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Q: What has been your biggest challenge so far?

"Us and Them," soft pastel on sandpaper, 47" x 38" image, 60" x 50" framed

“Us and Them,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 47″ x 38″ image, 60″ x 50″ framed

A:  On September 11, 2001, my husband Bryan, a high-ranking federal government employee, a brilliant economist (with an IQ of 180 he is the smartest man I have ever known) 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.

Comments are welcome!

Q: You have worked with twenty-plus galleries during your career. Which ones do you consider the best?

"Myth Meets Dream," 1993, soft pastel on sandpaper, the earliest painting that includes Mexican figures

“Myth Meets Dream,” 1993, soft pastel on sandpaper, the earliest painting that includes Mexican figures

A:  Probably the most prestigious gallery that represented my work was Brewster Fine Arts on West 57th Street in Manhattan.  Brewster was my first New York gallery.  In the summer of 1996 I mailed the gallery a sheet of slides, as we did in those days.  I was living in Virginia and had been a working artist for ten years.  In July while traveling around Mexico, I decided to check the phone messages at home in Virginia.  I was thrilled to receive an invitation from Mia Kim, the gallery director, to exhibit pastel paintings in October!  And she had not yet even seen my work in person.

Beginning that fall, I gained representation with Brewster Fine Arts, an elegant gallery specializing in Latin American Masters like Rufino Tamayo, Diego Rivera, and others.  I am not Latina, of course, but I showed there due to my subject matter.  At my October opening, I remember Mia declaring to the attendees, “Barbara has the soul of a Latina!”  That night I met fellow gallery artist Leonora Carrington. She and I were the only non-Latina artists respresented.  I knew I was on my way! 

The gallery continued to present my work in group exhibitions and the staff gave brilliant talks about me and my creative process.  For many years whenever I introduced myself to a new art aficionado, they already knew my work from having seen it at Brewster.  I continued to be represented there until the gallery closed years later.

Also, Gallery Bergelli in Larkspur, CA did an excellent job of representing my work.  I applied for one of their juried exhibitions, was accepted, and afterwards, they offered permanent representation.  Soon they introduced me to one of my best collectors, with whom I am still friends.

I have worked with many galleries, some good, some not, for various reasons.  Ours is an extremely tough business.  Unfortunately, many of the best and formerly-great galleries are gone forever.   

Comments are welcome!   

Q: As you reflect on your overall art career beginning with your art education, what major event stands out as an important sign that you were headed in the right direction?

"His Mortal Enemy Was Poised Ready to Strike," soft pastel on sandpaper

“His Mortal Enemy Was Poised Ready to Strike,” soft pastel on sandpaper

A:  In 1989 I left a career in the Navy to pursue life as a full-time professional artist.  In July 1996 Bryan and I were traveling in Mexico.  Something told me to check the phone messages at our Virginia house so I did.  

There was a message from Mia Kim, the director of Brewster Arts Ltd. on West 57th Street in Manhattan, requesting a dozen large pastel paintings for a two-person exhibition in October, just three months away!

At the time I was still living in Alexandria, Virginia so exhibiting in Manhattan – let alone securing prestigious gallery representation – seemed a far-off dream.   Yes, I had sent Mia slides, but she had not seen my work in person.   She first saw my “Domestic Threats” pastel paintings when I delivered them to the gallery for exhibition.  The show was called “Monkey Business.”

Brewster Arts was an elegant New York gallery that specialized in Latin American Art.  There was just one other non-Latina artist that Mia represented, Leonora Carrington, whom I met that October at my opening.   I remember Mia introducing me and declaring to the entire crowd, “Barbara has the SOUL of a Latina.”  I’ve always loved that.  It was the first time I realized I was really on my way!

Brewster Arts Ltd. continued to represent my work until the gallery closed some years later.

Comments are welcome!

Q: How many pastel paintings do you have in progress now?

Work in progress

Work in progress

A:  Making pastel-on-sandpaper paintings is a slow and meticulous process.  I work full-time in my studio so that in a good year I can produce five finished pieces.  Typically two are in progress at a time so that I can switch off when problems develop.

A downside to looking at a painting for months is that there comes a point when I can’t see the flaws any more.  Then it’s definitely time to take a break.  

When I put a painting that has been resting back onto my easel, I see it with fresh eyes again.  Areas that need work immediately stand out.  Problem areas become easily resolvable because I have continued to think about them while the painting was out of my sight. 

Comments are welcome!

Q: How do you document your work?

Barbara's portfolio book

Barbara’s portfolio book

A:  I have been a professional artist for thirty years so some things have changed and some haven’t.  I have a portfolio book of 8 x 10 photographs of all my pastel paintings.  Since my process is slow and meticulous, the latest, “Troublemaker,” is pastel painting number 124.  

I have always gotten my work professionally photographed.  Until 2001 my husband Bryan was my photographer and since then I have hired three people.  To document older work I have slides, 4 x 5 transparencies, and color and black and white 4 x 5 negatives.  I continued with slides and film longer than many artists, but finally switched to digital files a few years ago when buying film and processing it became difficult.

Comments are welcome!            

Q: Who is your favorite artist and why?

Catalogue of Matisse's late work

Catalogue of Matisse’s late work

A:  I admire the work of many artists, but if I have to choose only one then I’d say Matisse.  Whenever there is a Matisse exhibition in New York, I try to see it at least once.  Many years ago I read Hillary Spurling’s definitive two-volume biography (The Unknown Matisse, published 1998, and Matisse the Master, 2005) and became fascinated with how his life unfolded, how Matisse struggled and overcame daunting obstacles in order to  make art, and how his work continued to grow and evolve throughout his long life.  

I believe that Matisse and I are kindred souls in three respects:  we both came from unpromising beginnings (he from a textile family in northern France, me from a blue collar family in New Jersey), our fathers did not support our interest in becoming artists, and he famously worked in series (I am well into my third series).

Comments are welcome! 

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