Art that Explores the Quintessential Beauty of Nature: An Interview with Artist Colleen McLaughlin Barlow



By Sean Yoon

Photo Courtesy of Colleen McLaughlin Barlow


Despite exhibiting artistic talent early in her childhood, artist Colleen Barlow had been channeled towards becoming an English teacher or journalist by her family based upon her aptitude in reading and writing with the idea that an education should lead to a job. Colleen would follow this thought process throughout the early stages of her education, going on to pursue a bachelor’s degree in journalism at Carleton University in 1976. What she encountered in studying journalism was that the field of journalism quickly proved to be an extremely rigorous and competitive environment as Colleen recalls, “Fifty percent of your mark in 3rd year reporting was running the C.B.C. News Room for one afternoon in Ottawa and you were being watched by professional journalists who at the end of the day, would say whether you passed or not. You might’ve been working for three years on a degree and you could have just been cut right then.” Ultimately surviving the competition, Colleen began her career as a journalist at the age of 21 after graduating in a class of only 42 students from a starting pool of near 400 first year students.


The stress that came from a rigorous, competitive environment would persist throughout Colleen’s career as a journalist, which culminated in instances where her moral values were skewed negatively. Colleen recalls a particular instance of this phenomenon stating,

“It’s very stressful and you start to get some very odd values like I actually remember being in a war zone in the Bekaa Valley. Nothing had been happening for about three or four weeks and then suddenly there was some skirmishing going on and I thought to myself: ‘Great we’ve got something for the six o’clock.’ Now, why would you celebrate in your heart of hearts that a war was breaking out? That’s not right. That’s not human.”



whale pectoral flipper bones amber

whale pectoral flipper bones amber

Colleen continued her work as a journalist however until the age of 39 when she had encountered an event that would change many aspects of her life. Colleen and her husband had been trying to have children for a period of 6 months and as nothing was happening, went to the hospital for an examination to find out what the issue may be. During the examination, an unexpected tumor was found and Colleen found herself suddenly being diagnosed with a highly rare form of endometrial cancer, which only 4 other women in the world had been diagnosed with that year. She was given an estimated 6 months left to live. As one can imagine, her immediate response to the diagnosis was shock and outrage as she had spent the majority of her life up to that point committed to her career as a journalist. Furthermore, she was more than happily married and at the peak age of her life, she was facing death. Many would undoubtedly crumble under this situation, but in an act of absolute courage and perseverance, Colleen transformed her illness into a stimulus to pursue her passion for the arts by quitting her position as a journalist and moving to Paris to begin her career as an artist. Colleen recalls her thought process during the time saying, “I thought it was a whole new lens for the rest of my life and I thought I’ve only got six months left, I’m definitely going to change my career right now; I’m going to be an artist because I was born to be an artist and I guess I had been fooling myself for twenty years.”


Colleen went on to defy the 6 months estimation she was given to live by fully defeating her illness over a period of 4 years of intense chemotherapy and 5 total surgeries. In addition to the help of modern medicine, Colleen argues that moving to Paris to pursue the arts had added to the recovery process. She reminisced by saying, “I just loved going to work every day making art and I started healing. I realized that there’s this big cosmic law that if you’re in your right groove; if you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing on the planet because we all have a purpose, you get to hang around and if you’re not doing what you’re supposed to be doing on the planet, you might get taken out by the universe.” Colleen affirmed that she had fully defeated the cancer after a three hour exploratory surgery sampling all the major areas of her body and there was nothing to be found. She was healed.


What are the fundamental aspects that make us human? And what is our relationship with the world of nature around us? Colleen’s art moves us to consider these questions as her art arises from the exploration of her own body and mortality during her fight with cancer. What she discovered through this process was beauty in the fragility of human anatomy; the basic yet quintessential structural components of what unite us as human beings. One of the more prominent examples of human anatomy portrayed through her art is the work titled, “Body as Soul,” in which Colleen utilizes a technique called tyobo plate printing, combined with spit bite etching techniques to portray the x-ray imagery of the anatomy and hardware within her friend Bunny’s elbow. An interesting contrast is produced between the organic bone structure and artificial metal pieces in the x-ray, as Colleen expresses the very practical harmony between these two forms in allowing for her friend’s arm to function properly.

