Blog Archives

Q: What qualities do you think mark the highest artistic achievement?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  If I may speak in the most general terms, several qualities come to mind that, for me, mark real artistic achievement: 

  • firm artistic control that allows the artist to create works that simultaneously demonstrate formal coherence while responding to inner necessity
  • the creation of new forms and techniques that are adapted to expressing the artist’s highly personal vision
  • an authentic and balanced fusion of form, method, and idea
  • using material from one’s own idiosyncratic experiences and subtly transforming it in a personal inimitable way during the creative process
  • the meaning of the thing created is rigorously subordinated to its design, which once established, generates its own internal principles of harmony and coherence  

Comments are welcome! 

Q: Your pastel paintings are immediately recognizable as yours alone. Did you consciously try to develop a signature style in your work?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A: I don’t believe that is even possible.  An artist’s style is something that evolves with plain hard work and experience, over many years of trial and error, as one finds what techniques work best and discards those that don’t.  It is a process of continually experimenting, refining, and clarifying.  In other words, style is something that emerges naturally as you gradually strive to improve your art-making. 

Style develops in close connection to what an artist is saying as she undergoes a very personal and idiosyncratic journey.  Again, it would seem improbable for an artist to strive for any particular style, since style is not something over which an artist can exert much conscious control. 

I would even say that each artist’s unique style is inevitable.  It would be nearly impossible now to make a pastel painting or photograph that does NOT look like a Rachko. 

Comments are welcome!

Q: In terms of change where will you take your work next?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  That’s difficult to say because creating new pastel paintings is a somewhat mysterious process.  Change happens on its own timetable and in its own way rather than from my efforts to exert conscious control over it.  In essence it is my job to keep working in the studio, to be sensitive and true to my own creative process, and to go where the work leads.  I doubt that I could work otherwise and still claim to be authentic.

Comments are welcome!     

Pearls from artists* # 125

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

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

My own natural proclivity is to categorize the world around me, to remove unfamiliar objects from their dangerous  perches by defining, compartmentalizing and labeling them.  I want to know what things are and I want to know where they are and I want to control them.  I want to remove the danger and replace it with the known.  I want to feel safe.  I want to feel out of danger.

And yet, as an artist, I know that I must welcome the strange and the unintelligible into my awareness and into my working process.  Despite my propensity to own and control everything around me, my job is to “make the familiar strange and the strange familiar,” as Bertolt Brecht recommended:  to un-define and un-tame what has been delineated by belief systems and conventions, and to welcome the discomfort of doubt and the unknown, aiming to make visible what has become invisible by habit.

Because life is filled with habit, because our natural desire is to make countless assumptions and treat our surroundings as familiar and unthreatening, we need art to wake us up.  Art un-tames, reifies and wakes up the part of our lives that have been put to sleep and calcified by habit.  The artist, or indeed anyone who wants to turn daily life into an adventure, must allow people, objects and places to be dangerous and freed from the definitions that they have accumulated over time.            

Anne Bogart in What’s the Story:  Essays about art, theater, and storytelling

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 74

Untitled, chromogenic print, 24" x 24," edition of 5

Untitled, chromogenic print, 24″ x 24,” edition of 5

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

An artist is known by his or her works.  But how often do we consider that much of what we know depends on factors that were beyond the artist’s control?  A few that come to mind are value on the art market, the knowledge and forethought of the artist’s survivors as they decide to keep or discard works, research interests of art and photo historians and the ways in which these change over time, willingness of dealers, collectors, and museum curators to provide information about the existence of works, the state of printing technology, and the availability of financing for exhibitions and publications.

Laszlo Moholy-Nagy:  Color in Transparency, edited by Jeannine Fiedler and Hattula Maholy-Nagy for the Bauhaus-Archive Berlin

Comments are welcome! 

Q: Have you ever worked outside?

Reproductions of "Cardinal Rule" (top) and "Blue Ego," originals are soft pastel on sandpaper, 30" x 38"

Reproductions of “Cardinal Rule” (top) and “Blue Ego,” originals are soft pastel on sandpaper, 30″ x 38″

A:  As a pastel artist I’ve never worked outside – with so many pastels, it’s just not practical – but early on in the “Domestic Threats” series, I created two outdoor setups.  Works in the series derived from elaborate scenes that I arranged and then photographed.  

