I’d wear Chinese clothes as often as I could and even went so far as to have a birthday party where everyone had to wear Chinese clothes, incidentally we also had Chinese food. I think that was my tenth birthday party.
During the last year or so my work has become quite narrative and it seemed logical to question what it is exactly about Chinese culture that so attracts me. Observing a culture that changed little over time, was very civilised from a very early time; there was a timelessness and continuity about it, and sense of being in a time capsule. When Europeans and therefore the world infiltrated it, Chinese culture changed dramatically. My work tries to capture that timeless moment just before that change swept through.
How would you describe your creative process? I would describe my creative process as subconsciously accumulative. I collect ‘stuff’, things that may not be directly responsive to my projects at the time, but I’m fully aware of their power over my subconscious mind. I’ll stick images on the studio walls, place things strategically around the studio if they exude some kind of creative energy. I love intricate patterns, mosaics, diamantes, sequins, shiny, sparkling objects, and if there is a history to an object all the better. I fill scrap books with images from the web; I paste in scribbled ideas and sketches. I also listen to types of music that create a particular type of ambiance; Chinese, Middle Eastern and Classical. And I listen to countless historical and cultural documentaries on Youtube. All these influences simmer away in the back of my mind. I am never short of inspiration, just time to paint what goes on in my head.
Which artists are your biggest influences? Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, Frida Kahlo, Byzantine, Persian, Chinese and Japanese art.