Blog Archives

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: 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 many pastel paintings do you have in progress now?

Work in progress

Work in progress

A:  Making pastel-on-sandpaper paintings is a slow and meticulous process.  I work full-time in my studio so that in a good year I can produce five finished pieces.  Typically two are in progress at a time so that I can switch off when problems develop.

A downside to looking at a painting for months is that there comes a point when I can’t see the flaws any more.  Then it’s definitely time to take a break.  

When I put a painting that has been resting back onto my easel, I see it with fresh eyes again.  Areas that need work immediately stand out.  Problem areas become easily resolvable because I have continued to think about them while the painting was out of my sight. 

Comments are welcome!

Q: Your pastel paintings are immediately recognizable as yours alone. Did you consciously try to develop a signature style in your work?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A: I don’t believe that is even possible.  An artist’s style is something that evolves with plain hard work and experience, over many years of trial and error, as one finds what techniques work best and discards those that don’t.  It is a process of continually experimenting, refining, and clarifying.  In other words, style is something that emerges naturally as you gradually strive to improve your art-making. 

Style develops in close connection to what an artist is saying as she undergoes a very personal and idiosyncratic journey.  Again, it would seem improbable for an artist to strive for any particular style, since style is not something over which an artist can exert much conscious control. 

I would even say that each artist’s unique style is inevitable.  It would be nearly impossible now to make a pastel painting or photograph that does NOT look like a Rachko. 

Comments are welcome!

Q: Why do you make art?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  This is an excellent question and one I like to revisit because with all the day-to-day frustrations and disappointments that are a normal part of an artist’s life, it is easy to forget what is important.  

First, I make art because I have a gift and a desire to share it with others.  To not develop, express, and share all that I have to say through my work is unthinkable.

Second, I make art because it is what gives my life direction and purpose.  I believe that each human being has his or her own quest, driven by passion, to fulfill a certain duty. Recall Joseph Campbell’s, “The Hero’s Journey.”  I need to make art in order to feel that I am living up to my highest potential. 

Third, for inexplicable reasons (to me, anyway) soft pastel is an undervalued medium.  I fell in love with pastel above all other media and hope to demonstrate that great art can be created with it.  This is one of the drives that keeps me steadily working.

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!

Pearls from artists* # 71

New York street

New York street

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

Artists are individuals willing to articulate in the face of flux and transformation.  And the successful artist finds new shapes for our present ambiguities and uncertainties.  The artist becomes the creator of the future through the violent act of articulation. I say violent because articulation is a forceful act.  It demands an aggressiveness and an ability to enter into the fray and translate that experience into expression.  In the articulation begins a new organization of the inherited landscape.

My good friend the writer Charles L. Mee, Jr. helped me to recognize the relationship between art and the way societies are structured.  He suggested that, as societies develop, it is the artists who articulate the necessary myths that embody our experience of life and provide parameters for ethics and values.  Every so often the inherited myths lose their value because they become too small and confined to contain the complexities of the ever-transforming and expanding societies. In that moment new myths are needed to encompass who we are becoming.  These new constructs do not eliminate anything already in the mix; rather, they include fresh influences and engender new formations.  The new mythologies always include ideas, cultures and people formerly excluded from the previous mythologies.  So, deduces Mee, the history of art is the history of inclusion. 

Ann Bogart in A Director Prepares:  Seven Essays on Art and Theater

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 68

Hudson Rail Yards, NYC

Hudson Rail Yards, NYC

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

Get to know what you really want.  Hold on and treasure your vision.  Acknowledge that your life is a work in progress and that your goals will change and develop over time. Knowing deeply what you want to accomplish shores up doubt, builds fortitude, and pushes you to take more action.  This awareness changes how you hear and use information.  Your senses will be sharpened.  You begin to listen to everything differently; you interpret what you read, what you do, and whom you meet with your goals in mind.  You will ask better questions of those around you and seek more meaningful help.  All of this will produce a subtle yet profound shift in how you proceed and the actions you take.  It will reshape your life and have major consequences for your career.

Jackie Battenfield in The Artist’s Guide:  How to Make a Living Doing What You Love 

Comments are welcome! 

Pearls from artists* # 56

Utah

Utah

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

Balancing intuition against sensory information, and sensitivity to one’s self against pragmatic knowledge of the world, is not a stance unique to artists.  The specialness of artists is the degree to which these precarious balances are crucial backups for their real endeavor.  Their essential effort is to catapult themselves wholly, without holding back one bit, into a course of action without having any idea where they will end up.  They are like riders who gallop into the night, eagerly leaning on their horse’s neck, peering into a blinding rain.  And they have to do it over and over again.  When they find that they have ridden and ridden – maybe for years, full tilt – in what is for them a mistaken direction, they must unearth within themselves some readiness to turn direction and to gallop off again.  They may spend a little time scraping off the mud, resting the horse, having a hot bath, laughing and sitting in candlelight with friends.  But in the back of their minds they never forget that the dark, driving run is theirs to make again.  They need their balances in order to support their risks.  The more they develop an understanding of all their experience – the more it is at their command – the more they carry with them into the whistling wind.

Anne Truitt in Daybook:  The Journal of an Artist

Q: In light of the realities you discussed last week (see blog post of Aug. 24), what keeps you motivated to make art?

A favorite book

A favorite book

A:  In essence it’s that I have always worked much harder for love than for money.  I absolutely love my work, my creative process, and my chosen life.  I have experienced much tragedy –  no doubt there is more to come – but through it all, my journey as an artist is a continual adventure that gives me the ultimate freedom to spend my time on this earth as I want.  In my work I make the rules, set my own tasks, and resolve them on my own timetable.  What could be better than that? 

Furthermore, I know that I have a gift and with that comes a profound responsibility, an obligation to develop and use it to the best of my ability, regardless of what it may cost.  And when I say “cost,” I do not mean only money.   Art is a calling and all self-respecting artists do whatever is necessary to use and express our gifts.  

In “The Gift” Lewis Hyde says, “A gift is a thing we do not get by our own efforts.  We cannot buy it, we cannot acquire it through an act of will.  It is bestowed upon us.  Thus we rightly speak of “talent” as a “gift” for although a talent can be perfected through an act of will, no effort in the world can cause its initial appearance.  Mozart, composing on the harpsichord at the age of four, had a gift.”

Comments are welcome!   

%d bloggers like this: