Blog Archives

Q: Where did you grow up and what were some early milestones or experiences that contributed to you becoming an artist later in life?

“The Sleeping Gypsy,” Henri Rousseau, oil on canvas, 1897

“The Sleeping Gypsy,” Henri Rousseau, oil on canvas, 1897

A:  I grew up in a blue collar family in Clifton, New Jersey, a suburb about fifteen miles west of Manhattan. My father was a television repairman for RCA. My mother stayed home to raise my sister and me (at the time I had only one sister, Denise; my sister Michele was born much later).  My parents were both first-generation Americans and no one in my extended family had gone to college yet. I was a smart kid who showed some artistic talent in kindergarten and earlier.  I remember copying the Sunday comics, which in those days appeared in all the newspapers, and drawing small still lifes I arranged for myself. I have always been able to draw anything, as long as I can see it. 

Denise, a cousin, and I enrolled in Saturday morning “art classes” at the studio of a painter named Frances Hulmes in Rutherford, NJ.  I was about 6 years old. I continued the classes for 8 years and became a fairly adept oil painter. Since we lived so close to New York City, my mother often took us to museums, particularly to the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Museum of Natural History.  Like so many young girls, I fell in love with Rousseau’s “The Sleeping Gypsy” and was astonished by Picasso’s “Guernica” when it was on long-term loan to MoMA. I have fond memories of studying the dioramas at the Museum of Natural History (they are still my favorite part of the museum). As far as I know, there were no artists in my family so, unfortunately, I had no role models.  At the age of 14 my father decided that art was not a serious pursuit – declaring, it is “a hobby, not a profession” – and abruptly stopped paying for my Saturday morning lessons. With no financial or moral support to pursue art, I turned my attention to other interests, letting my artistic abilities go dormant.

Comments are welcome!

 

Pearls from artists* # 292

"White Star," soft pastel on sandpaper, 38" x 58"

“White Star,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 38″ x 58″

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

… many tools may share qualities of fine design with works of art.  We are in the presence of a work of art only when it has no preponderant instrumental use, and when its technical and rational foundations are not pre-eminent.  When the technical organization or the rational order of a thing overwhelms our attention, it is an object of use.  On this point Lodoli anticipated the doctrine of functionalists of our century when he declared in the eighteenth century that only the necessary is beautiful.  Kant, however, more correctly said on the same point that the necessary cannot be judged beautiful, but only right or consistent.  In short, a work of art is as useless as a tool is useful.  Works of art are as unique and irreplaceable as tools are common and expendable. 

George Kubler in The Shape of Time:  Remarks on the History of Things

Comments are welcome! 

Pearls from artists* # 230

On the Indian Ocean in Tanah Lot, Bali

On the Indian Ocean in Tanah Lot, Bali

* 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 like excitement as much as the next person.  Perhaps even more than the next person.  But I get overstimulated easily, and I can feel my brain shorting out when I have too much going on.  And it doesn’t take much:  a good piece of news, a nice review, a longed-for assignment, a cool invitation, and suddenly I can’t think straight.  The outside world glitters, it gleams like a shiny new toy.  Squinting, having lost all sense of myself, I toddle with about as much consciousness as a two-year-old in the direction of that toy.  Once I get a little bit of it, I am conditioned to want more, more, more.  I lose all sight of whatever I had been doing before.

One of the strangest aspects of a writing life is what I think of as going in and out of the cave.  When we are in the middle of a piece of work, the cave is the only place we belong.  Yes, there are practical considerations.  Eating, for instance.  Or helping a child with homework.  Or taking out the trash.  Whatever.  But a writer in the midst of a story needs to find a way to keep her head there.  She can’t just pop out of the cave, have some fun, go dancing, and then pop back in.  The work demands our full attention, our deepest concentration, our best selves.  If we’re in the middle – in the boat we’re building – we cannot let ourselves be distracted by the bright and shiny.  The bright and shiny is a mirage, an illusion.  It is of no use to us.

If there is a time for that brightness, it is at the end:  when the book is finished and the revisions have been turned in, when you’ve given everything inside of you and then some.  When the cave is empty.  Every rock turned over.  The walls covered with hieroglyphics that only you understand – notes you’ve written to yourself in the darkness.  But it’s possible that something interesting has happened while you’ve toiled amid the moths and millipedes.  Once you’ve acclimated to cave life, stumbling toward the light may have lost some of its appeal.  What glitters looks shopworn.   The sparkle and hum of life outside the cave feels somehow less real than what has taken place deep within its recesses.  Savor it – this hermetic joy, this rich unexpected peace.  It’s hard-won, and so easy to lose.  It contains within it the greatest contentment I have ever known.       

Dani Shapiro in Still Writing:  The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life 

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 220

Lima, Peru

Lima, Peru

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

 It is the job of the writer to say, look at that.  To point.  To shine a light.  But it isn’t that which is already bright and beckoning that needs our attention.  We develop our sensitivity – to use John Berger’s phrase, our “ways of seeing” – in order to bear witness to what is.  Our tender hopes and dreams, our joy, frailty, grief, fear, longing, desire – every human being is a landscape.  The empathic imagination glimpses the woman working the cash register at a convenience store, the man coming out of the bathroom at the truck stop, the mother chasing her toddler up and down the aisle of the airplane, and knows what it sees.  Look at that.  This human catastrophe, this accumulation of ordinary blessings, of unbearable losses.  And still, a ray of sunlight, a woman doing the wash, a carcass of beef.  The life that holds us.  The life we know.     

