21 May

Barbara Cole and the Value of Learning by Doing

Last week I attended an artist talk by Barbara Cole at Bau-xi Gallery, and it has left me with a whole jumble of different thoughts. I’m hoping I can sort out at least a few points here.

Barbara Cole is a fine art photographer I have admired since my days in Toronto. She creates dream-like imagery of the female form, and over the last ten or so years has been focused on underwater photography.


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In her artist talk she took the audience all the way back to the beginnings of her career, and how through luck and circumstances she ended up as fashion editor for the Toronto Sun. Cole told this hilarious story of her very first assignment with the Sun, which was to cover Fashion Week in Paris. An unfortunate miscommunication left her without proper access to any of the shows, so at twenty years old she had to come up with a solution and boldly make her way, or risk not meeting deadlines and failing.

What I loved most about Barbara Cole’s talk was her willingness to admit most of the time she didn’t know what she was doing. Few people will admit to this publicly because it puts them in a vulnerable place, but really most of us don’t know what we’re doing more than half of the time. I wish more people would make this statement so we can all be okay with it. It’s not a bad thing to not know what you’re doing because this is an opportunity for learning. Cole’s solution to her lack of knowledge was exactly this: she simply taught herself what she needed to know.

Much of what was said by Barbara Cole was a good reminder of the value of learning by doing. She has done it for her entire career and it has served her well. As a self-taught artist I sometimes feel insecure about my abilities, as if they are less valid than someone who has an MFA or BFA in fine art. But then I realize even the most educated of artists needs to buckle down and go beyond what they’ve learned in school in order to fully evolve as an artist. I skipped art school (which would not have been a good fit for me) and went straight to the in-studio professional development phase of my artistic career. My work has matured by leaps and bounds over the last few years because of this dedication.

I admired Cole’s work before the talk, but now I think highly of her as a woman. She’s in her fifties, but comes across as a much younger person. She’s had a long and distinguished career, continues to create inspiring work, and explores new aspects of her fascination with underwater photography. Barbara Cole comes across as someone content with her life, relaxed with who she is.

It was refreshing to be in the presence of a confident woman. And perhaps it is this most of all I walked away with from the talk. The idea of not just the artistic career I aspire to, but the type of woman I want to be as I get older.

© Rachael Ashe