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Q: Why do you make art?

“Why Do I Make Art” by Ursula von Rydingsvard

“Why Do I Make Art” by Ursula von Rydingsvard

A:  Last spring I viewed Ursula von Rydingsvard’s exhibition at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.  One thing that stayed with me is her wall text, “Why Do I Make Art by Ursula von Rydingsvard” in which she listed a few dozen benefits that art-making has brought to her life.  

I want to share some of my own personal reasons here, in no particular order.  My list keeps changing, but these are true at least for today. 

1.   Because I love the entire years-long creative process – from foreign travel whereby I discover new source material, to deciding what I will make, to the months spent in the studio realizing my ideas, to packing up my newest pastel painting and bringing it to my Virginia framer’s shop, to seeing the framed piece hanging on a collector’s wall, to staying in touch with collectors over the years and learning how their relationship to the work changes.

2.   Because I love walking into my studio in the morning and seeing all of that color!  No matter what mood I am in, my spirit is immediately uplifted.  

3.   Because my studio is my favorite place to be… in the entire world.  I’d say that it is my most precious creation.  It’s taken more than twenty-two years to get it this way.  I hope I never have to move!

4.   Because I get to listen to my favorite music all day or to Public Radio stations.

5.   Because when I am working in the studio, if I want, I can tune out the world and all of it’s urgent problems.  The same goes for whatever personal problems I am experiencing.

6.   Because I am devoted to my medium.  How I use pastel continually evolves.  It’s exciting to keep learning about its properties and to see what new techniques will develop.

7.   Because I have been given certain gifts and abilities and that entails a sacred obligation to USE them.  I could not live with myself were I to do otherwise.

8.   Because art-making gives meaning and purpose to my life.  I never wake up in the morning wondering, how should I spend the day?  I have important work to do and a place to do it.  I know this is how I am supposed to be spending my time on earth.

9.   Because I have an enviable commute.  To get to my studio it’s a thirty-minute walk, often on the High Line early in the morning before throngs of tourists have arrived.

10.  Because life as an artist is never easy.  It’s a continual challenge to keep forging ahead, but the effort is also never boring.  

11.  Because each day in the studio is different from all the rest. 

12.  Because I love the physicality of it.  I stand all day.  I’m always moving and staying fit.

13.  Because I have always been a thinker more than a talker.  I enjoy and crave solitude.  I am often reminded of the expression, “She who travels the farthest, travels alone.”  In my work I travel anywhere.

14.  Because spending so much solitary time helps me understand what I think and feel and to reflect on the twists and turns of my unexpected and fascinating life.

15.  Because I learn about the world.  I read and do research that gets incorporated into the work.

16.  Because I get to make all the rules.  I set the challenges and the goals, then decide what is succeeding and what isn’t.  It is working life at its most free.

17.  Because I enjoy figuring things out for myself instead of being told what to do or how to think.

18.  Because despite enormous obstacles, I am still able to do it.  Art-making has been the focus of my life for thirty-three years – I was a late bloomer – and I intend to continue as long as possible.

19.  Because I have been through tremendous tragedy and deserve to spend the rest of my life doing exactly what I love.  The art world has not caught up yet, but so be it.  This is my passion and my life’s work and nothing will change that.

20.  Because thanks to the internet and via social media, my work can be seen in places I have never been to and probably will never go.

21.  Because I would like to be remembered.  The idea of leaving art behind for future generations to appreciate and enjoy is appealing.

Comments are welcome!

My blog turns 7 years old on July 15! Here is the very first post from July 15, 2012. Q: What does it take to be an artist, especially one living and working in New York?

Barbara's Studio

Barbara’s Studio with works in progress.

A:  The three Big P’s – Patience, Persistence, and Passion.  Without all three you will not have the stamina to work tirelessly for very little external reward.  You can expect help from no one. 

There are so many obstacles to art-making and countless reasons to just give up.  When you really think about it, it’s amazing that great art gets made at all.  So why do we do it?  Above all it’s about making our time on earth matter, about devotion to our innate gifts and love of our hard-fought creative process. 

And, my God, it even gets harder as we get older!  So what do we do?  We dig in that much deeper.  It’s a most noble and sacred calling – you know when you have it – and that’s what separates those of us who are in it for the long haul from the wimps, fakers, and hangers-on.  I say to my fellow artists who continue to work despite the endless challenges, we are all true heroes! 

__________

Lucky me to still be in the same studio!  However, when you visit now, you see more tables full of pastels, more postcards on the walls, newer pastel paintings, etc.  What I wrote seven years ago still rings true.  

Most importantly, THANK YOU to my 42,000+ subscribers for taking this journey with me!

Comments are welcome!     

