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Q: Your work is unlike anyone else’s. There is such power and boldness in your pastels. What processes are you using to create such poignant and robustly colored work?

Barbara working on an interview. Photo: Maria Cox

Barbara working on an interview. Photo: Maria Cox

A:  For thirty-three years I have worked exclusively in soft pastel on sandpaper.  Pastel, which is pigment and a binder to hold it together, is as close to unadulterated color as an artist can get.  It allows for very saturated color, especially using the self-invented techniques I have developed and mastered. I believe my “science of color” is unique, completely unlike how any other artist works.  I spend three to four months on each painting, applying pastel and blending the layers together to mix new colors on the paper.  

The acid-free sandpaper support allows the buildup of 25 to 30 layers of pastel as I slowly and meticulously work for hundreds of hours to complete a painting.  The paper is extremely forgiving.  I can change my mind, correct, refine, etc. as much as I want until a painting is the best I can create at that moment in time. 

My techniques for using soft pastel achieve rich velvety textures and exceptionally vibrant color.  Blending with my fingers, I painstakingly apply dozens of layers of pastel onto the sandpaper.  In addition to the thousands of pastels that I have to choose from, I make new colors directly on the paper.  Regardless of size, each pastel painting takes about four months and hundreds of hours to complete.  

I have been devoted to soft pastel from the beginning.  In my blog and in numerous interviews online and elsewhere, I continue to expound on its merits.  For me no other fine art medium comes close. 

My subject matter is singular.  I am drawn to Mexican, Guatemalan, and Bolivian cultural objects—masks, carved wooden animals, papier mâché figures, and toys.  On trips to these countries and elsewhere I frequent local mask shops, markets, and bazaars searching for the figures that will populate my pastel paintings.  How, why, when, and where these objects come into my life is an important part of the creative process.  Each pastel painting is a highly personal blend of reality, fantasy, and autobiography.

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 338

Pastels

Pastels

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

Beauty without symbolic depth results in ornament.  Symbol without beauty results in psychoanalysis.  Only when the two meet can we speak of art.  The artistic works that combine the two elements most compellingly are what are called the classics.  In his magisterial book The Analogical Imagination, the theologian David Tracy defines the classic as a work exhibiting a permanent “excess of meaning.” We speak of classics as “timeless,” he says, not because they belong to time, but because they are perpetually timely; their relevance never wanes, and each generation, each percipient, must interpret them anew.  According to Tracy, we know we are dealing with a classic when a work makes us realize that our general outlook on life is not as complete as we thought it was, that “something else might be the case.”  In the light that the classic emanates, things suddenly seem less clear-cut than they used to seem – we find ourselves in the presence of something greater than we are, something potentially infinite.  Classics take us to the apex of the numinous, the point of what Werner Herzog calls “ecstatic truth.”    

J.F. Martel in Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice:  A Treatise, Critique, and Call to Action 

Comments are welcome!

Q: Would you speak about the meaning of your work and the different materials you use?

About half of Barbara’s pastels

About half of Barbara’s pastels

A:  It is as difficult to explain the meaning of my art as it is to interpret the meaning of life!  I am invested in and concerned with process:  foreign travel, prodigious reading, devotion to craft, months of slow meticulous work in the studio trying to create an exciting work of art that has never been seen before, etc.  I love making pastel paintings!  Many years ago I challenged myself to push the limits of what soft pastel can achieve.  I am still doing so.

I leave it to others – viewers, arts writers, critics, art historians – to study my creative journey and talk about meanings.  I believe an artist is inspired to create and viewers ponder the creation.  I would not presume to tell anyone how to react to my work.

For many years I have been devoted to promoting soft pastel as a fine art medium.  There are excellent reasons it has been around for five hundred years!  It is the most permanent of media. There’s no liquid binder to cause oxidizing or cracking over time, as happens with oil paint.  Pastel colors are intense because they are close to being pure pigment.  Pastel allows direct application (no brushes) with no drying time and no color changes.

I use UArt acid-free sandpaper.  This is not sandpaper from a hardware store.  It is made for artists who work in pastel and allows me to build up layers of pigment without using a fixative.  My process – slowly applying and layering pastels, blending and mixing new colors directly on the paper, making countless adjustments, searching for the best and/or most vivid colors – continually evolves.  Each pastel painting takes months to create.

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 199

"Trio," soft pastel on sandpaper, 20" x 26"

“Trio,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 20″ x 26″

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

Writers, like all artists, are concerned to represent reality, to create a more absolute and complete reality than reality itself.  They must, if they are to accomplish this, assume a moral position, a clearly conceived political, social, and philosophical attitude; in consequence, their beliefs are, of course, going to find their way into their work.  What artists believe, however, is of secondary importance, ancillary to the work itself.  A writer survives in spite of his beliefs.  Lawrence will be read whatever one thinks of his notions on sex.  Dante is read in the Soviet Union.

A work of art, on the other hand, has a representative and expressive function.  In this representation the author’s ideas, his judgments, the author himself, are engaged with reality.   

Alberto Moravia in Writers at Work:  The Paris Review Interviews First Series, edited and with an introduction by Malcolm Cowley

Comments are welcome!

