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Q: Why art? (Question from “Arts Illustrated”)

Barbara’s studio
Barbara’s studio

A: I love this question!  I remember being impressed by Ursula von Rydingsvard’s exhibition at the National Museum of Women in the Arts a few years ago.  What stayed with me most was her wall text, “Why Do I Make Art by Ursula von Rydingsvard.”  There she listed a few dozen benefits that art-making has brought to her life.

I want to share some of my own personal reasons for art-making 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.

5.   Because when I am working in the studio, if I want, I can tune out the world and all of its 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!

Q: Was there a pivotal time in your life when you were forced to choose between two different paths? Do you have any regrets?

Barbara’s studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  In 1988 I was a Navy Lieutenant working at the Pentagon as a computer analyst. I hated my boring job! For about two years I had been taking drawing classes at the Art League School in Alexandria, VA and was rapidly improving. More importantly, I discovered that making art was endlessly fascinating and challenging.

After much soul searching, I made the scary decision to resign from active duty.  Sept. 30, 1989 was my last day. I have been a professional visual artist ever since and surprisingly (to me!), have never needed a day job.

However, for fourteen years I remained in the Naval Reserve, working in Virginia one weekend a month and for two weeks each year. After I moved to New York in 1997, I used to take Amtrak to Washington, DC. I would go from my full time New York artist’s life to my part time military life. It was extremely interesting to be around such different types of people, to say the least! On November 1, 2003 I retired as a Navy Commander.

I have never, ever regretted the path I chose. I love being an artist and would not want to spend my life doing anything else.

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 182

Hudson Yards, NYC

Hudson Yards, NYC

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

Maybe you know exactly what you dream of being.  Or maybe you’re paralyzed because you have no idea what your passion is.  The truth is, it doesn’t matter.  You don’t have to know.  You just have to keep moving forward.  You just have to keep doing something, seizing the next opportunity, staying open to trying something new.  It  doesn’t have to fit your vision of the perfect job or the perfect life.  Perfect is boring, and dreams are not real.  Just… DO.   You think, “I wish I could travel” – you sell your crappy car and buy a ticket and go to Bangkok right now.  I’m serious.  You say, “I want to be a writer” – guess what? A writer is someone who writes every day.  Start writing.  Or:  You don’t have a job?  Get one.  ANY JOB.  Don’t sit at home waiting for the magical dream opportunity.  Who are you?  Prince William?  No.  Get a job.  Work.  Do until you can do something else.

Commencement address to Dartmouth College, Shonda Rhimes in Year of Yes:  How to Dance It Out, Stand in the Sun and Be Your Own Person 

Comments are welcome! 

        

Q: When you left the Navy you worked on commission as a portrait artist. Why don’t you accept commissions now?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  As I have often said, I left the active duty Navy in 1989, but stayed in the Reserves. The Reserves provided a small part-time income and the only requirement was that I work one weekend a month and two weeks each year.  Plus, I could retire after 13 more years and receive a pension.  (In 2003 I retired from the Navy Reserve as a Commander).  The rest of the time I was free to pursue my studio practice. 

For a short time I made a living making commissioned photo-realist portraits in soft pastel on sandpaper.  However, after a year I became very restless.  I remember thinking, “I did not leave a boring job just to make boring art!”  I lost interest in doing commissions because what I wanted to accomplish personally as an artist did not coincide with what portrait clients wanted.  I finished my final portrait commission in 1990 and never looked back. 

To this day I remain reluctant to accept a commission of any kind.  So I am completely free to paint whatever I want, which is the only way to evolve as a serious, deeply committed artist.      

Comments are welcome!

Q: Was there a defining moment, meeting, or event that convinced you to pursue an artistic life?

West 29th Street studio

West 29th Street studio

A:  There was not a defining moment per se, but looking back now, I’d say that because the Navy assigned me to a series of boring office jobs instead of letting me fly, I became determined to find a vocation infinitely more rewarding and more interesting to devote the rest of my life to.  I came to this realization over time, rather than in a single moment. 

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 27

Broken Bridge II, by El Anatsui, on the High Line

Broken Bridge II, by El Anatsui, on the High Line

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

Of course, when people said a work of art was interesting, this did not mean that they necessarily liked it – much less that they thought it beautiful.  It usually meant no more than that they thought they ought to like it.  Or that they liked it, sort of, even though it wasn’t beautiful.

Or they might describe something as interesting to avoid the banality of calling it beautiful.  Photography was the art where “the interesting” first triumphed, and early on:  the new, photographic way of seeing proposed everything as a potential subject for the camera.  The beautiful could not have yielded such a range of subjects; and it soon came to seem uncool to boot as a judgment.  Of a photograph of a sunset, a beautiful sunset, anyone with minimal standards of verbal sophistication might well prefer to say, “Yes, the photograph is interesting.”

What is interesting?  Mostly, what has not previously been thought beautiful (or good).  The sick are interesting, as Nietzsche points out.  The wicked, too.  To name something as interesting implies challenging old orders of praise; such judgments aspire to be found insolent or at least ingenious.  Connoisseurs of “the interesting” – whose antonym is “the boring” – appreciate clash, not harmony.  Liberalism is boring, declares Carl Schmitt in The Concept of the Political, written in 1932.  (The following year he joined the Nazi Party).  A politics conducted according to liberal principles lacks drama, flavor, conflict, while strong autocratic politics – and war – are interesting.   

Paolo Dilonardo and Anne Jump, editors, Susan Sontag:  At the Same Time

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.

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