Category Archives: An Artist’s Life

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

Comments are welcome!

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!

Pearls from artists* # 240

Great Salt Lake, Utah

Great Salt Lake, Utah

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

In creative work – creative work of all kinds – those who are the world’s working artists are not trying to help the world go around, but forward.  Which is something altogether different from the ordinary.  Such work does not refute the ordinary.  It is, simply, something else.  Its labor requires a different outlook – a different set of priorities.  Certainly there is within each of us a self that is neither a child, nor a servant of the hours.  It is a third self, occasional in some of us, tyrant in others.  This self is out of love with the ordinary.  It has a hunger for eternity.  

Mary Oliver in Upstream: Selected Essays

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* #239

At work on "False Friends"; photo by Diana Feit

At work on “False Friends”; photo by Diana Feit

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

It is a silver morning like any other.  I am at my desk.  Then the phone rings, or someone raps at the door.  I am deep in the machinery of my wits.  Reluctantly I rise, I answer the phone or I open the door.  And the thought which I had in hand, or almost in hand, is gone.

Creative work needs solitude.  It needs concentration, without interruptions.  It needs the whole sky to fly in, and no eye watching until it comes to that certainty which it aspires to, but does not necessarily have at once.  Privacy, then.  A place apart – to pace, to chew pencils, to scribble and erase and scribble again.     

Mary Oliver in Upstream: Selected Essays

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 237

Barbara at work, Photo: Marianne Barcellona

Barbara at work, Photo: Marianne Barcellona

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

You must not ever stop being whimsical.

And you must not, ever, give anyone else the responsibility for your life.

I don’t mean it’s easy or assured; there are stubborn stumps of shame, grief that remains unsolvable after all the years, a bag of stones that goes with one wherever one goes and however the hour may call for dancing and for light feet. But there is, also, the summoning world, better than anger, better than bitterness, and because more interesting, more alleviating.  And there is the thing that one does, the needle one plies, the work, and within that work a chance to take thoughts that are hot and formless and to place them slowly and with meticulous effort into some shapely heat-retaining form, even as the gods, or nature, or the soundless wheels of time have made forms all across the soft, curved universe – that is to say, having chosen to claim my life, I have made for myself, out of work and living, a handsome life.

Mary Oliver in Upstream: Selected Essays

Comments are welcome!

 

Q: Your path into the arts was less than conventional. For many years you were an active duty Naval officer before you retired as a Commander. Oh, and not forgetting the pilot’s licenses you hold! Tell us more about yourself and why you decided to continue your journey into the arts.

Barbara's eBook cover

Barbara’s eBook cover

A:  When I was 25 I earned my private pilot’s license and spent the next two years amassing other licenses and ratings, culminating in a Boeing-727 flight engineer’s certificate. Two years later I joined the Navy. As an accomplished civilian pilot with thousands of flight hours, I expected to fly jets. However, there were few women Navy pilots at the time and they were restricted to training male pilots. There were no women pilots on aircraft carriers and there were no female Blue Angels (the latter is still true).    

So in the mid-1980s I was in my early 30s, a lieutenant on active duty in the Navy, working a soul-crushing job as a computer analyst on the midnight shift in a Pentagon basement.  It was literally and figuratively the lowest point of my life.  Remembering the joyful Saturdays of my youth when I had taken art classes with a local New Jersey painter, I enrolled in a drawing class at the Art League School in Alexandria, Virginia.  Initially I wasn’t very good, but it was wonderful to be around other women  and a world away from the “warrior mentality” of the Pentagon.  And, I was having fun!  Soon I enrolled in more classes and became a very motivated full-time art student who worked nights at the Pentagon. As I studied and improved my skills, I discovered my preferred medium – soft pastel on sandpaper.  

Although I knew I had found my calling, for more than a year I agonized over whether or not to leave the financial security of the Navy.  Once I did decide, there was a long delay.  The Navy was experiencing a manpower shortage so Congress had enacted a stop-loss order, which prevented officers from resigning. I could only do what was allowed under the order.  I submitted my resignation effective exactly one year later:  on September 30, 1989.  With Bryan’s (my late husband’s) support,  I left the Navy.  

I designate October 1, 1989 as the day I became a professional artist. Fortunately, I have never again needed a day job. However, I remained in the Navy Reserve for the next 14 years, working primarily at the Pentagon for two days every month and two weeks each year. I commuted to Washington, DC after I moved to Manhattan in 1997.  Finally on November 1, 2003, I officially retired as a Navy Commander.

Comments are welcome!

Q: One can’t help but make connections between the devastating effects of 9/11 and your series, “Domestic Threats.” Would they be right?

“No Cure for Insomnia,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 58″ x 38″

A:  Well, not exactly, since I began this work in 1991.  

All of the paintings in this series are set in places where I reside or used to live, either a Virginia house or two New York apartments, i.e., my personal domestic environments. Each painting typically contains a conflict of some sort, at least one figure that is being menaced or threatened by a group of figures.  For example, in “No Cure for Insomnia (above) the threatened figure is me.  So it was an easy decision to name the series “Domestic Threats.”  My idea was that these paintings were psychological dramas: surrealistic, metaphoric depictions of human fears, anxieties, inner conflicts, demons, etc.  

But depending on what is/was going on in the country at a particular moment, people make other associations. Since my husband was killed on 9/11, people think the title, “Domestic Threats,” was prescient and ascribed all kinds of domestic terrorism associations to the work. For a time viewers thought I was hinting at scenes of domestic violence, but that also is not what I intended.  The title “Domestic Threats” has proven to be fraught with associations that I never considered.

However, I am fine with any interpretations that are elicited because it means my paintings are getting a response.  That’s important.  I have been working, studying, and thinking about art for thirty years and hopefully, that’s reflected in the work I create.  It’s natural that it takes time for people to ponder all the complexities in a work of art.

Maybe this comment by the late Gerrit Henry, a New York critic, is more true now than when he wrote it sixteen years ago:  “What we bring to a Rachko, in other words, we get back, bountifully.”

Comments are welcome!