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Q: Why do you make art?

“Why Do I Make Art” by Ursula von Rydingsvard

“Why Do I Make Art” by Ursula von Rydingsvard

A:  Last spring I viewed Ursula von Rydingsvard’s exhibition at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.  One thing that stayed with me is her wall text, “Why Do I Make Art by Ursula von Rydingsvard” in which she listed a few dozen benefits that art-making has brought to her life.  

I want to share some of my own personal reasons here, in no particular order.  My list keeps changing, but these are true at least for today. 

1.   Because I love the entire years-long creative process – from foreign travel whereby I discover new source material, to deciding what I will make, to the months spent in the studio realizing my ideas, to packing up my newest pastel painting and bringing it to my Virginia framer’s shop, to seeing the framed piece hanging on a collector’s wall, to staying in touch with collectors over the years and learning how their relationship to the work changes.

2.   Because I love walking into my studio in the morning and seeing all of that color!  No matter what mood I am in, my spirit is immediately uplifted.  

3.   Because my studio is my favorite place to be… in the entire world.  I’d say that it is my most precious creation.  It’s taken more than twenty-two years to get it this way.  I hope I never have to move!

4.   Because I get to listen to my favorite music all day or to Public Radio stations.

5.   Because when I am working in the studio, if I want, I can tune out the world and all of it’s urgent problems.  The same goes for whatever personal problems I am experiencing.

6.   Because I am devoted to my medium.  How I use pastel continually evolves.  It’s exciting to keep learning about its properties and to see what new techniques will develop.

7.   Because I have been given certain gifts and abilities and that entails a sacred obligation to USE them.  I could not live with myself were I to do otherwise.

8.   Because art-making gives meaning and purpose to my life.  I never wake up in the morning wondering, how should I spend the day?  I have important work to do and a place to do it.  I know this is how I am supposed to be spending my time on earth.

9.   Because I have an enviable commute.  To get to my studio it’s a thirty-minute walk, often on the High Line early in the morning before throngs of tourists have arrived.

10.  Because life as an artist is never easy.  It’s a continual challenge to keep forging ahead, but the effort is also never boring.  

11.  Because each day in the studio is different from all the rest. 

12.  Because I love the physicality of it.  I stand all day.  I’m always moving and staying fit.

13.  Because I have always been a thinker more than a talker.  I enjoy and crave solitude.  I am often reminded of the expression, “She who travels the farthest, travels alone.”  In my work I travel anywhere.

14.  Because spending so much solitary time helps me understand what I think and feel and to reflect on the twists and turns of my unexpected and fascinating life.

15.  Because I learn about the world.  I read and do research that gets incorporated into the work.

16.  Because I get to make all the rules.  I set the challenges and the goals, then decide what is succeeding and what isn’t.  It is working life at its most free.

17.  Because I enjoy figuring things out for myself instead of being told what to do or how to think.

18.  Because despite enormous obstacles, I am still able to do it.  Art-making has been the focus of my life for thirty-three years – I was a late bloomer – and I intend to continue as long as possible.

19.  Because I have been through tremendous tragedy and deserve to spend the rest of my life doing exactly what I love.  The art world has not caught up yet, but so be it.  This is my passion and my life’s work and nothing will change that.

20.  Because thanks to the internet and via social media, my work can be seen in places I have never been to and probably will never go.

21.  Because I would like to be remembered.  The idea of leaving art behind for future generations to appreciate and enjoy is appealing.

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 356

Some of Barbara’s pastels

Some of Barbara’s 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.

Science is concerned with the general, the abstract, and the knowable.  In contrast, art deals with the particular, the unknowable, the singular.  This applies not just to the content of artistic works but also to the way this content is received.  Even in the case of a film or concert attended by large numbers of people, the artistic experience remains a fundamentally solitary one.  Each one of us lives the work from the work alone.  Whatever sense of togetherness accompanies the experience comes precisely from the fact that, faced with the singularity of the aesthetic moment, each percipient feels his aloneness before the radical mystery that enfolds us all.  Wherever an act of creation is shared with others, then, there is individuation – not just for the author of the work but for the audience too.  The singularity of art awakens us to our own singularity, and through it to the singularity in the Other.  I have argued that artifice unifies by imposing a univocal image that replicates itself indefinitely in each spectator.  True art tears the spectral out of the mass of sameness, calling forth from the numberless crowd a new people and a new communion.  

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* # 326

"Acolytes," soft pastel on sandpaper, 38" x 58"

“Acolytes,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 38″ x 58″

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

Art is… a longest road through life, and when I think how slight and beginnerish what I have done till now is, I am not surprised that this production (which resembles a strip or half-tilled field a foot wide) does not sustain me.  For plans bear no fruit, and seed prematurely sown does not sprout.  But patience and work are real and can at any moment be transformed into bread. ‘Il faut toujours travailler,’ Rodin said whenever I attempted to complain to him about the schism in daily life; he knew no other solution, and this of course had been his… To stick to my work and have every confidence in it, this I am learning from his  great and greatly given example, as I learn patience from him:  it is true, my experience tells me over and over that I haven’t much strength to reckon with, for which reason I shall, so long as it is in any way possible, not do two things, not separate livelihood and work, rather try to find both in the one concentrated effort:  only thus can my life become something good and necessary and heal together out of the tattered state for which heredity and immaturity have been responsible, into one bearing trunk.

