Blog Archives

Q: Would you speak about the creative process that resulted in your 1994 pastel painting, “Amok”?

Barbara with “Amok” photo and painting
Barbara with “Amok,” c-print and pastel painting

A: Behind me in the photo above is one of my circa 1994 50” x 40” c-prints, signed by both Bryan, my late husband, and me. The photo was my reference for a pastel painting titled, “Amok” (right, above).

I staged these photos in our Alexandria house (staged photography was popular then), refined the composition over days or weeks, and lit the scene using two tungsten studio lights. I was careful to accentuate the shadows, doing what I could to light everything as though it were a film noir set. (Film noir is still a favorite movie genre of mine).

In those days I knew nothing about photography so I considered these photos collaborations, since Bryan clicked the shutter. (He typically shot two pieces of film using his old Toyo Omega 4 x 5 view camera with a rented wide angle lens). Bryan was reluctant to take any credit- insisting that the idea, concept, etc. were mine – but I persuaded him to also sign the photos. (How I wish he were still around to fill in forgotten details about our collaboration).

People enjoyed and often asked to purchase the reference photos so I sometimes had them enlarged and sold them. The dragon in the foreground is significant because it was my first purchase in Oaxaca during our initial trip to Mexico.

If anyone is interested, please remind me to tell the (long) story about how I got it home on the plane!  

Comments are welcome!

Q: What’s on the easel today?

Work in progress
“Poker Face,” Soft Pastel on Sandpaper, 38″ x 58″

A: I continue working on “Enigma,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 20” x 26.” The title for this piece suggested itself as I was driving to my house in Alexandria, VA. I was listening to Lady Gaga’s current album, “Chromatica.” Her song “Enigma” came on and I thought, “That’s a great title for my painting because some areas of the ‘face’ are my own personal enigma!” They’re rather dark in my reference photo so I don’t yet understand what is happening there visually. But I will figure it out. I always do!

This is the second time I have titled a pastel painting based on a Lady Gaga song. It was “Poker Face,” from her debut album “The Fame.” My painting, “Poker Face,” was completed in 2012 and is number 24/45 in the “Black Paintings” series.

Comments are welcome!

Q: Do you have a home studio or do you go to an outside studio to work? Which do you prefer and why?

At work

At work

A: I have always preferred a separate studio. Pastel creates a lot of dust, it’s toxic to breathe, plus I do not want to live with the mess! I need a place to go in the mornings, someplace where I can focus and work without any distractions. It’s difficult to do that at home.

From the beginning of my time as an artist, 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 my late husband, 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, VA that is open to the public. People would come in, watch artists at work, and sometimes buy a piece of art.

In April 1997 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 in the company of Leonora Carrington, Rufino Tamayo, Diego Rivera, etc.), 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 and knew instantly it was the one! 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. I feel extremely fortunate to have been in my West 29th Street, New York City space now for twenty-three years. In a city where old buildings are perpetually knocked down to make way for new ones this is rare.

My studio is 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 I feel calmer the moment I arrive. It’s my absolute favorite place in New York! Sometimes I think of it as my best creation. For more about this please see

https://artofcollage.wordpress.com/2020/04/30/artists-and-their-relationship-to-their-studio

Comments are welcome!

Q: How long did it take you to discover the properties of pastel? (Liliana Mileo via facebook.com/BarbaraRachko/)

A charcoal self-portrait from 1988

A charcoal self-portrait from 1988

A:  After I moved to Alexandria, Virginia in the mid-1980s, I began taking classes at The Art League School.  I was extremely unhappy with my career as a Navy Lieutenant.  I worked as a computer analyst for the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon and was searching for something more meaningful to do with my life.

I began with a basic drawing class and liked it.  I enrolled in more classes and decided to spend two years working exclusively in black and white media, such as charcoal and graphite, before advancing to color.  Fortunately, early on I found an excellent teacher in Lisa Semerad.  I remain deeply grateful for the strong foundational drawing skills she imparted to me during this period.

After two years I tried water color and soon discovered it was not for me, a perfectionist who needs to refine my work.  Then I tried etching and found it extremely tedious, the antithesis of instant gratification.

Finally I began studying soft pastel with Diane Tesler, another gifted teacher, and fell in love with this medium!  At The Art League School I also completed a one-week workshop with Albert Handell, who introduced me to the archival sandpaper that I have been using ever since.

While I fell in love with pastel three decades ago, I continue to learn about its unique properties.  I am pushing pastel to new heights as my techniques continually evolve.  This is a lifetime journey of learning.  I hope to never know all there is to know.

Comments are welcome!  Ask anything and I may answer in a future blog post, as you’ve seen here with Liliana’s question.

 

Q: Was there a pivotal time in your life when you were forced to choose between two different paths? Do you have any regrets?

Barbara’s studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  In 1988 I was a Navy Lieutenant working at the Pentagon as a computer analyst. I hated my boring job! For about two years I had been taking drawing classes at the Art League School in Alexandria, VA and was rapidly improving. More importantly, I discovered that making art was endlessly fascinating and challenging.

After much soul searching, I made the scary decision to resign from active duty.  Sept. 30, 1989 was my last day. I have been a professional visual artist ever since and surprisingly (to me!), have never needed a day job.

However, for fourteen years I remained in the Naval Reserve, working in Virginia one weekend a month and for two weeks each year. After I moved to New York in 1997, I used to take Amtrak to Washington, DC. I would go from my full time New York artist’s life to my part time military life. It was extremely interesting to be around such different types of people, to say the least! On November 1, 2003 I retired as a Navy Commander.

I have never, ever regretted the path I chose. I love being an artist and would not want to spend my life doing anything else.

Comments are welcome!

Q: Do you remember the first pastel painting that you ever made?

