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Q: Can you tell us about the different series of work you have created and what they embody?

Barbara’s studio with work in progress

Barbara’s studio with work in progress

A:  The Black Paintings series of pastel-on-sandpaper paintings grew directly from an earlier series, Domestic Threats.  While both use cultural objects as surrogates for human beings acting in mysterious, highly-charged narratives, in the Black Paintings I replaced all background details of my actual setup (furniture, rugs, etc.) with lush black pastel.  In this work the ‘actors’ are front and center.

While traveling in Bolivia two years ago, I visited a mask exhibition at the National Museum of Ethnography and Folklore in La Paz.  The masks were presented against black walls, spot-lit, and looked eerily like 3D versions of my Black Paintings.  I immediately knew I had stumbled upon a gift.  So  far I have completed nine pastel paintings in the Bolivianos series.  One is awaiting finishing touches, one is in progress now, and I am planning the next one.

All of my pastel paintings are an example of a style called “contemporary conceptual realism” in which things are not quite as innocent as they seem.  In this sense each painting is a kind of Trojan horse.  There is plenty of backstory to my images, although I usually prefer not to over-explain them.  Some mystery must always remain in art.

The world I depict is that of the imagination and this realm owes little debt to the natural world.  I recently gave an art talk where I was reminded how fascinating it is to learn how others respond to my work.  As New York art critic Gerrit Henry once remarked, “What we bring to a Rachko… we get back, bountifully.” 

Comments are welcome!

 

Q: When did your love of indigenous artifacts begin? Where have you traveled to collect these focal points of your works and what have those experiences taught you?

Mexico City

Mexico City

A:  As a Christmas present in 1991 my future sister-in-law sent me two brightly painted wooden animal figures from Oaxaca, Mexico. One was a blue polka-dotted winged horse.  The other was a red, white, and black bear-like figure. 

I was enthralled with this gift and the timing was fortuitous because I had been searching for new subject matter to paint. I started asking artist-friends about Oaxaca and learned that it was an important art hub.  Two well-known Mexican painters, Rufino Tamayo and Francisco Toledo, had gotten their start there, as had master photographer Manuel Alvarez Bravo.  There was a “Oaxacan School of Painting” (‘school’ meaning a style) and Alvarez Bravo had established a photography school there (the building/institution kind). I began reading everything I could find.  At the time I had only been to Mexico very briefly, in 1975.  

The following autumn, Bryan and I planned a two-week trip to visit Mexico. We timed it to see Day of the Dead celebrations in Oaxaca.  (During my research I had become fascinated with this festival).  We spent one week in Oaxaca followed by one week in Mexico City.  My interest in collecting Mexican folk art was off and running!

Along with busloads of other tourists, we visited several cemeteries in small Oaxacan towns for the “Day of the Dead.” The indigenous people tending their ancestors’ graves were so dignified and so gracious, even with so many mostly-American tourists tromping around on a sacred night, that I couldn’t help being taken with these beautiful people and their beliefs. 

From Oaxaca we traveled to Mexico City, where again I was entranced, but this time by the rich and ancient history.  We visited the National Museum of Anthropology, where I was introduced to the fascinating story of ancient Mesoamerican civilizations; the ancient city of Teotihuacan, which the Aztecs discovered as an abandoned city and then occupied as their own; and the Templo Mayor, the historic center of the Aztec empire, infamous as a place of human sacrifice.  I was astounded!  Why had I never learned in school about Mexico, this highly developed cradle of Western civilization in our own hemisphere, when so much time had been devoted to the cultures of Egypt, Greece, and elsewhere? When I returned home to Virginia I began reading everything I could find about ancient Mexican civilizations, including the Olmec, Zapotec, Mixtec, Aztec, and Maya. The first trip to Mexico opened up a whole new world and was to profoundly influence my future work. I would return there many more times, most recently to study Olmec art and archeology. In subsequent years I have traveled to Guatemala, Peru, Bolivia and other countries in search of inspiration and subject matter to depict in my work.

Comments are welcome!

Q: In the “Bolivianos” series you are exclusively depict masks. What drew you to them?

Source material for “The Champ”

Source material for “The Champ”

A:  For me a mask is so much more than a mask.  It is a living thing with its own mind, its own soul, and with a unique history.  With this series I feel as though I am creating portraits of living beings.  

These images are a return to my early days because I began as a photo-realist portrait painter.  So I am reconnecting with a first love, except with a welcome twist.  This time I do not have to satisfy a portrait client’s request to make my subject look younger or more handsome.  I am free to respond only to what the work needs. 

Comments are welcome!     

Q: Do your materials have properties that allow you to maximize what you depict in your work?

Barbara’s studio

Barbara’s studio

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

The sandpaper support allows the build up 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.

Comments are welcome!

Q: Do you have any favorites among the Mexican and Guatemalan folk art figures that you depict in your work?

Idea for an upcoming pastel painting

Idea for an upcoming pastel painting

A:  I suppose it seems that way, since I certainly paint some figures more than others.  My favorite characters change, depending on what is happening in my work.  My current favorites are a figure I have never painted before (the Balinese dragon above) and several Mexican and Guatemalan figures last painted years ago.  All will make an appearance in a pastel painting for which I am still developing preliminary ideas (above).

Comments are welcome!    

Q: How do you decide how much realism and how much imagination to put into a pastel painting?

Models, reference photograph, and pastel painting in progress

Models, reference photograph, and pastel painting in progress

A:  I wouldn’t say “decide” is the right word because creating a painting is not strictly the result of conscious decisions.  I think of my reference photograph, my preliminary sketch, and the actual folk art objects I depict as starting points.  Over the months that it takes to make a pastel painting, the resulting interpretive development pushes the painting far beyond this source material.  When all goes well, the original material disappears and characters that belong to the painting and nowhere else emerge.  

