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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!

Q: Your work is unlike anyone else’s. There is such power and boldness in your pastels. What processes are you using to create such poignant and robustly colored work?

Barbara working on an interview. Photo: Maria Cox

Barbara working on an interview. Photo: Maria Cox

A:  For thirty-three years I have worked exclusively in soft pastel on sandpaper.  Pastel, which is pigment and a binder to hold it together, is as close to unadulterated color as an artist can get.  It allows for very saturated color, especially using the self-invented techniques I have developed and mastered. I believe my “science of color” is unique, completely unlike how any other artist works.  I spend three to four months on each painting, applying pastel and blending the layers together to mix new colors on the paper.  

The acid-free sandpaper support allows the buildup of 25 to 30 layers of pastel as I slowly and meticulously work for hundreds of hours to complete a painting.  The paper is extremely forgiving.  I can change my mind, correct, refine, etc. as much as I want until a painting is the best I can create at that moment in time. 

My techniques for using soft pastel achieve rich velvety textures and exceptionally vibrant color.  Blending with my fingers, I painstakingly apply dozens of layers of pastel onto the sandpaper.  In addition to the thousands of pastels that I have to choose from, I make new colors directly on the paper.  Regardless of size, each pastel painting takes about four months and hundreds of hours to complete.  

I have been devoted to soft pastel from the beginning.  In my blog and in numerous interviews online and elsewhere, I continue to expound on its merits.  For me no other fine art medium comes close. 

My subject matter is singular.  I am drawn to Mexican, Guatemalan, and Bolivian cultural objects—masks, carved wooden animals, papier mâché figures, and toys.  On trips to these countries and elsewhere I frequent local mask shops, markets, and bazaars searching for the figures that will populate my pastel paintings.  How, why, when, and where these objects come into my life is an important part of the creative process.  Each pastel painting is a highly personal blend of reality, fantasy, and autobiography.

Comments are welcome!

Q: It is well known that you gain inspiration from foreign travel. Has anyone ever accused you of stealing their culture?

The Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca

The Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca

A:  Yes, a few people have done so via comments on Facebook.  It came as a shock.  

The logic of such an accusation presumes ownership.   I don’t believe any person has a claim to owning culture.

Travel is arguably the best education there is.  My travels around the world, supplemented with lots of research once I return home, are an important part of my creative process.  This is how I develop ideas to forge a way ahead.  It is difficult and solitary work.

Every artist is tasked with remaining open to influences – however, wherever, and whenever they appear.   Somewhat late in life, travel as a source of inspiration found ME.  And it has been a blessing!

People around the world have become fans.  Many send messages of thanks saying they are proud that some aspect of their country’s culture has inspired my work.  I am always grateful and touched to know this.

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!

Q: On an average day in the studio, how much of your time is spent in the physical act of making art?

Working

Working

A:  My typical studio day is from 10:00 to 5:00.  When I arrive, I often read for half an hour.  Reading helps me relax and focus and get into the mindset I need to do my work.   While I read, I look at the painting on my easel, assess it’s current state, and decide where to begin working.

Then I work until lunch time, generally around 1:00.  After lunch I work for another five hours or so, taking a break whenever I want.

This has been more or less my schedule for five days a week for years.  At an earlier point as I was developing my craft, I would work 9- or 10-hour days and six days a week.

My creative process is relatively slow.  In a typical year I create five  new pastel paintings.  This year I am right on schedule.  I have completed four and am working on a fifth.

Comments are welcome!    

