The Sunday Magazine

An encounter with a creative genius

Twenty-five years ago, Curtis Barlow was Canada's cultural counsellor in Washington. His encounter with a determined woman who was at the time a relatively unknown Canadian painter, pushed him out of his comfort zone and into a new way of thinking. Curtis Barlow’s essay is called, "The Artist."
From L to R: Helenic II. 1993. Acrylic on canvas; Untitled. Acrylic on ceramic plate. 1993. (Sylvie Barcelo)

Hanging on the wall in our dining room in Toronto is a cherished artwork, a small plate upon which is painted in vivid acrylic, a bright, stylized human face. It is the work of an artist named Sylvie Barcelo, and it represents for me an encounter with creative genius that changed the way I see the world.

In the summer of 1993, I was employed as the Canadian Cultural Counsellor in Washington, DC, with a mandate to elevate the profile of Canada through the arts. Part of my job was to program a small, pristine art gallery within the Canadian Embassy.

The Embassy cultural program was highly regarded in Washington, and my procedure for selecting exhibitions was therefore quite rigid. Nervous about exercising my personal judgment calls on an artist's work, I collaborated only with established Canadian museums, and the shows we presented always featured well-known artists like Emily Carr, Jean-Paul Riopelle, and the Group of Seven.  It was superb artwork . But these were safe, predictable choices.

Notwithstanding the seniority of my position and the barricade of security behind which I operated, I was an accessible guy and would meet with anyone who had a legitimate reason for wanting to speak to me.

One day I ushered into my office a young woman who introduced herself as Sylvie Barcelo, a painter and visual artist from Quebec, resident in Washington.

Sylvie was small, poised and exceptionally pretty with thick brown hair, beautiful clear eyes and a seemingly shy disposition. But I was to discover that underneath her veneer of sweetness and beauty lurked courage and steely determination. I was struck and somewhat mystified by the intensity of Sylvie's will at the time of our first meeting.

Sylvie had come to inquire about the possibility of showing her artwork in our gallery. I immediately declined her request as totally out of the question, explaining our selections policy.

She looked at me and said, "So change your policy." Her remark made me laugh.  It also made me feel like a stuffy and inflexible bureaucrat, a self-image hugely lacking in appeal. Thus Sylvie convinced me to accept an invitation to visit her home to look at her work.

 And so it was that one rainy evening, my partner David and I made our way to Sylvie's rambling, funky apartment in a dubious neighbourhood where she lived with her husband an affable international aid worker.

 To our surprise and pleasure, we were treated to an African meal with lots of wine.  After dinner, we were led into the room Sylvie used as a studio and introduced to the work of one of Canada's most dynamic, arresting, and powerful unsung painters.

Inspired in part by MC Escher, Sylvie's oversize acrylic paintings and stunningly detailed vases illustrated an intellectualism and dramatic detail that were tremendously compelling. Her canvases depicted human figures whose shapes had been inspired and transformed by the landscapes she'd viewed from airplane windows and photographs. I was captivated by her work and by her world.

And so after serious thought, I nervously agreed to offer Sylvie an exhibition in the Embassy gallery.  I was keenly aware that in exercising my personal artistic judgment on the quality of Sylvie's work, I was taking a big risk. And the stakes were high, for if the rest of the world did not agree with my assessment of Sylvie's talent, then not only would my own reputation be compromised, but also that of the Embassy cultural program itself.

Predictably, I suffered through several weeks of pre-opening anxiety.

But as the show was being installed, I received a comforting indication that my faith in the quality of Sylvie's work was not misplaced. A member of the technical staff turned to me whilst carrying one of Sylvie's large canvases into the gallery and said, "This is the best show you've ever presented here". Considering the stature of the artists we had shown to date, this was a remarkable if cheeky statement.

The opening night was a triumph both for Sylvie and for the Embassy. Her parents and sisters flew from Quebec for the occasion, and I was able to attract an impressive assemblage of Washington curators, dealers and museum directors to the event. Everyone was delighted with the work, and Sylvie sold virtually all the pieces in the exhibition. Sylvie gave me the aforementioned exquisite plate as a gesture of thanks for having faith in her talent. But the more valuable gift she gave me was new confidence in my own artistic judgment, which would serve me well for many years to come..

In the months that followed the Embassy show, we became close friends with Sylvie and Michael and were frequent guests at their dinner table in the company of their loquacious and cosmopolitan group of friends.

One day the following summer, after a night out in their neighbourhood, Sylvie and Michael walked us to our car, and we noticed Sylvie was limping.

At dinner a few weeks later, she explained the limp and her use of a cane as arthritis of the knee. But only two weeks after that, Michael called to tell us that Sylvie had died that afternoon, the victim of a vicious cancer that had spread throughout her body. She had not wanted any of her friends to know.

Then the urgency of Sylvie's need to show her work and to gain some recognition of her talent became clear to me. As I grieved her sudden and shocking passing, I also felt tremendous gratitude for having for once relaxed my customary bureaucratic defences and allowed Sylvie into my domain - and into my heart.

Sylvie's talent remained unsung and unknown, for she had not created enough work to leave a lasting legacy.

But for one brief moment, Sylvie's quest and my own coincided.  She had the opportunity to be seen, for her work to be celebrated publicly. And me? I will be forever grateful for the challenge she put before me - to break my own rules, trust my own instincts and take a long overdue chance.