Blog Archives

Q: Do you have any favorite memories of visiting museums when you were a child?

Calder's circus at the new Whitney Museum of American Art

Calder’s circus at the new Whitney Museum of American Art

A:  Yes, I loved seeing Alexander Calder’s wire circus at the Whitney Museum of American Art when I was a child.  The circus, and the charming movie that he made with his long-suffering wife (to me she always looked bored and embarrassed that her husband was playing with his toys!) used to be on permanent display in a glass case on the ground floor.  For many years Calder’s circus was in storage.  

How thrilling to see it again, when the new Whitney Museum opened in May, just blocks from my apartment!  Now any day of the week I can visit Calder’s circus – and other favorite works that have not been on exhibit for many years! 

Comments are welcome!  

Pearls from artists* # 99

 

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.

I think there are two very interesting stages in creative work.  One is confusion and one is boredom.  They generally both mean that there’s a big fish swimming under the water.  As Rilke said, “Live the questions.”  And not judge that there’s something wrong about confusion, because the people who are working, say, on the cure for leprosy – they work for years and years in a state of confusion, and very often they don’t find the cure.  They find something completely different.  But they keep living the question.  Confusion is absolutely essential to the creative process.  If there was no confusion, why do it?  I always feel that all of us have questions we’re asking all our lives, for our work, and if we ever found the answer, we’d stop working.  We wouldn’t need to work anymore.

Boredom – if you’ve ever been in therapy, you’d know that when you start getting bored, that’s really important.  The therapist sits up; there’s something going on, because the wall that you come against – that’s where the real gold is.   It’s really precious.

Andre Gregory (from My Dinner with Andre) in Anne Bogart, Conversations with Anne:  Twenty-four Interviews      

Comments are welcome!

Q: I just got home from my first painting experience… three hours and I am exhausted! Yet you, Barbara, build up as many as 30 layers of pastel, concentrate on such intricate detail, and work on a single painting for months. How do you do it?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  The short answer is that I absolutely love making art in my studio and on the best days I barely even notice time going by!  

Admittedly, it’s a hard road.  Pursuing life as an artist takes a very special and rare sort of person.  Talent and having innate gifts are a given, merely the starting point.  We must possess a whole cluster of characteristics and be unwavering in displaying them.  We are passionate, hard-working, smart, devoted, sensitive, self-starting, creative, hard-headed, resilient, curious, persistent, disciplined, stubborn, inner-directed, tireless, strong, and on and on.  Into the mix add these facts.  We need to be good business people. Even if we are, we are unlikely to make much money.  We are not respected as a profession.  People often misunderstand us:  at best they ignore us, at worst they insult our work and us, saying we are lazy, crazy, and more.

The odds are stacked against any one individual having the necessary skills and stamina to withstand it all.  So many artists give up, deciding it’s too tough and just not worth it, and who can blame them?  This is why I believe artists who persevere over a lifetime are true heroes.  It’s why I do all I can to help my peers.  Ours is an extremely difficult life – it’s impossible to overstate this – and each of us finds our own intrinsic rewards in the work itself.  Otherwise there is no reason to stick with it.  Art is a calling and for those of us who are called, the work is paramount.  We build our lives around the work until all else becomes secondary and falls away.  We are in this for the duration.

In my younger days everything I tried in the way of a career eventually became boring. Now with nearly thirty years behind me as a working artist, I can still say, “I am never bored in the studio!”  It’s difficult to put into words why this is true, but I know that I would not want to spend my time on this earth doing anything else.  How very fortunate that I do not have to do so!

Comments are welcome!

Q: How do you feel about accepting commissions?

"Reunion," soft pastel on sandpaper, 38" x 58", 1990

“Reunion,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 38″ x 58″, 1990

A:  By the time I left the Navy in 1989 to devote myself to making art, I had begun a career as a portrait painter.  I needed to make money, this was the only way I could think of to do so, and I had perfected the craft of creating photo-realistic portraits in pastel.  It worked for a little while. 

A year later I found myself feeling bored and frustrated for many reasons.  I didn’t like having to please a client because their concerns generally had little to do with art.  Once I ensured that the portrait was a good (and usually flattering) likeness, there was no more room for experimentation, growth, or creativity.  I believed (and still do) that I could never learn all there was to know about soft pastel.  I wanted to explore color and composition and take this under-appreciated medium as far as possible.  It seemed likely that painting portraits would not allow me to accomplish this.  Also, I tended to underestimate the amount of time needed to make a portrait  and charged too small a fee.

So I decided commissioned portraits were not for me and made the last one in 1990 (above).  I feel fortunate to have the freedom to create work that does not answer to external concerns.  

