Even to a tired, half-asleep art critic the titles, Vaucluse, Dead Sunflowers, Ceanthru Thaidhg, Moy Bank and Inishkeas must denote an artist who gets around – a lot. France, Scotland, the west coast of Ireland, places actually only a short jaunt for Barbara Rae, CBE RA, painter and printmaker.
Rae spends a lot of her year travelling the globe in search of inspiration. In 2015 alone she visited all those places, plus Gibraltar, Spain, France, California, and the entire route of the North West passage north of Hudson’s Bay. Had she time she would have squeezed in a trip to China!
With an annual schedule that would exhaust an international tennis player, Rae has never been an artist wedded to her studio. She spends weeks studying the social history of a place that catches her interest, learns about the people living there and in the past, before creating a single study on location.
Rae never works from inert images; photographs taken on location act as aid memoire. Back in her Edinburgh studio she begins the creative process of deciding what’s right for a print, or worth developing as a painting.
Planning trips to wild, remote places, living there some weeks, and then creating the artwork is an arduous process, but that dedication, that compulsive curiosity, and an unrivalled understanding of colour, is what makes her an outstanding artist.
Almost all the artists I’ve met are studio bound most of their working year. Some are so closeted, in their own world it’s a wonder they don’t suffer from cabin fever. Some do, and the local pub becomes their second home. I’ve met distinguished journalists of that habit. Their main source of news is their local.
I recall Rae giving a talk to a gaggle of school students keen on art. ‘What’s the first thing an artist does in the studio in the morning?’ One pupil piped up with, ‘Thinks about what to paint.’
Rae answered swiftly. ‘How will an artist get anything done if they begin their day worrying about what to do?’ and went on to describe how you ‘prepare your materials’. For Rae, the whole year is one of preparation.
Often misrepresented as a landscape painter, Rae is quick to point out that she’s not interested in topography, but rather the history of place and people. Themes range from ancient Celtic standing stones under vast skies; a rickle of a farmhouse fallen into disuse in famine wracked west of Ireland, to ancient Anasazi rock art in the remotest parts of the Arizona desert, or sun-blasted vine terraces on a Spanish hillside. Any pattern or structure in the background is a dividend enriching the composition.
An element I admire in her work is her attitude of accepting artistic accident. She calls it ‘planned accidents’. She has no fear of dissonance in her images, and of course, they add energy and spontaneity to the work, rather like her get-up-and-go motivation to visit new places.
Indeed, it’s hard for a lowly home-loving administrator to keep up with her.
Gareth Wardell, writer and filmmaker