In the studio with Sophie Barber words by Julia Michiewicz

Your art often references birds. What is your connection to these animals? 

My dad's a birdwatcher, bird conventions and all that, he would get a notification a bird had landed and drive miles to see a glimpse of it through a hedge, and I’d go with him. Or we would get there and it would of flown. We’ve always had bird books in the house, I like the really old ones with film stills of them flying. Had a budgie, hatched some chicken eggs in an incubator last year, and my boyfriend just gave me a beautiful yellow canary for my birthday.

Another recurring theme is your surroundings - the South Coast and Hastings where you were born and went to Art School. Can you elaborate on your relationship with your local area?

I studied at Hastings college, I stayed on and done my degree there cause I really didn’t want to get a job at the Londis shop up the road, I started painting and I got a studio before I finished at the college and always kept my studio being in Hastings, I like the rhythm of life being by the sea, everything feels slightly slower, London’s too big for me, I always fall asleep on my way home so I can’t imagine living there I’d be knackered.
I spend time at places like Pett Level and Dungeness, good birds there. There’s something about being by the sea, it feels like the edge of the world. I like edges, it’s where things end and begin.

Sophie Barber, Travis Scott holding a corgi, 2021, oil on canvas (Image credits: Chris Sharp Gallery, Los Angeles)

Does your practice reflect on history or is it mainly based on the current moment?

Yeah it does both I think. Specifically art history, I like taking from other paintings, borrowing and stealing things. I suppose more recently looking at Instagram, celebrity culture, photographs of celebrities taken by artists, and then painting them tiny, there’s something about shrinking celebrities into the palm of your hand.

You experiment with scale and space. Your paintings are very large, taking up whole walls, or made tiny. Can you talk about the role of scale in your work?

I like to make work that feels so big if it fell on you you’d hurt yourself, something that feels like a theatre curtain or a circus tent, I don’t think it’s the size of the painting that makes them feel big it’s the weight that comes from the oil paint applied. They’re big and heavy. The small works are also heavy like bricks, but aren’t made in the same way, they’re off cuts of the bigger paintings wrapped round like chicken and bacon parcels stuffed with newspaper (the cheese) and are made at the kitchen table rather than in my bigger studio, they’re made in a more domestic way. It’s important for me to have work I can squirrel away on at home, and work that takes lots of energy and strength and movement. I like to make the different scale work in very different ways.

Sophie Barber, Birds Will Hide, 2019, oil on canvas (Image credits: Alison Jaques, London)

Speaking of spacial relationships, how does the dimensionality of what you depict, the 3D, sculptural aspect of bird houses and tents relate to the flatness of your unbounded, floating canvas?

The canvas itself feels more like a tent than the actual painting of a tent, they’re not well painted, but the painting becomes sculptural with that amount of paint, the way that they hang and slouch on the floor, they become something you can hide behind not an image of something you can hide behind. The image of the tent becomes irrelevant somehow. it’s the body and physicality of the painting that holds you.

Where are you positioned as an artist and person in this complex array of shifting sizes, dimensions and realities?

I am positioned between making paintings in a chaotic studio environment but also quite a hectic family home life. I’m easily distracted, so when I am working, I like to commit to the work, otherwise I’d end up babysitting or going to the garden centre with my mum.

Can you speak about your creative process and art making? Do you have a studio routine?

I’m terrible, very unorganised, slow mornings and very late nights painting. I find other things to do, things that are on the bottom of the to do list or not on it all, but the urgency of painting always calls me back when I’ve had enough time playing around.

Sophie Barber, Kim and Kanye kiss without tongues, 2021, Oil on canvas (Image Credits: Chris Sharp Gallery, Los Angeles)

You have an upcoming solo exhibition with Alison Jaques Gallery, who represent you. Can you give us a snippet of what viewers will see in September this year?

I’m looking at celebrities portraits, birds of paradise, fashion and the way we wear clothes, I’m sure it will all come out in one!

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Byzantia Harlow