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Canadian artist Wilford Barrington approaches his subjects with an honesty that is at once beautiful and terrifying. As time passes, the keenly attuned portraitist draws his sitters at multiple angles, capturing the shifts in light, in knowing and in visage. What results is a work that is gruesome in its ruthless intent to reveal what in its subject is trying to be concealed and sublime in its continually building clarity.   

I'm interested in the idea of transience when it comes to both your work and your life. You were born in Edmonton, moved to Winnipeg and have now landed in Toronto. Do you think your peripatetic lifestyle has influenced your portraiture, which seems like still work in flux?

The medium of drawing, both in graphite and ink lends itself perfectly to both the kind of work I make and the lifestyle I live. As I am always moving around, often working out of a bedroom, I must work on a small scale and in a non-toxic medium. Portraiture became the perfect way of working in this environment as there is always a steady stream of acquaintances flowing through my life and thus an endless well of subject matter to draw on. The immediacy and versatility of drawing allows me to explore various formal languages in the same image while being unencumbered by bulky materials and supplies.

terra.jpgThese days, each sitting I have with someone lasts roughly three hours. I tell the sitter not to pose at all and get into this kind of trance where I talk to the sitter while I record their changing expressions and attitudes. Once the sitting is over I spend many more hours studying and completing the image. I reflect on the time I have spent with them and the conversation we shared during our time together. The finished portrait contains both the energy captured by drawing the sitter from direct observation, and the energy in the memory of the person after the fact.

I feel this mode of working can be read as a metaphor for how we relate to one another; we share these moments with others however brief, and we can't help but exchange a small part of ourselves. For instance, have you ever passed by someone on the street and for some reason they remain in your thoughts for a few hours afterwards? There is an energy we exchange with each other in even the briefest interaction that finds its way into everything around us. I feel the drawings act as a portal to this exchange I share with my sitters.

Would you ever want to stay in one place?

I moved to Toronto 16 months ago as a result of a portrait commission I had from artist Barr Gilmore three years ago. We talked about working on a book project together and that inspired an Alberta Foundation for the Arts grant application that brought me out here to work on a series of portrait drawings that we may publish together in the near future. I am still working on this project, and I suppose it could go on forever but I feel now that the book project here is coming to an end. For the time being I am content working here in Toronto as I have been meeting many interesting people and enjoying a change of scenery. To answer your question, I am not sure if I will spend the rest of my life here in Toronto, I may move again if a project or the natural course of life brings me elsewhere.

jarrodally.jpgYou grew up in Calgary, which to me always felt like a kind of cultural black hole where the city planners seem to have sucked the life out of anything with potential beauty. Your drawings have a commitment to showing things as they are. Beauty is there but you have to look for it. Once you find it though, it's much deeper. Is there a relation here?

I like to think making great works of art has not so much to do with the city you live in so much as it is about having the freedom and drive to carry out your ideas. Finding beauty in the world around you has more to do with a state of mind than it does with geography. That being said, often this freedom I speak of can only come about by having greater access to resources than small cities can provide. It is important to find these avenues of support in order to survive, and carry on working.

How did living in Winnipeg affect you as an artist? There's been a lot of talk about the city as Canada's unofficial artistic centre.

To be fair I only spent a month and a half in Winnipeg, so I don't actually consider that a move, it was more of a residency. My time in Winnipeg came about through a meeting I had with artist Noam Gonick in Calgary while I was working as a live model for an installation he did with Louis Jacob called "Wildflowers of Manitoba" that toured through the Glenbow Museum for the Sled Island music and arts festival. Noam and I began a correspondence that prompted me to move to Winnipeg to explore the city's thriving culture. While I was there Noam showed me around the city and introduced me to a diverse cast of characters, including a Hells Angel's member by the name of Sean Wolfe that had piqued Noam's interest for a possible documentary. Noam hired me to follow the gangster's court proceedings and make courtroom illustrations as well as sit down with him for a portrait. That was a sitting I won't forget any time soon.

When I returned to Calgary I was penniless and homeless. I was forced to rely on the help of others to gain my footing in the world again. It was humbling and the process caused me to lose a certain naiveté I had about others and what they may want from you. I started working on these portraits where each feature on the face carries a different emotion, thereby creating a kind of flickering. I found then if both eyes in a portrait carry conflicting feelings, the reading of the face becomes more complex and reveals a kind of psychological depth that can only be reached by spending time with someone studying them closely. During this period of time after Winnipeg I was profoundly depressed.

I was carrying a lot of emotional weight as a result of the poverty I was experiencing. My sittings became a way to share the pain I was going through with others, by exploring their own pain thereby achieving a kind of intimacy that was incredibly beneficial for me. I became a sort of chronic "wounded healer" during this phase and the insights I gained then are still very much a part of the work I am making now. It seemed to work too, often both the sitter and I would end the sitting on a high note with the feeling that through purging our feelings together we had created something unique.

Moving to Toronto seems to be the industrious choice. As an artist, who ended up here, do you feel like you've settled?

Not at all. Since moving here I have developed new modes of addressing the problem of a portrait. The density of living in Toronto has inspired a new method of group portraiture whereby I condense the features of a number of people into a single form. Last year, I was living in a house with four other people. I began to think about the notion that the identity of a group of people, defined by whatever situation brings them together, have a separate collective identity than they do individually. I think this is easily understood with the example of a couple. Together the couple will act and say very different things then they would on their own. When working on this kind of picture, I have to completely disregard the likeness altogether and go with an overall feeling of the group.

frank.jpgWho was your most interesting subject?

It's difficult to pick which of the people I've drawn is the most interesting. Each time I sit down with someone new I am confronted with an entirely new set of physiognomy, expressions and emotional states. This is the main reason I keep coming back to the portrait form; each time it's different and rewarding in a new way. I oscillate between being absorbed in the portrait I am working on at the moment, and looking foreword to my next sitting.

One notable person that came to sit for me was the poet Bill bissett. He was immediately responsive to my request to draw him and showed up on time and was completely enthusiastic about the sitting. I drew him over lunch and afternoon tea while he chatted with my roommates. At just over 70 years of age, Bill remains just as sharp, witty and vital as ever. He is an extremely prolific and charismatic artist and his unique outlook on the world was refreshing. I was taken by his complete lack of pretense and honest enthusiasm with being there. I find that people with great reputations do not arrive at their station in life by being rude.   

Have you ever been so bored by somebody that you couldn't even apply your own technique to the drawing?

I have a hard time drawing lovers or close friends. It's hard to maintain objectivity in those cases because there is so much feeling and history there. I prefer meeting people once or twice before I draw them so when we get to the portrait sitting there is still ground to cover, and people are slightly on edge so they are more likely to go places during the sitting they wouldn't otherwise. When we come to know someone well, we take for granted the steps we took to get there.

1 Comments | Add a Comment
I'm really interested in Barrington's comments on the Wounded Healer - something I've explored quite a bit in relation to creativity and art.Two pertinent quotes I like: "Through Art we can see deep truths that are otherwise invisible. In great works of art we feel the deepest yearnings of our Heart and glimpse the shimmering revelations of our Spirit. (Dana Lynne Andersen)and: "Creating a work of art is not a harmless thing. It always is a powerful medium. Art is extraordinarily powerful and important. It challenges people
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