Category Archives: Bolivia

Q: (Part II) Would you share your story of how creating art enabled you to heal after losing your husband on 9/11?

"The Champ," soft pastel on sandpaper, 35” x 28.5” framed. The first of my “Bolivianos”.

“The Champ,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 35” x 28.5” framed. The first of my “Bolivianos”.

A:  Continued from last Saturday’s post…

Because I use reference photos for my pastel paintings, the first challenge was to learn how to use Bryan’s 4 x 5 view camera. At that time I was not a photographer. Always Bryan had taken reference photos for me.

In July 2002 I enrolled in a view camera workshop at New York’s International Center of Photography. Much to my surprise I had already absorbed quite a lot from watching Bryan. After the initial workshop, I continued more formal studies of photography for a few years. In 2009, I am proud to say, I was invited to present a solo photography exhibition at a New York gallery!

In 2003 I resumed making my “Domestic Threats” series of pastel paintings, something that had seemed impossible after Bryan’s death. The first large pastel painting that I created using a reference photograph taken by me confirmed that my life’s work could continue. The title of that painting, “She Embraced It and Grew Stronger,” was autobiographical. “She” is me, and “it” meant continuing on without Bryan and living life for both of us.

Having had a long successful run, the “Domestic Threats” series finally ended in early 2007. Around that time I was feeling happier and had come to better terms with losing Bryan. While this is a tragedy I will never truly be at peace with, dealing with the loss became easier with time.

Then in 2007 I suddenly became blocked and did not know where to take my work next. I had never experienced creative block and for a full-time professional artist, this was a painful few months. Still, I continued to go to the studio every day and eventually, thanks to a confluence of favorable circumstances, the block ended.

My next pastel painting series was called, “Black Paintings.” I viewed the black background as literally, the very dark place that I was emerging from, exactly like the figures emerging in these paintings. The figures themselves were wildly colorful and full of life, but that black background is always there.

Still the work continues to evolve. Recently I began my third pastel painting series called, “Bolivianos,” based on a mask exhibition encountered in La Paz at the Museum of Ethnography and Folklore. Many people have proclaimed this to be my most bold, daring, and exciting pastel painting series yet. And I think they may be right! Continuing on the journey I began 30+ years ago, I am looking forward to creating many new, striking pastel paintings!

Comments are welcome!

Q: Please speak about how the three pastel paintings series that you have created interrelate.

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

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

A:  The Black Paintings series of pastel-on-sandpaper paintings grew directly from an earlier series, Domestic Threats.  While both use cultural objects as surrogates for human beings acting in mysterious, highly-charged narratives, in the Black Paintings I replaced all background details of my actual setup (furniture, rugs, etc.) with lush black pastel.  In this work the ‘actors’ are front and center.

While traveling in Bolivia last spring, I visited a mask exhibition at the National Museum of Ethnography and Folklore in La Paz.  The masks were presented against black walls, were spot-lit, and looked eerily like 3D versions of my Black Paintings.  I immediately knew I had stumbled upon a gift.  So  far I have completed three pastel paintings in the Bolivianos series.  Two more are in progress now.

All of my pastel paintings are an example of a style called “contemporary conceptual realism” in which things are not quite as innocent as they seem.  Each painting is a Trojan horse.  There is plenty of backstory to my images, although I usually prefer not to over-explain them.  Much is to be said for mystery in art.  

The world I depict is that of the imagination and this realm owes little debt to the natural world.  Recently, at an art talk I was reminded how fascinating it is to learn how others respond to my work.  As New York art critic Gerrit Henry once remarked, “What we bring to a Rachko… we get back, bountifully.” 

Comments are welcome!

 

Q: Would you share your artist’s statement for the “Bolivianos” series?

Museum of Ethnography and Folklore, La Paz, Bolivia

Museum of Ethnography and Folklore, La Paz, Bolivia

A:  Here it is.

My long-standing fascination with traditional masks took a leap forward in the spring of 2017 when I visited the National Museum of Ethnography and Folklore in La Paz, Bolivia. One particular exhibition on view, with more than fifty festival masks, was completely spell-binding.

The masks were old and had been crafted in Oruro, a former tin-mining center about 140 miles south of La Paz on the cold Altiplano (elevation 12,000’). Depicting important figures from Bolivian folklore traditions, the masks were created for use in Carnival celebrations that happen each year in late February or early March. 

Carnival in Oruro revolves around three great dances. The dance of “The Incas” records the conquest and death of Atahualpa, the Inca emperor when the Spanish arrived in 1532.  “The Morenada” dance was once assumed to represent black slaves who worked in the mines, but the truth is more complicated (and uncertain) since only mitayo Indians were permitted to do this work.  The dance of “The Diablada” depicts Saint Michael fighting against Lucifer and the seven deadly sins.  The latter were originally disguised in seven different masks derived from medieval Christian symbols and mostly devoid of pre-Columbian elements (except for totemic animals that became attached to Christianity after the Conquest).  Typically, in these dances the cock represents Pride, the dog Envy, the pig Greed, the female devil Lust, etc.

The exhibition in La Paz was stunning and dramatic. Each mask was meticulously installed against a dark black wall and strategically spotlighted so that it became alive.  The whole effect was uncanny.  The masks looked like 3D versions of my “Black Paintings,” a pastel paintings series I have been creating for ten years.  This experience was a gift… I could hardly believe my good fortune!

Knowing I was looking at the birth of a new painting series – I said as much to my companions as I remained behind while they explored other parts of the museum – I spent considerable time composing photographs.  Consequently, I have enough reference material to create new pastel paintings in the studio for several years. The series, entitled “Bolivianos,” is arguably my strongest and most striking work to date.  

