Del Kathryn Barton leads us into a fantastical realm with her film, Blaze
Ahead of the release of her film ‘Blaze,’ Del Kathryn Barton shares for the first time the experience that shattered her childhood. Here, she talks to Julia Baird about the importance of female rage.
SOME MOMENTS IN TIME can act as a hinge — a word, an insight, or a discovery can send your life suddenly, irrevocably, swinging in another direction. Moments when, sometimes out of nowhere, a bugle sounds, and you feel compelled to obey its call.
For the artist Del Kathryn Barton, that moment came one morning in 2017 when she was on her way to her studio, driving through the streets of Paddington in Sydney’s east, where trees join hands overhead. The sky was light, and she was listening to the ABC’s Radio National when the reporter cited a statistic that made her gasp: in Australia, one woman is killed every week by a current or former partner. “It was one of those moments where the world stands still,” she says. “My blood ran cold, and tears immediately sprang to my eyes. I had a feeling of shock, incomprehension and despair [to think] that even living in a well-educated free country that such atrocities can still happen so regularly.”
As she pulled up outside her studio, Barton felt “a turning point, a cemented level of desire to weigh into” the discussion about violence against women. As with many things, this moment “bypassed a cerebral process and stirred from deep within my emotional being and my soul,” says the celebrated two-time Archibald Prize winner. “It was a level of commitment to the sisterhood.”
It was a level of COMMITMENT to the SISTERHOOD
Five years later, after writing, producing, filming, creating and collaborating with a group of “extraordinary women”, that commitment has become a powerfully provocative feature film called Blaze, starring Julia Savage, Simon Baker and Yael Stone. It tells the story of a young girl, Blaze, played by Savage, who witnesses a violent sexual assault while walking home from school, struggles not to be destroyed by the subsequent trauma, finds solace in the company of a rather splendid dragon, and, despite it all, finds a voice.
Part of the concept for the film was inspired by Barton’s experience of being both a target and witness of abuse as a child and the solace she found, with her mother’s urging, in creativity. While her unconventional upbringing is well known — her family lived in tents and sheds in the bush near the Hawkesbury River — Barton has never publicly spoken about this assault. In short, her art became her therapy. And the large body of astonishingly vivid, decorated and highly prized work she has done since then — she is now one of Australia’s best-paid female artist — is doubtless part of why she resiles from the word victim.
She makes a fair point: why should you be defined by something that has happened to you, or how you have overcome it or even flourished? As many others do, she also shies from what she sees as a “damaged goods” connotation to the word. The women in her story are protagonists, agents in their own stories. But sometimes, those agents need to heal and recover. Like Blaze, Barton says, her “childhood was ripped away” from her. Her imagination gave it back.
AS A GIRL, Barton loved the song “Puff the Magic Dragon”, sung by Peter, Paul and Mary in the 1960s, in which a little boy, Jackie, had magical adventures with his dragon friend. But eventually, Jackie grew up and stopped coming to visit — “A dragon lives forever but not so little boys. Painted wings and giant’s rings make way for other toys”. Puff then slipped into his cave and “ceased his mighty roar”.
“Whenever I hear that line, I just tear up,” says Barton. She believes that we do not celebrate the innate wisdom of children or our child-selves enough in our culture: “As we move from childhood to adulthood, we can’t let our inner dragons crawl into their cave.” Her solution is to stay connected to our wildness, honour it and “actively find a place for that in adult life”. But what if dark things happen to a child?
After Barton had her epiphany in Paddington, she approached Samantha Jennings, a producer at the independent production company Causeway Films. The idea of a girl who accidentally witnessed something that “accelerated the rite of passage of womanhood” immediately struck Jennings and prompted the question: “How can we grow into womanhood without being afraid and bring courage and the power of the imagination into adulthood?”
How can we GROW into WOMANHOOD without being AFRAID and bring courage and the POWER of the IMAGINATION into adulthood?
Jennings understood that Barton wanted to explore “unconventional processes of healing and how your inner imagination can help give you a strength that can take you into the rest of your life”, she says. In the film, we see this as the child, Blaze, is accompanied by a dragon, which has been instinctively born from her fecund imagination as she wrestles with the aftermath of witnessing the brutal assault. The dragon is huge, wild, tender, present, festooned with colour.
