This next interview is with professional artist Renira Barnes, who is based in Northumberland in the North East of England. Renira studied landscape architecture and design in Leeds, and having worked in this profession for many years, she finds that this has a strong influence on her art today. Looking at the landscape, environment, space, and design has provided her with a creative avenue to develop the work she creates from her studio in the Northumbrian village of Felton.
During our chat together, we discussed tuning into the senses, the influence of living in response to the seasons, and our love of Kurt Jackson! Read on to discover more.
Where do you work? What makes this place important for your creative process?
I work from my studio in Felton, which is a very important space for me. It is located in a beautiful part of the world that reflects much of what I like about living in this country. I have great access to the natural world, which is where I get most of my inspiration for my work. Being able to have a dedicated studio space allows me to process thoughts, develop ideas and not be too pressured about what I’m creating. Also, people can visit and see my process, talk about my work, and perhaps have an interest in purchasing. Initially, I didn’t expect to communicate very much with the public from my studio, but it has developed into more of an ‘Open Studio’ due to being situated now with a gallery and other studios. What is helpful for me is that people come in and discuss my work. This can be more important than you realise – you do a lot of developing ideas in your head, so being able to talk about it spurs connections with other things. This communication sometimes opens up other questions within yourself about what you are trying to achieve and why. During lockdown, there were occasional visitors and being able to talk about my art during this time was particularly helpful. This has been an added bonus to my studio that I wasn’t expecting.
How would you describe your creative process? Do you use certain mediums/techniques to develop your creative ideas?
I enjoy painting and drawing in any medium, and seeing that process where mark making comes out of a flat surface and becomes something else. This is triggered by trying to note things that I see in the natural world. These could be small, incidental things that don’t necessarily have a wow factor, but are important in that they have sparked a connection with me.
The choice of media tends to come from the subject matter that I’m exploring, which is most often in relation to the natural environment. Being out in the natural world, whether that is when I’m running through the woods or walking across the fields, allows me to tune into my senses to notice changes in the light, shadows, temperature of the air. So when I begin my mark making process, these reflect the other senses, not just the visual. This can then influence colour choices, the type and use of a medium, and the layering process which is often present in my work.
What is the main subject of your inspiration?
Natural forms are my main inspiration, from miniatures to huge landscapes, seascapes, and particularly trees. I’m very much influenced by being in a place: I used to be surrounded by mountains and so they became the focus of my work, whereas now the woods are where I spend a lot of my time and so trees are of particular importance. Trees and woods have always been with me throughout my life.
Another area that has been with me since childhood is the sea as I would go to the beach a lot when I was living in Wales. Northumberland has a very different type of beach and coastal edge compared to what I grew up with, but it does have a certain beauty here. Since having a dog, I have been going to my local beach more and more meaning inevitably I have experienced a different aspect of where I live. This has crept into my work. If you visit somewhere regularly, if you see something regularly, you can’t help but explore it, even if it is not an intentional observation.
If I can’t get to the mountains or the woods or the beach, then there is always something beautiful happening in my garden: it might be a flower, it might be an autumn leaf, it might be a seed pod, it might just be a little bit of frosting on the edge of a stick – those little tiny details often become part of my work. My studio is full of these natural objects that I have found!
"I’m very much influenced by being in a place: I used to be surrounded by mountains and so they became the focus of my work, whereas now the woods are where I spend a lot of my time and so trees are of particular importance."
What are you working on at the moment?
Currently, I have various layers of work. I’m running a weekly workshop that goes back to basics and covers working with a lot of different mediums. These are preparatory classes for beginners.
I’m working on food illustrations, which is away from my normal subject, but it's interesting for me to approach. I enjoy illustrative work as it has always been a part of my life since as a child growing up surrounded by books that had beautiful illustrations. I think having the visual delight of an illustration in a book is such a wonderful thing! This has definitely influenced my reasoning for taking on board illustration projects.
I also have a commission at the moment which is to do with the moors and mountains. This will end up being quite a large piece, with layers of texture, very atmospheric and capturing the essence of these Northumberland hills.
On the back burner, I’m developing a body of work with small monotype pieces incorporating collage and words that will go alongside them.
What does “sense of place” mean to you? Is this concept present in your work?
Sense of place has a link back to my work as a landscape architect because you need an understanding of the place you are in. If you are designing a space outside of a building, you are conscious of how many elements are important to human beings within that place. Even though I don’t intend to, I weigh up almost all spaces subconsciously. I tend to notice how cramped a space is, how open a space is, how wild a space is. All those sensory elements come in to play. I think this is where sense of place lies: an awareness of all the elements and your own senses working within this environment. This could be subconsciously or intentionally.
My observation of place happens through looking at it with not only a designer’s eye, but with an interest in light, colour, shape, texture. These elements are things you also consider when you are in a certain place. I think it’s quite complex. Being a designer, being an artist, and being in a place, these all come in to play and connect the senses.
Does the natural world have a part to play in your everyday life?
Yes, very much so. I’m aware of how important the outdoors is to health and wellbeing. I have a need to be outside, which is why I have almost always been based in rural areas. I like to connect with seasonality and therefore I’m also influenced by this fluctuating process. The way I live changes because of the seasons; I love the variation and renewal that they promise. During autumn, even though you are coming to the end of a year, there is only a short period of time before a renewal comes.
Do you have a favourite artist or creative individual? Someone who has artistically inspired your work?
Kurt Jackson. He crept onto the horizon for me a long time ago, having viewed his work in a magazine and I just liked the style of his paintings. The more I investigated him as an artist, I found him more and more intriguing. Although his parents were artists, he opted to pursue his interest in natural history and studied zoology, finding a way to side-line out of this career into art, but still very fascinated with the environment. He campaigns for certain environmental aspects, which he does through his art. It is great to think that you can make your living not only fantastically well, but actually keep your eyes on a bigger vision, such as a campaign for an important subject; or by making others see an issue through using your skills as an artist. I also feel Jackson has stayed true to his vision and beliefs throughout his long career. Over and above all this, I also really like the way he works. Visually, it’s very pleasing to look at – embracing an extensive range of materials and techniques, including mixed media – I have rarely seen a piece by him that has not resonated with me in some way.
What would your top piece of advice be for creatives navigating their way in the arts industry today?
Something that I struggled with for a long time was questioning “What use is an artist? What is the purpose of being an artist?” And I found this quite challenging to answer. But art work and beautiful objects lift the spirits, and creative individuals solve problems. That is the key: creating art is about solving problems, and you can’t solve problems without a creative mind. Encouraging the arts and giving back to the arts industry is highly important. So to other creatives I would say not to feel as though you are a weak cog in the system. You are a really important component within the world. You can do a lot as a creative individual.
The other thing I would say is not to allow finance to become such a struggle that you can’t exist as an artist. This might mean you have another job that is totally unrelated to your art, but it allows you to develop as an artist alongside it. I think getting this balance right is important. This can be hard, particularly if you are self-employed or an individual running your own business, however having some money coming in regularly means you can then afford to explore your creative avenues further. It may take a long time, but hopefully the creative side of things will one day take over completely and can flourish!
"Creating art is about solving problems, and you can’t solve problems without a creative mind. Encouraging the arts and giving back to the arts industry is highly important. You can do a lot as a creative individual."
Do you have a message that you hope to give to the world?
I hope that we continue to recognise the importance of the arts. This industry is very broad and we need to keep championing it! Everyone and every place in the world needs art and creative responses, in all its various shapes and forms. I think in the UK, we are rich with artistic expression and it needs to be supported, recognised and endorsed more.
Anything else you would like to add?
Thank you for discussing this topic. I think it always surprises me how good it is to vocalise ideas and thoughts. We can learn so much from each other across all art forms, and continue to develop and grow as artistic beings throughout our lives. It is fantastic to have a creative voice even with all the challenges!
Renira is based in Studio 1 at Gallery 45, Felton, Northumberland
Find out more about Renira's work on her website www.renirabarnesart.co.uk
All Images: Artist's Own