Interview: Crystal Barbre

It’s been little under a week since Seattle based Crystal Barbre opened her latest solo exhibition at the Whisky Bar in her hometown. The show features some new figurative works, and still life works. I sent some questions to Crystal a bit before the show and now that she has had some time to mellow out after the reception, she sent over what is sure to be the most in-depth interview the site has had. Greg Hanefeld has some excellent photos of the opening that you can view on his Flickr (here), you will also see a couple throughout this interview.


Creep: You attended the Mark Kang O’Higgins atelier at the Gage Academy of Art, which focuses on drawing and painting. Can you tell us a bit about your experience there, and what drew you to the program?

Crystal: I had been interested in attending art school for a couple years. I checked out all the bigger name art institutions and even went and visited a few of them, but they seemed confused about my focus – wanting to learn the ins and outs of classical figurative painting but wanting to apply it to more “lowbrow” conceptual art which they considered illustration. They couldn’t seem to really understand combining the two – fine art and illustration. Then I found Mark’s atelier at the Gage Academy in Seattle. It’s so small I had my doubts at first but I am sure in two years I got one of the best educations I could get anywhere in the country. The atelier focuses hardcore on classical figurative drawing and painting skills while also allowing me to explore my work conceptually. The workload of painting 10 hours a day five or six days a week really is what gave me the ability to take my work to the next level professionally. I will always consider myself indebted to that program.


Creep: Is art something you have always created, drawing since you were a kid kind of story, or did you start later in life?

Crystal: I lived out in the wilds of Eastern Washington when I was a kid. We didn’t have any running water or electricity for the first 14 years of my life. I was living in a fundamentalist Christian/hippie/farmstead environment. When I was a teenager we moved to the Seattle area and I just started drawing. It had been a pretty isolated, crazy existence up to that point so I think I got drawn into art as a way to help me exorcise some demons. As a teenager I couldn’t really express some of the things I had gone through at a young age and art gave me the vehicle to do that in a creative and nondestructive way. Even in college I fought the idea of being an artist but it was becoming a bigger and bigger part of my life. Finally in the last few years I’ve just jumped in and decided I have no choice but to focus on it completely.

Creep: I know you are interested in classical art, who are some of your biggest influences? The artists that still amaze you every time your see their work?

Crystal: There are so many classical artists whose influence I am completely indebted to. But some whose work consistently holds me in awe are Titian, Rubens, Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Vermeer, Diego Velázquez, Artemisia Gentileschi, and John Singer Sargent. Gentileschi especially has influenced my work, not only because of her paintings, but through the inspiration of her struggle to create a life for herself as a woman painter in the early 1600s.


Creep: Just for giggles, what classical artist would you like to apprentice under?

Crystal: Maybe this is cheating since neither of these people is dead, but they are both artists I studied in my classical training. It would have to be either Jenny Saville or Odd Nerdrum. I guess I’d go with Michelangelo in a pinch though.

Creep: Looking through your previous work, you not only created drawings but collages as well. Your focus now seems to be strictly on paintings. Will we see some purely graphite or collage work in the future?

Crystal: I still love doing drawings, though I’ve gone from using graphite to using charcoal which is much more versatile. The process of drawing is absolutely painstaking compared to painting, as well as the fact it is very hard to sell a drawing for the same price as a painting, even if there is as much work or more that has gone into it. I expect to do some more drawings in the future though probably more for myself personally than as any attempt to sell them. It is a great way to build technical skill and I enjoy the look of the finished result. Drawings can allow people to fill in the blanks more then in a painting, which can give drawings an air of mystery that a painting doesn’t have. The collage work is something I now use purely and crudely in my process of creating a finished painting. Though I have seen some amazing collage work from people such as Wangechi Mutu, it seems that collage as a medium has a hard time being taken seriously.

Creep: Being trained at an atelier, along with your interest in classical art, i would be very interested in a rundown of your working process? 

Crystal: The preparation for a painting usually takes as long, if not longer than the time to make a painting itself. First is deciding on the concept which can take months of gathering resource material and doing research on different topics. Many of the paintings I do have their own symbolic language that I have spent weeks or months researching and constructing. Once I have pulled my reference photos from various sources and sketched out the basic idea for the piece I set up a photo session with models and props to be able beef up the found images with a set up that has the appropriate lighting, color, and perspective. This is where the collage work still comes into play – often, if the piece has complicated surreal imagery I have to do some collaging of different sources and try to bring the images together on the fly while I’m painting. I will usually sketch out the piece in more detail once I have all the references I need. If the painting is large I blow up the sketch and transfer it to the canvas. From there I sometimes do a burnt umber/raw umber under-painting to get a sense of value. After doing some color studies to find the palette I want to work with – I just dive in from there.


Creep: You have already created a few series of works, the common thread being that they are figurative and often contain animals. Can you tell us a bit about the imagery in your work, and how it developed?