“I believe in the inestimable healing capacity of the imaginary world,” Barton says. “Having done a lot of different kinds of therapy over the years, I started to feel increasingly passionate about individuals’ healing journeys being supported in a far more case-specific, idiosyncratic way. We live in an overly anaesthetised society. [When we talk to] children who have experienced trauma about how they should process that and feel that, it’s always about containing things, bringing a logic to things, as opposed to offering moments in time to really feel it and then support what comes out of it or inherently trust that life has a profound instinct towards life.”
Somewhat accidentally, Barton and Jenning’s timing is uncanny. Now the film will be released after a time of fervent debate about sexual assault in Australia. Much of this has been led by the brilliant former Australian of the Year Grace Tame who has repeatedly said that her childhood was also taken from her by the paedophile teacher who groomed then raped her when she was his student.
SO WHY FILM and not the more lucrative genre of art? Nick Mitzevich, the director of the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) in Canberra, has long championed Barton’s work, describing her as “compelling … one of the most unique voices of contemporary art”.
The “sense of sexuality and expressiveness” in Barton’s first exhibitions decades ago “stopped everyone in their tracks”, he says, and he, too, was struck by the clarity in her work: “It was refreshing to see something so direct and immediate. She has several influences, but her output is very clearly Del Kathryn Barton — she has such a distinct signature, both with the subject and her approach to painting and drawing.”
Barton’s intricate, psychedelic art has long featured and celebrated strong women as protagonists, goddesses and explorers. In some of her most lauded work, she has honoured her mother and depicted her children. In 2018, Barton was touted as an “art world sensation” when one of her paintings — depicting a nightingale and by then seven years old — sold for $280,000 at auction not long after another one of her works, the five-year-old Of Pollen, went for $378,000 at Sotheby’s. This saw her enter the previously all-male list of Australia’s top-selling living artists, behind John Olsen and Charles Blackman. Since then, another painting has been sold for $405,000 at a Smith & Singer auction. Curators say a large part of her popularity is being driven by female art collectors and a broader, growing appreciation of the role of women in art in Australia. Just recently, the NGA acquired a large self-portrait of Barton’s for their collection.
Barton has long been obsessed with film — even though “it’s an absolute fucking beast of a medium,” she says. Before Blaze, she had already created two short films that were heralded by critics: RED, starring Cate Blanchett, and The Nightingale and the Rose, based on Oscar Wilde’s book of the same name. About the former, John McDonald wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald, that Barton is a filmmaker who “knows how to go for the jugular”. She does this, she says, by “bypassing the cerebral” and speaking to the other parts of our beings that are often quashed by Western thought: our souls, subconscious, our inner whisperings, the images and icons that draw or repel us, and the lush acid-trip dreamscapes of her art, in which unicorns and bunny rabbits take flight, waratahs stand like sentinels and goddesses straddle planets. This hyper-aware mother-of-two lives a life drenched in colour, more Munchkin Land than Kansas, her cells like thousands of tiny antennae reading the world.
Barton speaks in loops and whorls, like a paintbrush meandering from a central point, returning to it some minutes later. She punctuates her bouts of intensity with big grins and bursts of laughter. She deprecates herself frequently but has an air of conviction and certainty, a successful creative who knows the potency — and understands the urgency — of telling stories.
To be able to SHARE that TRAGEDY with MEN has been very MEANINGFUL and very HEALING in its own way
Barton’s foray into film delights Mitzevich, who has watched her use it to deepen and extend her unique “rich and seductive” visual language. “It’s exciting to see how she continues to evolve in film,” he says, “[with] the magnetism of the visual image moving into moving image. Such richness … she uses particularly the landscape and flora in giving you a sense of beauty and dimension in her work — these are subtle things in her storytelling that come out of painting. I love it, I think it’s delicious.”
