Artist Barbara Freeman Inspired by the Bann

The abstract painter will focus on the River Bann and new disciplines having won the Arts Council's Major Individual Artist award

Artist Barbara Freeman’s work is dense, layered both literally and figuratively. Primarily a painter and printmaker, and a recent recipient of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland’s Major Individual Artist awards, Freeman has expanded her palette in recent years to encompass sound, video, digital art and sculpture.

All of her work retains a commitment to the abstract, to reducing a subject to its essence. Born in London to a working class family, Freeman was the first in her family to enter grammar school. She then attended St Martins and Camberwell Colleges of Art, followed by the University of Leeds for postgraduate study.

It was during her time in Leeds that Freeman decided to pursue art as a profession, on her own terms. A biography, published in 2006, notes that she not only rejected most of the things she learned in art school thereafter, but spent most of her time lollygagging in museums, making 'surreptitious' casts of Egyptian sculpture, amongst other things.

Barbara Freeman


'We're talking about the 1960s,' Freeman says about her time at art school. 'There were very few female role models, and so the idea of pursuing art as a profession wasn't quite going round at the time. But I've always felt that one should be able to pursue it.'

Through a combination of selling work and teaching – an activity she says she was 'relieved' to finally leave behind 20 years ago in order to focus solely on her practice – Freeman built up a solid reputation, and a considerable portfolio, throughout the 1960s and 1970s in Yorkshire.

When her husband, the writer and historian David Brett, was offered a teaching job in Belfast in the early 1980s, they moved their family to Northern Ireland permanently, after taking a year to make the decision.

What ultimately won Freeman over was the city’s lack of convention, and its unpredictability. On a map, Belfast was a part of the United Kingdom, but it was something altogether 'other'.

'I'd spent quite a lot of time in the summers mainly working in Hungary and Yugoslavia, and I felt Northern Ireland had quite a similar feel, almost a feel of danger, in a way,' Freeman recalls. 'You could never quite predict what was going on.

'Also, it had the sense of being unconventional. You couldn't weigh it up and say, "Oh, it's part of England or it's part of Ireland", it was something unique unto itself. And I liked that about it.'

Through the abstract, Freeman representats the feel of a place or a time in her work, instead of just the 'look' of it. Her abstractions take on geometric qualities, recognizable shapes in the midst of haunting layers of colour.

Barbara Freeman


'Everything that I work with becomes slowly abstract,' Freeman says of her work, 'because, for me, that's where the poetics of it is, the essence.'

Distilling the essence of the River Bann is what Freeman will concentrate on over the next year, in an exhibition entitled Fourteen Ways to Cross the Bann. It’s a project made possible by the award from the Arts Council – which will allow Freeman to spend an entire year exploring and making work – and one she has been mulling over for quite some time.

Freeman first used the River Bann as a subject in a piece for Portadown’s Millennium Court Arts Centre in 2005, but Fourteen Ways will be much more expansive, taking in the entirety of the river rather than focusing on snapshot.

Freeman hopes that the project will also progress her skills as an artist, pushing her into new territory such as video and sound, mediums she has utilized before but always as part of a collaborative effort, never on her own terms.

'One of the luxuries of the Major Individual Artist award is that you don't have to project into the future too much,' Freeman explains. 'You can spend more time experimenting and playing around.

'I'm deliberately not looking for somewhere to show it yet, because I don't know what it will be like. I suppose what I'm looking for is something more specific, about the nature of the experience of being there. It's trying to capture the experience of  the Bann, rather than the look of it.'

Barbara Freeman