Painting a future

Barrie Watson’s universe is a colourful space where his creative worlds come together as one. From hairdressing and catering, to TV success and abstract art, he’s a man of many talents. Elysia Fryer chats to Barrie over a cup of tea at his home in Sunderland
It’s never too late to tap into new talents, is my main takeaway from a chat with Barrie Watson.
A true inspiration when it comes to all things creative, he’s the perfect example of someone who can take whatever comes their way, and just go with it - in style! Our chat leads me to wonder if there have been any opportunities I have sidelined because I already have my head in something else. Barrie’s advice would be - to ‘just go with it and see where it takes you’. It may just be your calling in life. Or certainly, it will lead to happiness or a new venture.
As we sit down for a cup of tea made by his lovely wife Gill (with help from their perfect pooch Dougal!), we agree that it makes sense to start from the very beginning. Barrie grew up in Murton and it didn’t take long for him to learn that he was set out to work in some sort of creative capacity. After leaving school in the 80s, Barrie went on to practice hairdressing at college and admits that he was probably the ‘Billy Elliot of Murton’ at that time.
“It was an unusual thing for a young lad to go and do,” he explains.
“But I knew I wanted to work with my hands, and it was just something I always wanted to have a go at,” he adds.
Barrie worked his way into the hairdressing world in the conventional way. From college, he went on to work in a salon and eventually started working as an educator for a manufacturer.
“At that time, my wife Gill and I were getting married, so it was a more secure business path for me, not having to contend with the sometimes unsociable hours that come with working in a salon. My job was to go round salons, educating stylists and trainees on the products they were using.”
From there, Barrie moved into sales - the day job he came back to later in life, and still enjoys today.
The time between is when Barrie’s career really started to take a turn - for all the right reasons. A chance application meant he was very quickly juggling hair products with kitchen kit.
“While I was quietly working away in my day job, I decided to apply for BBC’s MasterChef,” Barrie smiles.
“We were watching it one day and Gill said to me, ‘you could do that!’. It was a cult programme back in the 90s, presented by Loyd Grossman - so it was a very exciting thought.
“I had no experience as a chef at the time. I was purely self-taught, just messing around in the kitchen and really enjoying eating out at nice restaurants.”
Barrie applied and was surprised to hear he was successful. He was even more surprised when what he thought was just going to be ‘a bit of fun’, turned into a place in the finals.
“Before I went to the regional heat, I met with Terry Laybourne for guidance as he had been a professional chef judge on the show before. He was a huge help, and I’ll be forever grateful for the support,” he says. “It was all very chaotic, juggling work and trying to master a menu.
“I was driving back from a colour conference event where I had just won Colour Salesperson of the Year, and I was having to order my produce for the finals. At the time I was getting my fish from a place on Acorn Road in Jesmond. I was on the phone to them saying, ‘I need mussels. I need seaweed. And I’m going to need it quick!’.” He may not have come away with the crown, but this opened up a new avenue of opportunities for Barrie, bringing his love of food to the forefront of his mind.
I loved how I just lost myself in it for a couple of hours. It was my escape - and it came at a time when we all needed a bit of that in our lives
“MasterChef was a lot different back then,” Barrie explains.
“You went down, delivered a three-course meal of a certain standard - with a pretty small budget - and then a professional juge, celebrity chef and Loyd Grossman, came in. There was nowhere near as much exposure as there is for contestants these days.” What it did do, though, was build Barrie’s confidence to go and do something professionally in the food world.
“One of the judges was Anton Edelmann,” Barrie starts.
“He was head chef at The Savoy in London and invited me to go and work with him for a week, which I did. He offered me a job, but I was 30 at the time and wasn’t fully comfortable moving my entire life down to London at that stage in life. It’s a huge change and it just didn’t feel like the right thing to do.
“But it gave me the confidence to think, ‘maybe I could do something in food’, and that’s when I opened the Prickly Pear as an upmarket catering company. I was working out of a unit and would cater for events all over the region. I did Alan Shearer’s New Year’s Eve cocktail party and things like that - it was all very high-end.”
As business boomed, Barrie’s team grew in size and it led to the opening of the cafe, which quickly evolved into the Prickly Pear bistro.
“During this time, we had two kids and I was just juggling far too much,” says Barrie. “I was opening up at 5am to get the catering out, then preparing for lunch service, followed by evening service. It was non-stop and started to feel a little unhealthy.
“It was a huge success and I really enjoyed it, but I decided it was time to sell up and get a bit of balance back in my life.” Life had come full circle and Barrie found himself back in his beloved job in hairdressing. Things had started to settle and life was moving at a much slower pace, until his creative itch popped back up again and Barrie found himself enrolling into a ceramic art class.
“It was just a hobby and an escape from the day job,” Barrie tells me. Shortly after, we found ourselves navigating a pandemic and people all over the world were turning to those quiet pastimes.
For Barrie, that has always been food, but there seemed to be a newfound love in artistic forms.
“My ceramic classes obviously came to a close during the pandemic, but I very quickly found other ways of getting creative (and making a mess! - my wife would say). “Gill and I were talking about giving the house a bit of a makeover. But as we were locked up at home, there was no way we were going to get out to shop for some new art. It was hard enough getting to the supermarket for bread, milk and toilet paper!
“So, me being me, I said to Gill, ‘I’ll tell you what… I’ll paint us something.
“I’d never done it before, but just happened to have some canvases and acrylics in the garage.
“I just thought to myself, ‘what could possibly go wrong?’.
“I did a little bit of research and remember reading an article that said, ‘with abstract art, you have to take your mind back to when you were a toddler’ - when you have no illusions of how things should look - you just go with it.”
Barrie picked up his painting tools and carved out his newest creative journey. “I loved how I just lost myself in it for a couple of hours. It was my escape - and it came at a time when we all needed a bit of that in our lives.”
After completing his first few pieces and proudly placing them on the walls at home, Barrie started to share his work on Instagram.
“People started showing interest and it was really flattering,” Barrie smiles.
“So that’s when I started to open up my commission book and got in touch with some local galleries.
“Fast forward a little while and my work is currently featured in the North East Art Collective. I also did The Late Shows in Newcastle back in May, and I’ve got two paintings on show at Kirkharle Courtyard. “New opportunities and connections are constantly forming, which is great. I’m part of Network Artists North East, a group of artists from the region who support each other and provide a programme of activities and events in the industry.
“I went into Kirkharle recently to drop some prints off and came across a couple in the gallery who were looking for prints. So I went over and introduced myself and said, ‘I just happen to be dropping some work off, so if you’d like to discuss anything, you know where I am’. They were looking for two pieces and couldn’t find anything suitable, so I showed them my ‘Green Envy’ and ‘Oceans’ work and they loved the work. I signed them for them and they went off happy with two prints.
“Chatting to people and having that personal touch really makes the difference, and it’s great we can get out and about and do that again now. People like to meet who they’re buying from - it comes back to the whole ‘support local’ thing we were all backing during COVID. It’s a great way to give back to the local community.”
Barrie’s style is unique in that it’s abstract and each piece goes on a journey of self-discovery of its own.
“I don’t always know which direction a piece is going in,” Barrie admits.
“But I generally have a theme or a concept. For example, I did a piece to mark the Platinum Jubilee this year, which has been sent out to a client in Texas, USA. I’ve just completed another commission for a client’s home in the Costa del Sol - that was based around the colours of the ocean.
“I start with a theme or an idea - whether it’s something of my own, or a piece I’m working on for a client - and then my imagination just runs wild and I start to create something totally unique.
“I use all kinds of different tools and materials, from cut-outs and fabric clippings, to gilding. I tend to use a spatula more than anything, to make etchings and marks on a painting.”
At the moment, Barrie’s artwork is a hobby-turned-business venture. It’s something he set out to do for ‘escapism’, but it is constantly leading to new and exciting things.
“It is something to keep me busy and hopefully bring in a bit of income, so that when I come to retire, I have a sense of direction and a focus. That’s the plan, but we’ll see how it goes.”
It’s incredibly refreshing to chat to someone navigating the ‘mid-life’ journey with a ‘never say never’ mindset. Just because you’re approaching retirement, it doesn’t mean you have to suck it up and slow it down. “I find it impossible to just sit back and let life pass by,” says Barrie.
“I’m always finding something new to do to keep me busy. I’m always on-the-go - to the point where I get in trouble,” he laughs and looks over at Gill.
“I still love cooking. I’ve started baking cakes for friends and family. And I’m still working on some ceramic pieces, too. I’ve found a number of ways in which my creativity can keep me busy, and I don’t think I’ll ever stop.”
As we sit back and reflect on a colourful, creative career - that is just getting started(!) -Barrie remembers a compliment he received from judge Anton Edelmann during his time on MasterChef…
“I made a chocolate fondant, which was very unique at the time - they’re everywhere now - but it was something really different back then. I couldn’t get hold of a mould, so I used an old baked beans tin. As I explained the process, Anton said, ‘you’re not just a chef, you’re a genius’.”
Anton hit the nail on the head. Barrie is a creative genius in all respects.