A: Behind me in the photo above is one of my circa 1994 50” x 40” c-prints, signed by both Bryan, my late husband, and me. The photo was my reference for a pastel painting titled, “Amok” (right, above).
I staged these photos in our Alexandria house (staged photography was popular then), refined the composition over days or weeks, and lit the scene using two tungsten studio lights. I was careful to accentuate the shadows, doing what I could to light everything as though it were a film noir set. (Film noir is still a favorite movie genre of mine).In those days I knew nothing about photography so I considered these photos collaborations, since Bryan clicked the shutter. (He typically shot two pieces of film using his old Toyo Omega 4 x 5 view camera with a rented wide angle lens). Bryan was reluctant to take any credit- insisting that the idea, concept, etc. were mine – but I persuaded him to also sign the photos. (How I wish he were still around to fill in forgotten details about our collaboration).
People enjoyed and often asked to purchase the reference photos so I sometimes had them enlarged and sold them. The dragon in the foreground is significant because it was my first purchase in Oaxaca during our initial trip to Mexico.
If anyone is interested, please remind me to tell the (long) story about how I got it home on the plane!
Comments are welcome!
Q: Do you have a home studio or do you go to an outside studio to work? Which do you prefer and why?
A: I have always preferred a separate studio. Pastel creates a lot of dust, it’s toxic to breathe, plus I do not want to live with the mess! I need a place to go in the mornings, someplace where I can focus and work without any distractions. It’s difficult to do that at home.
From the beginning of my time as an artist, in the mid-1980’s, I had a studio. My first one was in the spare bedroom of the Alexandria, Virginia, house that I shared with my late husband, Bryan, and that I still own.
For about three years in the 1990s I had a studio on the third floor of the Torpedo Factory Art Center, a building in Alexandria, VA that is open to the public. People would come in, watch artists at work, and sometimes buy a piece of art.
In April 1997 an opportunity to move to New York arose and I didn’t look back. By then I was showing in a good 57th Street gallery, Brewster Arts Ltd. (the gallery focused exclusively on Latin American artists; I was in the company of Leonora Carrington, Rufino Tamayo, Diego Rivera, etc.), and I had managed to find a New York agent, Leah Poller, with whom to collaborate.
I looked at only one other space before finding my West 29th Street studio and knew instantly it was the one! An old friend of Bryan’s from Cal Tech rented the space next door and he had told us it was available. Initially the studio was a sublet. The lease-holder was a painter headed to northern California to work temporarily for George Lucas at the Lucas Ranch. After several years she decided to stay so I was able to take over the lease. I feel extremely fortunate to have been in my West 29th Street, New York City space now for twenty-three years. In a city where old buildings are perpetually knocked down to make way for new ones this is rare.
My studio is an oasis in a chaotic city, a place to make art, to read, and to think. I love to walk in the door every morning and I feel calmer the moment I arrive. It’s my absolute favorite place in New York! Sometimes I think of it as my best creation. For more about this please see
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Q: You are a multi-talented woman! Tell us about your book, “From Pilot to Painter,” and how writing, for you, compares to painting and photography. Which do you prefer?
A: I am pleased that my eBook FROM PILOT TO PAINTER is available on Amazon and iTunes. It is based on my blog and is part memoir, including my personal loss on 9/11, insights into my creative practice, and intimate reflections on what it’s like to be an artist living in New York City now. The eBook includes new material not found on the blog, plus 25+ reproductions of my vibrant pastel-on-sandpaper paintings, a Foreword by Ann Landi (who writes for ARTnews and The Wall Street Journal), and more.
“Barbara Rachko’s Colored Dust” (the title of my blog) continues to be a crucial part of my overall art practice. Blogging twice a week forces me to think deeply about my work and to explain it clearly to others. The process has helped me develop a better understanding about why I make art and has encouraged me to become a better writer.