Comments are welcome!

 

Pearls from artists* #278

National Museum of Ethnography and Folklore, La Paz, Bolivia

National Museum of Ethnography and Folklore, La Paz, Bolivia

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

Inspiration is an unforeseen quantity, the muse that assails at the hidden hour.  The arrows fly and one is unaware of being struck, and that a host of unrelated catalysts have joined clandestinely to form a system of its own, rendering one with the vibrations of an incurable disease – a burning imagination – at once unholy and divine. 

Patti Smith in Devotion

Comments are welcome!

Q: Would you describe how you are taking soft pastel in new directions as a fine art medium?

Barbara at work, Photo: Marianne Barcellona

Barbara at work, Photo: Marianne Barcellona

A:  I have been devoted to soft pastel for more than thirty years.  In this blog and in countless interviews online and elsewhere, I continue to expound on its merits.  For me no other fine art medium comes close.

I have developed my own original methods for working with soft pastel, pushing this venerable 500-year-old medium to its limits and using it in ways that no one has done before.  I have created a unique science of color in which I layer and blend pigments.  When viewers (including fellow artists) see my work in person for the first time, they often ask, “What medium is this?”  

My self-invented techniques for using soft pastel achieve rich velvety textures and exceptionally vibrant color.  Blending with my fingers, I painstakingly apply dozens of layers of pastel onto acid-free sandpaper.  In addition to the thousands of pastels that I have to choose from, I blend new colors directly on the paper.  Each pastel painting takes about three months and hundreds of hours to complete. 

My subject matter is singular.  I am drawn to Mexican, Guatemalan, and Bolivian cultural objects—masks, carved wooden animals, papier mâché figures, and toys.  On trips to these places and elsewhere I frequent local mask shops, markets, and bazaars searching for the figures that will populate my pastel paintings.  How, why, when, and where these objects come into my life is an important part of the creative process.  Each pastel painting is a highly personal blend of reality, fantasy, and autobiography.

Comments are welcome!  

Pearls from artists* # 277

Lake Titicaca above Cocabana, Bolivia

Lake Titicaca above Cocacabana, Bolivia

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

 Einstein wrote, “The most beautiful experience  we can have is the mysterious.  It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science.”  What did Einstein mean by “the mysterious?”  I don’t think he meant that science is full of unpredictable or unknowable supernatural forces.  I believe that he meant a sense of awe, a sense that there are things larger than us, that we do not have all the answers at this moment.  A sense that we can stand right at the edge between known and unknown and gaze into that cavern and be exhilarated rather than frightened.  Just as Einstein suggested, I have experienced that beautiful mystery both as a physicist and as a novelist.  As a physicist, in the infinite mystery of physical nature.  As a novelist, in the  infinite mystery of human nature and the power of words to portray some of that mystery.     

Alan Lightman in A Sense of the Mysterious:  Science and the Human Spirit

Comments are welcome!

Q: What’s on the easel today?

Work in progress

Work in progress

A:  This is the first day – with only one layer of soft pastel in most places – of a 38″ x 58″ pastel painting.  It’s based on a photo I composed at the National Museum of Ethnography and Folklore in La Paz, Bolivia.  This is the fourth work in my “Bolivianos” series.

Comments are welcome!

Q: Would you elaborate as to how your recent trip to Bolivia is influencing your work just now?

La Paz, Bolivia

La Paz, Bolivia

A:   I consider myself extremely fortunate to have seen a mask exhibition at the National Museum of Ethnography and Folklore when I visited La Paz in May.  Presented as they were against black walls with dramatic spot-lighting, the masks looked exactly like 3D versions of my paintings!  These old Bolivian masks were stunning.

I spent a long time there composing photographs on my iPad.  Immediately I knew this exhibition was a gift because I now had material to keep me busy in the studio for several years.

I have completed the first pastel painting in my new series, “Bolivianos,” and am far along into the second.  I’m looking forward to many more to come!

Comments are welcome!

Q: What non-art book are you reading now?

Tiwanaku

Tiwanaku

A:  I am reading Kim Mac Quarrie’s, “The Last Days of the Incas.”  It’s fascinating to discover the intricacies of the epic conquest of the short-lived Inca empire.  The book is actually thrilling to read.  Mac Quarrie makes this story come alive.

Last summer I traveled to Peru to investigate the history of the Incas and the civilizations that preceded them.  In May of this year I continued my studies with a trip to Bolivia.  Both trips are proving to be highly inspirational for my art practice. 

Comments are welcome!       

Pearls from artists* # 259

In Bolivia on Lake Titicaca

In Bolivia on Lake Titicaca

* 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 college, I made two important decisions about my career.

First, I would put my writing on the back burner until I became well established in science.  I know of a few scientists who later became writers, like C.P. Snow, Rachel Carson, but no writers who later became scientists.  For some  reason, science – at least the creative, research side of science – is a young person’s game.  In my own field, physics, I found that the average age at which Nobel Prize winners did their prize-winning work was only thirty-six.  Perhaps it has something to do with the focus on and isolation of the subject.  A handiness for visualizing in six dimensions or for abstracting the motion of a pendulum favors an agility of mind but apparently requires little knowledge of the human world.  By contrast, the arts and humanities require experience with life and the awkward contradictions of people, experience that accumulates and deepens with age.       

Alan Lightman in A Sense of the Mysterious:  Science and the Human Spirit

Comments are welcome!