It is a mysterious process that I am still struggling to understand.  This is the best way I can describe what it feels like from the inside, as the maker.  

Comments are welcome!  

Q: Would you talk about how the Judas figures you depict in your pastel paintings function in Mexico?

Some Judases

Some Judases

A:  Here’s a good explanation from a website called “Mexican Folk Art Guide”:

“La quema de Judas or the Judas burning in Mexico is a celebration held on Sabado de Gloria (Holy Saturday).  Papier mache figures symbolizing Judas Iscariot stuffed with fireworks are exploded in local plazas in front of cheerful spectators. 

The Judases exploded in public spaces can measure up to 5 meters, while 30 cm ones can be found with a firework in their back to explode at home.

In Mexico la quema de Judas dates from the beginning of the Spanish colony when the Judas effigies were made with hay and rags and burned.  Later as paper became available and the fireworks techniques arrived, thanks to the Spanish commerce route from the Philippines, the Judases were made out of cardboard, stuffed with fireworks, and exploded.

After the Independence War the celebration lost its religious character and became a secular activity.  The Judas effigies were stuffed with candies, bread, and cigarettes to attract the crowds into the business [establishment] that sponsored the Judas. 

Judas was then depicted as a devil and identified with a corrupt official, or any character that would harm people.  In 1849 a new law stipulated that it was forbidden to relate a Judas effigy with any person by putting a name on it or dressing it in a certain way to be identified with a particular person.”                                     

This is why whenever I bring home a Judas figure from Mexico, I feel like I have rescued it from a fire-y death!

Comments are welcome!

Q: You took classes at The Art League School in Alexandria, VA in the late eighties studying intensely with Lisa Semerad and Diane Tesler. How have these experiences impacted on the way you currently produce your artworks? By the way, I sometimes wonder if a certain kind of formal training in artistic disciplines could even stifle a young artist’s creativity. What do you think?

 

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A: From studying with Lisa and Diane I gained an excellent technical foundation and developed my ability to draw and depict just about anything in soft pastel.  They were both extremely effective teachers and I worked hard in their classes.  I probably got my work ethic from them.  Without Diane and Lisa I doubt I would have gained the necessary skills nor the confidence to move to New York to pursue my art career.

Needless to say, I believe developing excellent technical skills is paramount.  Artists can, and should, go ahead and break the rules later, but they won’t be able to make strong work, expressing what they want, without a firm foundation.  Once you have the skills, you can focus on the things that really make your work come alive and speak to an appreciative audience.   

Comments are welcome!    

Q: Would you speak about the practical realities – time and expenses – involved in making your pastel-on-sandpaper paintings? What might people be surprised to learn about this aspect of art-making?

Studio

Studio

A:  I have often said that this work is labor-intensive.  In a good year I can complete five or six large (38″ x 58″) pastel paintings.  In 2013 I am on track to make four, or, on average, one completed painting every three months.  I try to spend between thirty-five and forty hours a week in the studio.  Of course, I don’t work continuously all day long.  I work for awhile, step back, look, make changes and additions, think, make more changes, step back, etc.  Still, hundreds of hours go into making each piece in the “Black Paintings” series, if we count only the actual execution.  There is also much thinking and preparation – there is no way to measure this – that happen before I ever get to stand before an empty piece of sandpaper and begin.

As far as current expenses, they are upwards of $12,000 per painting.  Here is a partial breakdown:

$4500    New York studio, rent and utilities ($1350/month) for three months                                         

$2500    Supplies, including frames (between $1500 – $1700), photographs, pastels (pro-rated), paper                  

$2000    Foreign travel to find the cultural objects, masks, etc. depicted in my work (approximate, pro-rated)                                                   

$3000    Business expenses, such as computer-related expenses, website, marketing, advertising, etc.                                                                      

This list leaves out many items, most notably compensation for my time, shipping and exhibition expenses, costs of training (i.e. ongoing photography classes), photography equipment, etc.  Given my overhead, the paintings are always priced at the bare minimum that will allow me to continue making art. 

I wonder:  ARE people surprised by these numbers?  Anyone who has ever tried it knows that art is a tough road.  Long ago I stopped thinking about the cost and began doing whatever is necessary to make the best paintings.  The quality of the work and my evolution as an artist are paramount now.  This is my life’s work, after all.  

Comments are welcome!

    

Q: What’s on the easel today?

Work in progress, 58" x 38"

Work in progress, 58″ x 38″

A:  Today is a day off to let my fingers heal.  When I start a new painting, I need to rub my fingers against raw sandpaper in order to blend the pastel.  With each layer the tooth of the paper gets filled up and becomes smooth, but until then my fingers suffer.  Here is what I’ve been working on.

This pastel-on-sandpaper painting is an experiment, an attempt to push myself to work with bigger and bolder imagery.  The photograph clipped to the easel is one of my favorites.  It depicts a Judas that Bryan and I found in a dusty shop in Oaxaca.  Among the Mexican and Guatemalan folk art pieces that I’ve collected are five papier mâché Judases.  This particular one is unusual because it has a cat’s head attached at the forehead (the purple shape in the painting).  They are not made to last.  In some Mexican towns large Judases are hung from church steeples, loaded with fireworks, and burned in effigy.  This takes place at 10:00 a.m. on the Saturday morning before Easter.  Mexico is primarily a Catholic nation, of course, so effigy burning is done as symbolic revenge against Judas for his betrayal of Christ.  The Judas in the photo is small and meant for private burning by a family (rather than in public at a church) so by bringing it back to New York I rescued it from a fire-y death!  In sympathy with Mexican tradition, I began this painting last Saturday (the day before Easter) at 10 a.m.

Comments are welcome!

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