Del Kathryn Barton’s work in film and visual art draws from intensely personal experiences. By Susan Chenery.

Artist Del Kathryn Barton

Del Kathryn Barton.
Del Kathryn Barton.
Credit: Anna Kucera

Del Kathryn Barton knows what it is to be a child spinning into a dissociative state, the terror that takes on a life of its own. “Especially for the child’s mind,” she says. “I’m sure there’s lots of classifications now. I used to go into states and I still don’t even really know what they were. I really felt that I was not in control of my mind or my senses or my capacity to function in any normal way. Hearing voices and auditory hallucinations. It was horrific.”

We meet at Barton’s large, light-filled studio on a Paddington corner. Now 50, until she started making films she had existed in the solitary world of the painter for nearly three decades. “The art world is a fascinating, idiosyncratic landscape, but it’s also a very lonely place,” she says. “The Australian art world is small and it can be quite toxic.”

This studio is the two-time Archibald winner’s calm, safe place, where painting brings her joy and, sometimes, anxiety. Her bulldog puppy, Frederick, chews on a bag then subsides into snoring at her feet. “I’m a workaholic and a workhorse,” she tells me. “It’s like an addiction. I wake up in the morning and just feel an incredible urgency to get to the studio and smash coffee. It’s like a total high and then I usually crash around 3pm.”

Barton apologises in advance: “I’m not very good at succinct answers.” There is a comforting warmth about her, a sense that her emotions are always close to the surface, but the current mood is optimism.

Leaning on the studio walls are the large, sensuous, otherworldly canvases she is preparing for a show in Los Angeles. Painting her talismanic works is, she says, a compulsive, primal, intuitive act. The paintings are always about “different ways of inhabiting a woman’s body in all of its complexities”.

On one canvas she has made the first marks, the commitment, the line. The journey into the unknown has started. “Which is why my brain is a bit in another zone,” she admits. “I really need to sit with her now and really let her talk to me and tell me what she needs and what the composition needs and how that affects the narrative. It’s very complex, it’s an endless kind of meditation.”

She doesn’t do any preparatory drawings. “Sometimes I’ll start with a fully realised desire for a pictorial outcome, but as soon as I have started the first phase it’s almost like everything is up for grabs again. It’s totally dichotomous and contradictory. That might sound a bit wanky, but it’s something I have come to terms with. You’ve got to stay really open.”

Her debut feature, Blaze, which is out in cinemas this week, encompasses all of Barton’s contradictions. The film script arrived in a pink box with 3D paper dragon scales, glitter and sparkles. “And there were pictures every second page,” recalls actor Simon Baker. “It wasn’t in final draft format, which is sort of breaking all the rules.”

Even Barton described it as a “hot mess” when they sat down to talk about it. “He gave me a bit of a hard time initially,” Barton recalls. “It was like, how the fuck are you going to make this?”

Baker, who plays a bewildered and helpless father trying to help his child in the face of her declining mental state, knew that no matter how the film turned out, it would be an interesting experience. He had, he says, “a connection in my heart with Del. She was going to throw herself into it and that was enough for me … It was kind of very ambitious. And there was intention that was pure and I think that intention stayed intact. If anything, it increased in its potency and forcefulness.” So did the glitter. “I would be getting glitter out of my hair for days.”

Blaze is filmed among the great fig trees and toney terraces of Paddington. In this upscale inner-city Sydney enclave of urban professionals, a dreamy schoolgirl (Julia Savage) witnesses a rape and murder. Her trauma, as she sinks into something close to psychosis, is played out using VFX, animation and puppetry – the full armoury of Barton’s fantastical imagination. It’s a visual expression of the pain, incandescent rage and shock of a shattered childhood, as Blaze retreats into imaginary worlds. Barton is, she admits, a “maximalist”.

The rapist and victim are well-dressed middle-class people. “I often feel like violent stories are kind of relegated unfairly to lower socioeconomic places,” says Barton. “For me it was really important to tell the story in the world that I live in.”

“Del is an incredible empath,” says Charlotte Faunce, mother of the prodigiously talented Julia Savage, who plays the titular character, Blaze. Simon Baker agrees. “She’s very caring and very open and gentle. But she’s got great strength as well. She stood firmly in her power.”

All Barton’s work comes from a deeply personal place. “Definitely the lived experience has always been there and has informed my creative life in lots of manifold ways,” she says. “The narrative of the film is informed in part by personal experience. I had done decades of therapy and I felt incredibly resilient and ready to tell this story. But I was not prepared for the degree to which I would be triggered.”

Barton is a survivor of sexual violence, both as victim and witness, and suffered bullying and eating disorders at school. “There’s a form of catharsis that’s going on constantly,” Baker observes. “What makes her really interesting and beautiful is that she embraces that trauma – she doesn’t burden the world with it but brightens the world with her expression.”