More than anything, Barton wants Blaze to be a story of hope and resilience, told in an “unrestrained courageous way”, that might transform our thinking about sexual assault. Some “very good men” worked on the project too. “To be able to share that tragedy with men has been very meaningful and very healing in its own way,” Barton says. This is significant, given the creation of the film has taken an emotional toll. “I wasn’t prepared for the residual trauma,” says Barton, “and having to do my own inner work, which was very confronting for me. Just having to re-acknowledge a simultaneous and dichotomous feeling of great hurt and despair and loss and rage of what that moment in time, the level of impact that had and will continue to have on my whole life.”
But Barton has soared since and wants to pull up other women with her. That includes the film’s lead actors, who appear in our shoot wearing fantastical looks from the Gucci Love Parade collection. Jennings says Stone was chosen for her “screen presence and authenticity, her combination of strength and genuineness”. Stone, who starred in Orange is the New Black, demonstrated her own gutsiness four years ago when she told the ABC that fellow actor and industry icon Geoffrey Rush had sexually harassed her. Savage was only 13 when they began the film and worked with an intimacy co-ordinator, given her age and the sensitivities of the subject matter.
Screen industry entrepreneur Deanne Weir, who provided financial backing for the film (along with Screen Australia, in association with Screen NSW, Fin Design and Spectrum Films), found the idea for Blaze “totally intriguing”. “I think it’s a film that will inspire a lot of conversations and, I hope, create a lot of empathy,” she says. “I think violence against women is an inconvenient truth for a lot of society. I still can’t seem to work out how we don’t treat it as the emergency it is and do something about it. We have a Minister for Women’s Safety, not a Minister for Men’s Violence. We ‘other’ women, and treat them as victims in need of support, not equal humans.”
Earlier this year, Weir, along with Olivia Humphrey, established Storyd Group, an investment company with the specific purpose of investing in feature films made by female creatives and aimed at international audiences. Weir cites statistics that show that until very recently, the number of women in key creative roles has been moribund since the 1970s. (According to Screen Australia’s most recent figures, across the Australian screen sector, women comprise 23 per cent of directors, 25 per cent of writers and 38 per cent of producers in feature films.)
The game will change, according to Weir, if feature films are viewed as an investment-class product, and the unconscious bias in the investment arena is challenged. “Somehow, men get judged on potential and women on track record,” she says. Female filmmakers face similar attitudes to those faced by women who make pitches for venture capital. “[They] are often asked about the risk of failure, when for men it’s about opportunity for success,” Weir says.
IN A YEAR when we have seen abuse survivors, such as Tame, castigated for appearing angry or not smiling at the right times, it’s fitting that Barton wants to honour angry women. “The thing I am very passionate about,” she says, “is female rage and rage not being seen as a destructive force, especially for women. [We should be] celebrating rage as a generative force on the planet.”
When I ask what enrages her most, Barton, sitting in her studio wearing thick black glasses, her hair piled into a vertical sculpture on the top of her head like a horn, and a black feminist shirt that reads “FUCK NO!” says simply: “The continued systematic subjugation of women.” As Mitzevich says, with some understatement: “She does not shy from critiquing the world she is in. The personal is political in Del’s work.”
The thing I am very PASSIONATE about is FEMALE RAGE and rage NOT being seen as a DESTRUCTIVE force
Counterintuitive as it sounds, rage is an expression of optimism. Barton repeatedly told me how she knew she was idealistic, but that she craves celebration of resilience and different ways of understanding assault: “We need a more sophisticated language around the emotional life and the inner life, the experiential nature of being human,” she says. “This shit can’t be solved just with words.”
Driving along the roads of Paddington five years ago, the day she decided to say something about violence against women was much like the day Barton finally got her first pair of glasses at the age of 25, she says. “When I put them on, the world was so heightened, I could see every leaf on every tree. It was a level of sensory presence in the world I hadn’t felt before in my adult body. I felt the same way [hearing those numbers]: heightened, committed, devastated. I remember the sky feeling very bright that day.”
This story appears in the May 2022 issue of Harper’s BAZAAR Australia/New Zealand.
WORDS BY JULIA BAIRD; PHOTOGRAPHY BY BEC PARSONS; STYLING BY JILLIAN DAVISON
Del Kathryn Barton's extraordinary debut feature-length film BLAZE is screening at Sydney Film Festival, Friday 17 June to Sunday 19 June 2022.