Category Archives: An Artist’s Life

Pearls from artists* # 490

At Triangle Loft, NYC Photo: David Da Hannay

*an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

Wherever apathy reigns supreme, the “strong” are those who can boast that nothing affects them. Numbness and dumbness become positive qualities, and any passionate engagement with life becomes a cause for embarrassment. How many hipsters out there consider passionate commitment of any kind to be a sign that one has been duped? Fortunately this attitude can only go so far, because everything in actual experience suggests to the contrary that passion and sensibility are necessary for anything meaningful to happen to anyone. They are the vital signs that make the difference between an existence that is truly lived out and one that is merely observed from a stifling security of a castellated self that falsely imagines that it can remain detached from the rest of the universe.

JF Martel in Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice: A Treatise, Critique, and Call to Action

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Merry Christmas from New York City!

The tree belonged to my mom.

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Pearls from artists* # 486

Barbara working on an interview. Photo: Maria Cox
Barbara working on an interview. Photo: Maria Cox

Walter Murch: Somebody once asked WH Auden, is it true that you can write only what you know?” And he said, “Yes it is. But you don’t know what you know until you write it.” Writing is a process of discovery of what you really do know. You can’t limit yourself in advance to what you know, because you don’t know everything you know.

The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film by Michael Ondaatje

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Pearls from artists* # 485

New York City

*an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

[Michael] Ondaatje: It’s an odd thing: I’ve heard you talk about the importance of ambiguity in film, and the need to save that ambiguous quality which exists in a book or painting, and which you think a film does not often have. And at the same time in a mix you are trying to “perfect” that ambiguity.

[Walter] Murch: I know. It’s a paradox. And one of the most fruitful paradoxes, I think, is that even when the film is finished, there should be unsolved problems. Because there’s another stage, beyond the finished film: when the audience views it. You want the audience to be co-conspirators in the creation of this work, just as much as the editor or the mixers or the cameraman or actors are. If by some chemistry you actually did remove all ambiguity in the final mix – even though it had been ambiguous up to that point – I think you would do the film a disservice. But the paradox is that you have to approach every problem as if it’s desperately important to solve it. You can’t say, I don’t want to solve this because it’s got to be ambiguous. If you do that, then there’s a sort of hemorrhaging of the organism.

O: And more of a confusion.

M: Yes. I keep thinking about it, and it’s a wonderful dilemma: you have to acknowledge that there must be unsolved problems at each stage. As hard as you work, you must have this secret, unspoken hope that one very significant problem will remain unsolved. But you never know what that will be until the film is done. You can almost define a film by the problem it poses, that it can’t answer itself, that it asks the audience to solve.

The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film by Michael Ondaatje

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Q: What was the first New York gallery that represented your work and how did they find you?

Exhibition Review

A: My first (and still the best) New York gallery was Brewster Gallery on West 57th Street in what, in 1996, was the most important gallery district in Manhattan. By joining Brewster, my work was exhibited alongside an impressive list of Latin American painters and sculptors such as Leonora Carrington, Frida Kahlo, Francisco Zuniga, Rufino Tamayo, Diego Rivera, Francisco Toledo, and more. Brewster was a prestigious and elegant gallery, well-known throughout the Latin American art world for their superb exhibitions and their contributions to art history scholarship.

Since I am not Latina, my work was selected by virtue of its Mexican subject matter and level of craftsmanship. Mia Kim, the owner/director, told me that amidst so many deserving, unrepresented, and talented artists of Latin American heritage, she was sometimes challenged to defend her decision to represent me. Mia’s response was always, “Barbara may not be of Latin American ancestry, but she most assuredly has the soul of a Latina! Her work has obvious affinities to Leonora’s, the other non-Latina that we represent.”

In July of 1996, while I was still living in Virginia, I mailed a slide sheet and reviews to Brewster, thinking that during the slow summer months, perhaps someone might actually LOOK at my material. Then I forgot all about it as Bryan and I headed off on a trip to Mexico. While we were in Mexico City, something told me to check our phone messages at the house in Alexandria. I did so and was floored to hear Mia offer me representation and a two-person show in October. The first time she would even see my work in person would be when I delivered it to the gallery!

In October my “Domestic Threats” pastel paintings were paired with work by Cuban artist, Tomas Esson, for an exhibition called “Monkey Business.” The opening was extremely well-attended by a sophisticated international New York crowd. A highlight was meeting Leonora Carrington, one of my artist heroes of long standing. Afterwards a large group of us were wined and dined at a French restaurant around the corner on West 58th Street. I remember looking at Bryan and saying, “I think I’ve made it!” The next day there was a favorable review in a publication called, “Open Air.” After working in complete obscurity for thirteen years, I was finally on my way.

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Pearls from artists* # 483

Behind the scenes of our documentary. Photo: David De Hannay

*an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

The editor has a unique relationship with the actors. I never try to go on to the set to see the actors out of costume or out of character – and also just not to see the set. I only want to see what there is on screen. Ultimately, that’s all the audience is ever going to see. Everyone else working on the film at that stage is party to everything going on around the filmed scene: how cold it was when that scene was shot; who was mad at whom; who is in love with whom; how quickly something was done; what was standing just to the left of the frame. An editor particularly has to be careful that those things don’t exert a hidden influence on the way the film is constructed, can (and should in my view) remain ignorant of all that stuff – in order to find value where others might not see value, and on the other hand, to diminish the value of certain things that other people see as too important. It’s one o the crucial functions of the editor. To take, as far as it is possible, the view of the audience, who is seeing the film without any knowledge of all the things that went into its construction.

