East City Art Reviews—Carol Barsha: Within My Meadow

By Claudia Rousseau, Ph.D. on October 5, 2020
Carol Barsha, New Meadow, Watercolor, gouache, pastel, Walnut and India inks, collage, oil, charcoal pencil on Stonehenge paper, 50” x 38”, 2018.  Photo courtesy of gallery neptune & brown.

With summer winding down and leaves beginning to fall, Carol Barsha’s solo exhibit at gallery neptune & brown feels a bit nostalgic for spring—a spring we largely lost this year because of the pandemic.  Nevertheless, while viewing the show in person, surrounded by these works in the small but bright gallery space, the words that came to me were “uplifting” and “refreshing.”  It felt like I had exited the drab world of traffic, construction and all the rest and entered a world of light and color.  This, I later discovered, is one of Barsha’s main intentions with this work.  “With Nature as my subject” she has said, “I am allowed to create a new world where there are no rules of perspective and proportion.”[1]

Barsha used to paint exclusively in oil.  However, in recent years she has developed a preference for a mixed application of watercolor, ink, pastel and charcoal on paper which has significantly freed up her technique and given her greater control of the nuances of her subject.  This is especially evident in the most recent works in the show, especially those from 2019-20.   Her forms have become larger and bolder matching the intensity of her colors.  These do not bow to ordinary reality any more than her combination of birds and flowers that don’t exist together in nature.  The large watercolors in this show express a greater sense of imagination and spirit, and a contemplative sense that could be epitomized in a sentence the artist has quoted from the writing of Edo-period Japanese painter Ito Jakuchu:

Flowers, birds, grasses and insects each have their own innate spirit.

Only after one has actually determined the true nature of the spirit through observation should painting begin. [2]

Barha’s own statement echoes Jakuchu’s, adding the concept of fantasy, which philosophically is a higher level of the imagination.

My aim is to explore the exquisite beauty of structures in nature.  Plants and flowers reveal an element of fantasy in the natural world.  Through careful observation, I distill the fantastical detail and my imagination amplifies it.

These passages suggest that Barsha’s intent is not merely to paint flowers from nature in bright, happy colors.   Although this may not come through online, when looking at a large format painting like The Garden (2019) her aims are clear.


Carol Barsha, The Garden, Watercolor, gouache, pastel, Walnut and India inks and charcoal pencil on BFK Rives paper, 29 ½” x 44”, 2019. Photo courtesy of gallery neptune & brown.

The artist presents us with a collection of oversized flowers, rendered loosely and as though they are growing very close to the ground. Their sizes and hues are arresting, their centers overly large.  But as one keeps looking, the “fantastical details” begin to emerge: pinecones, bird’s nests with tiny blue eggs, unusual grasses, insects.  Together they evoke a nascent world, engendered by fantasy and given life through imagination.

An interesting contrast demonstrating Barsha’s stylistic evolution over the past couple of years can be seen in a smaller work titled Field from 2017.

Carol Barsha, Field, Watercolor, gouache, pastel, India ink, Charcoal pencil on handmade Shizen paper, 25” x 19”, 2017.  Photo courtesy of gallery neptune & brown.

Apart from scale, the difference is evident in the greater emphasis here on drawing the more delicate forms with black ink, outlining them over the color that is much more lightly applied.  Still, the work has a lovely lyrical quality that appeals for longer inspection.

Yet, all is not without a deeper emotional resonance in these paintings.  Los Bilbilicos is a larger format work that caught my attention for its huge flower forms crowding toward the picture plane, as well as its color and density of detail.  The title was also intriguing.

Carol Barsha, Los Bilbilicos, Watercolor, gouache, collage, Walnut and India ink and charcoal pencil on Stonehenge paper, 50” x 38”, 2020.  Photo courtesy of gallery neptune & brown.

Los Bilbilicos (the nightingales) is a traditional Sephardic Jewish folk song that may have origins in fifteenth-century Spain that the artist heard sung by the Trio Sefardi last year. The lyrics are in Ladino, the dialect of the Sephardim diaspora spoken everywhere this people went after their expulsion from Spain in 1492.  Like many of these songs, it is about love and longing.  The first two verses follow:

Los Bilbilicos cantan                                     The nightingales sing
Con sospiros de amor;                                   With sighs of love
Mi neshama mi ventura,                               My soul, my fortune
Estàn en tu poder.                                         Are in your power

La rosa enflorese                                           The rose blooms
En el mes de mai;                                             In the month of May
Mi neshama s’escurese,                                 My soul withers away
Sufriendo del amor.                                       Suffering from love. 

The song resonated with Barsha for “its poignancy, its sense of loss and its beauty” and she taught herself to sing it.[3]  The painting came into being as she was doing that, the image acquiring a deep emotional bond with the origins and words of the song.  The flowers seem to be yearning upward and turning toward the bird singing on the upper right.  With observation, the viewer may find the three other birds in the picture, as well as other details tucked underneath the flowers.  Here is another example of how titles are to be understood as part of a work of art.  In this case, the reference to the ancient song provides a darker dimension to the painting suggesting the poignancy of the poet listening to the birdsong and seeing the roses blooming while he suffers from love.

Barsha’s paintings may be considered within the global tradition of flower paintings that carry symbolic meaning not always immediately evident.  Moreover, botanical art has also been traditionally dominated by women artists, as it still is.  Of course, Barsha is not an illustrator, nor is she rendering the plants in the hyper-realistic mode of seventeenth-century Dutch painters.  But as she related to me, she loves history, and sees herself in spiritual contact with this pictorial tradition and with her artistic ancestors.

Carol Barsha: Within My Meadow is on view September 12 – October 31, 2020 at gallery neptune & brown loacated 1540 14th Street, NW, Washington DC 2005.  Call 202-986-1200 or email chris@neptunefineart.com for the updated information about viewing reservations and hours.

[1] Artist’s statement in the e-catalog to this exhibit.

[2] Ito Jakuchu, 1755.  Jakuchu is famed for his paintings of birds and foliage.  The phrase was quoted in Carol Barsha, Works on Paper 2009-2012, with essays by Carol Barsha and Julian Bell, Anaconda Press, Inc. Forestville, MD, 2012.

[3] Information related in a private correspondence with the artist.  The artist is not Sephardic, but Jewish, and speaks both Hebrew and Spanish.  Thus, she has come to love the Ladino repertoire.