Artistic talent normally comes accompanied with a volatile artist temperament. But cool, calm and collected Katrina Barber is clearly an exception to that rule. An emerging artist whose work has featured in a number of exhibitions, the 37-year-old is able to find joy in the simplest of pleasures.

“I like it when people like my art as they talk to me about it. That makes me happy. I like getting money from art as I can buy more art materials then. I love getting my photo taken – that’s fun. I just like sharing my art with other people,” she says.

Born deaf and with an intellectual disability, Katrina grew up in the town of Cunderdin, 156 km east of Perth and deep in the heart of Western Australia’s Wheatbelt. Katrina was first introduced to Auslan at a young age but frustration at her inability to understand what she was being taught meant her lessons in Australian sign language ended almost as abruptly as they began.

“I didn’t communicate much with people. I could say toilet and follow directions, but no one really understood me,” she says.

Withdrawing further into her self-imposed cone of silence Katrina – who had always enjoyed making things but hadn’t had much opportunity to practice – instead picked up a paintbrush and began to create.
In early 2005 her local area coordinator, who was familiar with Katrina’s interest in all things art, informed her family about an art class in Rockingham that they thought she would enjoy.
She took to it like a proverbial fish to water and before too long her obvious talent started being recognised by others around her.

Within weeks of being exposed to this new form of communication, Katrina not only discovered a way to develop her talents but also made an unexpected discovery - an exciting new way to express herself.

“Everyone there liked my art that I made. I felt happy they like my art. I used art to communicate with others as I didn’t have many words to talk. I painted my feelings and ideas.”

Art as expression

Having had her world expand exponentially as a result of doing what she loved, Katrina says when she first attended the art classes, the fact that so many of her teachers and classmates wanted to speak with her took her by surprise.

Off their own bat her peers learned some basic signs, and in return she vowed to work harder at improving her own communication skills. Coincidentally it was also around this same time that Katrina was first introduced to Julianne, who for the past 14 years has remained by her side as a mentor, tutor, advocate, helper and friend.

A few years ago, Katrina told Julianne that she was ready to go back to learning Auslan. “I am still learning Auslan, but I use my iPad too. I also use photos I take to show people what I need and l circle things in catalogues and newspapers to show people what I want.”

“We need to be more open to taking time to listen to people who may not communicate the way we expect or understand,” Julianne says.

Art as a career

Katrina’s official introduction to the professional art world came as a something of surprise when she was invited to submit her work in the AsWeAre Art Award for people with intellectual disability in WA.
Interest in her work led to an opportunity to be a part of the Here&Now13 Exhibition staged at the Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery at the University of Western Australia. Katrina was then able to make an impact in the broader mainstream art world after her focus on painting acrylic abstracts and creating textile works led to her being offered an art residency in Mandurah, and being invited to stage a solo exhibition in Melbourne.

These days Katrina works mostly from a grant-funded art studio in Fremantle alongside four other artists.
“I like working there as there is lots of space and I can make big things. I have lots of ideas of art I want to make there,” Katrina says.

Having now worked across a broad spectrum of mediums including acrylics, textiles, pastel painting and recently wire sculptural forms, Katrina says her favourites are those incorporating lights and glow-in-the-dark materials.

“I love lights. I like to see how I can make art with them. Many of my paintings are about light and feelings. My signature is using light or exploring how lights can look if they are painted.”

The next steps

With a 2020 group exhibition at a gallery in Applecross now delayed owing to COVID-19, Katrina is working on beaded light objects to display when the exhibition launches in 2021.

Concurrently, she is also working on an art installation about the signs used to show people what to do in COVID X marks on the ground and arrows. ‘It’s like my communication,” she says, “but different”.