Francesca Barker in Conversation

Lynette: What’s special about the free store?

Francesca: The free store is a reflection of Denman. The free store and secondhand stores plays a huge role in my works, because of the unlimited resources that they offer. One, being able to find things on a spontaneous note, because you never know what’s there. And two, it’s so fun if you’re in the middle of a painting with a particular theme. You get to one of these shops, and you find an article that helps propel the idea further, or actually go into the piece as mixed media.  That’s one reason why I use it, that and the recycling nature of the free store. It’s not going out to buy new things. I “unconsume” as a way of living. I try to get rid of stuff now, I dejunk,  and purge. Yet you look around, and there’s tons of stuff I’m still getting rid of.

So I think it was by accident that I started using the second hand stores, like a creative catalyst.  I have always second hand shopped, it’s a hobby of mine. It’s fun, so it naturally fell in place. From historical habits, you could call them..

Lynette: Here on the Island, it’s practically a cultural phenomenon.

I think it is, in a sense, it’s culturally amazing. Because It’s run by volunteers, it’s all donations. It’s in the Old School, the school I went to, on Denman.  it could have been bought  and been converted into a big house. It was for sale, then it was sold for a dollar to the community. It’s not just where the kids went to school. It’s also now our recycling centre, really good for the island. It’s our social hub, our Market’s there. So it’s an all-encompassing place. It’s nice that’s evolved. That’s one thing about Denman, change happens very slowly here. New faces, but the actual rhythm of the island seems to be very similar  throughout the years.

Lynette: You were born on the Island, and you grew up here. How does that affect who you are, and what you do?

It affects me, because it’s  a process of learning about who I am. Reflected, you could say, on a canvas of old traditional habits, 35 years old. My family came here, we weren’t pioneers, but because I grew up here it’s my history, based on who I’ve known, all those aunties and uncles that came to my (art) show. It was amazing, the commitment, and how Denman itself has influenced me.  That has to do with the people that have naturally been attracted to live here.  It’s been an artist’s community, and an escape from reality. Beautiful. The land was really inexpensive thirty years ago, even ten years ago!

Denman itself, the community, has raised me.

In a lot of ways. It’s not just my parents, though they’re definitely the backbones of my ethics and beliefs.  They’re politically charged, going to the peace marches and protests about Strathcona Park, Nanoose Bay nuclear activity, all those things. Lots and lots of protests, in my childhood. They are both artistic people.

Denman has always been really supportive of social causes, in general.  Island people have fought for years, against larger forces coming in. And they’ve won, a lot of the time.  I remember in my childhood, age 4 or 5, the forestry  industry wanted to put one of those massive log booms into Baynes Sound. Really big. There were major protests, and it didn’t go through. Hopefully that spirit is still here, with what Denman is facing now. In this super-industrialized world that’s out there, that’s trying to take the beauty away, for commerce. And the tranquillity.

Lynette: You mentioned spirituality when we talked before.

Denman as a highly charged spiritual place

We have all different religious people here. From the two churches, the ancient night-time moon people, and lots of cross cultural stuff-hybridization. And because Denman is such a highly cultural place, art-wise, a lot of really amazing artists and musicians, have come here. I got exposed, from a very young age, to all these different types of cultural influences. From all over the world. You get African bands coming, and reggae bands, and classical music, and jazz, Aboriginal gatherings, poets and theatre productions. To connect to it all. A big bath of cultural influences.

In my family, we’ve got many different ideas about spirituality. I just naturally realize that there’s just so much beauty in the world, especially where I live. I live in a very privileged place. I mean right where I live. In most religions there’s a place of thankfulness and humbleness, and being able to almost bow down to something. Having lived here, that has kind of influenced me.  There’s a spirituality unexplained out there.

Like when you’re doing a painting or installation, and you walk into the Free Store and find something that’s perfect, like a reference book or article that informs the piece.  That’s an unexplained event. Maybe there’s a mathematical equation, maybe physics has figured it out, I don’t know, I haven’t had time to read up on that, but I have noticed the cycle. Is it spiritual?

But, to my mind, I read into it! I don’t really know, how else to explain my own personal spirituality. When it comes to my paintings, I think a lot of artists say they do feel influenced by something beyond themselves, whether it’s just creative energy coming at you.  Sometimes, if you’ve been painting for five or six hours, you think, “Have I been doing it for that long?” It’s a meditative state, definitely zen. To really get in the groove, you have to let things fall away, to focus on your art.  I do, anyways.

The country girl into the city world

I wouldn’t go to school after high school, I was really wild. I just wanted to hang out and work, in cafes. I was off Denman for the first time. That was intense, to be in a city. I had anxiety attacks, from traffic. Full-on anxiety attacks on the sides of the road. I’d think “this is so weird, so weird” my heart racing… and then I realized I’d never been in that much traffic, for any period of time..When I was child growing up on Denman we (my family) would go away to the States to see family, and only stay two weeks. And they lived in the country, too. My family did live in Vancouver in the early eighties for a year or two. But in my late teens and early twenties i was not rural anymore!

The country girl into the city world, that was pretty big. And it was really good for my brain, I don’t know what I’d be like, staying on Denman for 35 years.  As an artist, and just as a person. I think having been in this small community, amazing as it is, I needed to get out of it, and see the world. My mom said, “If you’re not going to school, you need to go do something. Maybe working in cafes isn’t what you want to do the rest of your life. Go have an exploration.”

One of my cousins was going alone on a big adventure, she was 23.  We circumnavigated the globe together, when I was 19. I’ve got those images still, at 35 years old, those feelings, those smells – there are smells I never want to smell again, in the world, in India especially. There’s a learning curve, about being humbled, that you’re from Denman and because of that one may have a lot to be thankful for. The starvation there, and the class system, is really different from here. Only because it’s so obvious. To walk through the slums was a mind-blowing event. The whole trip was a mind blowing event! 13 countries or something in 8 months!! WOW!! and I had barely lived away from Denman for more than a few years in my whole life at that point!!

My little bubble Denman

But eventually , I decided to come back to my little bubble Denman – partly because I just suited it. The city is invigorating. If I’m there over a week, I get totally overwhelmed, “OK, I’ve got a bazillion ideas now. My book is full, and I need to go home! I’ve collected my little ideas, from a big network of ideas flowing by, and I’m out of there (the city).”

Bruce: So you find the city stimulates your creativity?

Yes, in the sense that there’s lots of ideas floating around. And there’s a lot more art. Because you can go to five cafes in one day, and see different artists on the walls. They’re not notable, or in Canadian art magazines. But you think, ok, that’s interesting. That person’s using the same technique. We’ve never met, and we don’t know each other, I’d never seen that work before. And we’re both doing it.

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My newer body of work

I get pushed in different directions. I try to paint every day, like four to five hours. Because I don’t have a full-time job right now. I’m questioning and pulling back – asking, do I want to use this technique anymore? Trying to pull myself in different directions. You have to use a lot of transportation here on Denman. For instance, to get to school, I have to take a ferry, and drive. You’re doing a lot of moving about, so you see a lot of nature just from the vehicle, walking or hitchhiking. Everywhere. So you are immediately put into very rural, country settings.  It’s hard not to start connecting to nature, just by habit of transport.

And around here, I live in a forest! I grew up on Lacon Road, but my dad moved around, and then he finally settled. So it was good, I saw these different micro-environments around the island, little neighborhoods, as we moved around.

Bruce: Your work is really connected to here. 

The landscape paintings, are definitely connected. And when I was traveling, I had a sketchbook. The majority of the time, I sketched landscape, and the people around me. I’d just do gesture drawings of the people that I’d meet. So, those are two really big influences from being on Denman.  People, because people are huge, the community, and it’s small so we talk about everyone!  And the land. Everyday, you’re getting your firewood. In the dead of summer, you’re worried, is my well going to get through the summer. You’re influenced always by nature, directly. The country is a little different than in the city, the city always has a doomed kind feeling for me. Because I know that if all the infrastructure fell apart, there’s a lot of people in one spot, and not a lot of food or clean water. And it gives me that armageddon feeling… I don’t want to be there!

Four months after the Patterns show, I’m in a different zone. I’m really excited to be working on this, because its totally from me. There’s no school work. There will be that one piece, Mount Joan, that one really sets the tone for the rest of the art. That one canvas.

Bruce It’s like stepping off the edge, out of the school, and now it’s you as an artist. 

I have amazing support, as an artist, from the Denman Community! The feedback is enlightening! The community responds well to the social commentary within my paintings, our connection or disconnect to nature, our connections to coal and oil and war. Even here on the micro community we are being affected by big oil interests, commercialism, materialism, unsustainable forestry practices, and one would think within all this beauty the ugliness of humanity would not burst the bubble, but it does!

Francesca Barker