Category Archives: An Artist’s Life

Pearls from artists* # 249

Barbara's studio

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.

Interviewer:  Can a writer learn style?

Capote:  No, I don’t think that style is consciously arrived at, any more than one arrives at the color of one’s eyes.  After all, your style is you.  At the end the personality of  a writer  has so much to do with the work.  The personality has to be humanly there.  Personality is a debased word, I know, but it’s what I mean.  The writer’s individual humanity, his word or gesture towards the world, has to appear almost like a character that makes contact with the reader.  If the personality is vague or confused or merely literary, ca ne va pas.  Faulkner, Mc Cullers – they project their personality at once.

Truman Capote in Writers at Work:  The Paris Review Interviews First Series, edited, and with an introduction by Malcolm Crowley

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Pearls from artists* # 247

A recent charcoal study

A recent charcoal study

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

Studies made in the open air are different from pictures that are destined to be shown in public.  The latter, in my opinion, result from the studies, but they may, or even must, differ a great deal from them.  For in the picture the painter rather gives a personal impression, while in a study his aim is simply to analyze a bit of nature – either to make his idea or conception more correct, or to find a new idea; for example, the studies of Mauve, which I myself like very much, precisely because of their soberness and because they are done so faithfully.  Still they miss a certain charm, which the pictures that result from them possess in such a high degree.

I believe one gets more sound ideas when thoughts arise from direct contact with things than when one looks at them with the set purpose of finding certain facts in them.  It is the same with the question of a colour scheme.  There are colours that harmonize wonderfully, but I try my best to paint a subject as I see it before I set to work to make it as I feel it.  Yet feeling is a great thing, and without it one would not be able to do anything.  Thus, studies belong more to the studio than among the pubic.

Dear Theo:  The Autobiography of Vincent Van Gogh, edited by Irving Stone

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Pearls from artists* # 246

"Offering," soft pastel on sandpaper, 20" x 26"

“Offering,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 20″ x 26″

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

Is love, taken together with art, not the only license to surpass the human conditions and to be greater, more generous, more unhappy, if necessary, than common man?  Let us embrace the possibility heroically – let us renounce none of the advantages afforded to us by our animated state.  

The Poet’s Guide to Life:  The Wisdom of Rilke, edited and translated by Ulrich Baer

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Q: What art book are you reading for inspiration now?

Barbara's copy of "Dear Theo"

Barbara’s copy of “Dear Theo”

A:  I am re-reading “Dear Theo,” van Gogh’s autobiography as expressed in letters to his beloved brother, a book I read more than twenty-five years ago when I first started out as an artist.  My copy is beat up and yellowing, but still holding together.

It’s a source of pure solace.  Keeping and growing a studio practice in New York is  fraught with complexity, challenges, increasing demands on one’s time, etc.  So I sometimes need reminding about the joyful aspects of  being an artist, about why I decided to devote my time to this work in the first place, about what I love about this often difficult and frustrating life I chose.  And Van Gogh’s sensitive, soulful words always deliver! 

Comments are welcome!

    

Pearls from artists* # 245

Barbara's studio with works in progress

Barbara’s studio with works in progress

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

Just as a puppy dog strives to become nothing but simply a dog and as thoroughly a dog as possible, one has to grow into art as the mode of existence for which one’s heart and lungs were made, as the only appropriate option.  If one chances upon art from the outside, it  ends up being nothing but a bad disguise, and life, in its unshakeable honesty, takes it upon itself to tear off this masquerade.

The Poet’s Guide to Life:  The Wisdom of Rilke, edited and translated by Ulrich Baer

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Pearls from artists* # 244

Great Falls, VA

Great Falls, VA

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

Poet or painter, musician or architect, all solitary individuals at bottom turn to nature because they prefer the eternal to the transient, the profound rhythms of eternal laws to that which finds justification in passing.  Since they cannot persuade nature to share in their experience they consider their task to grasp nature in order to place themselves somewhere in its vast contexts.  And with these single solitary individuals all of humanity approaches nature.  It is not the ultimate and possibly most peculiar value of art that it constitutes the medium in which man and landscape, figure and world encounter and find each other.  But in the painting, the building, the symphony – in a word, in art itself, they seem to join together as if in a higher, prophetic truth, to rely on one another, and it is as if they completed each other to become that perfect unity that characterizes the work of art.

The Poet’s Guide to Life:  The Wisdom of Rilke, edited and translated by Ulrich Baer

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Q: The imagery used throughout your work evoked glimmers of childhood memories, specifically “Punch and Judy” puppet shows. Would you talk about your use of this kind of slightly sinister iconography?

Barbara and Tomas in Panajachel

Barbara and Tomas in Panajachel

A:  I don’t really see my iconography as sinister, although I know some people do.

I search the markets and bazaars of Mexico, Guatemala, and elsewhere for folk art objects – masks, carved wooden animals, papier mache figures, children’s toys – to bring back to New York to photograph and paint.

Color is very important – the brighter and the more eye-catching the patterns are on these objects the better – plus they must be unique and have lots of personality. I try not to buy anything mass-produced or obviously made for the tourist trade. The objects must have been used or otherwise look like they’ve had a life (i.e., been part of religious festivities) to draw my attention. How and where each one comes into my possession is an important part of the creative process. Making this work is a long, complex undertaking with many facets. Finished paintings are always an idiosyncratic blend of reality, fantasy, and autobiography.