Pearls from artists* # 255

Barbara at work on "The Storyteller"

Barbara at work on “The Storyteller”

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

… several basic assumptions I have about the need for authenticity:

  1. Because in the end there is no other kind of art.
  2. I could have used the word ‘originality,” rather than authenticity, if the word’s root in “origin,” as in, “from the depth or source,” is recognized.  However, the word implies a certain newness, “never done before,” that authenticity does not, and art in general does not need, in order to be deeply personal.
  3. Something that is authentic “rings true” for us.  It comes from an inner truth.  We draw from a source that is inner-directed rather than outer-directed, to use Maslow’s expression about self-actualization.
  4. Creating work that is authentic has a sacredness about it.  It may be a way out – a small way perhaps, but at least a personal way – of a social dynamic that is all economics, consumerism, greed, and disregard for inner life.  The word “science” comes from a root meaning “to separate.”  Our cultural world view has been deeply influenced by that.  Anything that we come to authentically in our artistic expression demands a personal inner synthesis.  It is experience and insight won firsthand.  The more we assimilate our “experience” from the advertising/media/consumer/government perspective the less authentic it will be.
  5. Most of what we express creatively is prelinguistic.  The deeper insights are obviously coming from somewhere.  They are not logically structured in the mind, but it may take logic to get them expressed.
  6. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter to the world if you paint or dance or write.  The world can probably get by without your efforts.  But that is not the point.  The point is what the inner process of following your creative process will do, to you.  It is clearly abut process.  Love the work, love the process.  Our fascination will pull our attention forward.  That, also, will fascinate the viewer.   

 Ian Roberts in Creative Authenticity:  16 Principles to Clarify and Deepen Your Artistic Vision

Comments are welcome!

Q: What personality traits do you possess that have been most helpful in your art career?

A few of Barbara's pastels

A few of Barbara’s pastels

A:  I suppose it’s curiosity about all sorts of things, but particularly about the creative process.  I am forever curious about how my personal creative process might evolve and develop and where it might possibly lead.  Making art is an ongoing source of discovery. The longer I am an artist, the richer the whole experience becomes.

Also, I possess an unwavering love of craft.  Even after thirty years, I still enjoy experimenting with new pastels, pushing myself to use them in new ways, and endeavoring to create the best work I can.

Comments are welcome! 

Q: How do you decide what to paint next?

Work in progress

Work in progress

A:  It’s interesting how my creative process is simplifying the longer I work at this.  For my most recent piece, I looked at my old 20″ x 24″ c-prints until a particular image seemed to call out.  It became my next project. 

Comments are welcome!

Q: How do you experience art in New York?

 

 

Lower Manhattan

Lower Manhattan

 

A:  As a New York artist I am very fortunate to live in a city with a vibrant, exciting cultural scene.  Simply put, art is in the air here and I take inspiration from everything I see and experience:  painting, photography, sculpture, installation, performance art, public art, dance, theater, film, opera, jazz, etc.  This city itself is an endlessly fascinating place.  Visually it is always thrilling!  I never know what I am going to see – good and bad – whenever I leave my apartment.  

I have been living here since April 1997.  The city provides a heady mix to ponder and this mix mysteriously enriches, influences, and somehow finds its way into the work.  I have been an artist for nearly thirty years and I continue to be intrigued with watching the intricacies of how my creative process evolves and grows.    

Comments are welcome!                

Q: How do you select a photograph to use as reference material to make a pastel painting?

Photograph, left, and work in progress

Photograph, left, and work in progress

A:  Like everything else associated with my studio practice, my use of photographs from which to work has changed considerably. Beginning in the early 1990s all of the paintings in my first series, “Domestic Threats,” started out as elaborately staged, well-lit scenes that either my husband, Bryan, or I photographed with Bryan’s Toyo Omega 4 x 5 view camera using a wide-angle lens.   Depending on where I was living at the time, I set up the scenes in one of three places:  our house in Alexandria, VA, a six-floor walkup apartment on West 13th Street in New York, or my current Bank Street condominium.  Then one of us shot two pieces of 4 x 5 film at different exposures and I’d usually select the more detailed one to be made into a 20″ x 24″ photo to use as a reference.  

Just as the imagery in my paintings has simplified and emptied out over the years, my creative process has simplified, too.  I often wonder if this is a natural progression that happens as an artist gets older.  More recently I have been shooting photos independently of how exactly I will use them in my work.  Only later do I decide which ones to make into paintings; sometimes it’s YEARS later.  For example, the pastel painting that is on my easel now is based on a relatively old (2002) photograph that I have always liked, but only now felt ready to tackle in pastel.

Comments are welcome!  

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