Cathy Barry

Artist Statement:

I am an artist whose deep connection to the natural world has inspired a career of exploring ways to express and evoke gratitude, compassion and protective action for our environment. After many years of working with traditional oil, acrylic and watercolor painting materials on landscapes, aerial views of earth and works inspired by photographs of deep space, my work keeps evolving towards “greener” materials for making art. The paint in the collages is made with pigments derived wholly from plant and terrestrial sources, many of them harvested and processed by me from locations across Michigan. The paint has become part of my expressive palette to inspire a sense of urgency about the need to approach our endeavors with more integrity and understanding that we live in an interconnected ecosystem where each part effects the other. My recent works with earth pigments tune in to cave paintings and traditions of Renaissance painters, mulling and mixing paint to consistency. The subject matter of these paintings reflects on the Anthropocene, particularly to the issue of sprawl and the development of natural areas. In the collages, I combine paper painted with homemade botanical pigments and punched out paper shapes through inlay to create a unique vocabulary at a micro-scale. These smaller worlds are then assembled in larger contexts with the aim of challenging our perceptions about the universe and are our relationship to it.

My most recent undertaking has been to learn and explore making art with the plant material itself. Zero waste! Collecting, drying and mellowing the material before it is ready to weave with, creates a rhythm to my process that is new and exhilarating. By learning simple weaving, twining and basketry methods I feel an even greater enthusiasm for and connection to the plants in my yard and neighborhood. This new pursuit has also awakened an appetite to explore the past uses and roles of plants throughout history.

Nature is the big umbrella of what inspires and has always informed my work. The climate crisis has created an urgency that has called many artists to make works that speak to the beauty, preciousness and precariousness of our environment. My recent work goes a step further by challenging the nature of making art itself. By bringing attention to the materials of painting in particular, my work asks us to consider the impact of making art on the environment. I am using nontoxic, sustainably harvested earth and mineral pigments such as iron oxide, white rutile and loam in place of traditional oil paints. I am extracting colors from local sources – in the backyard or the grocery store – including buckthorn, walnut, cattail, turmeric root, forsythia, beets, mulberry, yellow and purple onion skins and more. I then reference older practices by experimenting with inlay work of painted paper, traditionally used to create jewelry, furniture, mosaics and textiles. I am creating motifs and abstract compositions by cutting shapes from my plant-based paintings, fitting them together and assembling them. I am integrating materials with form and subject in my work to evoke a peaceful wholeness that references the innate wisdom of nature.

My journey to this particular artistic crossroads began when after many years, I started rejecting (both physically and mentally) the toxic nature of traditional painting materials. In the search for materials that were healthier for me and the environment, I became immersed in the biology and properties of plants and their eco-systems which in turn led my work in new directions. I became more aware of seasonality, life cycles and of the everyday abundance in our immediate environment. I have realized that this integration of materials, form, and subject is a powerful inoculation against the growing anxiety and paralysis associated with the climate crisis. By drawing attention to the interconnectedness of nature, we can inspire hope and action to preserve our planet.

Cathy Barry