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Q: Why do you need to use a photograph as a reference source to make a pastel painting?

One of Barbara's reference photos

One of Barbara’s reference photos

A:  When I was about 4 or 5 years old I discovered that I had a natural ability to draw anything that I could see.  It’s the way my brain is wired and it is a gift!  One of my earliest memories as an artist is of copying the Sunday comics.  Always it has been much more difficult to draw what I CANNOT see, i.e., to recall how things look solely from memory or to invent them outright.

The evolution of my pastel-on-sandpaper paintings has been the opposite of what one might expect.  I started out making extremely photo-realistic portraits.  I remember feeling highly unflattered when after months of hard work, someone would look at my completed painting and say, “It looks just like a photograph!”  I know this was meant as a compliment, but to me it meant that I had failed as an artist.   Art is so much more than copying physical appearances.

So I resolved to move away from photo-realism.  It has been slow going and part of me still feels like a slacker if I don’t put in all the details.  But after nearly three decades I have arrived at my present way of working, which although still highly representational, contains much that is made up, simplified, and/or stylized.  As I have always done, I continue to work from life and from photographs, but at a certain point I put everything aside and work solely from memory.

Comments are welcome!

Q: Would you talk about some of your early experiences with art?

Zebras in Chelsea

Zebras in Chelsea

A:   I grew up in a blue collar family in suburban New Jersey. My father was a television repairman for RCA. For awhile my mother worked as a sewing machine operator in a factory that made women’s undergarments, but mostly she stayed home to raise my sister and me (at the time I had only one sister, Denise; Michele was born much later).  My parents were both first-generation Americans and in those days no one in my extended family had gone to college. I was a smart kid and showed some artistic talent in kindergarten or earlier.  I have always been able to draw anything, as long as I can see it (i.e., I require a visual reference as opposed to drawing from memory).  I remember copying the Sunday comics, which in those days appeared in all the newspapers.  At the age of 6 my mother enrolled Denise and me in Saturday morning painting classes at the studio of an artist named Frances Hulmes in Rutherford, NJ.  I continued the classes for about 8 years and became a fairly adept oil painter. Living just 12 miles from New York City in Clifton, New jersey, my mother often took us to museums, particularly the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Museum of Natural History.  I remember falling in love with Rousseau’s “The Sleeping Gypsy” and being astonished by the violence and scale of Picasso’s “Guernica,” when it was on long-term loan to MoMA. I have fond memories of studying the dioramas at the Museum of Natural History.  They are still my favorite part of the museum. I suppose it goes without saying that there were not any artists in my family so I had no role models.  At the age of 15 my father decided that art was not a serious pursuit – he said it was a hobby, not a profession – so he abruptly stopped paying for my Saturday morning lessons. With no financial or moral support to pursue art, I turned my attention to other interests (ex. I learned to fly airplanes, becoming a commercial pilot and Boeing 727 flight engineer) and let my artistic abilities lie dormant.

Comments are welcome!

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