Crystal: When I was growing up I didn’t go to school and we lived in a completely isolated environment in the wilderness. While most kids had other kids to hang out with growing up I only had my younger brothers and the animals that lived on our property. Having a close relationship with the deer, birds, cats, insects, chickens, and other animals instilled in me the connection between the human world and the animal world. Living off the land, sometimes you have to watch animals die, and I think these were particularly significant events for me. I also witnessed events that were far from the normal life cycle of animals, such as cats having their heads cut off or baked alive in the oven, which left an indelible imprint on me to always watch out for those living creatures that couldn’t protect themselves. I think it is natural for human beings to feel a connection to animals, especially when we are younger. Having animals as my primary source of companionship while I was growing up kept that connection from fading in me as I got older. Animals will now always have a very strong symbolism for me and will always be prevalent in my work. There is the personal aspect to the meaning of them in my own life, but as my work has matured I use animals as a symbol, not only for me and my past, but as symbols that connect me to my viewer – we all have connections between aspects of ourselves and those that animals embody. Societies have uses animals as symbols for thousands of years, to represent themselves and the world around them. I think it is easier to use animals than people to connect to those that view my paintings. People can see themselves in an animal easier then they can see themselves in another human face. As well, people can identify the emotion in a piece immediately when they see an animal – they are universal symbols for emotion – the courage of a lion, the bravery of an eagle, the innocence of a lamb – these are symbols that allow me to make an emotional shortcut with my viewer and to play with the aspects those animals represent.


Creep: Your series “Magnetisme Animal” is no doubt the most shocking in your gallery, sex in art seems to be the one topic that is always difficult for the average viewer to appreciate. The work debuted at the Hyaena Gallery, can you tell us a bit about how you went about the inspiration for a few of the works as well as the art was received at the reception?

Crystal: I’ve spent about three years working in porn shops, off and on, and I think the idea for these pieces comes from some of the lessons I learned working in that industry. The porn industry is FULL of strong, intelligent, independent women who have taken their careers in their own hands and have created very successful businesses for themselves. I found it to be one of the most empowering atmospheres I have ever had the chance to experience, while at the same time there is always this beast that exists which is that yes, there is a debasement of women going on and some operations aren’t exactly woman friendly . There are women that are taken advantage of and there are attitudes that are perpetuated in porn that are not necessarily healthy for women. There was a constant dialogue going on in my own mind, as well as with the other people I worked with in the industry, about this very concept. Porn, and sex in general, is a complicated issue. These paintings were a way of expressing that and also to generate a dialogue with people outside of that industry. I wanted to see what people would have to say about some of these issues that I had been thinking of for years. What really surprised me was how violent the opposition was to this series. I realize my tolerance level is a bit higher than many people’s. However, sex is a part of daily life, and I was very surprised to find out how many people were offended by these paintings.
Many people didn’t realize that a woman painted these – when they met me the attitude would change and I had some very open and interesting conversations with people that had been offended before but on finding out I was a woman were more willing to engage in a dialogue about the meaning of the work. One of the most important aspects of these paintings is that in every piece the woman is in a position of sexual power in the relationship. The women are on top, or receiving oral sex, or generally enjoying themselves and taking control of their sexual experience. And believe it or not, I find that this is the thing that disturbs most people and seems to take the painting from sexy to pornographic. I find it funny that porn has existed in painting since the invention of painting itself. In classical painting it is completely acceptable to show a woman as an object of sex – lounging naked and willing, inviting the viewer to experience her body – or even more disturbingly, many images of naked women in the throes of a rape experience – but to show women in positions of power in which THEY are controlling the experience – the piece turns into being pornographic. Interesting, is all I have to say about THAT.
On another note, though there was the occasional visitor to Hyaena that found the work offensive for one reason or another, the response at the opening was overwhelmingly positive. Hyaena is one of those special environments that attracts a kind of person that I think is able to experience images of sex and violence with a more open mind than your average person. That is one of the reasons I find Hyaena and its patrons such an inspiring place to be involved in.


Creep: You had mentioned in your blog that you would like to attend the New York Academy of Art for your MFA. I like the idea that you wish to continue your education. What is it about this school that attracted you, and why not attend another Atelier, something that would be much cheaper in this economy. 

Crystal: I think there are probably a good handful of places that I could continue my art education and receive a technical education of equal quality. However, the reason I am so set on the New York Academy of Art is that I think I have reached a point in my career in which I need to gain experience, not just in technical skill, but in learning how to make professional connections and establish a business in the art world. New York Academy is a place that I can make connections with some of the people I admire most in the world of art and I’m not sure I could find this anywhere else. At the same time, I’m not willing to leave grad school with a six figure debt, so if I am not able to figure out a way to pay my way through school without taking out massive loans, despite my desire for an education there, I’ll consider it a sign from the universe that I need to find another pathway to my goals. If I’ve learned anything in the few years I’ve been focusing on being a painter its that there’s more than one way to skin a cat (not literally, by the way – my paintings are a bit off but I’m not that much of a sicko).

Creep: Finally, what are some of your other interests beside painting, something that you might try to make a career out of had you not went the direction of fine art?

Crystal: I like this question! It took me quite a while before I realized painting had its hooks in me and would never let me go. I actually went to school for International Relations. I wanted to work for the UN and travel to war torn countries and do whatever I could to ease the suffering I might find there. Then I went to India, got kidnapped in Kashmir, and realized there was a very distinct possibility I was going to either be killed or sold into the sex slave trade. I had ten days of being held in a room with armed guards out front and fighting off advances from my captors in the evenings – to reconsider that career path. After writing my will, and then finally getting myself smuggled back to the Delhi airport, I flew home and decided it was best I find some other way to make my way in the world. In the years after that I was trained in lighting design for rock shows and toyed with the idea of making that a career path. It was very tempting! Compared to the hours of isolation in the studio it takes to make a good painting, making hundreds of people dance to band with a bunch of lasers and a fog machine is pretty instant gratification. It would have been fun to go on tour, and I enjoyed being one of the few women in the biz. But I just couldn’t get away from painting, and if you have your hand in too many things your art will always be half-assed. So I dropped it and took to painting full time.

Thanks to Crystal for taking to time to give us such killer answers. Make sure you head over to her website to see more work.
Crystal Barbre Portfolio

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