Q: What’s on the easel today?

Work in progress

Work in progress

A:  I am at work on a small (20″ x 26″) pastel-on-sandpaper painting tentatively called, “Duo.”  My previous painting, “Charade,” was a breakthrough of sorts; at least I hope so, because it was such an ordeal to complete!  

That’s why I am giving myself a break and making a relatively simple piece now.  It’s a way of resting and also of re-filling the well. 

Recently something happened that broke my heart:  I had to put my beloved cat to sleep.  When I look at this image I am reminded of Kit Kat, who was always by my side.  He and I were another “Duo” alluded to in the title of this painting.

Comments are welcome!    

Pearls from artists* # 162

"The Sovereign," soft pastel on sandpaper, 58" x 38"

“The Sovereign,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 58″ x 38″

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

Particle after particle of the living self is transferred into the creation, until at last it is an external world that corresponds to the inner world and has the power of outlasting the author’s life.  

I suspect that some such dream is shared by many authors, but among those interviewed it is Faulkner who has come closest to achieving it, and he is also the author who reveals it most candidly.  “Beginning with Sartoris,” he says, I discovered that my own little postage stamp of native soil was worth writing about and that I would never live long enough to exhaust it, and that by sublimating the actual into the apocryphal I would have complete liberty to use whatever talent I might have to its absolute top.  It opened up a mine of other people, so I created a cosmos of my own.  I can move these people around like God, not only in space but in time.”  And then he says, looking back on his work as if on the seventh day,  “I like to think of the world I created as being a kind of keystone in the universe; that, small as that keystone is, if it were ever taken away the universe itself would collapse.  My last book will be the Doomsday Book, the Golden Book, of Yoknapatawpha County.  Then I shall break the pencil and I’ll have to stop.”

Malcolm Cowley in Writers  at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, First Series

Comments are welcome!

    

Q: Why don’t you teach or conduct pastel workshops?

Barbara in her studio

Barbara in her studio

A:  I am often asked to teach, but I never have had the desire to do so.  Because my work is extremely labor intensive, I am reluctant to give up precious studio time, either for teaching or for any activities that could be deemed a distraction.  Consistent in my creative practice, I typically work in my studio five days a week, seven or more hours a day and am able to complete four or five pastel-on-sandpaper paintings in a year.     

Teaching would divert time, attention, and energy away from my practice.  Certainly it can be rewarding in many ways but since my process is slow and meticulous, I prefer to focus on making new work.  

Comments are welcome!       

Q: How long does it take you to complete a pastel-on-sandpaper painting?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  Mine is a slow and labor-intensive process.  First, there is foreign travel to find the cultural objects – masks, carved wooden animals, paper mâché figures, and toys – that are my subject matter.  If they are heavy I ship them home.  

Next comes planning exactly how to photograph them, lighting and setting everything up, and shooting a roll of 220 film with my Mamiya 6 camera.  I still like to use an analog camera for my fine art work, although I am rethinking this.  I have the film developed, decide which image to use, and order a 20” x 24” reference photograph from Manhattan Photo on West 20th Street.  

Then I am ready to start.  I work on each pastel-on-sandpaper painting for approximately three months.  I am in my studio 7 to 8 hours a day, five days a week.  During that time I make thousands of creative decisions as I apply and layer soft pastels (I have 8 tables-worth to choose from!), blend them with my fingers, and mix new colors directly on the sandpaper.  A finished piece consists of up to 30 layers of soft pastel.  My self-invented technique accounts for the vivid, intense color that often leads viewers of my originals to look very closely and ask, “What medium is this?”  I believe I am pushing soft pastel to its limits, using it in ways that no other artist has done.

Comments are welcome!

Q: Why do people need art in their daily lives?

 

With Ida Bagus Anom, Mas, Bali; Photo:  Donna Tang

With Ida Bagus Anom, Mas, Bali; Photo: Donna Tang

A:  That is for each person to decide, but as someone who devotes every waking moment to my work and to becoming a better artist, I cannot imagine my life without art.  

I will tell you a little about what art has done for me.  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 talents.  In what surely must be a first, the Navy turned me into a hard-working and disciplined 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 seem likely to make me a better artist, I tend to avoid it.  I work hard to nourish and protect my  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, Sri Lanka, 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 and jazz history, and archaeology, particularly that of ancient Mesoamerica (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! 

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 55

Alexandria, VA

Alexandria, VA

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

Once a work is completed, I have to wait before undertaking another.  The completed work does not release me quickly.  It moves its chattels slowly.  The wise thing then is a change of air and of room.  The new material comes to me on my walks.  Whatever happens I mustn’t notice it.  If I interfere, it doesn’t come any more.  One fine day the work demands my help.  I give myself up to it in one fell swoop.  My pauses are its own.  If it falls asleep my pen skids.  As soon as it wakes, it gives me a shake.  It couldn’t care less if I am asleep.  Get up, it says, so that I can dictate.  And it is not easy to follow.  Its vocabulary is not of words.  

Jean Cocteau in The difficulty of Being

Comments are welcome!

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