Barry Purves | What Is Art?

Delivering the Key note speech was Barry Purves, who has taken many roles throughout his career – an Actor, Animator, Director, writer, teacher. Some of his well known animations include Wind In The Willows, Rupert Bear, Twirlywoos to name a few and he has been involved in Films like Mars Attacks and King Kong. His successful career in animation since 1987 has received great recognition and BAFTA and OSCAR Nominations.

He presented his work on a 4 minutes showreel, something he said was very difficult to cram 40 years worth into just 4 minutes. It was lots of little clips from his productions with music from The Penguin Cafe Orchestra which was really good and the clips were arranged to fit the pace of the music.

These are my notes taken throughout Barry’s presentation on – WHAT IS ART?

He says Art is all about storytelling because we all like and want to tell stories, to share things about ourselves and our time here. But just talking about ourselves sometimes isn’t enough and can be effected by politics, ethics etc.

So we have to find a way of being noticed and getting our story across and this is where using a ‘device’ comes in useful like costumes and puppets.

He traced back through history to caveman times and discussed the paintings on the cave walls that shown a storyboard-style picture of an event that had happened, and another which was just a collage of painted hand prints on a wall. This was their device to tell their story…to show their existence.

The first ever oil painting by Jan Van Eyck, Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife 1434 was analysed for years about the meaning and reason behind many objects in the painting. It was his showreel, a way of displaying his talent by including as many different painted textures as he could.

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Stories are a way of saying ‘I Matter’ And one of the greatest storytellers was Shakespeare who deals with metaphors, history, his society and whats happening to him in his stories.

By using a device such as a costume / puppet etc you can get away with saying things that might not normally sit very well with some people. They allow the viewers to enter into their world and their story.

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In Hamlet, ghost/clowns/songs are all used and are artificial things which speak the truth to get a message across.

What’s very important is that stories need a change of perspective.


  • PINOCCHIO, He had to learn what it is to be a real boy before he could be one.
  • E.T. He came to a broken family, heals them and then he’s gone.
  • Mary Poppins, She comes to a broken family and heals them then leaves, she has an umbrella that talks which is the device, it is the most honest thing in the film and it says what needs to be said to the audience, almost says what you are thinking anyway.

**SO having a device is crucial to storytelling**

  • Facebook is a device, people use it and hide behind it to be more opinionated than they might do in a face to face conversation.
  • Having a cup of tea/pint with someone is a device, it gives people liberty to talk.

He went on to talk about Greek Myths & Folk Law…. is there any truth in it at all, or was it just their way of making sense of life as it happened.

Art is about enjoying the liberation devices give you, to create something from scratch where every element like the colour palette, the composition, the light, everything influences the message/story that you are telling.

Animation uses visual metaphors strongly.

Ballet is the most honest artificial storytelling – the body language, the costumes, the colour, the music. All those elements are the device and say more than words can.

We have to find a device to get our story across, and to end he quoted “ Give A Man A Mask And He Will Tell You The Truth’

I found Barry’s talk very interesting, I must admit I was a huge fan of Wind In The Willows when I was a child amongst many other animations and my son loves Twirlywoos which is one of his current productions.

My conclusion from Barry’s talk was that he sees Art as a way of expressing and telling our stories / getting a point across and that every artist has a different way of delivering this whether it’s through costume or the tools that they use. I enjoyed seeing his journey which has got him where he is now, I think I would have liked to of seen more of a behind the scenes of the work involved in creating his animations.

FEATURED IMAGE taken from Watershed