From the beginning in the 1980s I used photographs as reference material and Bryan would shoot 4” x 5” negatives of my elaborate setups with his Toyo-Omega view camera. In those days I rarely picked up a camera except when we were traveling. After Bryan was killed on 9/11, I inherited his extensive camera collection – old Nikons, Leicas, Graphlex cameras, etc. – and I wanted to learn how to use them. In 2002 I enrolled in a series of photography courses (about 10 over 4 years) at the International Center of Photography in New York. I learned how to use all of Bryan’s cameras and how to make my own big color prints in the darkroom. Along the way I discovered that the sense of composition, form, and color I developed over many years as a painter translated well into photography. The camera was just another medium with which to express my ideas. Astonishingly, in 2009 I had my first solo photography exhibition in New York.
It’s wonderful to be both a painter and a photographer. Pastel painting will always be my first love, but photography lets me explore ideas much faster than I ever could as a painter. Paintings take months of work. To me, photographs – from the initial impulse to hanging a framed print on the wall – are instant gratification.
For two years I have been using my iPad Pro to capture thousands of travel photographs. Most recently, I visited Gujarat and Rajasthan in India. I have never been inclined to use a sketchbook so composing photos on my iPad keeps my eye sharp while I’m halfway around the world, far from my studio practice.
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Q: When did your love of indigenous artifacts begin? Where have you traveled to collect these focal points of your works and what have those experiences taught you?
A: As a Christmas present in 1991 my future sister-in-law sent me 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. I started asking artist-friends about Oaxaca and learned that it was an important art hub. Two well-known Mexican painters, Rufino Tamayo and Francisco Toledo, had gotten their start there, as had master photographer Manuel Alvarez Bravo. There was a “Oaxacan School of Painting” (‘school’ meaning a style) 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.
The following autumn, Bryan and I planned a two-week trip to visit Mexico. We timed it to see Day of the Dead celebrations in Oaxaca. (During my research 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!
Along with busloads of other tourists, we visited several cemeteries in small Oaxacan towns for the “Day of the Dead.” The indigenous people tending their ancestors’ graves were so dignified and so gracious, even with so many mostly-American tourists tromping around on a sacred night, that I couldn’t help being taken with these beautiful people and their beliefs.
From Oaxaca we traveled to Mexico City, where again I was entranced, but this time by the rich and ancient history. We visited the National Museum of Anthropology, where I was introduced to the fascinating story of ancient Mesoamerican civilizations; the ancient city of Teotihuacan, which the Aztecs discovered as an abandoned city and then occupied as their own; and the Templo Mayor, the historic center of the Aztec empire, infamous as a place of human sacrifice. I was astounded! Why had I never learned in school about Mexico, this highly developed cradle of Western civilization in our own hemisphere, when so much time had been devoted to the cultures of Egypt, Greece, and elsewhere? When I returned home to Virginia I began reading everything I could find about ancient Mexican civilizations, including the Olmec, Zapotec, Mixtec, Aztec, and Maya. The first trip to Mexico opened up a whole new world and was to profoundly influence my future work. I would return there many more times, most recently to study Olmec art and archeology. In subsequent years I have traveled to Guatemala, Peru, Bolivia and other countries in search of inspiration and subject matter to depict in my work.
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A: In Oaxaca I bought a large carved wooden dragon mask with a Conquistador’s face carved and painted on its back. My intent was to depict the dragon in a subsequent “Domestic Threats” painting (the series I was working on at the time). The dragon still hangs in my living room in Alexandria, VA.
This first trip in 1992 was a revelation and marked the start of my on-going love of Mexico: its people, landscapes, ancient cultures, archaeology, history, art, cuisine, etc. There would be many subsequent trips to Mexico to learn as much as I can about this endlessly interesting cradle of civilization.
Comments are welcome!
A: As a Christmas present in 1991 my future sister-in-law sent me 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. See the two Mexican figures in “Myth Meets Dream” above.
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. 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 unique 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!
Q: (Part II) Would you share your story of how creating art enabled you to heal after losing your husband on 9/11?