I used to take long walks along the Potomac River in Alexandria, VA, and there was a tree stump that was fascinating.  It was mostly twisted roots, knotty branches, dark hidden spaces, etc. (top painting in photo).  One morning I took several hand puppets and stuffed animals (my subject matter at the time) and carefully arranged them on the tree.  Around me people were busy exercising their dogs.  Soon I attracted quite a bit of attention – a tall blonde woman playing with puppets on a tree stump!  Dogs came over to sniff.  Their owners came over, too, and I was pressed into explaining, again and again, that I was an artist, that I was photographing this scene so I could paint it, etc.  The interruptions were very annoying.

The second time I tried an outdoor setup was again along the Potomac River, but this time I selected a secluded strip of beach where I was undisturbed.  I had forgotten to consider the light and inadvertently chose a cloudy day.  I remember being disappointed that the light was flat and lacking shadows.  The painting (bottom in photo) turned out to be one of my least favorites. 

I resolved from then on to focus on interiors.  Alfred Hitchcock famously used rear projection so that he could work in a studio rather than on location.  One reason, he said, was that in a studio he had total control.  I know what he meant.  When I set up an interior scene and position the lights to make interesting shadows, indeed, I have control over the whole look.  No aspect is left to chance.   The accidents – improvements! – happen later when I work on the painting.  

Comments are welcome!    

Pearls from artists* # 12

Grand Falls, AZ

Grand Falls, AZ

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

People who set their sails into art tend to work very hard.  They train themselves in school; they practice and they read and they think and they talk.  But for most of them there seems to be a more or less conscious cutoff point.  It can be a point in time:  “I will work until I am twenty-one (twenty-five, thirty, or forty).”  Or a point in effort:  “I will work three hours a day (or eight or ten).” Or  a point in pleasure:  “I will work unless…” and here the “enemies of promise” harry the result.  These are personal decisions, more or less of individual will.  They depend on the scale of values according to which artists organize their lives.  Artists have a modicum of control.  Their development is open-ended.  As the pressure of their work demands more and more of them. they can stretch to meet it.  They can be open to themselves, and as brave as they can be to see who they are, what their work is teaching them.  This is never easy.  Every step forward is a clearing through a thicket of reluctance and habit and natural indolence.  And all the while they are at the mercy of events.  They may have a crippling accident, or may find themselves yanked into a lifelong responsibility such as the necessity to support themselves and their families.  Or a war may wipe out the cultural context on which they depend. Even the most fortunate have to adjust the demands of a personal obsession to the demands of daily life.

Anne Truitt, Daybook: The Journal of an Artist

Comments are welcome.

Pearls from artists* # 5

Arizona storm

Arizona storm

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

Flying over the desert yesterday, I found myself lifted out of my preoccupations by noticing suddenly that everything was curved.  Seen whole from the air, circumscribed by its global horizon, the earth confronted me bluntly as a context all its own, echoing that grand sweep.  I had the startling impression that I was looking at something intelligent.  Every delicate pulsation of color was met, matched, challenged, repulsed, embraced by another, none out of proportion, each at its own unique and proper part of the whole.  The straight lines with which human beings have marked the land  are impositions of a different intelligence, abstract in this area of the natural.  Looking down at these facts, I began to see my life as somewhere between these two orders of the natural and the abstract, belonging entirely neither to one nor to the other.

In my work as an artist I m accustomed to sustaining such tensions:  A familiar position between my senses, which are natural, and my intuition of an order they both mask and illuminate.  When I draw a straight line or conceive of an arrangement of tangible elements all my own, I inevitably impose my own order on matter.  I actualize this order, rendering it accessible to my senses.  It is not so accessible until actualized.

An eye for this order is crucial for an artist.  I notice that as I live from day to day, observing and feeling what goes on both inside and outside myself, certain aspects of what is happening adhere to me, as if magnetized by a center of psychic gravity.  I have learned to trust this center, to rely on its acuity and to go along with its choices although the center itself remains mysterious to me.  I sometimes feel as if I recognize my own experience.  It is a feeling akin to that of unexpectedly meeting a friend in a strange place, of being at once startled and satisfied – startled to find outside myself what feels native to me, satisfied to be so met.  It is exhilarating.

I have found that this process of selection, over which I have virtually no control, isolates those aspects of my experience that are most essential to me in my work because they echo my own attunement to what life presents me.  It is as if there are external equivalents for truths which I already in some mysterious way know.  In order to catch these equivalents, I have to stay “turned on” all the time, to keep my receptivity to what is around me totally open.  Preconception is fatal to this process.  Vulnerability is implicit in it; pain, inevitable.

Anne Truitt, Daybook: The Journal of an Artist 

Comments are welcome.