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

"She Embraced It and Grew Stronger," 2003, 70” x 50” framed, the first pastel painting I completed after Bryan was killed

“She Embraced It and Grew Stronger,” 2003, 70” x 50” framed, the first pastel painting I completed after Bryan was killed

A:  On June 16, 2001, I married Dr. Bryan Jack, my longtime companion and soulmate, during a very private ceremony in the garden of an historic Alexandria, Virginia residence. In attendance were a justice of the peace, me, and Bryan.  He and I were 48 years old and this was the first marriage for us both.  Sadly, we never celebrated an anniversary.  Exactly 87 days later my new husband was the victim of a terrorist attack.

On September 11, 2001, Bryan, a high-ranking federal government employee, a brilliant economist, and a budget analyst at the Pentagon, was en route to Monterey, CA to give his monthly guest lecture for an economics class at the Naval Postgraduate College. He boarded the American Airlines plane out of Dulles Airport that was high-jacked and crashed into the Pentagon, killing 189 people.

To this day I consider how easily I, too, could have been killed on 9/11, if I had just decided to travel with Bryan to California. Plus, the plane crashed directly into my Navy office on the fifth floor E-ring of the Pentagon. (I am a retired Navy Commander and worked at the Pentagon for many years). But for a twist of fate, we both would have died:  Bryan on the plane, me either beside Bryan or inside the building.

In September 2001 Bryan and I had been together for fourteen and a half years. Surprisingly, we were happier than we had ever been.  At a time when other couples we knew were settling into a certain boredom and routine, our life together was growing richer and more interesting.  So losing Bryan – especially then – was heart-breaking, cruel, and devastating beyond comprehension.  It was so unfair.  I was numb and in shock.

The next six months passed by in a blur. But I had made a decision and pledged that I would not let the 9/11 attackers claim me as one more victim.  My life had been spared for a reason so I began to pick up the pieces and worked to make every day count.  Even many years later, wasting time still feels like a crime.

The following summer I was ready to – I HAD to – get back to work in my studio. I knew exactly what I must do.  More than ever before, learning and painting would become the avenues to my well-being.

Continued next week…

Comments are welcome!

Q: How long have you been working in your current studio?

Barbara in her studio; Photo:  Elliott Jones

Barbara in her studio; Photo: Elliott Jones

A:  I have been in my West 29th Street space for seventeen years, but from the beginning, 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 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 that is open to the public.  People come in, watch artists work, and occasionally buy a piece of art. 

In April 997 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 thrilled with the company I was in; the only fellow non-Latina represented by owner, Mia Kim, was Leonora Carrington), 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.  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.  

My studio continues to be 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 always feel more calm the moment I arrive.  It’s my absolute favorite place in New York!    

Comments are welcome!

Q: Your relationship with photography has changed considerably over the years. How did you make use of photography in your first series of pastel-on-sandpaper paintings, “Domestic Threats”?

"Truth Betrayed by Innocence," 2001, 58" x 38", the last pastel painting for which Bryan photographed my setup

“Truth Betrayed by Innocence,” 2001, 58″ x 38″,  the last pastel painting for which Bryan photographed the setup

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 beyond (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 in our 1932 Sears house in Alexandria, Virginia, and later, in a New York sixth floor walk-up apartment, using the Mexican masks, carved wooden animals, and other folk art figures that I found on our 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 (we met on February 21, 1986).  Having been introduced to photography by his father at the age of 6, Bryan was a terrific amateur photographer. He 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.  Over time, I turned myself into a skilled photographer.

Comments are welcome!

Q: What’s on the easel today?

"Stalemate" in progress, soft pastel on sandpaper

“Stalemate” in progress, soft pastel on sandpaper

A:  A large pastel painting with the working title, “Stalemate.”  For this one I went back and looked at some of my older 35 mm negatives.  I selected one from 2002 and made the photographic print you see above, clipped to the left side of my easel.  This piece is unusual because I’m painting the figures much larger than life size.  I like what’s happening, but it’s slow going.

The title, “Stalemate,” is one I thought of some twenty-odd years ago, when I worked on a very different pastel painting – a table top still life – by that name.  Somehow I couldn’t resolve some problems in the composition so I never finished it.  I haven’t seen it in years, but it’s probably sitting in my Alexandria basement someplace. 

Comments are welcome!