Blog Archives

Q: Why did you first decide to depict Mexican folk art in your work?

"Myth Meets Dream," soft pastel on sandpaper, 47" x 38"

“Myth Meets Dream,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 47″ x 38″

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: What was the first painting you ever sold?

“Bryan’s Ph.D.”, 11″ x 13 1/2″, soft pastel on sandpaper

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!     

Q: How long have you been working in your current studio?

Barbara in her studio; Photo:  Elliott Jones

Barbara in her studio; Photo: Elliott Jones

A:  I have been in my West 29th Street space for seventeen years, but from the beginning, 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 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 that is open to the public.  People come in, watch artists work, and occasionally buy a piece of art. 

In April 997 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 thrilled with the company I was in; the only fellow non-Latina represented by owner, Mia Kim, was Leonora Carrington), 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.  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.  

My studio continues to be 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 always feel more calm the moment I arrive.  It’s my absolute favorite place in New York!    

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 89

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

On a drifty Manhattan stroll
The kind that unearths magical treasures
I made a right turn off of Houston
Onto Bowery
And as it became Third Avenue
I came upon this old art store
That creaked hello
Its warped wooden shelves
Held new paints
A little dusty from the old building
But whose colors were deeper
Than I’d ever seen before

And at the back of the store
Up a narrow stairway
Was a tiny room
And behind a long table stood three people
(Probably artists)
Who could get me any paper I desired
Paper with designs
To collage with
Hot press, cold press
100 gram, 600 gram paper
To draw and paint on
Any kind of paper I’d ever want
Templates from heaven

And over my right shoulder
Was a tall window
Overlooking the glorious city
That has held this little room
Tenderly in its arms
All these years

And as I hugged
My rolled up package of paper
And went back downstairs
The old stairs seemed to gently whisper
“Come back soon,
We’ll keep each other alive”

And stepping outside
Third Avenue seemed more spacious
And I took a deep breath
As the world
Kaleidoscoped
With possibilities
Lovingly wrapped up
By three kind artists
At the top of the world.

Art Supplies From Heaven, by Judith Ellen Sanders, published in “Metropolitan Diary,” NY Times, April 6, 2014

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 81

"Poker Face," soft pastel on sandpaper, 38" x 58"

“Poker Face,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 38″ x 58″

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

The creative process remains as baffling and unpredictable to me today as it did when I began my journey over forty years ago.  On the one hand, it seems entirely logical – insight building on insight; figures from my past, the culture, and everyday life sparking scenes and images on canvas; and all of it – subject, narrative, theme – working together with gesture, form, light to capture deeply felt experience.  But in real time the process is a blur, a state that precludes consciousness or any kind of rational thinking.  When I’m working well, I’m lost in the moment, painting quickly and intuitively, reacting to forms on the canvas, allowing their meaning to reveal itself to me.  In every painting I make I’m looking for some kind of revelation, something I didn’t see before.  If it surprises me, hopefully it will surprise the viewer, too.

Eric Fischl and Michael Stone in Bad Boy:  My Life On and Off the Canvas

Comments are welcome! 

Q: Where do you want your work to go in the future?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  Recently I answered a question about why I create, but now that I think about it, the same answer applies to what I want to do as an artist in the future:  

~ to create bold and vibrant pastel paintings and photographs that have never existed before  

~ to continue to push my primary medium – soft pastel on sandpaper – as far as I can and to use it in more innovative ways  

~ to create opportunities for artistic dialogue with people who understand and value the work to which I am devoting my life  

The last has always been the toughest.  I sometimes think of myself as Sisyphus because expanding the audience for my art is an ongoing uphill battle.  Many artist friends tell me they feel the same way about building their audience.  It’s one of the most difficult tasks that we have to do as artists.  I heard Annie Leibovitz interviewed on the radio once and remember her saying that after 40 years as a photographer, everything just gets richer.  Notice that she didn’t say it gets any easier; she said, “it just gets richer.”  I have been a painter for nearly  30 years and a photographer for 11.  I agree completely.  All artists have to go wherever our work goes.  Creating art and watching the process evolve is an endlessly fascinating intellectual journey.  I wouldn’t want to be spending my time on earth doing anything else!

Comments are welcome!

Q: Why do you create?

West 29th Street studio

West 29th Street studio

A: There are many answers to that question and my responses vary according to how things are going in the studio.  Just now these three are most compelling:

~ to create bold and vibrant pastel paintings and photographs that have never existed before

~ to continue to push my primary medium – soft pastel on sandpaper – as far as I can and to use it in more innovative ways

~ to create opportunities for artistic dialogue with people who understand and value the work to which I am devoting my life

The last has always been the toughest.  I sometimes think of myself as Sisyphus because expanding the audience for my art is an ongoing uphill battle.  Many artist friends tell me they feel the same way about building their audience.  It’s one of the most difficult tasks that we have to do as artists.