Dani Shapiro in Still Writing:  The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life 

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 212

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu

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

… the anthropologist Ellen Disanayake… in Homo Aestheticus, argues that art and aesthetic  interest belong with rituals and festivals – offshoots of the human need to ‘make special,’ to extract objects, events, and human relations from everyday uses and to make them a focus of collective attention.  This ‘making special’ enhances group cohesion and also leads people to treat those things which really matter for the survival of community – be it marriage or weapons, funerals, or offices – as things of public note, with an aura that protects them from careless disregard and emotional erosion.  The deeply engrained need to ‘make special’ is explained by the advantage that it has conferred on human communities, holding them together in times of threat, and furthering their reproductive confidence in times of peaceful flourishing.

Beauty:  A Very Short Introduction, by Roger Scruton

Comments are welcome!

      

Q: Do you have a daily ritual that helps you start working in your studio?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  In the morning before I start working on a pastel painting, I read for roughly half an hour.  Usually I read something art-related; for example, see the books that are quoted on Wednesdays in “Pearls from artists” on this blog.

As I’m reading, I look across at the painting on my easel and soon something becomes apparent, some annoying thing that needs immediate attention.  That’s where I will begin.  As I’m looking, of course, I’m thinking and the solution to a technical problem becomes obvious.  Before I know it, I’m up and working, slowly improving the painting as I go.    

Comments are welcome!   

Q: Why don’t you teach or conduct pastel workshops?

Barbara in her studio

Barbara in her studio

A:  I am often asked to teach, but I never have had the desire to do so.  Because my work is extremely labor intensive, I am reluctant to give up precious studio time, either for teaching or for any activities that could be deemed a distraction.  Consistent in my creative practice, I typically work in my studio five days a week, seven or more hours a day and am able to complete four or five pastel-on-sandpaper paintings in a year.     

Teaching would divert time, attention, and energy away from my practice.  Certainly it can be rewarding in many ways but since my process is slow and meticulous, I prefer to focus on making new work.  

Comments are welcome!       

Pearls from artists* # 112

New York, NY

New York, NY

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

If the goal of art is Beauty and if we assume that the goal is sometimes reached, even if always imperfectly, how do we judge art?  Basically, I think, by whether it reveals to us important Form that we ourselves have experienced but to which we have not paid adequate attention.  Successful art rediscovers Beauty for us.

One standard, then, for the evaluation of art is the degree to which it gives us a fresh intimation of Form.  For a picture to be beautiful it does not have to be shocking, but it must in some significant respect be unlike what has preceded it (this is why an artist cannot afford to be ignorant of the tradition within his medium).  If the dead end of the romantic vision is incoherence, the failure of classicism, which is the outlook I am defending, is the cliché, the ten thousandth camera-club imitation of a picture by Ansel Adams.

Robert Adams in Beauty in Photography 

Comments are welcome!

 

 

 

Pearls from artists* # 110

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.

A well-lived life should be worth attention.  At the very least, you should find your own story engaging.  In presenting yourself to yourself and others, then, you should keep in mind the rules that good playwrights follow.  Like a good character – you should be making choices that are explicable – choices that appear to be coming from a mind in working order.  Your choices should be reasonably coherent with each other, also, so as to support the thought that there is a real person – you – behind those choices.

Paul Woodruff, philosopher, quoted in What’s the Story:  Essays about art, theater, and storytelling by Anne Bogart

Comments are welcome!  

Pearls from artists* # 87

Studio

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.

One evening, after one false start too many, I just gave up. Sitting at a bar, feeling a bit burned out by work and by life in general, I just started drawing on the backs of business cards for no reason.  I didn’t really need a reason.  I just did it because it was there, because it amused me in a kind of random, arbitrary way.

Of course it was stupid.  Of course it was not commercial.  Of course it wasn’t going to go anywhere.  Of course it was a complete and utter waste of time.  But in retrospect, it was this built-in futility that gave it its edge.  Because it was the exact opposite of all the “Big Plans” my peers and I were used to making.  It was so liberating not to have to think about all of that, for a change.

It was so liberating to be doing something that didn’t have to have some sort of commercial angle, for a change.

It was so liberating to be doing something that didn’t have to impress anybody, for a change.

It was so liberating to be free of ambition, for a change.

It was so liberating to have something that belonged just to me and no one else, for a change.

It was so liberating to feel complete sovereignty, for a change.  To feel complete freedom, for a change.  To have something that didn’t require somebody else’s money, or somebody else’s approval, for a change.

And of course, it was then, and only then, that the outside world started paying attention.

The sovereignty you have over your work will inspire far more people than the actual content ever will.  How your own sovereignty inspires other people to find their own sovereignty, their own sense of freedom and possibility, will give the work far more power than the work’s objective merits ever will.

Your idea doesn’t have to be big.  It just has to be yours alone.  The more the idea is yours alone, the more freedom you have to do something really amazing.

The more amazing, the more people will click with your idea.  The more people click with your idea, the more this little thing of yours will snowball into a big thing.

That’s what doodling on the backs of business cards taught me. 

Hugh MacLeod in Ignore Everybody:  and 39 Other Keys to Creativity

Comments are welcome! 

%d bloggers like this: