Drawings live and breathe

Taking flight ... Tessa Barringer in her home studio in Dunedin. PHOTO: STEPHEN JAQUIERY
Taking flight ... Tessa Barringer in her home studio in Dunedin. PHOTO: STEPHEN JAQUIERY
Preparing for your first solo show in your 60s and then discovering it has been scuttled by the Covid-19 lockdown could be devastating, but Tessa Barringer has discovered that — with some ingenuity — the show can go on, and it can go on successfully. She talks to Rebecca Fox about being a late bloomer.

Realising her interest in using dead birds and their skeletons as a basis of her drawings was getting to be depressing and morbid, Dunedin teacher turned artist Tessa Barringer wanted badly to draw live birds.

It all started when she accepted that her chosen genre of painting portraits — finding the idiosyncratic, quirky mannerisms and character of a sitter — was not necessarily what people wanted to see portrayed in a portrait. So finding subjects was difficult and then selling portraits was not that easy.

& then there were none
& then there were none
‘‘People don’t want someone else staring down at them from their walls.

‘‘I got quite frustrated and felt lost for quite a while.’’

About the same time Barringer noticed she was becoming burnt out as an English teacher.

‘‘I thought I needed to stop before it stopped me.’’

So she took early retirement and retreated to her lifestyle block at Upper Junction, determined to put some time into drawing — something she had loved doing since she was a child but that had only ever been a hobby.

‘‘I’d go to art classes but then high school teaching was busy, I got into academic work, did my PhD thesis and some creative writing but it always sat at the back of my mind that I wanted to do more of it.’’

A health scare made her realise art was at the top of her bucket list so she signed up for art classes with Gary McMillan at the then Cleveland Living Arts Centre at the Dunedin Railway Station.

‘‘It was fortuitous as he was a gifted teacher, got where I was at and supported and encouraged me to believe in myself. It gave me a reason to keep pushing at it.’’

She learned she could not control soft pastels so moved to drawing with hard pastels, but then went to pastel pencils because she ‘‘can’t resist fine details’’.

But like many artists she really wanted to paint in oils: ‘‘who doesn’t?’’.

She took a leave of absence from teaching to do a postgraduate diploma in fine art at the Dunedin School of Art, focusing on still life and portraiture.

‘‘I was fascinated about how to communicate character and connection and began to move toward more interaction with the viewer or with each other rather than a static portrait.’’

She left teaching in 2015 and spent the next couple of years painting with oils.

‘‘It’s a very demanding medium, once the paint is on the palette that’s your day gone. You have to have the stamina for it.’’

However, accepting that the portrait was not going to have a life beyond the easel left her struggling with where to go next. With the help of some gentle persuasion she realised her drawing was stronger than her oil painting.

‘‘It was a bit crushing. But I went away and concentrated on my drawing.’’

She knew she needed to draw something that was at her back door.

A friend asked what she collected and suggested she focus on what interested her. Barringer had a fascination with bird skulls so started drawing those.

‘‘Then people began to deliver little skeletons or freshly dead birds to me and I’d draw them. I’d keep them in the fridge and bring them out. I’d practice drawing how their body moved and then I’d put it in the garden to decompose. Then I’d draw the skeleton.’’

As things became increasingly macabre, Barringer wondered how she could draw ‘‘living and breathing birds’’ as previous attempts to draw them live had failed.

She had a ‘‘lucky’’ meeting with a fellow bird enthusiast and photographer Nick Beck, who shared his images with her and encouraged her to take her own photographs of the birds to use as a starting point for her drawings.

She started to learn how to take ‘‘interesting and dynamic’’ bird shots of her own. They built a bird table just outside her studio door so she could easily see the birds come to feed.

At the start she put out ‘‘cheap’’ glass bowls filled with sugar water to attract the birds but then she became ‘‘obsessed and frustrated’’ with portraying the light through the glass.

She started looking through secondhand stores for crystal bowls.

‘‘It was like a little theatre. I’d trim the shrubs, make sure the time of day was right for the light and sit out and wait and see what happened.

‘‘I loved the fact that out of the simplicity of a platform and a bowl you could get a single image yet an absolute infinite variety. It’s never the same. They’re so lively, it’s fascinating. I can’t believe I manage to capture that.’’

