Category Archives: An Artist’s Life

Pearls from artists* # 425

Gladstone, NJ

Gladstone, NJ

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

And yet books were faithful companions for Vincent, an important source of sustenance during his times of melancholy:  he periodically re-read his favourites, finding new meaning in the text and illustrations each time.  Van Gogh read in at least two ways: first “breathlessly,’ and then ‘by careful exploration.’  But we could add a third and a fourth way:  thirdly as an artist, and fourthly from the perspective of the writer he perhaps knew himself to be.  To Vincent, reading books meant above all to ‘seek in them the artist who made them,’ as he wrote to his sister Willemien.  He sought to open an internal dialogue with other writers as artists, and meditated on their words, stopping to consider and reconsider a phrase to make it resonate within him  He did this in more than one language – internalizing words, ruminating, bending them to his will, and finally assigning them to a fate of his choosing, over the years.  Remarkably several Prefaces by French Naturalist novelists such as Zola, De Goncourts or Maupassant (today considered genuine manifestos) were among the pages that truly challenged and engaged his mind.  In them he found the freedom that he was seeking in painting – the ‘confirmation’ of his own ideas, inspiration and encouragement.  The work of the illustrators of his favorite books and magazines equally attracted him and had a lingering effect on him, on which he paused to reflect repeatedly, extracting inspiration indirectly.              
Mariella Guzzoni in Vincent’s Books:  Van Gogh and the Writers Who Inspired Him 

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Pearls from artists* # 424

New York, NY

New York, NY

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

What the unproductive artist describes as his failure of will or insufficient motivation may rather be an absence in his belief system of the meaningfulness of art or of the art-making he’s presently doing. The most salient difference between the regularly blocked artist and the regularly productive artist may not be the greater talent of the latter, but the fact that the productive artist possesses and retains his missionary zeal.

Carlos Santana likened artists to “warriors in the trenches who have the vision of saving us from going over the edge.”  The artist who possesses this vision will pursue his art even if he sometimes blocks.  The artist who is less certain about the sacredness of his profession or the value of his work is hard-pressed to battle for art’s sake.  

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

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Q: What kind of art do you create?

At work

At work

A:  I live in the West Village in New York City and have been a working artist for thirty-four years. I create original pastel paintings that use my large collection of Mexican and Guatemalan folk art – masks, carved wooden animals, papier mache figures, and toys – as subject matter. Blending with my fingers, I spend months painstakingly applying dozens of layers of soft pastel onto acid-free sandpaper. My self-invented technique achieves extraordinarily rich, vibrant color and results in paintings that uniquely combine reality, fantasy, and autobiography. Please see https://barbararachko.art/en/

For the last three years I have been working on a series called, “Bolivianos,” based on an exhibition of Carnival masks seen in La Paz. Art critics and others have said that these are my strongest pastel paintings so far. As I write I am working on the fifteenth piece in the series.  

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Pearls from artists* # 423

"Epiphany," soft pastel on sandpaper, 38" x 58"

“Epiphany,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 38″ x 58″

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

I’ve mentioned that Kenneth Clark, the British art historian, said you could take the four best paintings of any artist in history and destroy the rest and the artist’s reputation would still be intact.  This is because in any artist’s life there are moments when everything goes right.  The artist is so in tune with his or her inner vision that there is no restriction.  The divine is being expressed.  Each mark becomes like a note of music in a divine order.

That experience, that prayer of expression, transcends its material and becomes spiritual.  The experience is overwhelming, the joys it communicates explosive.

When on another occasion we can’t find that spiritual level of experience, and so can’t repeat it, the frustration can be cruel and the separation painful.  Here lies the myth of the suffering artist.  It isn’t the art making when it goes well that has any suffering in it.  That is the union with the beloved.  It’s the loss that causes the suffering.  And the problem isn’t something we can necessarily control.  We are instruments, conduits for that expression.  It comes through us by grace.

The idea that we “make” art is perhaps a bit misleading.  The final product is at its best the result of a collaboration with spirit.  We may be separated from a flow within our spirit for weeks.  We continue to paint because there is no knowing at what precise moment it will return.  And when it does we need our faculties alert and our skills honed.  Then the poetry is everywhere.    

