Category Archives: Guatemala

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! 

Q: Would you share your elevator pitch?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  Here it is:

I live in New York and have been a working artist for thirty 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.

My background is extremely unusual for an artist.  I am a pilot, a retired Navy Commander, and a 9/11 widow.

Please see the extensive interview (14 pages so page through) at

http://barbararachko.com/images/PDFS/ARTiculAction-July2014.pdf

and see images and more at http://barbararachko.com/en/

Comments are welcome!  

Q: What’s on the easel today?

Work in progress

Work in progress

A:  I continue working on a large pastel painting that combines some of my finds from Oaxaca and Mexico City, Kandy (Sri Lanka), and Panajachel (Guatemala).

Comments are welcome!

Q: Do you have any favorites among the Mexican and Guatemalan folk art figures that you depict in your work?

Idea for an upcoming pastel painting

Idea for an upcoming pastel painting

A:  I suppose it seems that way, since I certainly paint some figures more than others.  My favorite characters change, depending on what is happening in my work.  My current favorites are a figure I have never painted before (the Balinese dragon above) and several Mexican and Guatemalan figures last painted years ago.  All will make an appearance in a pastel painting for which I am still developing preliminary ideas (above).

Comments are welcome!    

Q: Would you say there is a unifying quality to all of the work you have produced in the last thirty years?

Barbara's portfolio book

Barbara’s portfolio book

A:  Yes, I can think of several.  Whether making pastel paintings or printing photographs in the darkroom, I have always been concerned with quality and craftsmanship and never pronounce a work finished until it is the best thing I can make. 

Although I started out as a maker of photorealist portraits in pastel, for twenty-odd years I have worked with Mexican folk art as my primary subject matter, treating these objects very differently in three separate series:  “Black Paintings,” “Domestic Threats,” and “Gods and Monsters.”  The first two are pastel-on-sandpaper paintings while the last is comprised of chromogenic photographs (c-prints).  A few years ago I also started making “Teleidoscopes” using an iPad app to photograph my Mexican and Guatemalan folk art collection.  This last one is just for fun; I do not offer them for sale.

Soft pastel is my first love and the two series of pastel paintings are my best-known work.  My technique for using pastel continues to evolve in intriguing ways.  I doubt I can ever learn all there is to know not only about color, but also about this medium.  Pastel is endlessly fascinating, which is why I have never wanted to switch to anything else. 

Comments are welcome!      

Q: What’s on the easel today?

Work in progress

Work in progress

A:  I am in the very early stages of a large pastel painting.  I have never painted any of these figures before and they originated in different parts of the world.  The bird (left) is from the Brooklyn Museum’s store, although it was hand carved in Guatemala.  The standing figure is carved wood with beautiful painted details.  It was a lucky find on a trip to Panajachel, Guatemala.  The armadillo (red and grey) was made by one of my favorite Mexican folk artists (now deceased) and I believe it’s one of the last pieces he completed.  It is a papier mâché figure that I found in a small shop in Mexico City.  The figure on the upper right is a wooden mask bought from a talkative and talented artist at a hotel in Kandy, Sri Lanka.  It depicts nagas (cobras), although you can’t tell that yet in the painting.

Comments are welcome!

Q: Would you talk about your use of Mexican and Guatemalan folk art as a convenient way to study formal properties such as color, shape, pattern, composition, etc. in your pastel paintings?

Models, reference photograph, and pastel painting in progress

Models, reference photograph, and pastel painting in progress

A:  For me an interesting visual property of these objects is that they readily present themselves as a vehicle for exploring formal artistic properties, like color, pattern, shape, etc. especially compared to my earlier subject matter:  hyper-realistic portraits and still-lifes.  Intent as I was on creating verisimilitude in the earlier work, there was little room for experimentation.  

Many Mexican and Guatemalan folk art objects are wildly painted and being a lover of color, their brilliant colors and patterns are  what initially attracted me.  As a painter I am free to use their actual appearance as my starting point.  I photograph them out-of-focus and through colored gels in order to change their appearance and make them strange, enacting my own particular version of “rendering the familiar strange.”  Admittedly these objects are not so familiar to begin with. 