Comments are welcome!        

Q: How would you describe your personal artistic style?

Barbara'a pastels

Barbara’a pastels

A:  Regardless of what medium I am using, I am first and foremost a colorist.  Everything I create is vibrant with color.

The Navy taught me to be organized, goal-oriented and focused, to love challenges, and in everything I do, to pay attention to the details.  Trying to make it as an artist in New York is nothing BUT challenges, so these qualities serve me well, whether I am creating paintings, shooting and making photographs, or trying to understand the art business, keep up with social media, and manage all the tasks required of a busy artist with a New York studio, a business, and two residences to maintain.  It’s a lot, but it forces me to continually learn and grow.  As Helen Keller famously said, “Life is an adventure or it is nothing.”

These days I am rarely bored.  I thoroughly enjoy spending long, solitary hours working to become a better artist.  I am meticulous about craft and will not let work out of my studio until it is as good as I can make it.  My creative process is more exciting than ever.  It’s thrilling and energizing to continually push soft pastel to its limits and use it in ways that no other artist has done before!  

Comments are welcome!

Q: You have sometimes spoken about your early work as a portrait artist. When and why did you start making portraits? Do you still do them?

"Bryan," soft pastel on sandpaper, 22" x 28", 1988

“Bryan,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 22″ x 28″, 1988

A:  In 1989 I was a Naval officer working at the Pentagon and I hated my job as a computer analyst.  Although it was terrifying to leave the security of a paycheck for the uncertainty of an artist’s existence, I made the leap.  In retrospect it was one of the best decisions of my life.  When I resigned from active duty (I remained in the Navy Reserve, which provided a part-time job and a small income; in 2003 I retired as a Navy Commander), I needed a way to make a living.  

Prior to this career change, I worked hard to develop my portrait skills.  I volunteered to run a life drawing class at The Art League School in Alexandria, VA, where I made hundreds of figure drawings using charcoal and pastel.  I spent a semester commuting between Washington, DC and New York to study artistic anatomy at the New York Academy of Art.  I spent another semester studying gross anatomy with medical students at Georgetown University Medical School.  So I was well prepared to devote myself to making portraits.

For a time I made a living making commissioned photo-realist portraits in soft pastel on sandpaper.  However, after about two years I became bored.  I remember thinking, “I did not leave a boring job just to make boring art!”  Furthermore, I had no interest in doing commissions because what I wanted to accomplish as an artist did not coincide with what portrait clients wanted.   I completed my final portrait commission in 1990 and never looked back.  To this day I remain loathe to do a commission of any kind.  

Comments are welcome!   

Q: What would you be if you were not an artist?

Self-portrait on a Hudson  River barge

Self-portrait on a Hudson River barge

A: I honestly have no idea, but whatever it might be, there is a good chance that I’d be bored! In my younger days boredom was a strong motivator. I left the active duty Navy out of boredom. I couldn’t bear not being intellectually challenged (most of my jobs consisted of paper-pushing), not using my flying skills (at 27 I was a licensed commercial pilot and Boeing 727 flight engineer), and not developing my artistic talent. In what surely must be a first, by spending a lot of time and money training me for jobs I hated, the Navy turned me into a hard-working artist! And once I left the Navy there was no plan B. There was no time to waste. It was “full speed ahead.”

Art is a calling. You do not need to be told this if you are among those who are called. It’s all about “the work,” that all-consuming focus of an artist’s life. If a particular activity doesn’t make you a better artist, you avoid it. You work hard to nourish and protect your gifts. As artists we invent our own tasks, learn whatever we need in order to progress, and complete projects in our own time. It is life lived at its freest.

My art-making has led me to fascinating places: Mexico, Guatemala, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, France, England, Italy, Bali, Java and more; and to in-depth studies of intriguing subjects: drawing, color, composition, art and art history, the art business, film and film history, photography, mythology, literature, music, jazz history, and archaeology, particularly that of ancient Mesoamerica (the Olmec, Zapotec, Mixtec, Aztec, Maya, etc.). And this rich mixture continually grows! For anyone wanting to spend their time on earth learning and meeting new challenges, there is no better life than that of an artist.

I SO agree with this exchange that I read years ago between between Trisha Brown and Mikhail Baryshnikov in the New York Times. I wrote it on a piece of paper and taped it to my studio wall:

Trisha: How do you think we keep going? Are we obsessed?

Mikhail: We do it because there’s nothing better. I’m serious. Because there is nothing more exciting than that. Life is so boring, that’s why we are driven to the mystery of creation.

Comments are welcome.

%d bloggers like this: