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.
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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!
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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!
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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…
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Q: Would you speak about how important it was to get back to work after losing your husband on 9/11?
A: On September 11, 2001, my husband Bryan, a high-ranking federal government employee, a brilliant economist (with an IQ of 180 he is still the smartest man I’ve ever met) and a budget analyst at the Pentagon, was en route to Monterrey, CA to give his monthly guest lecture for an economics class at the Naval Postgraduate College. He had the horrible misfortune of flying out of Dulles airport and boarding the plane that was high-jacked and crashed into the Pentagon, killing 189 people. Losing Bryan was the biggest shock of my life and devastating in every possible way.
The following summer I was ready to – I HAD to – get back to work. Learning about photography and pastel painting became avenues to my well-being. I use reference photos for my paintings, so my first challenge was to learn how to use Bryan’s 4 x 5 view camera (Bryan always took these reference photos for me).
In July 2002 I enrolled in a one-week view camera workshop at the International Center of Photography in New York. Much to my surprise, I had already acquired substantial technical knowledge from watching Bryan. Still, after the initial workshop, I threw myself into this new medium and continued studying photography at ICP for several years. I began with Photography I and enrolled in many more classes until I gradually learned how to use Bryan’s extensive camera collection, to properly light my setups, and to print large chromogenic photographs in a darkroom.
In October 2009 it was very gratifying to have my first solo photography exhibition with HP Garcia in New York. (Please see http://barbararachko.art/images/PDFS/BarbaraRachko-HPGargia.pdf). I vividly remember tearing up at the opening as I imagined Bryan looking down at me with his beautiful smile, beaming as he surely would have, so proud of me for having become a respected photographer.
Continuing to make art had seemed an impossibility after Bryan’s death. However, the first large pastel painting that I created using a self-made reference photograph proved my life’s work could continue. The title of that painting, “She Embraced It and Grew Stronger,” is certainly autobiographical. “She” is me, and “it” means continuing on without Bryan and living life for both of us.
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A: When my husband, Bryan, was alive I barely picked up a camera, except to photograph sights encountered during our travels.
Throughout the 1990s and ending in 2007, I worked on my series of pastel-on-sandpaper paintings called, “Domestic Threats.” These were realistic depictions of elaborate scenes that I staged first in our 1932 Sears house in Alexandria, Virginia, next in a New York sixth floor walk-up apartment, and finally in my current New York apartment.
I use Mexican masks, carved wooden animals, and other folk art figures that I discovered on trips to Mexico. I staged and lit these setups, while Bryan photographed them using his Toyo-Omega 4 x 5 view camera. We had been collaborating this way almost from the beginning (circa 1991). Having been introduced to photography by his father at the age of 6, Bryan was a terrific amateur photographer.
Bryan would shoot two pieces of 4 x 5 film at different exposures and I would select one, generally the one that showed the most detail in the shadows, to make into a 20 x 24 photograph. The photograph would be my starting point for making the pastel painting. Although I work from life, too, I could not make a painting without mostly looking at a reference photo.
After Bryan was killed on 9/11, I had no choice but to study photography. I completed a series of photography classes at the International Center of Photography in New York, turned myself into a skilled photographer, and presented my first solo photography exhibition at HP Garcia in New York in 2009.
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A: Without a doubt I am most proud of “She Embraced It and Grew Stronger.”
After Bryan was killed on 9/11, making art again seemed an impossibility. When he was alive I would spend weeks setting up and lighting the tableau I wanted to paint. Then Bryan would shoot two negatives using his Toyo-Omega 4 x 5 view camera. I would select one and order a 20″ x 24″ reference photo to be printed by a local photography lab.
“She Embraced It…” is the first large pastel painting that I created without using a photograph taken by Bryan. This painting proved that I had learned to use his 4 x 5 view camera to shoot the reference photographs that were (and still are) integral to my process. My life’s work could continue!
Certainly the title is autobiographical. ‘She’ in “She Embraced It and Grew Stronger” is me and ‘It’ means continuing on without Bryan and living life for both of us.
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A: I believe my first sale was “Bryan’s Ph.D.” I made it in 1990 as one of several small paintings created to improve my skills at rendering human hands in pastel. I had recently left the Navy and was building a career as a portrait artist. Bryan, my late husband, was often my model for these studies, not only because it was convenient, but because he had such beautiful hands.
In 1990 Bryan was working on his Ph.D. in economics at the University of Maryland. In this painting he is drawing a diagram that illustrates a theoretical point about “international public goods,” the subject of his research. He was sitting in an old wooden rocking chair in our backyard in Alexandria, VA. I still own the chair and the house. I photographed his hands close-up and then created the painting. I don’t remember which of Bryan’s cameras I used, but it was one that took 35 mm film; perhaps his Nikon F-2. Somewhere I must still have the negative and the original reference photo.
“Bryan’s Ph.D.” is 11″ x 13 1/2″ and it sold for $500 at a monthly juried exhibition at The Art League in Alexandria. I have not seen it since 1990. (Above is a photograph of “Bryan’s Ph.D.” from my portfolio book).
Not long ago the owner contacted me, explaining that she had received the painting as a gift from her now ex-husband. She was selling it because it evoked bitter memories of her divorce. Her phone call was prompted by uncertainty about the painting’s value now. She had a likely buyer and needed to know what price to charge.
I was saddened because I have so many beautiful memories of this particular painting and of an idyllic time in my life with Bryan. He was on a leave of absence from the Pentagon to work on his dissertation, while I was finished with active duty. At last I was a full time artist, busily working in the spare bedroom that we had turned into my first studio.
My conversation with the owner was a reminder that once paintings are let out into the world, they take on associations that have nothing to do with the personal circumstances surrounding their creation. In short, what an artist creates solely out of love, stands a good chance of not being loved or appreciated by others. This is one reason to only sell my work to people I select personally. I ended the telephone conversation hoping that “Bryan’s Ph.D.” fares better in its new home.
Comments are welcome!