She put out bigger bowls to attract larger birds like tui, and on occasion has found multiple tui feeding on the set of her ‘‘little theatre’’.

Barringer’s studio door is often left open, even in winter, so she can hear the birdcalls — her camera is on hand so she can drop her tools and grab it if she sees a photo opportunity.

‘‘I’ve got thousands and thousands of photos — I sift through them until I find one and then all the photos in that sequence I use to understand the movement of what I want to draw.’’

After a dilemma with the paper she used, she got in contact with another pastel artist and discovered ‘‘pastelmat’’ paper.

‘‘Oh my god I love this sanded surface. It takes pastels beautifully and I can build up the intensity of colour so I haven’t been able to pick up a paint brush since.’’

She works hard to ensure she does not create something that looks ‘‘frozen’’ as works from photographs can sometimes do.

‘‘I want to make it feel as if at any moment you can blink and they’ll be gone again.’’

Honeybees and wasps also wanted to partake of her sugar drink and unwittingly became the subjects in a few of her works.

‘‘I called this series epiphany drawings as I suddenly thought wow there is more going on here. The bellbird not being able to get his head in for the honeybees — it echoes this story of limited resources that everyone is competing for. It is symbolic of where the world is at the moment.’’

Many of her latest works feature birds on a dark background which symbolises their darkness and fragility.

She learnt from McMillian the technique of drawing with the light.

‘‘I used to get frustrated working on white. I love to draw with the light, it has such a delicious feel like Old Masters’ drawings. I’d always rather work with the light rather than dark, pulling the birds out into the light.’’

Drawing the bowls was very labour intensive as she used a variety of different colours then brushed them out to give the subtle effect of the crystal.

‘‘I use a soft paint brush to gently blend it back so you can’t see it but it’s there. There is vibrancy in the darkness as colours move in the reflection of the glass.’’

To create the depth of colour she has a huge army of pastel pencils, and uses brushes and cotton buds to blend the colours back and create shadows.

The large works in her latest exhibition took between 150 and 200 hours to complete, and the smaller-sized works did not take much less time.

‘‘The bowls are insane. Tuis take longer to draw than the bellbirds.’’

Working out what pencils she had used to create just the right colour became quite problematic but by the end of the works she had her pencils divided into jars for wax eyes, tui and bellbirds.

The work is also very tough on her body as it requires her to carefully manage how she sits and her easel set-up so she as not to aggravate any muscle or tendon strain. She tends to treat her painting like a day job, spending time in the studio every day especially when working towards an exhibition.

‘‘At least I can work in my studio and I determine the pace I work at and if I need a rest. I love what I’m doing so it doesn’t hurt as much.’’

Barringer is benefiting from the work she has done to create a garden that can support birdlife; when she first arrived about 18 years ago the only birds she saw were occasional passing hawks.

‘‘It’s now full of birds. I draw birds, my walls are covered in bird pictures and I have birds whizzing around outside. They are constant company.’’

Sharing with people birds’ beauty and fragility is an important part of Barringer’s work. She wants to celebrate them but also make people aware that if birdlife is not looked after it will disappear as many of this country’s species of birds have already done.

She got a surprise first visit in February from two drunken kereru.

The duo ended up perching on the arms of her outdoor chairs, forcing her to hide behind the dining room table to try to get photos of them. Then a few days later they were drinking at her kowhai tree.

‘‘They literally flew into the exhibition.’’

The exhibition at Dunedin’s Artists Room had been planned for this month and discovering it would not happen because of Covid-19 after all her work was devastating.

‘‘I’d worked so bloody hard I thought it’s just my bloody luck.’’

Gallery managing director Michelle Chalklin-Sinclair swung into action and has displayed the works online for people to see and buy — something Barringer cannot praise highly enough.

‘‘I was sad not to see my birds hanging on the gallery walls as I’d been imagining them but I can’t believe how well it’s been revived and the feedback from people has been special and affirming.’’

Her next goal is to capture the owls she hears each night but has yet to see.

‘‘I live on a modest income. I had no illusions that I’d make an alternative career for myself but I wanted to see what I could do, be true to myself and now I had the chance. I needed something that was right here and I found such richness right under my nose.’’


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