"Bunny's Arm 1"

“Bunny’s Arm 1”



“I had no idea we were so beautiful inside. I’ve never seen anything like internal human anatomy and I thought it was just as beautiful as mountains and flowers and you know it’s exquisite and this is what’s holding all of us up like you know, you have a spleen, and I have a spleen. This is so quintessentially human and so basic and everybody relates to it like it’s a seventy schlock horror movie and I thought that’s    horrible. I wanted to redeem it. I wanted people to look at human organs “Whale Pectoral Flipper Bones”  and appreciate their beauty and their elegance and the efficacy and evolution which created them and that just became a burning desire for me to communicate what I was feeling when I saw these images.”


Through her exploration of human anatomy, Colleen also discovered significant similarities in the landscape features such as trees, rocks, water and clouds; as well as animal bones with the internal structures of the human body. Her work, “Whale Dreams” exhibits this phenomenon quite clearly through the transparency of the materials she uses to cast sculptures of whale bones, such as lead crystal and glass. Colleen asserts that the effect of transparency elevates the complexity and beauty of the shape of the bones, so that lines along the bone are made visible which would not be possible if it were opaque. Another key feature of this project which is seen in her other works as well, is the use of the Fibonacci spiral, or golden ratio found within sacred geometry, which was used by renowned artists such as Leonardo da Vinci. Colleen also spoke of the power found in sacred geometry as through her adherence to the golden ratio, she conveys her reverence for nature and all creation through her art pieces and compels us as spectators to in the simple, yet elegant beauty of the world we are immersed in.            



Much of the inspiration for her art derives from her various travel experiences and interactions with nature. Her work titled, “Inch Kenneth” is based on a small island called Inch Kenneth in the Inner Hebrides of Scotland. The island is owned and managed by Colleen’s family and is highly minimalistic in its features, consisting of a manor house, an ancient chapel, and some ancient stone farm buildings with sheep grazing and a few Highland cattle. What is perhaps the most beautiful feature of Inch Kenneth is its current social function in the form of community events such as Christian retreats, artist retreats, painting parties and art courses.



Gathering In

Gathering In

Colleen’s artistic direction in exploring the natural world, as well as her commitment to sustainability through her involvement with the non-governmental environmental organization, Greenpeace as an original signatory, helped pave the way to begin her participation in placemaking in Vancouver. Placemaking is the act of reinventing, transforming existing public spaces such as boulevards or even front yards into vibrant spaces that promote community engagement and sustainability. Before placemaking took place in Colleen’s life, she had invested close to 500 dollars a month in maintaining her lawn through a landscaper as she travels so often. It was when her lawn faced issues with European Chafer Beetles that Colleen realized that lawns don’t have any function besides being something that needs to be maintained. In looking for replacements for lawn, Colleen became interested in urban farming, which led her to meeting and hiring urban farmer Gabriel Pliska to completely convert her entire property to herbs, vegetables and more. Colleen had nothing but praise for the full conversion of her property into an edible garden, saying, “So I wasn’t quite sure how much food was going to be produced here and I think I’ve been bowled over by it. It’s been really wonderful and it’s also had this amazing social impact where I’ve met about 5 or 6 of my neighbors I didn’t know before because they are new to this area and we hadn’t really connected.” In transitioning from the success of her own garden, Colleen seeks to further her participation in placemaking, by teaching her church study group, as well as others who are interested, in how to make wire sculptures that could potentially be placed in boulevards and gardens.



whale dreams fibonacci

whale dreams fibonacci

Colleen currently has her artwork represented in 4 galleries worldwide, one in Tokyo, two in Montreal and one in London. In addition, along with her concurrent projects such as “Whale Dreams,” Colleen is working on her latest project titled, “Seed Girls,” which explores the theme of rebirth through a sculpture representation of a human figure emerging from a seedpod, a basic vessel for various forms of life. Look towards Colleen to continually create lasting social impact through her artwork, which ultimately seeks to convey the interconnected beauty of our bodies and the natural world around us and at the same time, calls for the reverence of nature.
Check out her website for more information regarding Colleen and her artwork: