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Q: Would you speak about someone who made a difference in your professional life?

Buddhist monk reciting prayers over my aunt’s ashes, Leh, Ledakh, India

A: The first person who comes to mind is my favorite aunt, Teddie. In 1997 she was headed to northern California to attend a three-year-plus silent Tibetan Buddhist retreat at her teacher’s center. Teddie offered me her West 13th Street 6th-floor walkup apartment to live in while she was away. At the time I was based in Alexandria, VA and had just had my first solo exhibition at an important West 57th Street gallery, Brewster Fine Arts. I was becoming increasingly frustrated with the limited Washington, DC art scene, had outgrown everything it had to offer, and felt New York pulling me towards new and exciting professional adventures.

Teddie, recognizing my talent and ambition, made it possible for me to afford to move to New York. She had practiced Tibetan Buddhism for 35 years and was soon to become a Buddhist lama. She had an extraordinary mind and thought deeply about life. We used to talk for hours. Teddie was 7 years older and seemed more like a sister than an aunt. Indeed, she was my first soul mate. (I have been extremely fortunate to have had two such relationships in my life. The other was my late husband, Bryan).

Unfortunately, dear Aunt Teddie died at the age of 67 of breast cancer. Recently, on September 25 I honored her life in a short ceremony on a mountain cliff in Leh, Ladakh (India). A Tibetan Buddhist monk recited prayers as he placed her ashes among the rocks.

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 510

Beginning

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

This excerpt is from “The Blank Page,” published in Last Tales (1957). An old woman who earns her living by storytelling is speaking:

“With my grandmother,” she said, “I went through a hard school. ‘Be loyal to the story,’ the old woman would say to me, ‘Be eternally and unswervingly loyal to the story.’ ‘Why must I be that, grandmother?’ I asked her. ‘Am I to furnish you with reasons, baggage?’ She cried. ‘And you mean to be a story-teller! Why, you are to become a story-teller, and I shall give you the reasons! Hear then: Where the story-teller is loyal, eternally and unswervingly loyal to the story, there, in the end, silence will speak. Where the story has been betrayed, silence is but emptiness. But we, the faithful, when we have spoken our last word, will hear the voice of silence. Whether a small snotty lass understands it or not.’

“Who then, she continues, “tells a finer tale than any of us? Silence does. And where does one read a deeper tale than upon the most precious book? Upon the blank page. When a royal and gallant pen, in the moment of its highest inspiration, has written down its tale with the rarest ink of all – where, then, may one read a still deeper, sweeter, merrier and more cruel tale than that? Upon the blank page.”

Isak Dinesen in Women at Work: Interviews from the Paris Review

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Q: You wear gloves and a mask when you are working in your studio, right? Can you tell me what kinds? (Question from Britta Konau)

Barbara at work

A: I wear a paper surgical mask – the type that has become ubiquitous since COVID – bought from a local medical supply store. I thoroughly coat my hands with barrier cream – Art Guard – to prevent pastel getting into my skin. The cream has an added benefit of making it easy to wash pastel off my hands. (Neither gloves nor individual finger cots ever worked for me. They made my fingers sweat and did not allow for the fine touch needed to blend new colors directly on sandpaper. Plus, they shredded from being rubbed against the paper’s grit). Also, it is very important that you work with your hand below your face so pastel dust falls below your nose, where you are less likely to breathe it in.

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 490

At Triangle Loft, NYC Photo: David De Hannay

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

Wherever apathy reigns supreme, the “strong” are those who can boast that nothing affects them. Numbness and dumbness become positive qualities, and any passionate engagement with life becomes a cause for embarrassment. How many hipsters out there consider passionate commitment of any kind to be a sign that one has been duped? Fortunately this attitude can only go so far, because everything in actual experience suggests to the contrary that passion and sensibility are necessary for anything meaningful to happen to anyone. They are the vital signs that make the difference between an existence that is truly lived out and one that is merely observed from a stifling security of a castellated self that falsely imagines that it can remain detached from the rest of the universe.

JF Martel in Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice: A Treatise, Critique, and Call to Action

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Pearls from artists* # 484

Behind the scenes of our documentary. Photo: David De Hannay

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

[Walter] Murch: We hope we become better editors with experience! Yet you have to have an intuition about the craft to begin with: for me, it begins with, Where is the audience looking? What are they thinking? As much as possible, you try to be the audience. At the point of transition from one shot to another, you have to be pretty sure where the audience’s eye is looking, where the focus of attention is. That will either make the cut work or not.

[Michael] Ondaatje: So before you make the cut, if you feel the audience is looking towards point X, then you cut to another angle where the focus of attention is somewhere around that point X.

The Conversation: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film by Michael Ondaatje

This passage in Ondaatje’s book resonates because I work similarly to refine and construct each pastel painting. My goal is to move the viewer’s eye around in an engaging and interesting way. This part of my process is subtle so I suspect that most of my audience neither appreciates nor even suspects that I have done it.

Comments are welcome!

Q: What country’s artistic style influenced you the most over the years? (Question from Arte Realizzata)

Barbara’s studio with some of her Mexican and Guatemalan folk art

A: Undoubtedly, I would have to say Mexico.  As a Christmas present in 1991 my future sister-in-law sent two brightly painted wooden animal figures from Oaxaca, Mexico. One was a blue polka-dotted winged horse.  The other was a red, white, and black bear-like figure.