A: Continued from last Saturday’s post…
Because I use reference photos for my pastel paintings, the first challenge was to learn how to use Bryan’s 4 x 5 view camera. At that time I was not a photographer. Always Bryan had taken reference photos for me.
In July 2002 I enrolled in a view camera workshop at New York’s International Center of Photography. Much to my surprise I had already absorbed quite a lot from watching Bryan. After the initial workshop, I continued more formal studies of photography for a few years. In 2009, I am proud to say, I was invited to present a solo photography exhibition at a New York gallery!
In 2003 I resumed making my “Domestic Threats” series of pastel paintings, something that had seemed impossible after Bryan’s death. The first large pastel painting that I created using a reference photograph taken by me confirmed that my life’s work could continue. The title of that painting, “She Embraced It and Grew Stronger,” was autobiographical. “She” is me, and “it” meant continuing on without Bryan and living life for both of us.
Having had a long successful run, the “Domestic Threats” series finally ended in early 2007. Around that time I was feeling happier and had come to better terms with losing Bryan. While this is a tragedy I will never truly be at peace with, dealing with the loss became easier with time.
Then in 2007 I suddenly became blocked and did not know where to take my work next. I had never experienced creative block and for a full-time professional artist, this was a painful few months. Still, I continued to go to the studio every day and eventually, thanks to a confluence of favorable circumstances, the block ended.
My next pastel painting series was called, “Black Paintings.” I viewed the black background as literally, the very dark place that I was emerging from, exactly like the figures emerging in these paintings. The figures themselves were wildly colorful and full of life, but that black background is always there.
Still the work continues to evolve. Recently I began my third pastel painting series called, “Bolivianos,” based on a mask exhibition encountered in La Paz at the Museum of Ethnography and Folklore. Many people have proclaimed this to be my most bold, daring, and exciting pastel painting series yet. And I think they may be right! Continuing on the journey I began 30+ years ago, I am looking forward to creating many new, striking pastel paintings!
Comments are welcome!
Q: (Part I) Would you share your story of how creating art enabled you to heal after losing your husband on 9/11?
A: On June 16, 2001, I married Dr. Bryan Jack, my longtime companion and soulmate, during a very private ceremony in the garden of an historic Alexandria, Virginia residence. In attendance were a justice of the peace, me, and Bryan. He and I were 48 years old and this was the first marriage for us both. Sadly, we never celebrated an anniversary. Exactly 87 days later my new husband was the victim of a terrorist attack.
On September 11, 2001, Bryan, a high-ranking federal government employee, a brilliant economist, and a budget analyst at the Pentagon, was en route to Monterey, CA to give his monthly guest lecture for an economics class at the Naval Postgraduate College. He boarded the American Airlines plane out of Dulles Airport that was high-jacked and crashed into the Pentagon, killing 189 people.
To this day I consider how easily I, too, could have been killed on 9/11, if I had just decided to travel with Bryan to California. Plus, the plane crashed directly into my Navy office on the fifth floor E-ring of the Pentagon. (I am a retired Navy Commander and worked at the Pentagon for many years). But for a twist of fate, we both would have died: Bryan on the plane, me either beside Bryan or inside the building.
In September 2001 Bryan and I had been together for fourteen and a half years. Surprisingly, we were happier than we had ever been. At a time when other couples we knew were settling into a certain boredom and routine, our life together was growing richer and more interesting. So losing Bryan – especially then – was heart-breaking, cruel, and devastating beyond comprehension. It was so unfair. I was numb and in shock.
The next six months passed by in a blur. But I had made a decision and pledged that I would not let the 9/11 attackers claim me as one more victim. My life had been spared for a reason so I began to pick up the pieces and worked to make every day count. Even many years later, wasting time still feels like a crime.
The following summer I was ready to – I HAD to – get back to work in my studio. I knew exactly what I must do. More than ever before, learning and painting would become the avenues to my well-being.
Continued next week…
Comments are welcome!