Barton was driving to her studio and heard on the radio that in Australia one woman is killed every week by a current or former partner. She was “just so incredibly shocked”. When she and co-writer Huna Amweero were working on the script, they would think of scenarios that they thought weren’t credible. “And then you go to all these case studies and it’s like, you couldn’t even write that, you know … Much more than telling this story as truthfully as I can and as truthfully to the female experience, I wanted it to be a story of hope.”

Barton drew compulsively from an early age. It was a safe place that took her out of her illness and into the light, a salvation of her own creation. Her parents were teachers, her mother a Steiner teacher. “[My mother] had a very holistic approach. She brought all these paradigms around light and dark and creativity being a very integrated part of living,” says Barton. “So I just developed ways of being with those dark places and being with those places that are totally empty of energy.”

When she was nine, her parents moved the family from Castle Hill, Sydney, to semi-rural acreage, where her father renovated an old house. “We were a kilometre off the dirt road, native bush, it was a pretty amazing property actually,” she says.  “[The house was] totally white and red with a beautiful big verandah.” While he was working as a teacher, her father, untrained as a builder, tore the house down by hand and slowly rebuilt it over 15 years. “We started living in tents for about two years, and then sort of upgraded to a large shed that Dad built. I was the first member of the family to move into the house and it still didn’t have exterior walls. But for us kids it was completely magical. For us, the feeling of being on the land was incredible.”

Today she lives in a two-storey inner-city Victorian terrace with her financial services executive husband, Christopher Plater, and their two children. She is, he has said, “a big personality”. Much of the furniture in the film Blaze was her own, palettes of blue and pink. “It’s just a full salon hang, everything’s coming at you,” she says of her home. “It’s totally a curated space emotionally and very dense visually. Also I like a bit of a mess.”

She met Plater in 2001 at 29 and found herself with an unplanned pregnancy three months later. Having children changed her art practice “radically, more radically than anything else in my life”. She won the Archibald Prize in 2008 with a self-portrait with her children sitting between her legs, titled You are what is most beautiful about me, a self-portrait with Kell and Arella.

“The birth of my son, you know, I was very holistic and I had a real vision of the way I wanted to give birth. And it was a very long labour and a natural birth,” says Barton. “And just looking into my son’s eyes for the first time, it was totally my peak life experience actually. Up until that point, the shows that I had were all drawing based and lacking in colour and paint. And I just started painting after he was born, like it was quite inexplicably unleashed. This love, this sort of level of abundance in my being that I didn’t know was there.”

For Barton the leap from being a fine art painter to the collaborative world of moving images was an extension of her work. From a young age she has been passionate about film. “Film craft has informed my practice as much as any of my fine art heroes. It is a medium that I’d always kind of lusted after.”

She had already collaborated on two short films – the animation The Nightingale and the Rose (2015), co-directed with Brendan Fletcher, and RED (2017), with Cate Blanchett –  before Blaze. The genesis for her latest film was a monumental five-panelled work, sing blood-wings sing (2019), painted while her mother was dying of pancreatic cancer. This in turn was inspired by the Peter, Paul and Mary song Puff the Magic Dragon, which she often plays in the studio. “What I love so much about this tune is this idea that, as we transition from childhood into adulthood, we don’t neglect those really powerful inner selves represented by Puff, and that very sad line where Puff crawls into his cave and ceases his fearless roar. As adults, we need to learn not to lose our Puff.”

Being Barton, the 200-kilogram magic dragon in the film is made from Italian fabrics, Swarovski crystals, feathers and scales, and huge googly eyes. “I sewed the dragon myself with my closest assistants,” Barton says. “With the childhood aesthetic it could be unapologetically handmade, which I think gave the film a lot of liberty. It was so low-fi but for me that has the emotional integrity.”

Barton says there were a lot of “people just looking at me blankly, like, what the fuck? How are we going to shoot that?” followed by: “But this is awesome.” Producer Sam Jennings, she says, backed her the whole way. “But then again, we’re good at laughing about things too – like, yeah, and you’ve got to make this shit fun.”

Puff the Magic Dragon might be its genesis, but the film’s soundtrack, which includes music by Nick Cave, soars beyond it. “He was so generous with his terms. Look, I’m that sort of person that kind of curates and has playlists that almost play like a soundtrack to my life. So, for me, the music and finding the resources and reaching out to all my heroes was an extraordinary journey. For each scene I had my ideal song. It is quite a subtle push and pull. And at times it is a really radical counterpoint to the emotional beats of the scene, to give it more complexity and depth and conflict.”

Barton is currently working on three new films, but says painting will always be at the core of her practice. “And that needs a lot of time and space as well.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 20, 2022 as "Keeping the magic alive".

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