"I may look grand as an artist at the Artexpo, but I'm really just a farm girl who likes to have dirt underneath my fingernails," says South African artist Natasha Barnes.
Born in the small town of Parys, (pronounced Paris) in rural South Africa in 1969, Barnes' only playmate was her brother, Graham. Raised in a happy and care-free environment, her mother realized from the beginning that Natasha was a highly energetic and creative child, and arranged a few art lessons for her with the town's only artist.
"When I think back to my childhood, I remember always wanting to make something. I'd either sculpt animals from the clay that we took from the river on the farm or make and sew all my own dolls clothes and the objects in her house," says Barnes. "All I wanted to do was create. This was not overlooked at school and I won prizes for art at the annual prize giving every year. At the time I was always so terribly disappointed the prizes were not for math or science."
From Boarding School to Cooking School
She started painting oils at age seven, and has been painting ever since. "I was sent to boarding school from the age of 13 to 18, Barnes says. "This was mainly due to the fact that I was a brilliant and competitive athlete, and many of my track and field records still stand today."
After leaving school, Barnes attended the prestigious Silwood Kitchens Cordon Bleu Cookery School in Cape Town, South Africa. "My parents gave me the option of studying art, and apparently I replied, "I don't need to study art, I am going to be an artist anyway," she explains. Her prediction proved profound.
"I obtained a three-year Grande Diploma and passed with distinction, specializing in wedding cake decoration and food styling. The school recommended that I take up a career in food writing and food styling."
It wasn't long before Barnes secured employment at one of South Africa's premier food magazines. "My years with Your Family magazine were happy and very creative. Among other things, I did a lot of TV demonstrations and wrote enough recipes to fill a book."
Barnes' mother, the major influence in her life, suggested at the time that she join a local art group and start participating in group exhibitions. "I had not studied art at all apart from the few art lessons as a child, but I was immediately hooked. I loved meeting new artists and networking ... and I still do."
Soon, her paintings were fetching high prices and were in great demand in local art circles. She attended many exhibitions and shows in South Africa, but at the same time, continued her work for the magazine.
Barnes considered leaving the magazine to paint full-time for the South African market. "I had no ambition of going anywhere else, especially internationally. When a friend asked me to teach a cooking class for three weeks because a friend had let her down, I agreed."
Three weeks turned into five years, and she found herself teaching cooking to maximum security prisoners. "It was very rewarding, but during all these years I still continued to paint," she says. "In fact, when I did my first Artexpo I still had my cooking school. I knew deep down that cooking was only a means to an end," she explains.
How did she go from being a cooking school teacher to become an international artist?
"I was painting while I was teaching cooking," remembers Barnes. "One day, a friend asked me if I would like to join her for a trip to Dubai to help sell her pottery at a trade fair. I had no idea what this entailed, but I took 12 paintings and booked two meters (six feet) of her stand. A German publisher was in Dubai on holiday, saw my work and mentioned that I should go to the Spring Fair in Birmingham, England. I booked a stand for the following spring. The publisher was there and signed me, and the rest is history."
Barnes' painting has been a journey of great discovery. There are times when she paints, stands back to reflect and thinks, "did I really do that?" The transition from watercolors and landscapes to abstracts was a gradual one, but there was one defining moment that brought about the change. "It was a cold March day in NY, Artexpo had just ended and I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I wandered into the Modern art section and it was like a bolt of lightning struck ... there was a Robert Motherwell painting in black and white." She sat on the little bench and stared at that painting for two hours.
When she left the museum, emerging into the dark gray afternoon, she knew then from that moment on everything about her art had changed. This became the start of "The Abstract."
"It has been an unbelievably rewarding experience for me," says Barnes. "Each painting is unknown. To paint abstract is energy. I lose myself in the motion of the paint and canvas for a few hours. My work has been described as organic. The Circles are like circles in life--never ending, with no beginning or end. And I love to paint in red. One has to realize that I still live in Africa and that the golden red earth, warm days and beautiful red sunsets have impregnated themselves in my mind. It is natural that I would subconsciously paint my feelings and surroundings. I gain my inspiration from the people I meet on my travels and the places I see."
Barnes says she wishes she could lend her family and friends her eyes for a day because she has seen a great deal of the world. Most recently she took the Trans Siberian express from St. Petersburg to Beijing and spent Christmas in a tiny village in Siberia.
"When I travel," she says, "I switch off and lose myself in the moment and place, and I forget about time. As creative people we all need to switch off, otherwise the stories and pictures in our heads would drive us insane."
She continues, "I have had the good fortune of being represented by many top publishers in the industry, including CAP, Bentley Houses, Brushstrokes and International Graphics, to name a few. Presently, I am one of South Africa's most published artists. My art is about building relationships with galleries, publishers and like-minded artists."
Barnes has found that selling her art from South Africa has been somewhat of a handicap "as most galleries think it is next to the moon." She has successfully crossed that bridge by working with the following distributors: Atlantic Arts, Trevor Victor Harvey Gallery in Australia, and Art Source in the Middle East. She covers South Africa and the United Kingdom herself.
Art and Television
"Art has opened so many doors and I have met the most fantastic people," enthuses Barnes. "I have painted commissions for hotels; have done projects as far a field as Uganda; have had my paintings published and used in Ikea for a few seasons; and have done greeting cards for Hallmark.
"My paintings have been used on the set of television's Extreme Makeover and recently were featured on ShopNBC TV, which is viewed by 2 million U.S. households." Barnes's work also has been a part of the set of one of South Africa's most loved soap operas, and she has even been written into the script a few times.
Barnes' love for travel is very much a positive, as she typically takes as many as seven trips abroad a year, with paintings in tow. One of her best friends, Hettie Saaiman, is a well-known artist in Hawaii, and Barnes visits her in Maui every other year and spends four weeks there with her "recharging my batteries and painting palm trees. "The Japanese love them," Barnes says, "and it pays for the trip. If I weren't an artist I would love to have been a flight attendant. Some days I could easily just get on that plane and never return. We all have dreams, don't we?"
Barnes believes that marketing her art is what it's all about. "If you stop thinking ahead, the rest will leave you behind. To successfully market yourself, you need to cross-market and merchandise. The way that we buy art these days has changed. The Internet and smaller private art shows have taken a lot of business away from the galleries and artists. We have to look at new ways in which to sell ourselves, while still being true to our art."
She continues, "I have begun designing jewelry, because it is, in short, a continuation of my art, taking elements from my paintings and transcending them into jewelry pieces."
She launched the brand Natasha Barnes Jewellery in the United Kingdom, United States and South Africa. The response? "Fantastic," Barnes says.
"Eighty-five percent of the galleries now sell some sort of add on, like jewelry or glass," she says. "It has become a huge trend in the UK especially. How I got to have my own range is a story in itself. Let's keep that for next time."
"My long-term goal is to really touch that super league, to look back on my life and say. 'I did it!' I want to write a cook book and a novel and travel to Antarctica, among other things. I also want to be on the red carpet at Artexpo; have someone playing the piano at my booth; and with lots of sales ladies running around in nice black suits."
When it comes to enthusiasm and talent, Barnes has plenty of both. "People always ask me, "did you choose art, or did art choose you," she says. "What do you think?"
For reprints of this article, call 800-867-9285; ext. 5503.
* Natasha Barnes, 011273 1916 2228, www.natashabarnes.com
ABN Editorial Director…