Pearls from artists* # 346

Barbara’s studio

Barbara’s studio

*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 my view… the most useful definition of creativity is the following one:  people are artistically creative when they love what they are doing, know what they are doing, and actively engage in the tasks we call art-making.  The three elements of creativity are thus loving, knowing, and doing; or heart, mind, and hands; or, as Buddhist teaching has it, great faith, great question, and great courage.    

Eric Maisel in A Life in the Arts:  Practical Guidance and Inspiration for Creative and Performing Artists

Comments are welcome!

Q: Do you have a personal definition of art career success?

Barbara at work, Photo: Marianne Barcellona

Barbara at work, Photo: Marianne Barcellona

A:  One definition of art career success that I have enjoyed for many years is the ability to devote all of my time and energy to art-making.  I am an anomaly among the many New York artists of my acquaintance because I do not have a day job.  Also, I am free of family and other responsibilities so I can devote significant time to exploring what it means to be a visual artist in New York in 2016.

Comments are welcome!  

Q: Besides your art materials is there something you couldn’t live without in your studio?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  I would not want to work without music.  Turning on the radio or the cd player is part of my daily ritual before heading over to the easel.  (Next I apply barrier cream to my hands to prevent pastel being absorbed into my skin, put on a surgical mask, etc.).  I generally listen to WFUV, WBGO, or to my cd collection while I’m working.  

Listening and thinking about song lyrics is integral to my art-making process.  How this works exactly may be a topic to explore in a future blog post.

Comments are welcome!     

Q: What are some of your work habits? Do you sit most of the day?

Barbara at work, Photo: Marianne Barcellona

Barbara at work, Photo: Marianne Barcellona

A:  No, I never sit while working.  I enjoy the physicality of art-making and prefer to stand at my easel so I can back up to see how a painting looks from a distance.  I like being on my feet all day and getting some exercise.

In order to accomplish anything, artists need to be disciplined.  I work five days a week, taking Wednesdays and Sundays off, and spend seven hours or more in the studio.  Daylight is necessary so I work more hours in summer, fewer in winter.  I deliberately don’t have a clock on the wall – art-making is independent of timetables – but I tend to work in roughly two-hour blocks before taking a break. 

Studio hours are sacrosanct and exclusively for creative work.  I keep my computer and mobile devices out of the studio.  Art business activities – answering email, keeping up with social media, sending jpegs, writing blog posts, doing interviews, etc. – are mostly accomplished at home in the evenings and on days off.

Comments are welcome!         

Q: Your pastel paintings are immediately recognizable as yours alone. Did you consciously try to develop a signature style in your work?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A: I don’t believe that is even possible.  An artist’s style is something that evolves with plain hard work and experience, over many years of trial and error, as one finds what techniques work best and discards those that don’t.  It is a process of continually experimenting, refining, and clarifying.  In other words, style is something that emerges naturally as you gradually strive to improve your art-making. 

Style develops in close connection to what an artist is saying as she undergoes a very personal and idiosyncratic journey.  Again, it would seem improbable for an artist to strive for any particular style, since style is not something over which an artist can exert much conscious control. 

I would even say that each artist’s unique style is inevitable.  It would be nearly impossible now to make a pastel painting or photograph that does NOT look like a Rachko. 

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!    

Pearls from artists* # 106

Road delay, Arizona

Road delay, Arizona

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

Yet even I, who track the hours closely, understand that one pleasure of art-making is its resolute inefficiency.  It resists the sweep of the second hand; it is opposite to my daily muster of punch lists, telephone calls, day job requirements, family life, and errands.  The necessary thought may come today or next week.  Yet it’s not the same as leisure.  The struggle toward the next thought is rigorous, held within an isometric tension.  The poet Richard Wilbur writes about laundry drying on the line, “moving and staying like white water.”  Moving and staying.  Such water, familiar to anyone who has watched a brook rush over rocks, captures the way a creative practice insists you bear time.  You must hold still and wait, and yet you must push forward.   

Janna Malamud Smith in An Absorbing Errand:  How Artists and Craftsmen Make Their Way to Mastery 

Comments are welcome!

Q: How do you define success as an artist?

Self-portrait at an architect's estate in Sri Lanka

Self-portrait at an architect’s estate in Sri Lanka

A:  This is another question that has many answers depending more or less on how things are progressing in the studio.  I’d say that you are a successful artist if you are able to keep working and evolving, and are mostly living by your own rules, using your time as you see fit to become a better artist.  This means navigating through all the ups and downs, the obstacles – and we know there are many – to art-making and finding joy and on-going discovery in your own particular creative process.  The work is everything, as we always say, but hopefully, you have found an appreciative audience and do sell a piece of art now and then.  

I know that I am more fortunate than many.  Over time I’ve realized that money, i.e., sales, is one of the less important aspects of being an artist.  The richness that being a professional artist brings to my life goes far beyond anything that can be acquired with cash!  

Comments are welcome!    

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