On Editing Actors, by Walter Murch in The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film, by Michael Ondaatje

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Q: What country’s artistic style influenced you the most over the years? (Question from Arte Realizzata)

Barbara’s studio with some of her Mexican and Guatemalan folk art

A: Undoubtedly, I would have to say Mexico.  As a Christmas present in 1991 my future sister-in-law sent two brightly painted wooden animal figures from Oaxaca, Mexico. One was a blue polka-dotted winged horse.  The other was a red, white, and black bear-like figure.

I was enthralled with this gift and the timing was fortuitous because I had been searching for new subject matter to paint. Soon I started asking artist-friends about Oaxaca and learned that it was an important art hub.  At least two well-known Mexican painters, Rufino Tamayo and Francisco Toledo, had gotten their start there , as had master photographer Manual Alvarez Bravo.  There was a “Oaxacan School of Painting” (‘school’ meaning a style, not an actual building) and Alvarez Bravo had established a photography school there (the building/institution kind). I began reading everything I could find.  At the time I had only been to Mexico very briefly, in 1975, having made a road trip to Ensenada with my cousin and best friend from college. The following autumn my then-boyfriend, Bryan, and I planned a two-week trip to visit Mexico. We timed it to see Day of the Dead celebrations in Oaxaca.  (In my reading I had become fascinated with this festival).  We spent one week in Oaxaca followed by one week in Mexico City.  My interest in collecting Mexican folk art was off and running!  

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Pearls from artists* # 482

One of Viscarra’s masks at MUSEF La Paz

*an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

Devils’ heads with daring and disturbing eyes, twisted horns, abundant grey hair and hooked noses hang on the blue walls of Antonio Viscarra’s house. Long benches covered with old, multi-colored cushions in Bolivian motifs surround the concrete floor of the small room. Several dozen of these hanging faces, which seem to watch in silence from the darkness, are ready to be used in festivals and traditional dances.

The maskmaker or “maestro” as he is called, lives [deceased now] in the area of Avenida Buenos Aires, far from the political and administrative center of the city of La Paz, but rather at the very center of the other La Paz (Chuquiago in the Aymara language) where many peasant immigrants have settled, and which for that reason, is the center of the city’s popular culture.

Viscarra is the oldest creator of masks in La Paz, and his work has helped to conserve, and at the same time to rejuvenate, the tradition of using masks in Bolivian dances. If economic progress and alienation have contributed to the excessive adornment of new masks with glass and other foreign materials, Viscarra, in an attempt to recover the distinctive, original forms, has gone back to the 100-year-old molds used by his grandfather. His work has been exhibited in Europe, in the United States and in South America, Most important, however, is that Viscarra is transmitting his knowledge to his children, ensuring that this form of authentic Bolivian culture will never die.

…Viscarra inherited the old mask molds from his grandfather and was told to take good care of them because some day he might need them. After keeping them carefully put away for 50 years, the maestro used them again for an exhibition of masks prepared in 1984, slowly recreating the original masks, beautiful in their simplicity, in their delicate craftsmanship and in their cultural value. In this way, the masks which emerged from the old molds are regaining their past prestige and importance.

Antonio Viscarra, The mask Maker by Wendy McFarren in Masks of the Bolivian Andes, Editorial Quipus and Banco Mercantil

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Pearls from artists* # 481

Dawoud Bey at the Whitney Museum of American Art

*an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

Artists, because they spend such prolonged periods in isolation, frequently fall behind the times. They may gain great self-knowledge, spiritual insight, and understanding of their media as they work in private, but at the price of a lack of vital knowledge of the world around them.

Because solitude provides artists with a safe haven, fits their personality, and offers them a kind of communal contact with other human beings through their work, it can also serve as a breeding ground for stagnation. Without ever realizing it, artists can grow flacid in isolation and begin to experience their solitude as deadening. The studio can become too easy and unchallenging a place.

The world outside the studio offers unmatched opportunities for growth and for the expression of authentic and courageous behavior. Artists often miss these opportunities and, remaining relatively untested, handle themselves poorly when they do venture out.

Eric Maisel in A Life in the Arts: Practical Guidance and Inspiration for Creative and Performing Artists

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Pearls from artists* # 480

Barbara’s Studio

*an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

Walter Murch: As I’ve gone through life, I’ve found that your chances for happiness are increased if you wind up doing something that is a reflection of what you loved when you were between nine and eleven years old.

Michael Ondaatje: Yes – something that had and still has the feeing of a hobby, a curiosity.

M: At that age, you know enough of the world to have opinions about things, but you’re not old enough yet to be overly influenced by the crowd or by what other people are doing or what you think you “should” be doing. If what you do later on ties into that reservoir, in some way, then you are nurturing some essential part of yourself. It’s certainly been true in my case. I’m doing now, at fifty-eight, almost exactly what excited me when I was eleven.

But I went through a whole late-adolescent phase when I thought: Splicing sounds together can’t be a real occupation, maybe I should be a geologist or teach art history.

The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film by Michael Ondaatje

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