'I'm effectively playing Dungeons & Dragons with myself': Inside this artist's painted worlds

Stephen Appleby-Barr's paintings have always been magical — and now his own tiny sculptures inspire them as well.

In his new digs in the U.K., Stephen Appleby-Barr shows us his magical sculptures and paintings

(Stephen Appleby-Barr)

Stephen Appleby-Barr's paintings have always been magical. From cats in full regalia to David Suzuki surveying a winter landscape, snowshoes in hand, the artist makes people into heroes. Or royals. Or fairytale characters. Something powerful, anyway.

Appleby-Barr is from Toronto, where he's been celebrated for his work. He formed part of Team Macho, the wildling group of artists (Appleby-Barr, Lauchie Reid and Christopher Buchan) who shared a studio and produced all manner of strange and sometimes psychedelic art. More recently, his solo work has featured ennobled portraits full of armour and horses and little figures that look like they're made out of paper or fragile ceramic, poised delicately on the spindliest of legs.

Watch the video:

Stephen Appleby-Barr in London

4 years ago
Duration 4:18
Painter Stephen Appleby-Barr on how moving to London, making tiny sculptures and being in love with the National Gallery have informed his art. Filmmaker: James Cooper

In this video made by filmmaker James Cooper, Appleby-Barr lets you in on how important those little figures have come to be in his work. As he explains it, in moving from Toronto to his current home in London (the U.K. one) with a rural stop in between, he came to be more and more involved with using his small sculptures to compose his paintings.

He says, "I'm effectively playing Dungeons and Dragons with myself. I've got to have the set pieces and I've got to have the characters. And they have character sheets and they have narratives and there is a setting and there's this and then that and it changes."

(CBC Arts)

"I'm just playing a really long ongoing game of storytelling, which I've always done with the work."

Now that he also has London's National Gallery only a short ride away from his front door, he's as inspired as ever — and you can see the central role his sculptures play in the paintings he's making today.

Follow Stephen Appleby-Barr here.

(Stephen Appleby-Barr)
(CBC Arts)
(Stephen Appleby-Barr)

Stream CBC Arts: Exhibitionists or catch it on CBC Television Friday nights at 11:30pm (12am NT) and Sundays at 3:30pm (4pm NT). Watch more videos here.


Lise Hosein is a producer at CBC Arts. Before that, she was an arts reporter at JazzFM 91, an interview producer at George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight and a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto. When she's not at her CBC Arts desk she's sometimes an art history instructor and is always quite terrified of bees.