Into the Mind of Artist Elissa Barber

Words by Sara Harowitz

  • Photos courtesy of Elissa Barber.

    Photos courtesy of Elissa Barber.

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Like many little girls, when Elissa Barber was young, she loved to colour. There are home videos that show her parents wandering around the house looking for her, only to discover her off in a corner, quietly creating her own little world with markers and paper. For her, though, it wasn’t just childhood escapism. Even then, she was honing her craft.

“The same way it’s kind of compulsive for me now, it was like that when I was a child,” Barber reflects. “In high school I did well in a different range of subjects, but I would tell my parents, ‘It doesn’t really matter, because I’m just going to go to art school and become an artist anyway.’”

And she did. Based in Hamilton, Ontario, Barber has established a loyal client base of collectors who are drawn to her minimal yet emotional linework. Pared down to their essence, Barber’s expressive figure drawings—which show up on large canvases, woven paintings, hand-carved ceramics, notebooks, even face masks—toe the border between realism and whimsy, an act of looking inwards that she often creates with one continuous, breathless, curving line.

“My work is always about self-reflection, a passage through time: past, present, future,” she says via video from her home. Her pieces often feature three silhouettes in them as a way to represent her three selves. “The figures always resemble each other, but there’s always a slight shift,” she explains. “It’s this idea of transformation of self and trying to constantly be very aware of where you’re at, and where you’ve been to get there, and where you’re going to go from that point.”

Self-reflection is undoubtedly one of the themes of the current global climate—a time that has forced all of us stop and think about who we really want to be and what we really stand for. Whether we’re just getting by or we’re lucky enough to be able to take the opportunity to experiment, the pandemic has forced a reckoning within each of us. For Barber, it has meant retreating from the commercial side of her work in order to reconnect with her creativity.

“I think as soon as we got into November and things started to shift again, I just knew I needed a break from having to make it a business,” she says, reflecting on making art at the end of 2020, which saw more social restrictions and lockdowns. “I wanted to just be able to take a step back, enjoy my time with my family, keep creating in the background, and feel really loose and free with it.”

She works out of a home studio, which is where she shuts herself away to create larger pieces in quiet. But Barber is also the mother to a two-year-old daughter, who was taken out of Montessori school when the pandemic hit; as is the case with many parents today, it’s been a delicate juggling act for Barber and her husband.

“We have a rotating childcare schedule,” she says. “So we’re just making it work. I feel like that’s what so many people are doing: doing our best to make it work. And I think it’s taken more of a toll on me than I thought it was going to.”

Hence the desire to peel things back, to focus on the passion. And to channel that passion into quality time with her daughter. “She’s at an awesome age,” Barber says. “We’re going to make snowflake ornaments today and that’s so fun—it brings work and my child into the same domain, and that’s the best thing I could do.”

She also loves going for walks, taking long baths, and reading (she’s in a book club with friends). When it comes to her home, it’s all about creating a comfortable environment, whether that be through scent or texture.

“Fragrance is a huge thing for me,” she says (she has a particular affinity for musky, warm aromas and has a Stone Diffuser in Charcoal). ”Candles, diffusers, room sprays—even perfume. As soon as my daughter was old enough not to be sensitive to fragrance, I just went right back to it. I love certain fragrance houses, scented baths, and moisturizers—anything that smells good, anything that’s sensorial. And we buy really nice textiles: blankets and throws and pillows. Anything soft that makes the house feel cozier.”

Home as a physical space has become more important than ever, and we’re all searching for ways to make ours feel both fresh and familiar—whether that be through an aroma diffused into the air, a soft pillow on the couch, or a beautiful art piece on the wall.