When I make a pastel painting I look at my reference photograph and I also look at the objects, positioning them within eye-shot of my easel.  There is no need whatsoever to be faithful to their actual appearance so my imagination takes over.  As I experiment with thousands of soft pastels, with shape, with pattern, with composition, and all the rest, I have one goal in mind – to create the best pastel-on-sandpaper painting I am capable of making. 

Comments are welcome!         

Q: Can you talk a little bit about your process? What happens before you even begin a pastel painting?

Barbara in Bali (far right)

Barbara in Bali (far right)

A:  My process is extremely slow and labor-intensive. 

First, there is foreign travel – often to Mexico, Guatemala or someplace in Asia – to find the cultural objects – masks, carved wooden animals, paper mâché figures, and toys – that are my subject matter.  I search the local markets, bazaars, and mask shops for these folk art objects. I look for things that are old, that look like they have a history, and were probably used in religious festivals of some kind. Typically, they are colorful, one-of-a- kind objects that have lots of inherent personality. How they enter my life and how I get them back to my New York studio is an important part of my art-making practice. 

My working methods have changed dramatically over the nearly thirty years that I have been an artist. My current process is a much simplified version of how I used to work.  As I pared down my imagery in the current series, “Black Paintings,” my creative process quite naturally pared down, too. 

One constant is that I have always worked in series with each pastel painting leading quite naturally to the next.  Another is that I always set up a scene, plan exactly how to light and photograph it, and work with a 20″ x 24″ photograph as the primary reference material. 

In the setups I look for eye-catching compositions and interesting colors, patterns, and shadows.  Sometimes I make up a story about the interaction that is occurring between the “actors,” as I call them.

In the “Domestic Threats” series I photographed the scene with a 4″ x 5″ Toyo Omega view camera.  In my “Gods and Monsters” series I shot rolls of 220 film using a Mamiya 6. I still like to use an old analog camera for fine art work, although I have been rethinking this practice.   

Nowadays the first step is to decide which photo I want to make into a painting (currently I have a backlog of photographs to choose from) and to order a 19 1/2″ x 19 1/2″ image (my Mamiya 6 shoots square images) printed on 20″ x 24″ paper.  They recently closed, but I used to have the prints made at Manhattan Photo on West 20th Street in New York.  Now I go to Duggal.  Typically I have in mind the next two or three paintings that I want to create.

Once I have the reference photograph in hand, I make a preliminary tonal charcoal sketch on a piece of white drawing paper.  The sketch helps me think about how to proceed and points out potential problem areas ahead. 

Only then am I ready to start actually making the painting. 

Comments are welcome!    

Q: How long does it take you to complete a pastel-on-sandpaper painting?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  Mine is a slow and labor-intensive process.  First, there is foreign travel to find the cultural objects – masks, carved wooden animals, paper mâché figures, and toys – that are my subject matter.  If they are heavy I ship them home.  

Next comes planning exactly how to photograph them, lighting and setting everything up, and shooting a roll of 220 film with my Mamiya 6 camera.  I still like to use an analog camera for my fine art work, although I am rethinking this.  I have the film developed, decide which image to use, and order a 20” x 24” reference photograph from Manhattan Photo on West 20th Street.  

Then I am ready to start.  I work on each pastel-on-sandpaper painting for approximately three months.  I am in my studio 7 to 8 hours a day, five days a week.  During that time I make thousands of creative decisions as I apply and layer soft pastels (I have 8 tables-worth to choose from!), blend them with my fingers, and mix new colors directly on the sandpaper.  A finished piece consists of up to 30 layers of soft pastel.  My self-invented technique accounts for the vivid, intense color that often leads viewers of my originals to look very closely and ask, “What medium is this?”  I believe I am pushing soft pastel to its limits, using it in ways that no other artist has done.

Comments are welcome!