Barbara Heath

A self-described ‘jeweller to the lost’, Barbara’s work draws on history, place, fashion, and art for inspiration. She specialises in commissioning one off- pieces and works closely with clients to help them ‘find’ an individual piece. Born in Sydney, Heath has practised in Brisbane for three decades, and is represented in numerous public collections. In 2005 Barbara’s work was the subject of a survey exhibition at the Queensland Art Gallery. Aside from her jewellery practice, she has also undertaken a significant number of public art commissions in Australia.

You’ve been working locally as a jeweller and artist for over thirty years. How do you feel Brisbane and Queensland have changed for creative practitioners in that time?

When I came to Brisbane in 1983 it was with the intention of re-booting my career. I wanted to start all over again with jewellery – I wanted to build a practice that sustained my creative development and unknowingly Brisbane was so right for this!

I found a visual art sub-culture in Brisbane that was strong, subversive and inclusive – activities focused around a number of Artist Run Initiatives (likely, ironically, to have been spawned in reaction to the regressive Joh Bjelke Petersen politics of that time). Interestingly, this degree of arts sub-culture was an unusual phenomena in 1980′s Australia, and Peter Anderson and others from this time are currently gathering archival material for an exhibition at the University of Queensland Art Museum that will throw light on this decade. I found it easy to assimilate into this network of artists and makers from diverse media . . . including graphic designers, performers, fashion designers, and architects.

This ‘group’ dynamic enabled a maturation of my work and I began to exhibit and articulate my practice. Initially I set up a studio in what was then the Metro Arts Centre, moving later to the Brisbane Arcade, and then to a house and showroom combined in Paddington. During the 80′s I developed a characteristic style, exhibited nationally and my work was supported by this same network of people.

Maturing within this generational group over the next two decades, I saw arts policy in Queensland improve dramatically – as some of those same practitioners went on to hold government positions and develop outcomes such as the Public Art Policy. Of course commercial opportunities have expanded along with the city and these days design is interwoven with our sensibility and way of being in the world.

Financial climate fluctuations aside, today the market for art and design practitioners is more sophisticated and accessible, but also much more competitive.

Much of your work focuses on personal stories and memory. Do you think that design objects are inherently suited to telling and carrying these kinds of narratives?

Objects, whether they be designed, found, or formed by nature, are the silent partners to our lives – we constantly apply meaning and narrative to the material ‘bits’ of the world around us. I think each of us could identify some object that holds a story for us. We perceive objects not only visually but by touch; jewellery especially is subject to tactile perception. You may wear a ring but perhaps that ring also wears you . . . it’s like a habit. Objects operate in a wordless way, carry meanings that barely need to be articulated; a feeling or an idea, an aspiration. Design indicates an intellectual factor, it describes the choices made in the devising of objects.

Tell us how you came to be interested in fashion . . .

My mother loved clothes and dressmaking, she had trained as a milliner before joining the WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force). She made dresses for my sister and myself and we loved them. One outfit she made for me when I was thirteen has become almost iconic in my mind! It kind of sprang from the first pair of ‘grown-up’ shoes I was allowed – emerald green suede flats with a broad ankle strap fastened with a decorative metal buckle. I think they just about blew my mind, I loved them so much. She made me an emerald green paisley pin-cord mini skirt (this was 1967… think Jean Shrimpton or Twiggy) and I wore it all with an emerald green roll neck sweater. It was a sort of coming of age outfit I suppose – I wore it day in and day out – I don’t know what happened to it in the end. I really wish I’d kept it as a memento.

Where do you look for inspiration on matters of style…

My husband Mal Enright and I, as designers, both maintain an ongoing library of visual information – books, magazines and now of course via the web – blogs, TumblR – Mal is a true scout and he’ll drop images to my in-box sometimes on an hourly basis. Interests range across media and time, contemporary and historic art, design, fashion, photography, interiors. As inveterate collectors of the decorative arts our home is dense with inspiration. I think this is a time when we live in a virtual swirl of visual stimulation – it’s exciting and accessible – so much streams past our eyeballs it becomes more about selecting out rather than seeking for.

What is you most treasured dress related object or memory?

In 2007 I was fortunate to receive an Australia Council Grant to research a very particular collection of 17th Century jewellery at the Museum of London.

And so, I found myself sitting with the curator of this collection, deep in the vaults of the museum, with a very large array of curious gems, jewels and objects before me. I was allowed to inspect and photograph, to minutely observe some of the secrets of their construction, but especially, I was able to freely handle these 500 year old delights, which until then I had known only from the pages of a book.

The collection is called the Cheapside Hoard and although it is unique and fabulous, the greatest hoard of Elizabethan and Jacobean jewellery ever found, it is actually not so well known. It resides in this lesser known museum which is somewhat overshadowed by its much larger siblings, the British Museum and The Victoria & Albert Museum. The ‘hoard’, dug up by workmen in the process of demolishing the building in 1912, was so named as it was buried sometime in the mid-1600′s underneath the floorboards of a building in Cheapside – within the city walls of the City of London.

The opportunity to touch an object seems to be the important part of this memory – because so much of what a maker does, is known through the hands.
I felt I was able to learn so much from this tactile intimacy – the weight, the smoothness, balance, transparency, the wear and the years – I could begin to imagine the fabric this pin might have been fastened to, the youthful finger this ring might have once slipped onto. . .

Give us three words or people or places you associate with Queensland fashion…

That’s hard! I’ve worked with many remarkable Queensland designers – especially throughout the ’80′s and 90′s; Anna Bourke, Daniel Lightfoot, 2D (Deborah Long and Deborah Fenwick), Anthony Lee Dower then I remember Peter & Navanka Brown and their eclectic collection of Australian design at the Mask, Luke Roberts is better known now as a contemporary artist but in the 80′s he had an extraordinary vintage clothing collection in his shop in the Brisbane Arcade; Katie Pye . . . OK my three would be;

Pam Easton & Lydia Pearson, Lyn Hadley, Suzi Vaughan.

Is there such a thing as a distinct Queensland style?

Well really I think the definition of fashion is that it is this ‘universal dialogue’ so I would say no… but in terms of our climate obviously we mostly need to wear less . . . plus we are not afraid of colour!!

Barbara Heath in 'Fashion Australia', 1989
Barbara Heath in 'Fashion Australia', 1989Photograph: Lehan Ramsay
Anna Bourke and Barbara Heath, Brisbane, 1985
Anna Bourke and Barbara Heath, Brisbane, 1985Barbara Heath
Barbara Heath with Leigh Cholakis, Brisbane Arcade, 1986
Barbara Heath with Leigh Cholakis, Brisbane Arcade, 1986Barbara Heath
Barbara Heath, Paperworks, 1987
Barbara Heath, Paperworks, 1987Peter Kent, Malcolm Enright
Barbara Heath, Brooch, 1987
Barbara Heath, Brooch, 1987Photograph: Andrew Campbell
Barbara Heath, research trip to Museum of London, Cheapside Horde, 2007
Barbara Heath, research trip to Museum of London, Cheapside Horde, 2007Barbara Heath
Barbara Heath, visiting the SchmuckMuseum, Germany
Barbara Heath, visiting the SchmuckMuseum, GermanyPhotograph: Anke Bover

Published in , on September 24, 2013.