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Q; What was the spark that got you started? (Question from Barbara Smith via Facebook)

Ensign Barbara Rachko, circa 1983
Ensign Barbara Rachko, circa 1983

A: If I had to select one factor, I would say, profound unhappiness with my professional life. In 1986 I was a 33-year-old Navy Lieutenant working as a computer analyst at the Pentagon. I hated my job, was utterly miserable, and moreover, I was trapped because unlike many jobs, it’s not possible to resign a Naval commission with two weeks notice.

My bachelor’s degree had been in psychology. When I was in my 20s and before I joined the Navy, I had spent two years and my own money training to become a licensed commercial pilot and Boeing-727 Flight Engineer. I had planned to become an airline pilot, but due to bad timing (airlines were not hiring pilots when I was looking for a job), that did not come to pass.

So there I was with absolutely no interest, nor any training in computers, working for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and completely bored. I knew I must have taken a wrong turn somewhere and resolved to make a significant change. Searching around, I discovered a local art school, the Art League School in Alexandria, VA, and began taking drawing classes.

One drawing class lead to more. Within a couple of years, due to being highly motivated to change my life, my technical skills rapidly improved. Even then, I believe, it was obvious to anyone who knew me that I had found my calling. I resigned my active duty Naval commission and have been a fulltime professional artist since October 1989. (Note: For fourteen more years I remained in the Naval Reserve working, mostly at the Pentagon, one weekend a month and two weeks each year, and retired as a Navy Commander in 2003).

Life as a self-employed professional artist is endlessly varied, fulfilling, and interesting. I have never once regretted my decision to pursue art fulltime!

Comments are welcome!

Q: How do you stay motivated to create new work?

"False Friends," 50” x 70,” one of Cheryll and John's pastel paintings

“False Friends,” 50” x 70,” one of Cheryll and John’s pastel paintings

A:  There are many reasons to continue to make art.  First, I am fascinated by my months- if not years-long creative process.  It begins with travel to remote destinations and ends in framed pastel paintings in my studio, hanging in galleries, at art fairs, in collectors’ homes, etc.  Each new pastel painting is another thread in an expanding tapestry that is my entire body of work.  It’s fascinating to never know where the process, or the paintings, will end up nor who will be touched by the work.

My pastel paintings continue to garner appreciation among a growing list of collectors.  Here’s a recent email from a couple that has been collecting my work from the beginning.

 

hello barbara,

merry christmas!
we are thrilled and thrilled and thrilled for your good news from miami and naples.
. . . “tense peace, a tumultuous stillness” . . .
we know we love you and we love your work.
how lucky are we to live with your work in our home, in our lives.
we love to read how others describe it.

thanks for sharing.
happy us to have you and your art in our lives,
love to you,
john & cheryll

your work stopped me in my tracks decades ago.
the sight of your work never left me.
i knew that i had to have it near me at some time, no matter what the cost.
i began immediately to negotiate with john.
you know the story . . .
i promised that i would not buy a single thing for five years if i could have one piece of your art.
i held true for the five years and beyond, adding three more pieces of your work.

if we had the wherewithal, your work would be on every floor.

there is never a day that goes by without thinking how brilliant that work is and how it has enriched our deepest sense of visual joy.
we see the rain pouring down, the snow falling, the clouds scudding by, in false friends.
i admit, we don’t allow the sun to shine on them. i couldn’t bear for her to be damaged.
your thoughtful, brilliant words kept us from changing the highly-reflective plexi to something that would have dulled the drama of us walking in front of and being a part of the work.
we still have those words.
it took about one-half of one second for my thinking to change.
and, man, are we grateful.

it never occurred to us that your work wouldn’t be sought after.
always, we walk into a museum and see your work on the walls.
on the walls of the hemi-cycle at the corcoran.
on the walls of the whitney.
on the walls of the met breurer.
on any large white space that would allow each piece to breathe.

we have always known, deep in our marrow that your work is singular.
you have always had our hearts . . . since the second i walked into the torpedo factory, a first-grade teacher with a first-grade teacher’s salary, and knew that i’d sell my honda civic and walk rather than not have in reality, the frogs thought they were men (i know that the title of the piece is something like that . . . the decades have blurred the words).
so, we waited and then . . .

sigh . . .

all the best to you.
we are excited out of our ever-loving minds for you.
but . . . we’ve always known . . .

love, 

c & j

 

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 179

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

“Offering,” 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.