Therefore I shall determine my next place of abode, all else aside, from the point of view of my work and that only.  I want this the more, since I feel myself in the midst of developments and transitions (changes that affect observation and creation equally), which may slowly lead to that toujours travailler with which all outer and inner difficulties, dangers and confusions would really be in a certain sense overcome.. for whoever can always work, can live too, must be able to.         

Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, Translation by M.D. Herter Norton

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from Artists* # 313

Barbara and Tomas in Panajachel, Guatemala

Barbara and Tomas in Panajachel, Guatemala

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

Proclaiming that the object in Surrealism was fundamental, [Andre] Breton suggests a radical transition in surrealist creation, one that liberated the poet-artist from all constraints in the making of the artistic object.  Breton’s text calls for a “revolution of the object,” suggesting that in the placing of an object into a new context, and thus attributing it with a new meaning – also called a “detournement” – which takes precedence.  Drawing in his interpretation of Hegelian subject-object relations, Breton describes the “object” as a work of art that relies on a philosophical procedure, affirming the surrealist process as one that is realized in the experience of apprehending the object through a dialectical method.  Citing the work of Marcel Duchamp and Max Ernst, Breton explains that an object may become a product of surrealist creation through the simple “manipulation” of it.  Here ”manipulation“ is defined as a procedure which reveals the object in its original and new state at the same time.  If taking an object out of its original context and placing it in a new space creates the potential for a creative act, then this text seems to validate the surrealist practice of collecting.  As the collector acquired objects and unites them in a gallery or a home, they assume new significance contingent upon their physical juxtaposition to other objects.

Moon Dancers:  Yup’ik Masks and the Surrealists, edited by Jennifer Field, Introduction by Christina Rudofsky

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 299

"The Storyteller," soft pastel on sandpaper, 20" x 26"

“The Storyteller,” 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.

The artist is always and for all time a seer, and artistic creation is always and for all time an act of prophecy.

The artist does not choose the prophecy.  Rather, the prophetic shines through her work.  It comes from elsewhere.

The artist therefore needs enough courage to stay true to the work at hand.  Even greater courage is required of those to whom the finshed work is given, for their interests will always recommend dismissing the vision for fear of its implications.  

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

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 290

"Dichotomy," soft pastel on sandpaper, 38" x 58"

“Dichotomy,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 38″ x 58″

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

Rational functionalism is technique,

Irrational functionalism is art.

Art is creation

It can be based on but is independent of knowledge.

We can study art through nature,

but art is more than nature. 

Art is spirit,

and has a life of its own.

Art in its nature is anti-historical

because creative work is looking forward.

It can be connected with tradition

but grows, consciously or unconsciously, out of an artist’s mentality.

Art is neither imitation nor repetition

but art is revelation. 

Joseph Albers in Truthfulness in Art iJoseph Albers in Mexico, edited by Lauren Hinkson

Comments are welcome! 

Pearls from artists* # 242

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

“Figment,” 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.

Of this there can be no question – creative work requires the loyalty of water to the force of gravity.  A person trudging through the wilderness of creation who does not know this – who does not swallow this – is lost.  He who does not crave that roofless place eternity should stay home.  Such a person is perfectly worthy, and useful, and even beautiful, but is not an artist.  Such a person had better live with timely ambitions and finished work formed for the sparkle of the moment only.  Such a person had better go off and fly an airplane.     

Mary Oliver in Upstream: Selected Essays

Comments are welcome!

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: What was the first painting you ever sold?

“Bryan’s Ph.D.”, 11″ x 13 1/2″, soft pastel on sandpaper

A:  I believe my first sale was “Bryan’s Ph.D.”  I made it in 1990 as one of several small paintings created to improve my skills at rendering human hands in pastel.  I had recently left the Navy and was building a career as a portrait artist.  Bryan, my late husband, was often my model for these studies, not only because it was convenient, but because he had such beautiful hands. 

In 1990 Bryan was working on his Ph.D. in economics at the University of Maryland.  In this painting he is drawing a diagram that illustrates a theoretical point about “international public goods,” the subject of his research.  He was sitting in an old wooden rocking chair in our backyard in Alexandria, VA.  I still own the chair and the house.  I photographed his hands close-up and then created the painting.  I don’t remember which of Bryan’s cameras I used, but it was one that took 35 mm film; perhaps his Nikon F-2.  Somewhere I must still have the negative and the original reference photo.

“Bryan’s Ph.D.” is 11″ x 13 1/2″ and it sold for $500 at a monthly juried exhibition at The Art League in Alexandria.  I have not seen it since 1990.  (Above is a photograph of “Bryan’s Ph.D.” from my portfolio book).

Not long ago the owner contacted me, explaining that she had received the painting as a gift from her now ex-husband.  She was selling it because it evoked bitter memories of her divorce.  Her phone call was prompted by uncertainty about the painting’s value now.  She had a likely buyer and needed to know what price to charge.

I was saddened because I have so many beautiful memories of this particular painting and of an idyllic time in my life with Bryan.  He was on a leave of absence from the Pentagon to work on his dissertation, while I was finished with active duty.  At last I was a full time artist, busily working in the spare bedroom that we had turned into my first studio.  

My conversation with the owner was a reminder that once paintings are let out into the world, they take on associations that have nothing to do with the personal circumstances surrounding their creation.  In short, what an artist creates solely out of love, stands a good chance of not being loved or appreciated by others.  This is one reason to only sell my work to people I select personally.  I ended the telephone conversation hoping that “Bryan’s Ph.D.” fares better in its new home.  

Comments are welcome!     

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