Ian Roberts in Creative Authenticity:  16 Principles to Clarify and Deepen Your Artistic Vision

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Q: Do you have a home studio or do you go to an outside studio to work? Which do you prefer and why?

At work

At work

A: I have always preferred a separate studio. Pastel creates a lot of dust, it’s toxic to breathe, plus I do not want to live with the mess! I need a place to go in the mornings, someplace where I can focus and work without any distractions. It’s difficult to do that at home.

From the beginning of my time as an artist, in the mid-1980’s, I had a studio. My first one was in the spare bedroom of the Alexandria, Virginia, house that I shared with my late husband, Bryan, and that I still own.

For about three years in the 1990s I had a studio on the third floor of the Torpedo Factory Art Center, a building in Alexandria, VA that is open to the public. People would come in, watch artists at work, and sometimes buy a piece of art.

In April 1997 an opportunity to move to New York arose and I didn’t look back. By then I was showing in a good 57th Street gallery, Brewster Arts Ltd. (the gallery focused exclusively on Latin American artists; I was in the company of Leonora Carrington, Rufino Tamayo, Diego Rivera, etc.), and I had managed to find a New York agent, Leah Poller, with whom to collaborate.

I looked at only one other space before finding my West 29th Street studio and knew instantly it was the one! An old friend of Bryan’s from Cal Tech rented the space next door and he had told us it was available. Initially the studio was a sublet. The lease-holder was a painter headed to northern California to work temporarily for George Lucas at the Lucas Ranch. After several years she decided to stay so I was able to take over the lease. I feel extremely fortunate to have been in my West 29th Street, New York City space now for twenty-three years. In a city where old buildings are perpetually knocked down to make way for new ones this is rare.

My studio is an oasis in a chaotic city, a place to make art, to read, and to think. I love to walk in the door every morning and I feel calmer the moment I arrive. It’s my absolute favorite place in New York! Sometimes I think of it as my best creation. For more about this please see

https://artofcollage.wordpress.com/2020/04/30/artists-and-their-relationship-to-their-studio

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Pearls from artists* # 422

New York, NY

New York, NY

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

There is always work that is ahead of its time and receives little acknowledgement in its own day.  This is often where an artist follows a line of discovery that is outside a rigid stricture or style or common understanding.  Usually, even if the artist is ahead of public taste, there are a few admirers who recognize what the artist is doing.  If his or her work has truth, eventually the public will catch up.  Even Impressionism, of course, that most bucolic of art forms, which today is the public’s darling, was reviled in its day.    

Ian Roberts in Creative Authenticity:  16 Principles to Clarify and Deepen Your Artistic Vision

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Travel photo of the month*

Calder Room at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Calder Room at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

*Favorite travel photos that have not yet appeared in this blog

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Q: How many days a week do you work on your art?

Working on “Jokester”

At work

A:  My life is devoted to art and to art-making.  Working in pastel is slow and labor-intensive – in a good year I make four or five pastel paintings – so maintaining good work habits is imperative.  As a fulltime professional artist, I strive to  keep regular studio hours.  I work five days a week, roughly seven hours a day.

However, running the business side of things is an every day activity:  marketing, interviews, applying for exhibitions, making photographs, documenting my professional activities, sending JPEGs, responding to inquiries, etc.  There is always something to do!

Comments are welcome!   

Q: How do you start your day?

Working

Working

A:  (Note: this is my pre-pandemic answer).

I have always been a morning person. I wake up about 6:00, make breakfast, and spend about an hour online checking email, monitoring and responding to social media (my two assistants devote their efforts to social media marketing of my work), catching up on news (art sites like Hyperallergic, The New York Times, the BBC, etc.). I swim three or four times a week. On those days I leave my apartment by 7:30, walk to the pool, swim for an hour, and arrive at the studio about 11. On days when I don’t swim, I generally arrive at the studio between 9:30 and 10.

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Pearls from artsts* # 417

With “Sentinels,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 38” x 58” image, 50” x 70” framed

With “Sentinels,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 38” x 58” image, 50” x 70” framed

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

As we all know deep down, it is not by submission, coolness, remoteness, apathy, and boredom that great art is created, no matter what the cynics might tell us, the secret ingredient of great art is what is most difficult to learn:  it is courage.    

Boris Lurie quoted in Ninth Street Women by Mary Gabriel

Comments are welcome!

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