Artist Elizabeth Barlow isn’t here to complicate things. An object of beauty is all she needs to inspire her work, and in doing so, awaken us and ask us to slow down—quite literally, take time to smell the roses. Each of her floral portraits creates a tangible, perceptible experience and an opportunity to reconnect with the essence of natural beauty.
Barlow was born at Travis Air Force Base and lived for a split second in California, which she likes to think qualifies her as a rooted Californian; more accurately she was raised in Salt Lake City and returned to the Bay Area in 1991 to work for the San Francisco Opera.
She studied at the University of Utah (BA) and received her MA from the University of Virginia, but the studies that most shaped her as an artist were courses taken through the UC Berkeley Extension program, where she received a Post-Baccalaureate Certificate in Visual Arts in 2007.
It was there that she acquired the skills and experience she needed to feel confident in her work, studying with Bay Area painter Donald Bradford who inspired and challenged her—and still does—and became her dear friend.
“I am continually astonished by the invisible threads of connection that run through all of our lives. It’s a web that surrounds us and all we need to do to make a connection is to follow the thread from one moment to another and from one person to another,” Barlow told 48hills.
Barlow describes the thread that connects her to her creative community as one that weaves through various neighborhoods of San Francisco including North Beach, Union Square, Hunters Point, and Forest Hill, then continues its path into Los Angeles.
“I love knowing that these threads are out there awaiting my discovery and attention,” she said.
Several years ago, Barlow and her husband had the opportunity to sell their Russian Hill home where they had lived since 1991, a place they rarely ventured away from.
“Nearly everything I needed and loved was within walking distance, but we loved Carmel-by-the-Sea and decided to see what it was like to live there,” she said.
After one year, they decided to stay, but her thread continues to unspool and weave throughout the Bay Area as Barlow is represented by Andra Norris Gallery in Burlingame, and she often visits for art openings, museum visits, concerts, and dinner with friends.
Barlow is inspired, quite simply, by beauty with a capital B. Her Flora Portraits are a wakeup call to pay attention because, she says, it can and will transform how we walk through this world. She often thinks of a specific quote by Rainer Maria Rilke: “Learn to fathom what a flower infers” as a point of reference.
“Flowers are potent symbols of the incredible power of the life force on this earth, of strength within seeming fragility and of the astonishing ability for re-emergence that lies within all living things. Even the tiniest and most delicate flower carries within it a fierce life force, which deserves our respect and protection,” Barlow said.
Moreover, she says, the seductive beauty of flowers lures us into looking deeply. If one pauses, breathing slows and we become truly present to our surroundings. Her intention in simplifying her subject matter is to create work that is at once transformative, luminous, and alluring.
“As we begin to stop for Beauty, we build our awareness muscle and seeing Beauty becomes easier. Suddenly, it is everywhere around us and our days are suffused with an infinite capacity for joy and wonder,” she said.
Her practice is an integrated tapestry, woven together with ritual. Barlow walks to and from her studio each day accompanied by her “studio manager”—her toy poodle Chanel. She refers to her studio as “a twice-sacred space.” First, it is her metaphorical sacred space, where she works each day in devotion to her calling. And it is also literally a sacred space, nestled inside an active church in the heart of downtown Carmel. Once she opens the door to the studio, the next set of rituals begin.
“First, I open the blinds to the garden view, pour the first of many cups of green tea into my giant cup, prepare my palette, mix the paint, turn on an audiobook and then begin to paint a petal or a leaf,” she said.
As an oil painter, in order to achieve the radiance she seeks, Barlow builds up the paint slowly. Each thin layer of paint allows light to penetrate its surface, which permits the lower layers to glimmer through. This chosen technique is slow going, which suits her perfectly.
“My process is an antidote to the ever-increasing noise of the digital world. In my studio, time slows down and I can hear myself breathe,” she said.
Because she works so slowly, people often ask her how she knows when a painting is finished. Day after day, week after week, she tells them, she enters the studio and has a conversation with the painting. “What does it need? Where is it going?” And then one day, she enters the studio and the painting is silent, it no longer asks anything of her and she intuits that it has finally become itself.
The arc of Barlow’s work has evolved over many years in paintings that previously reflected the vibrant, bustling cosmopolitan life she led in San Francisco. She became known for a series of paintings called Portraits in Absentia, in which she used her subject’s belongings to create their portraits. The paintings included golf balls, stilettos, lipsticks, books, opera scores, ballet pointe shoes and footballs. They were a kind of archeology in paint.
“For a portrait of a very tall, glamorous woman, I painted a collection of her extravagant shoes and titled it ‘Portrait of a Glamazon.’ Another painting was titled ‘Portrait of a Marriage’ and used the formal wedding shoes of two men—opera composer Jake Heggie and actor Curt Branom—to celebrate their wedding,” she said.
Then in 2018, her work was transformed dramatically by a single painting. A collector invited her to create a work for his soon-to-be built vineyard home in Sonoma. The homeowner and his wife lost their prior home in the 2017 Wine Country Fires, barely escaping with their lives. Everything on the property was destroyed and the only things that survived were the vines and one rose bush. Even more tragedy followed when the wife died several months later.
“But then something amazing happened. That single rose bush began to bloom gloriously. The homeowner decided to build a new house on the same site and asked me to create a six-foot painting of that rose bush for the house. We titled the painting ‘The Phoenix Rose’ because it literally rose out of the ashes,” Barlow said.
Although she had already been painting flowers for some time, “The Phoenix Rose” showed Barlow that flowers can be powerful messengers, luring us in with their beauty and then offering potent lessons of hope, renewal, and presence.
“If we pause and admire a flower, we can awaken into now-ness—THIS flower, THIS sunset, THIS breath, THIS precious moment,” she said.
Barlow says that her work doesn’t respond directly to events in the world but instead, it offers a reminder that beauty, in whatever form you find it, can provide hope, solace, inspiration, and renewed optimism for this precious world we share.
Barlow’s painting calendar for 2024 is just about full. But whenever she feels daunted by looming deadlines, she reminds herself of the joy of spending long studio hours in the company of flowers. Along with a 2024 exhibition, she has several projects including a large commission for an East Coast collector.
“The collector has two spectacular rose gardens, one on Nantucket and another in Connecticut. She commissioned this painting for her winter home in Florida so that she can always be surrounded by her roses,” Barlow said.
Andra Norris Gallery will present Barlow’s newest large-scale floral painting at the San Francisco Art Fair 2024, from April 25-28, at Fort Mason. She will also exhibit a new collection of floral paintings at the gallery in September 2024.
And though her devotion to creating art is consuming, Barlow tries to fully embrace her precious time on this earth with her husband, extended family, and friends—in both grand adventures and tiny moments. And of course, filling her garden, house, and studio with flowers is non-negotiable.
“I need them for my art practice and my soul,” she said.
Elizabeth Barlow hopes that her work reminds us that paying attention to simple beauty matters and to take time out in the commotion of our lives to observe what is right before us in the present moment. She is abundantly aware that beauty awakens us from the sleepwalk of fulfilling to-do lists and delivers us into the miraculous world of being.
“The great American writer Alice Walker said, ‘Whenever you are creating beauty around you, you are restoring your own soul.’ I believe this to be true,” Barlow said. “And I also believe that by creating beauty around us, we are restoring the soul of the world.”