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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: 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: 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: What historical art movement do you most identify with?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  I’d have to say that I identify most with surrealism, although my work does not exactly fit into any particular art historical movement.  When I was first finding my way as an artist, I read everything I could find about surrealism in art and in literature.  This research still res0nates deeply and is a tremendous influence on my studio practice.  Elements of surrealism DO fit my work.  Here’s an excerpt from Wikipedia:

Surrealism is a cultural movement that began in the early 20s and is best known for its visual artworks and writings.  The aim was to “resolve the previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality.”  Artists painted unnerving, illogical scenes with photographic precision, created strange creatures from everyday objects and developed painting techniques that allowed the unconscious to express itself.  

Surrealist works feature the element of surprise, unexpected juxtapositions and non sequitur; however, many Surrealist artists and writers regard their work as an expression of the philosophical movement first and foremost, with the works being an artifact.  Leader Andre Breton was explicit in his assertion that Surrealism was, above all, a revolutionary movement.

I hope to expand on this in a future post.

Comments are welcome!            

Q: Do you have a mentor?

"Alone Together," soft pastel on sandpaper, 20" x 26"

“Alone Together,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 20″ x 26″

A:  No, but I often wish I did.  How wonderful it would be to consult someone who’s been there, a productive and successful artist who could provide advice on all the concerns, especially the problems and dangers, inherent in a professional artist’s life. 

But I have been at this for thirty years and found no such person!  I think it’s because each artist’s career is highly unique as we chart are own individual paths.  Unlike most professions, there are no firm rules or straight forward career milestones for making your way as an artist.

Besides the countless hours spent in the studio, I have always worked diligently to understand the art business.  Certainly getting work seen, exhibited, reviewed, sold, etc. is as important as making it in the first place.  It’s all part of being a professional artist. 

Early on I developed the habit of relying on my own best judgment, both in creating the work and in getting it seen and collected.  Certainly I have made plenty of mistakes.  As a result though, I know a tremendous amount about the art business.  And I enjoy sharing what I know in the hopes of steering other artists away from making similar missteps.

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: How long does it take you to complete a pastel-on-sandpaper painting?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  Mine is a slow and labor-intensive process.  First, there is foreign travel to find the cultural objects – masks, carved wooden animals, paper mâché figures, and toys – that are my subject matter.  If they are heavy I ship them home.  

Next comes planning exactly how to photograph them, lighting and setting everything up, and shooting a roll of 220 film with my Mamiya 6 camera.  I still like to use an analog camera for my fine art work, although I am rethinking this.  I have the film developed, decide which image to use, and order a 20” x 24” reference photograph from Manhattan Photo on West 20th Street.  

Then I am ready to start.  I work on each pastel-on-sandpaper painting for approximately three months.  I am in my studio 7 to 8 hours a day, five days a week.  During that time I make thousands of creative decisions as I apply and layer soft pastels (I have 8 tables-worth to choose from!), blend them with my fingers, and mix new colors directly on the sandpaper.  A finished piece consists of up to 30 layers of soft pastel.  My self-invented technique accounts for the vivid, intense color that often leads viewers of my originals to look very closely and ask, “What medium is this?”  I believe I am pushing soft pastel to its limits, using it in ways that no other artist has done.

Comments are welcome!

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