Q: Do you have a home studio or do you go to an outside studio to work? Which do you prefer and why?
A: I have always preferred a separate studio. Pastel creates a lot of dust, it’s toxic to breathe, plus I do not want to live with the mess! I need a place to go in the mornings, someplace where I can focus and work without any distractions. It’s difficult to do that at home.
From the beginning of my time as an artist, in the mid-1980’s, I had a studio. My first one was in the spare bedroom of the Alexandria, Virginia, house that I shared with my late husband, Bryan, and that I still own.
For about three years in the 1990s I had a studio on the third floor of the Torpedo Factory Art Center, a building in Alexandria, VA that is open to the public. People would come in, watch artists at work, and sometimes buy a piece of art.
In April 1997 an opportunity to move to New York arose and I didn’t look back. By then I was showing in a good 57th Street gallery, Brewster Arts Ltd. (the gallery focused exclusively on Latin American artists; I was in the company of Leonora Carrington, Rufino Tamayo, Diego Rivera, etc.), and I had managed to find a New York agent, Leah Poller, with whom to collaborate.
I looked at only one other space before finding my West 29th Street studio and knew instantly it was the one! An old friend of Bryan’s from Cal Tech rented the space next door and he had told us it was available. Initially the studio was a sublet. The lease-holder was a painter headed to northern California to work temporarily for George Lucas at the Lucas Ranch. After several years she decided to stay so I was able to take over the lease. I feel extremely fortunate to have been in my West 29th Street, New York City space now for twenty-three years. In a city where old buildings are perpetually knocked down to make way for new ones this is rare.
My studio is an oasis in a chaotic city, a place to make art, to read, and to think. I love to walk in the door every morning and I feel calmer the moment I arrive. It’s my absolute favorite place in New York! Sometimes I think of it as my best creation. For more about this please see
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Q: You have worked with twenty-plus galleries during your career. Which ones do you consider the best?
A: Probably the most prestigious gallery that represented my work was Brewster Fine Arts on West 57th Street in Manhattan. Brewster was my first New York gallery. In the summer of 1996 I mailed the gallery a sheet of slides, as we did in those days. I was living in Virginia and had been a working artist for ten years. In July while traveling around Mexico, I decided to check the phone messages at home in Virginia. I was thrilled to receive an invitation from Mia Kim, the gallery director, to exhibit pastel paintings in October! And she had not yet even seen my work in person.
Beginning that fall, I gained representation with Brewster Fine Arts, an elegant gallery specializing in Latin American Masters like Rufino Tamayo, Diego Rivera, and others. I am not Latina, of course, but I showed there due to my subject matter. At my October opening, I remember Mia declaring to the attendees, “Barbara has the soul of a Latina!” That night I met fellow gallery artist Leonora Carrington. She and I were the only non-Latina artists respresented. I knew I was on my way!
The gallery continued to present my work in group exhibitions and the staff gave brilliant talks about me and my creative process. For many years whenever I introduced myself to a new art aficionado, they already knew my work from having seen it at Brewster. I continued to be represented there until the gallery closed years later.
Also, Gallery Bergelli in Larkspur, CA did an excellent job of representing my work. I applied for one of their juried exhibitions, was accepted, and afterwards, they offered permanent representation. Soon they introduced me to one of my best collectors, with whom I am still friends.
I have worked with many galleries, some good, some not, for various reasons. Ours is an extremely tough business. Unfortunately, many of the best and formerly-great galleries are gone forever.
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Q: Mexico has been a big influence on your work. What first drew you to Mexican folk art – masks, carved wooden animals, papier mâché figures, and toys?
A: In 1991 my future sister-in-law sent, as a Christmas present, two brightly painted wooden figures from Oaxaca. One was a large, blue and white polka dot flying horse, the other a bear, painted with red, white, and black dots and lines.
At the time I was living in Alexandria, Virginia, studying at the Art league School there, and working as a full-time artist. I had resigned from the Navy after seven years on active duty, although I still worked one weekend a month at the Pentagon as a reservist. I was looking for something new to paint with soft pastel, having found portraits deeply unsatisfying.
I had never seen anything like these Oaxacan figures and was intrigued. I started asking friends about Oaxaca and soon learned that the city has a unique style of painting, the self-titled Oaxacan school, and that the painter, Rufino Tamayo, and husband and wife photographers, Manuel and Lola Alvarez Bravo, were from Oaxaca. (Manuel Alvarez Bravo founded an important photography museum there).
I had been a fan of Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo and other artists associated with Mexico, and had a long-standing interest in pre-Columbian civilizations. I knew some Spanish, having studied it in high school. I began reading everything I could find about Oaxaca and Mexico and soon became fascinated with the Day of the Dead.
In 1992 my future husband, Bryan, and I made our first trip to Mexico, spending a week in Oaxaca to see Day of the Dead observances and to study the Mixtec and Zapotec ruins (Monte Alban, Yagul, Mitla, etc.), and another week in Mexico City to visit Diego Rivera’s murals at the Ministry of Education, Frida Kahlo’s Casa Azul, and nearby ancient archeological sites (the Templo Mayor, Teotihuacan, etc.).
I began collecting Mexican folk art on that first trip. I still have fond memories of buying my first mask, a big wooden dragon with a Conquistador’s face on its back. Bryan and I found it high on a wall in a dusty Oaxacan shop. The dragon was three and a half feet long and three feet wide. Because it was fragile, we hand-carried it onto the plane and were able to store it in the first class cabin (this was pre-9/11). I chuckle to remember that we covered its finely carved toes with rolled up socks to prevent them from breaking!
I have been back to Mexico many times, mainly visiting the central and southern states. I travel there to study pre-Columbian history, archaeology, mythology, culture, and the arts. It is an endlessly fascinating country that has long been an inspiration for artists.