Comments are welcome!   

Q: Can you speak in more detail about how losing your husband, Dr. Bryan C. Jack, on 9/11 affected your artistic practice?

"She Embraced It and Grew Stronger," 2003, 58" x 38", first large pastel-on-sandpaper painting completed after Bryan was killed

“She Embraced It and Grew Stronger,” 2003, 58″ x 38″, first large pastel-on-sandpaper painting completed after Bryan was killed

A:  On September 11, 2001, Bryan, who was a high-ranking, career, 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 there.  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 him was the biggest shock of my life, devastating in every possible way.  I think about him every day and I continually think about how easily I, too, could have been killed on 9/11.  I had decided not to travel with Bryan to California, a place I absolutely love visiting, only because the planned trip was too short.  His plane crashed directly into my (Navy Reserve) office on the fifth floor, e-ring of the Pentagon.  I still imagine how close we came to Bryan having been killed on the plane and me perishing in the building.  To this  day I believe that I was spared for a reason and I strive to make every day count.

The six months after 9/11 passed by in a blur, except that I vividly remember an October 2001 awards  ceremony at the DAR Hall in Washington, DC.  I was picked up by a big black limousine, sent by the Department of  Defense.  At the ceremony I sat with members of the president’s cabinet.  I accepted the Defense Exceptional Civilian Service Medal for Bryan, an award he would have accepted himself had he been alive, and was addressed face-to-face by George Bush, Jr., not someone I particularly liked (to put it nicely).  Later Bryan was given more awards –  a Presidential Rank Award, a Defense Distinguished Civilian Service Medal, and the Defense of Freedom Medal.  Many other honors came in and I’ll mention two.  Bryan’s hometown of Tyler, Texas named a magnet school after him – Dr. Bryan C. Jack Elementary School (the principal and I cut the ribbon at the opening ceremony) – and Stanford University set up the “Bryan Jack Memorial Scholarship,” which annually helps two deserving students attend Stanford Business School.     

The following summer I was ready to – I HAD to – get back to work so my first challenge was to learn how to use Bryan’s 4 x 5 view camera. 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 already knew quite a lot from watching Bryan.  Thankfully, I was soon on my way to working again.  After the initial workshop, I decided to begin with the basics since I had never formally studied photography before. I threw myself into learning this new (to me) medium.  Over the next few years I enrolled in a series of classes at ICP, starting with Photography I.  Along the way I learned to use Bryan’s extensive camera collection (old Leicas, Nikons, Mamiyas, and more) and to make my own large chromogenic prints in the darkroom.  In October 2009 it was extremely gratifying to have my first solo photography exhibition with HP Garcia in New York (please see the exhibition catalogue on the sidebar).  I 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 photographer.

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 15

Somewhere in Guatemala

Somewhere in Guatemala

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

The first steps of a creative act are like groping in the dark: random and chaotic, feverish, and fearful, a lot of busy-ness with no apparent or definable end in sight. There is nothing yet to research. For me, these moments are not pretty. I look like a desperate woman, tortured by the simple message thumping away in my head: “You need an idea.” It’s not enough for me to walk into a studio and start dancing, hoping that something good will come of my aimless cavorting on the floor. Creativity doesn’t generally work that way for me. (The rare times when it has stand out like April blizzards). You can’t just dance or paint or write or sculpt. Those are just verbs. You need a tangible idea to get you going. The idea, however miniscule, is what turns the verb into a noun – paint into painting, sculpt into sculpture, write into writing, dance into a dance.

… I’m often asked, “Where do you get your ideas?” This happens to anyone who is willing to stand in front of an audience and talk about his or her work. The short answer is: everywhere. It’s like asking, “Where do you find the air you breathe?” Ideas are all around you.

I hesitate to wax eloquent about the omnipresence of ideas and how everything we need to make something out of nothing – tell a story, design a building, hum a melody – already resides within us in our experience, memories, taste, judgment, critical demeanor, humanity, purpose, and humor. I hesitate because it is so blindingly obvious. If I’m going to be a cheerleader for the creative urge, let it be for something other than the oft-repeated notion that ideas are everywhere.

What people are really asking, I suppose, is not, “Where do you get your ideas?” but “How do you get them?”

To answer that, you first have to appreciate what an idea is.

Ideas take many forms. There are good ideas and bad ideas. Big ideas and little ideas.

A good idea is one that turns you on rather than shuts you off. It keeps generating more ides and they improve one another. A bad idea closes doors instead of opening them. It’s confining and restrictive. The line between good and bad ideas is very thin. A bad idea in the hands of the right person can easily be tweaked into a good idea.

Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit: Learn it and Use it for Life: A Practical Guide

Comments are welcome.