First framed pastel painting, 1988

First framed pastel painting, 1988

A:  Yes, it was a small head-and-neck portrait of a live model in a figure drawing class at The Art League School in Alexandria, VA.   I don’t know what became of it.

I also remember the first pastel painting that I ever framed because it is still hanging in my Alexandria house. It is dated 1988 (see photo) and was made in a one-week workshop with Diane Tesler at The Art League.  The workshop was specifically to teach artists how to paint from photographs and it was my first time studying with Diane.  I made the mistake of bringing, as reference material, a magazine photograph that was originally a perfume ad in the The Sunday Times Magazine. Diane tactfully explained that it was wrong to use someone else’s photograph instead of my own, but let me do it this one time. 

So many years later walking by my painting I still think of Diane.  She taught me a valuable lesson:  do not use anyone else’s photographs, ever!  

Comments are welcome!   

 

Q: How many studios have you had since you’ve been a professional artist?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A: I am on my third, and probably last, studio.  I say ‘probably’ because I love my space and have no desire to move.  Plus, it would be a tremendous amount of work to relocate, considering that I have been in my West 29th Street studio since 1997. 

My very first studio, in the late 1980s, was the spare bedroom of my house in Alexandria, Virginia.  I set up a studio there while I was on active duty in the Navy.  When I resigned my commission, I was required to give the President an entire year’s advance notice.  Towards the end of that year I remember calling in sick so I could stay home and make art.       

In the early 1990s I rented a studio on the third floor of the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria.  For a while I enjoyed working there, but the constant interruptions – in an art center that is open to the public – became tiresome.  

In 1997 I had the opportunity to move to New York.  I desperately craved solitary hours to work in peace, without interruption, so at first I didn’t have a telephone.  I still don’t have WiFi there because my studio is reserved strictly for creative work.

Moving from Virginia to New York in 1997 was relatively easy.  My aunt, who planned to be in California to continue her Buddhist studies, offered me her rent-controlled sixth-floor walkup on West 13th Street.  I looked at just one other studio before signing a sublease for my space at 208 West 29th Street.  I had heard about the vacancy through a college friend of my husband, Bryan.  Karen, the lease-holder, was relocating to northern California to work on “Star Wars” with George Lucas.  After several years, she decided not to return to New York and I have been the lease-holder ever since.  

Comments are welcome!

 

Q: What was the first painting you ever sold?

“Bryan’s Ph.D.”, 11″ x 13 1/2″, soft pastel on sandpaper

A:  I believe my first sale was “Bryan’s Ph.D.”  I made it in 1990 as one of several small paintings created to improve my skills at rendering human hands in pastel.  I had recently left the Navy and was building a career as a portrait artist.  Bryan, my late husband, was often my model for these studies, not only because it was convenient, but because he had such beautiful hands. 

In 1990 Bryan was working on his Ph.D. in economics at the University of Maryland.  In this painting he is drawing a diagram that illustrates a theoretical point about “international public goods,” the subject of his research.  He was sitting in an old wooden rocking chair in our backyard in Alexandria, VA.  I still own the chair and the house.  I photographed his hands close-up and then created the painting.  I don’t remember which of Bryan’s cameras I used, but it was one that took 35 mm film; perhaps his Nikon F-2.  Somewhere I must still have the negative and the original reference photo.

“Bryan’s Ph.D.” is 11″ x 13 1/2″ and it sold for $500 at a monthly juried exhibition at The Art League in Alexandria.  I have not seen it since 1990.  (Above is a photograph of “Bryan’s Ph.D.” from my portfolio book).

Not long ago the owner contacted me, explaining that she had received the painting as a gift from her now ex-husband.  She was selling it because it evoked bitter memories of her divorce.  Her phone call was prompted by uncertainty about the painting’s value now.  She had a likely buyer and needed to know what price to charge.

I was saddened because I have so many beautiful memories of this particular painting and of an idyllic time in my life with Bryan.  He was on a leave of absence from the Pentagon to work on his dissertation, while I was finished with active duty.  At last I was a full time artist, busily working in the spare bedroom that we had turned into my first studio.  

My conversation with the owner was a reminder that once paintings are let out into the world, they take on associations that have nothing to do with the personal circumstances surrounding their creation.  In short, what an artist creates solely out of love, stands a good chance of not being loved or appreciated by others.  This is one reason to only sell my work to people I select personally.  I ended the telephone conversation hoping that “Bryan’s Ph.D.” fares better in its new home.  

Comments are welcome!     

Q: When was the last time you flew? Do you ever miss it?

Over the Gulf of Mexico

Over the Gulf of Mexico

A:  I last piloted a plane out of Andrews Air Force Base in suburban Maryland, some years after I moved to Alexandria, Virginia.  It was in the mid-1990s.

Now and then I miss flying, but my interests have changed considerably and I am much more passionate about art than aviation.  I still love physically being in the air – on an airliner, in a helicopter, etc. – and sometimes I dream about taking a few lessons to become reacquainted with flying small planes again, but I haven’t taken any action.

Comments are welcome!  

Pearls from artists* # 84

My Alexandria living room

My Alexandria living room

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

I have a stockpile of sculptures, paintings, and drawings – every work of art I have made that has not sold – in a storage space for which I pay every month as regularly as I pay my utility bills.  This is a sensible arrangement, as I can leave this work to my children.  Most of the time I never give it a thought, but this morning it flashed across my mind that if it were blown away I would be bereaved in a way that would hurt me very much.  I have not been inordinately materialistic, but I am attached to my house, to my inherited belongings, and to the things that I have chosen for myself.  All these objects add complexity to my emotional ties to people with whom I have shared, and share, my life, and to my aspirations for myself.

Anne Truitt in Turn:  The Journal of an Artist 

Comments are welcome!

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