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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; When did you start pursuing art as a serious profession?

"Answering the Call," 58" x 38," soft pastel on sandpaper

“Answering the Call,” 58″ x 38,” soft pastel on sandpaper

A:  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 studied 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.  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 Navy.  Once I did decide, there was another 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) support,  I left the Navy that day.  So I think of myself as having  been a professional artist beginning on October 1, 1989.  I should mention that I remained in the Navy Reserve for the next 14 years, working mainly at the Pentagon two days every month and two weeks each year (commuting between New York and Washington, DC after I moved in 1997).  Finally on November 1, 2003, I officially retired as a Navy Commander.

Comments are welcome!

Q: Mexico has been a big influence on your work. What first drew you to Mexican folk art – masks, carved wooden animals, papier mâché figures, and toys?

A corner of Barbara's studio

A corner of Barbara’s studio

A: In 1991 my future sister-in-law sent, as a Christmas present, two brightly painted wooden figures from Oaxaca. One was a large, blue and white polka dot flying horse, the other a bear, painted with red, white, and black dots and lines.

At the time I was living in Alexandria, Virginia, studying at the Art league School there, and working as a full-time artist. I had resigned from the Navy after seven years on active duty, although I still worked one weekend a month at the Pentagon as a reservist. I was looking for something new to paint with soft pastel, having found portraits deeply unsatisfying.

I had never seen anything like these Oaxacan figures and was intrigued. I started asking friends about Oaxaca and soon learned that the city has a unique style of painting, the self-titled Oaxacan school, and that the painter, Rufino Tamayo, and husband and wife photographers, Manuel and Lola Alvarez Bravo, were from Oaxaca. (Manuel Alvarez Bravo founded an important photography museum there). 

I had been a fan of Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo and other artists associated with Mexico, and had a long-standing interest in pre-Columbian civilizations. I knew some Spanish, having studied it in high school. I began reading everything I could find about Oaxaca and Mexico and soon became fascinated with the Day of the Dead.

In 1992 my future husband, Bryan, and I made our first trip to Mexico, spending a week in Oaxaca to see Day of the Dead observances and to study the Mixtec and Zapotec ruins (Monte Alban, Yagul, Mitla, etc.), and another week in Mexico City to visit Diego Rivera’s murals at the Ministry of Education, Frida Kahlo’s Casa Azul, and nearby ancient archeological sites (the Templo Mayor, Teotihuacan, etc.).

I began collecting Mexican folk art on that first trip. I still have fond memories of buying my first mask, a big wooden dragon with a Conquistador’s face on its back. Bryan and I found it high on a wall in a dusty Oaxacan shop. The dragon was three and a half feet long and three feet wide. Because it was fragile, we hand-carried it onto the plane and were able to store it in the first class cabin (this was pre-9/11). I chuckle to remember that we covered its finely carved toes with rolled up socks to prevent them from breaking!

I have been back to Mexico many times, mainly visiting the central and southern states. I travel there to study pre-Columbian history, archaeology, mythology, culture, and the arts. It is an endlessly fascinating country that has long been an inspiration for artists.