Michael Kimmelman:  You studied art in school.  You started collecting early.

David Bowie:  Yeah, I collected very early on.  I have a couple of Tintorettos, which I’ve had for many, many years.  I have a Rubens.  Art was, seriously, the only thing I’ve ever wanted to own.  It has always been for me a stable nourishment.  I use it.  It can change the way that I feel in the mornings.  The same work can change me in different ways, depending on what I’m going through.  For instance, somebody I like very much is Frank Auerbach.  I think there are some mornings that if we hit each other a certain way – myself and a portrait by Auerbach – the work can magnify the kind of depression I’m going through.  It will give spiritual weight to the angst.  Some mornings I’ll look at it and go:  “Oh, God, Yeah!  I know!”  But that same painting, on a different day, can produce in me the incredible feeling of the triumph of trying to express myself as an artist.  I can look at it and say:  “My God, Yeah!  I want to sound like that looks.”

“At Heart an Artist with Many Muses,” by Michael Kimmelman, The New York Times, Friday, January 15, 2016

Comments are welcome!  

 

Q: What’s on the easel today?

Work in progress

Work in progress

 

A:  I am in the early stages – only 3 or 4 layers of pastel applied so far – on a large pastel painting with the working title, “He and She.”  The figures are two favorites –  a four-foot tall male and female couple, made of carved wood and silver and gold-leaf.  I found them years ago at Galerie Eugenio in Mexico City. 

These are the largest heads I have ever painted.  As I work on this piece I remember one of my teachers saying, “Never paint a head larger than life-size.”  Well, here’s to breaking rules.     

For reference I am looking at a digital photograph shot with my Canon T3i.  My usual practice is to make a c-print from a negative made with my Mamiya 6, but the photo clipped to my easel above is from a high resolution JPEG.  Typically I set up a scene at home on a black cloth and photograph it, but my reference photo was taken in my studio without rearranging anything.  In  this painting I am breaking a few rules, while my creative process is perhaps evolving towards  greater simplicity.         

Comments are welcome!

Q: Can you discuss your process, including how you actually use Mexican and Guatemalan folk art figures in your art?

A corner of Barbara's studio

A corner of Barbara’s studio

A:  When I set up the figures to photograph for a painting, I work very intuitively, so how I actually cast them in an artwork is difficult to say. Looks count a lot – I select an object and put it in a particular place, look at it, move it or let it stay, and sometimes develop a storyline. I spend time arranging lights and looking for interesting cast shadows. With my first “Domestic Threats” series, all of this was done so that Bryan, my late husband, or I could shoot a couple of negatives with his Toyo Omega 4″ x 5″ view camera.  For  my “Black Paintings” series, begun in 2007, I shoot medium format negatives with a Mamiya 6 camera.

I always look at a 20″ x 24″ photograph for reference as I make a pastel-on-sandpaper painting, plus I also work from the ‘live’ objects.  The photograph is mainly a catalyst because finished paintings are always quite different from their associated reference photos.  Also, since I spend months creating them, the paintings’ interpretative development goes way beyond that of the photo.   

I once completed 6 large (58” x 38”) pastel paintings in a single year, but more recently 4 or 5 per year is common.  It takes approximately 3 months to make each one.  During that time I layer and blend together as many as 25 to 30 layers of pastel. Of course, the colors get more intense as the painting progresses and the pigment accumulates on the sandpaper.

Comments are welcome!

Q: Is there an overarching narrative in your photographs with Mexican and Guatemalan figures?

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

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

A:  Maybe, but that’s something for the viewer to judge. I never specify exactly what my work is about for a couple of reasons:  my thinking about the meaning of my work constantly evolves, plus I wouldn’t want to cut off other people’s interpretations.  Everything is equally valid.  I heard Annie Leibovitz interviewed some time ago on the radio. She said that after 40 years as a photographer, everything just gets richer. It doesn’t get easier, it just gets richer. I’ve been a painter for 27 years, a photographer for 11, and I agree completely. Creating this work is an endlessly fascinating intellectual journey.  I realize that I am only one voice in a vast art world, but I hope that through the ongoing series of questions and answers on my blog, I am conveying some sense of how artists work and think.

Comments are welcome!

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