Jan Barwick | Caribbean Artist
A joyful, extravagant celebration of the natural world.
Words by Natasha Were.
Jan Barwick’s paintings are teeming with life. Whether it’s the African savannah or a Caribbean seascape, every scene is brimming with exotic plants and animals. Rendered in her distinctive style and vivid colours, her view of nature’s abundance is uplifting – but also sobering.
The artist’s view of the world as a wonderland populated by a profusion of colourful creatures could well be traced back to an idyllic childhood in the South Pacific: Barwick lived in the Solomon Islands from age three to eight, and later on a tiny, isolated atoll in the Gilbert Islands (now Kiribati).
“Our island, Bairiki, was the size of Little Cayman,” she recalls. “We were surrounded by reefs and our lives revolved around the tides, the beaches, the sea and what was below it.”
This was the 1950s and 60s, when the islands were untouched pockets of paradise. She and her siblings spent their days swimming, paddling around in canoes, beachcombing.... and painting.
Having inherited their parents’ and grandparents’ creative abilities, and with little else in the way of entertainment, it was only natural that their mother, Margaret Barwick, an artist and budding garden designer, should sit her children down with a bucket of paint and let them get on with it. “It seemed odd if we weren’t painting or drawing. Art is in our DNA,” Barwick says.
It was her mother who taught her to observe botanical detail in order to create accurate illustrations of plants and trees – a skill that is evident in the detailed markings of the creatures she paints.
Years later, when the family swapped tropical seas for the golden hues of Malawi and she discovered the local art, she was fascinated by the simple, almost graphic style that characterised African paintings.
It was this, she says, that had the biggest influence on her developing style.
Knowing painting was her calling, she enrolled in art college in London, UK, in the 1970s. That, however, proved a less than enriching experience.
It may have been a product of the times or perhaps of that particular college, whose student body was renowned for its political activism, but she says, “The tutors wanted you to be angst-ridden and angry with everybody. They wanted your art to be abstract and full of rhetoric. But I don’t look at the dark side of things. My work is happy – and that was just not trendy at the time.”
It was only when the family moved to Cayman that Barwick began to paint underwater scenes. In fact, the bulk of her work was created during the Cayman years: examples of her art now hang in the National Gallery; she was chosen to create designs for the tails of British Airways’ Caribbean airplanes, and received numerous commissions for the Tourist Board, Barclays Bank, Sunset House, Hyatt Regency and the airport.
Now residing in southwest France, but with family in Cayman and her heart firmly in the Caribbean, she continues to produce vibrant scenes of beaches, birds and reefs.
The paints, easels and stained overalls have gone, however. Now she paints directly onto her iPad. Using the Procreate app she can draw digitally, and she can do so faster and more accurately than she ever could with paint.
Better still, she can draw in the doctor’s waiting room, on airplanes – anywhere she likes.
This, in conjunction with other technologies such as Photoshop, Skype and print-on-demand, has enabled her and her sister, Miranda - an ocean away in Atlanta - to finally launch a joint project: Bairiki by Jan Barwick.
Named after the island idyll of their childhood – an island that will be among the first to be lost to rising sea levels – the aim is to use her artwork to highlight the plight of the oceans.
By painting in a digital format, they are able to expand it into giant murals, (two of which they donated to the Georgia Aquarium, Atlanta) and zoom in to extract small parts of paintings, which they then print onto sarongs, scarves, bags and even furniture.“It’s literally art you can wear,” the sisters enthuse.
Because the concept is rooted in environmental protection, every aspect of the Bairiki collection, from the fabrics to the printing and packaging is as eco-friendly as possible. A portion of the proceeds is also being donated to Exxpedition, an all female, two-year, sailing and scientific research mission that aims to document the plastic and pollution in our oceans.
In an era of environmental decline, Jan Barwick’s view of a world bursting with life might seem to border on the mythical. Yet, not all that long ago, that was an accurate representation of her environment. So whilst her optimism and joie de vivre shine through her work, and her vibrant colours invariably spark a smile, they also underscore the fact that this abundance is fragile and fading fast. Whatever her art college tutors might have said, Barwick’s art both celebrates life and reminds us to protect it.
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