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Q: What is more important to you, the subject of the painting or the way it is executed?

"Sam and Bobo,"soft pastel on sandpaper, 36" x 31", 1989

“Sam and Bobo,”soft pastel on sandpaper, 36″ x 31”, 1989

A:  In a sense my subject matter – folk art, masks, carved wooden animals, papier mâché figures, toys – chose me.  With it I have complete freedom to experiment with color, pattern, design, and other formal properties.  In other words, although I am a representational artist, I can do whatever I want since the depicted objects need not look like real things.  Execution is everything now.

This was not always the case.  I started out in the 1980s as a traditional photorealist, except I worked in pastel on sandpaper.  (For example, see the detail in Sam’s sweater above).  As I slowly learned and mastered my craft, depicting three-dimensional people and objects hyper-realistically in two dimensions on a piece of sandpaper was thrilling… until one day it wasn’t.  

My personal brand of photorealism became too easy, too limiting, too repetitive, and SO boring to execute!  In 1989 I had at last extricated myself from a dull career as a Naval officer working in Virginia at the Pentagon.  Then after much planning, in 1997 I was a full-time professional artist working in New York.  

Certainly I was not going to throw away this opportunity by making boring photorealist art.  I wanted to do so much more as an artist:  to experiment with techniques, with composition, to see what I could make pastel do, to let my imagination play a larger role in the paintings I made. I was ready to devote the time and do whatever it took to push my art further.

After spending the early creative years perfecting my technical skills, I built on what I had learned.  I began breaking rules – slowly at first – in order to push myself onward.  And I continue to do so, never knowing what’s next.  Hopefully, in 2018 my art is richer for it.

Comments are welcome!

Q: Can you describe a single habit that you believe contributes to your professional success?

Barbara's studio with work in progress

Barbara’s studio with work in progress

A:  It’s probably the fact that I keep regular studio hours.  Contrary to the cliche of artists working in spurts, I continually work in the studio at least seven hours a day, five days a week, with Wednesdays and Sundays as my days off.  I devote another two hours or so in the mornings and evenings for art business tasks:  email, sending out jpegs, social media, etc.  I always remember something Katharine Hepburn said:  “Without discipline there is no life.”

Comments are welcome!

Q: How do you feel about accepting commissions?

"Reunion," soft pastel on sandpaper, 38" x 58", 1990

“Reunion,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 38″ x 58″, 1990

A:  By the time I left the Navy in 1989 to devote myself to making art, I had begun a career as a portrait painter.  I needed to make money, this was the only way I could think of to do so, and I had perfected the craft of creating photo-realistic portraits in pastel.  It worked for a little while. 

A year later I found myself feeling bored and frustrated for many reasons.  I didn’t like having to please a client because their concerns generally had little to do with art.  Once I ensured that the portrait was a good (and usually flattering) likeness, there was no more room for experimentation, growth, or creativity.  I believed (and still do) that I could never learn all there was to know about soft pastel.  I wanted to explore color and composition and take this under-appreciated medium as far as possible.  It seemed likely that painting portraits would not allow me to accomplish this.  Also, I tended to underestimate the amount of time needed to make a portrait  and charged too small a fee.

So I decided commissioned portraits were not for me and made the last one in 1990 (above).  I feel fortunate to have the freedom to create work that does not answer to external concerns.  

Comments are welcome!        

Q: Was there a defining moment, meeting, or event that convinced you to pursue an artistic life?

West 29th Street studio

West 29th Street studio

A:  There was not a defining moment per se, but looking back now, I’d say that because the Navy assigned me to a series of boring office jobs instead of letting me fly, I became determined to find a vocation infinitely more rewarding and more interesting to devote the rest of my life to.  I came to this realization over time, rather than in a single moment. 

Comments are welcome!

Q: You have sometimes spoken about your early work as a portrait artist. When and why did you start making portraits? Do you still do them?

"Bryan," soft pastel on sandpaper, 22" x 28", 1988

“Bryan,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 22″ x 28″, 1988

A:  In 1989 I was a Naval officer working at the Pentagon and I hated my job as a computer analyst.  Although it was terrifying to leave the security of a paycheck for the uncertainty of an artist’s existence, I made the leap.  In retrospect it was one of the best decisions of my life.  When I resigned from active duty (I remained in the Navy Reserve, which provided a part-time job and a small income; in 2003 I retired as a Navy Commander), I needed a way to make a living.  

Prior to this career change, I worked hard to develop my portrait skills.  I volunteered to run a life drawing class at The Art League School in Alexandria, VA, where I made hundreds of figure drawings using charcoal and pastel.  I spent a semester commuting between Washington, DC and New York to study artistic anatomy at the New York Academy of Art.  I spent another semester studying gross anatomy with medical students at Georgetown University Medical School.  So I was well prepared to devote myself to making portraits.

For a time I made a living making commissioned photo-realist portraits in soft pastel on sandpaper.  However, after about two years I became bored.  I remember thinking, “I did not leave a boring job just to make boring art!”  Furthermore, I had no interest in doing commissions because what I wanted to accomplish as an artist did not coincide with what portrait clients wanted.   I completed my final portrait commission in 1990 and never looked back.  To this day I remain loathe to do a commission of any kind.  

Comments are welcome!   

Q: What first intrigued you about Mexico?

"Myth Meets Dream," 1993, soft pastel on sandpaper, first painting that includes Oaxacan figures

“Myth Meets Dream,” 1993, soft pastel on sandpaper, first painting that includes Oaxacan figures

A:  In the early 90’s my husband, Bryan, and I made our first trip to Oaxaca and to Mexico City.  At the time I had become fascinated with the Mexican “Day of the Dead” celebrations so our trip was timed to see them firsthand.  Along with busloads of other tourists, we visited several cemeteries in small Oaxacan towns.  The indigenous people tending their ancestor’s 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.  On our first trip we visited the National Museum of Anthropology, where I was introduced to the fascinating story of ancient Meso-American civilizations  (it is still one of my favorite museums in the world); 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. This 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.

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 28

Flower sellers in Chichicastenango, Guatemala

Flower sellers in Chichicastenango, 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.

We have talked a good deal about our duty, and how we could attain the right goal, and we came to the conclusion that in the first place our aim must be to find a steady position and a profession to which we can entirely devote ourselves.  It is wise to do so, for life is but short and time passes quickly; if one is master of one thing and understands one thing well, one has at the same time insight into and understanding of many things.

One must especially have the end in mind, and the victory one would gain after a whole life of work and effort is better than one that is gained earlier.  Whoever lives sincerely and encounters much trouble and disappointment, but is not bowed down by them, is worth more than one who has always sailed before the wind and has only relative prosperity.  One must never trust the occasion when one is without difficulties.  

Irving Stone with Jean Stone, editors, Dear Theo:  The Autobiography of Vincent Van Gogh

Comments are welcome!