Finding, buying, and getting the objects back to the U.S. is sometimes circuitous, but that, too, is part of the process, an adventure, and often a good story. Here’s an example.

In 2009 I was in a small town on the shores of Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, called Panajachel. After returning from a boat ride across the lake, my friends and I were walking back to our hotel when we discovered a wonderful mask store. How fortuitous! I spent some time looking around, made my selections, and was ready to buy five exquisitely-made standing wooden figures, when I learned that Tomas, the store owner, did not accept credit cards. I was heart-broken and thought, “Oh, no, I’ll have to leave these Panajachelitos behind.”

However, thanks to my good friend, Donna, whose Spanish was much more fluent than mine, the three of us brain-stormed until finally, Tomas had an idea. I could pay for the figures at a nearby hotel and in a few days when the hotel was paid by the credit card company, the hotel would pay Tomas. Fabulous! Tomas, Donna, and I walked to the hotel, where the transaction was made and the first hurdle was overcome.

Working out the packing and shipping arrangements took another hour or two. This was a small village off the beaten track so boxes and packing materials were scarce. As we figured out the details, Tomas and I realized we liked and trusted each other, became friends, and exchanged telephone numbers. The store did not even have a telephone so he gave me the phone number of the post office next door, saying that when I called, he could easily run next door!

Most wonderfully, the package was waiting for me in New York when I returned home from Guatemala. All of the objects were unbroken and in excellent condition.

As I travel I am drawn to each of these figures because it possesses a powerful presence that resonates with me.  It’s a mystery really.  I am not sure exactly how or why, but I know each object has lessons to teach as it assumes various roles in yet-to-be-created paintings.

Coming upon a new find I wonder, who made this thing?  How?  Why?  Where?  When?  I feel connected to each object’s creator and curiosity leads me to become a detective and an archaeologist to find out more about it and to figure out how to most effectively use it in my work.

The best way I can describe it:  after three decades of seeking out, collecting, and using these folk art figures as personal symbols in my work, the process has become an enriching personal journey towards greater knowledge and wisdom. They are a vehicle for learning more about the world and and about myself.  And what artist doesn’t love to learn?

Comments are welcome! 

Pearls from artists* # 242

"Figment," soft pastel on sandpaper, 20" x 26"

“Figment,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 20″ x 26″

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

Of this there can be no question – creative work requires the loyalty of water to the force of gravity.  A person trudging through the wilderness of creation who does not know this – who does not swallow this – is lost.  He who does not crave that roofless place eternity should stay home.  Such a person is perfectly worthy, and useful, and even beautiful, but is not an artist.  Such a person had better live with timely ambitions and finished work formed for the sparkle of the moment only.  Such a person had better go off and fly an airplane.     

Mary Oliver in Upstream: Selected Essays

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 241

"The Ancestors," soft pastel on sandpaper, 58" x 38"

“The Ancestors,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 58″ x 38″

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

A few years ago I heard a lecture about the Whitney family, especially about Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, whose patronage established the museum of that name in New York City.  The talk was given by Mrs. Whitney’s granddaughter, and she used a fine phrase when speaking of her family – of their sense of “inherited responsibility” – to do, of course, with received wealth and a sense of using it for public good.  Ah!  Quickly I slipped this phrase from the air and put it into my own pocket!

For it is precisely how I feel, who has inherited not measurable wealth but, as we all do who care for it, that immeasurable fund of thoughts and ideas, from writers and thinkers long gone into the ground – and, inseparable from those wisdoms because demanded by them, the responsibility to live thoughtfully and intelligently.  To enjoy, to question – never to assume, or trample.  Thus the great ones (my great ones, who may not be the same as your great ones) have taught me – to observe with passion, to think with patience, to live always caringly. 

Mary Oliver in Upstream: Selected Essays

Comments are welcome!

Q: How has your use of photography changed over the years?

Untitled, 24" x 24" c-print

Untitled, 24″ x 24″ c-print

A:  When my husband, Bryan, was alive I barely picked up a camera, except to photograph sights encountered during our travels.

Throughout the 1990s and ending in 2007, I worked on my series of pastel-on-sandpaper paintings called, “Domestic Threats.”  These were realistic depictions of elaborate scenes that I staged first in our 1932 Sears house in Alexandria, Virginia, next in a New York sixth floor walk-up apartment, and finally in my current New York apartment.

I use Mexican masks, carved wooden animals, and other folk art figures that I discovered on trips to Mexico. I staged and lit these setups, while Bryan photographed them using his Toyo-Omega 4 x 5 view camera.  We had been collaborating this way almost from the beginning (circa 1991).  Having been introduced to photography by his father at the age of 6, Bryan was a terrific amateur photographer.

Bryan would shoot two pieces of 4 x 5 film at different exposures and I would select one, generally the one that showed the most detail in the shadows, to make into a 20 x 24 photograph. The photograph would be my starting point for making the pastel painting. Although I work from life, too, I could not make a painting without mostly looking at a reference photo. 

After Bryan was killed on 9/11, I had no choice but to study photography.  I completed a series of photography classes at the International Center of Photography in New York, turned myself into a skilled photographer, and presented my first solo photography exhibition at HP Garcia in New York in 2009.

Comments are welcome!