Emma’s Empire gains ground

Emma Barr was sitting in a local bar, when she heard her name. The person sitting beside her piped up, “I know Emma Barr.

Emma Barr was sitting in a local bar, when she heard her name.

The person sitting beside her piped up, “I know Emma Barr.”

“But they didn’t know me,” said the local artist. “They knew my work, but not me.”

Becoming a household name in her community is all part of Barr’s big plan.

“I’m building an empire,” she said with a grin.

“Emma’s Empire.”

In March, Barr quit her advertising job because her art career had become too busy.

Involved in film work, book illustration, teaching and her own projects, Barr is etching out a living with her art.

“I decided when I was five I was going to have an art shop,” she said.

Looking around Barr’s living room at the rich purple mountains and vibrant skies that fill her canvasses, it’s easy to imagine a shop full of colour.

In art school Barr was taught to paint in black and white, an exercise to help her establish form and volume.

“But I never liked it,” she said. “I like colour.”

Barr pulled up an image on her laptop — a yellow mountain and a pink sky.

Those colours are under that heavy purple mountain and sky, she said, pointing at a painting leaning against the wall.

“All my paintings have under paintings,” she added.

“The light shines through the purple to the yellow and reflects back to the human eye, that’s why it’s so rich.”

Barr and her sister live in a Riverdale bungalow that also serves as her studio.

In a small bedroom, a river framed by young poplars streams off the wall.

The brown pinecones scattered on the forest floor used to be blue, the green groundcover was orange.

“I almost liked it better before,” said Barr with a laugh.

Many of the overlapping colours contrast.

Using the end of a paintbrush, Barr started explaining the colour wheel, pointing out the opposing colours.

“The contrasting colours intensify the work,” she said.

“They almost vibrate.”

Barr, who works largely in abstracts, has begun experimenting with landscapes.

“I’ve always liked Lawren Harris,” she said.

At college, Barr was told she couldn’t just say she liked something. She had to say why.

So, during a stint at the Ted Harrison Artists Retreat, she studied Harris.

“A lot of the elements of design in Harris’ work were about simplifying,” she said.

“Instead of a hill of trees, he’d just have a colour.”

Barr was inspired.

“I started departing from the abstract,” she said.

Armed with a Sharpie marker and a sketchbook, Barr ventured out in the Yukon landscape.

Born and raised in the territory, she is in love with the land.

“It’s so beautiful, how could you not be inspired by it?” she said.

In the big, bright works that followed, Barr was “trying to record the sense of place, time and the emotions attached to the land.

“I’m not into super realism,” she said.

“I’m more about evoking emotion.”

By moving to landscapes, Barr hopes to improve her abstract works, with more depth and colour.

“I used to try to make things not flat by adding more colour,” she said.

“But it all had the same value. I needed more contrast of light and dark.”

Barr pointed out another mountain jumping out against a fading sky.

She had just painted over the clouds to give the mountain more definition, she explained.

Almost verging on the tropical, Barr’s works differ from the muted colours of her grandfather’s landscapes, stored around the house.

“He was influenced by the Group of Seven too,” she said, noting that painting was in the Barr-family blood.

“It’s what I do,” she said.

“And if I’m not working on something I get extremely depressed and extremely manic.”

Barr walked into her lime-green bedroom and plugged in a cord by her bed.

On the wall a thin wood rectangle lit up with red, crackly light.

It was one of the light sculptures Barr has been developing.

Using thin sheets or wood, tin foil, Christmas lights and coloured gels, the artist is creating a series of glowing, grainy creations.

“I typically work with an idea in a series and make 10 to 20 works,” she said.

“It’s usually the subject matter or the medium that moves me.”

Barr has spent years working with a malleable substance created by melting cottage cheese and wax.

And with an upcoming Toronto show, she hopes to get on The Hour.

“I want to talk to George Stroumboulopoulos about my weird art,” she said.

“I want to go huge when I go to Toronto.”

Although she has big career plans, Barr sometimes questions why she does her work.

“And I haven’t really answered that,” she said.

“I just know this is what I’m supposed to be doing.”

But there are still moments of doubt.

“Sometimes I wonder what I am doing this for; they are material things that don’t matter and nobody is going to buy them,” said Barr.

“I second-guess myself.”

But then Barr will get a call from someone hoping to buy a painting for a friend, or she will show up to teach one of her after school art classes, and it all makes sense again.

“I see how I affect people’s lives by just being me,” she said.

“And with these young kids, you can see the potential and give them the tools to see their imaginations materialized.”

The rewards keep Barr building her empire.

“With the empire, I hope to someday support my parents, so they can retire,” she said.

“And I want to inspire the younger generation to really reach their full potential.

“Because I think I am beginning to reach my full potential as an artist and a human being.”

Barr’s most recent show opens Friday August 24 at 5 p.m. in Arts Underground.

There will food, an artist’s talk and a DJ.

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