I was enthralled with this gift and the timing was fortuitous because I had been searching for new subject matter to paint. Soon I started asking artist-friends about Oaxaca and learned that it was an important art hub.  At least two well-known Mexican painters, Rufino Tamayo and Francisco Toledo, had gotten their start there , as had master photographer Manual Alvarez Bravo.  There was a “Oaxacan School of Painting” (‘school’ meaning a style, not an actual building) and Alvarez Bravo had established a photography school there (the building/institution kind). I began reading everything I could find.  At the time I had only been to Mexico very briefly, in 1975, having made a road trip to Ensenada with my cousin and best friend from college. The following autumn my then-boyfriend, Bryan, and I planned a two-week trip to visit Mexico. We timed it to see Day of the Dead celebrations in Oaxaca.  (In my reading I had become fascinated with this festival).  We spent one week in Oaxaca followed by one week in Mexico City.  My interest in collecting Mexican folk art was off and running!  

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 481

Dawoud Bey at the Whitney Museum of American Art

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

Artists, because they spend such prolonged periods in isolation, frequently fall behind the times. They may gain great self-knowledge, spiritual insight, and understanding of their media as they work in private, but at the price of a lack of vital knowledge of the world around them.

Because solitude provides artists with a safe haven, fits their personality, and offers them a kind of communal contact with other human beings through their work, it can also serve as a breeding ground for stagnation. Without ever realizing it, artists can grow flacid in isolation and begin to experience their solitude as deadening. The studio can become too easy and unchallenging a place.

The world outside the studio offers unmatched opportunities for growth and for the expression of authentic and courageous behavior. Artists often miss these opportunities and, remaining relatively untested, handle themselves poorly when they do venture out.

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

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Q: What about the importance of vision in your training in the Navy has helped you be able to see what you want to create in your art? (Question from “Arte Realizzata”)

Ensign Barbara Rachko, circa 1983
Ensign Barbara Rachko, circa 1983

A: I continue to reflect on what my experiences as a Naval officer contributed to my present career.  Certainly, I learned attention to detail, time management, organization, and discipline, which have all served me well.  I keep regular studio hours (currently 10:00 – 4:00 on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday) which I understand is rare among artists. 

Prior to joining the Navy, I had financed my own flight training to become a commercial pilot and Boeing-727 Flight Engineer. However, my Naval career consisted entirely of monotonous paper-work jobs that were not the least bit intellectually challenging.  Finding myself stuck in jobs that reflected neither my skills nor my interests, I made a major life change.  When I left active duty at the Pentagon I resolved, “I have just resigned from the most boring job.  I am going to do my best to never make BORING art!”  Other than this, I an hard-pressed to pinpoint anything the Navy contributed to my art career. 

Comments are welcome!         

Q; What was the spark that got you started? (Question from Barbara Smith via Facebook)

Ensign Barbara Rachko, circa 1983
Ensign Barbara Rachko, circa 1983

A: If I had to select one factor, I would say, profound unhappiness with my professional life. In 1986 I was a 33-year-old Navy Lieutenant working as a computer analyst at the Pentagon. I hated my job, was utterly miserable, and moreover, I was trapped because unlike many jobs, it’s not possible to resign a Naval commission with two weeks notice.

My bachelor’s degree had been in psychology. When I was in my 20s and before I joined the Navy, I had spent two years and my own money training to become a licensed commercial pilot and Boeing-727 Flight Engineer. I had planned to become an airline pilot, but due to bad timing (airlines were not hiring pilots when I was looking for a job), that did not come to pass.

So there I was with absolutely no interest, nor any training in computers, working for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and completely bored. I knew I must have taken a wrong turn somewhere and resolved to make a significant change. Searching around, I discovered a local art school, the Art League School in Alexandria, VA, and began taking drawing classes.

One drawing class lead to more. Within a couple of years, due to being highly motivated to change my life, my technical skills rapidly improved. Even then, I believe, it was obvious to anyone who knew me that I had found my calling. I resigned my active duty Naval commission and have been a fulltime professional artist since October 1989. (Note: For fourteen more years I remained in the Naval Reserve working, mostly at the Pentagon, one weekend a month and two weeks each year, and retired as a Navy Commander in 2003).

Life as a self-employed professional artist is endlessly varied, fulfilling, and interesting. I have never once regretted my decision to pursue art fulltime!

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 439

New York Harbor

New York Harbor

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

Art is a way of preserving experiences, of which there are many transient and beautiful examples, and that we need help containing.  There is an analogy to be made with the task of carrying water and the tool that helps us do it.  Imagine being out in a park on a blustery April day.  We look up at the clouds and feel moved by their beauty and grace.  They feel delightfully separate from the day-to-day bustle of our lives.  We give our minds to the clouds, and for a time we are relieved of our preoccupations and placed in a wider context that stills the incessant complaints of our egos.  John Constable’s cloud studies invite us to concentrate, much more than we would normally, on the distinctive textures and shapes of individual clouds, to look at their variations in colour and at the way they mass together.  Art edits down complexity and helps us to focus, albeit briefly, on the most meaningful aspects.  In making his cloud studies, Constable didn’t expect us to become deeply concerned with meteorology.  The precise nature of a cumulonimbus is not the issue.  Rather, he wished to intensify the emotional meaning of the soundless drama that unfolds daily above our heads, making it more readily available to us and encouraging us to afford it the central position it deserves.                 

Alain de Botton and John Armstrong in Art as Therapy          

Comments are welcome!

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