Birmingham-born artist Barbara Walker shows me one of her illustrations in a new exhibition of women artists and puts me on the spot.
Keen to challenge stereotypes, she asks: “Can you tell how it’s different from the original?”
Not having seen her source material makes it a bit more tricky in the minute I’m given to answer the question. So I hazard a guess that the picture, featuring two adults and two children, now features a mixed-race family.
The answer, it turns out, is more subtle than that. In Barbara’s vision, the boy is now helping his mother out in the kitchen, and the girl is helping to open the garage door with her father.
In my defence, as an only child I was given equal chance to bake (the Bero recipe book remains unbeatable!) as well as to use the tools in my dad’s two lock-up garages.
And my own favourite Ladybird book, which I read again and again, was less about family values and more about economics.
Even today, The Elves And The Shoemaker remains a timeless study of hard work, entrepreneurial behaviour and the simple delight of being surprised.
Hockley-based Barbara, whose family hailed from Jamaica, says: “I used to read Ladybird books like Snow White and Cinderella. But England has changed, so I’m trying to give a new contemporary interpretation to some of the other works.
“They are fascinating to work on because they are so loaded with stereotypes.
Many of Barbara’s Ladybird source materials were drawn by the Birmingham-born deaf artist Martin Aitchison, who trained at Birmingham School of Art and, later, at the Slade School of Art. He exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1939.
A single mother of three children aged 29, 30 and 31, Barbara looks more than a decade younger than her 50 years.
Armed with a first class BA in Art & Design from the Birmingham School of Art, she says she is inspired by “social, political and cultural realities”, enabling her to “address issues such as class, representation, power and belonging”.
Working primarily in drawing and painting, Barbara says: “I don’t like talking about myself because I want my art to speak for me.
“But, yes, I found the reading, the composition and pictures in these Ladybird books very interesting – I read them with social awareness.
“I always knew I wanted to be an artist and love them or hate them, Ladybird books were instrumental in helping me to become one,” she says.
“Mum was a nurse, dad was a foreman and I was brought up in a very creative environment.
“One of the best things I did was to spend three months in South Africa in 2008, a country that was going through radical change.
“It was a pivotal experience in terms of what I am today.’’
She adds: “It’s really nice to be in the Waterhall with my contemporaries so I’m in good company here. I founded my own practice here in Birmingham in 2008 and feel like the prodigal daughter who has come home.
“What I want to do now is to create more interesting works and projects. I’ve got a show in Belgium in May and a solo show at mac in 2015.”
* For more information about Barbara Walker visit www.barbarawalker.co.uk
* The artworks on display in For the Record span the 20th century right up to the present day.
Including Birmingham Museum’s Modern and Contemporary Collection and loans from the Arts Council Collection, the exhibition explores themes of preservation, tradition, documentation and recording and includes portraiture, landscape, sculpture and installation as well as timely issues concerning womanhood and identity.
Featured works include exquisite tempera on panel paintings by Estella Canziani, prints by Louise Bourgeois and sculpture by Barbara Hepworth.
Other artists represented include Ana Maria Pacheco, Mary Kelly, Emmy Bridgwater, Alice Channer and Turner-prize nominee Lynette Yiadom-Boakye.