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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: 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!

 

Pearls from artists* # 364

"White Star," soft pastel on sandpaper, 38" x 58"

“White Star,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 38″ x 58″

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

If we are left unmoved by a painting of the Virgin, it is likely because the artist was unmoved in the painting of her.  The subject matter is mostly irrelevant; it is important only as a vehicle for the artist’s attention.  Authenticity comes from how deeply the artist felt.  And this is the key to how much silence, how much consciousness or attention, the art contains.

subject matter, if the artist is even using it, is just an armature for the artist to engage his intensity of feeling.  It is the quality of your attention that influences how you see and how deeply you feel.  Different artists have affinities for different subject matter as a way into expressing themselves deeply.  And that depth is the quality, we, the viewers, respond to.  It is what we continue to respond to over the centuries in great works of art.  The fact that things last, that we continue to admire them, is in the end a good indicator of their quality, of their silence.  Art museums therefore, have little nodes of silence nestling in their galleries.  They are filled with, to use André Malraux’s expression, “the voices of silence.”

Ian Roberts in Creative Authenticity:  16 Principles to Clarify and Deepen Your Artistic Vision

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 362

On the Indian Ocean in Tanah Lot, Bali

On the Indian Ocean in Tanah Lot, Bali

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

… if we look at the artifacts of all cultures, beauty always has attracted man’s attention.  We know when we are in its presence.  We’re held.  Different pieces of art will arrest different people, and… some pieces will arrest larger numbers of people for longer periods of time.  These are the works that are perhaps worthy of being called great art.  We have to recognize that some people today, observing the greatest works of art, or the most awesome works of nature – the Grand Canyon, for instance – give it a minute and then are ready for something else.  Insatiable for change, they are immune to deep resonance.

Art and beauty are about those resonances.  It isn’t the subject matter that holds us.  Some inexplicable reaction stops us, and we find ourselves connected with something other than ourself.  Perhaps our ‘Self’ might be a better term, to distinguish it from the self that is caught up in thoughts, worries, and distractions.  I like Ken Weber’s definition, that beauty “suspends the desire to be elsewhere.” In the face of great art, we experience transcendence.

Ian Roberts in Creative Authenticity:  16 Principles to Clarify and Deepen Your Artistic Vision

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 317

Fifth Avenue

Fifth Avenue

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

But everything that may some day be possible to many the solitary man can now prepare and build with his hands, that err less.  Therefore, dear sir, love your solitude and bear with sweet-sounding lamentation the suffering it causes you.  For those who are near you are far, you say, and that shows it is beginning to grow wide about you.  And when what is near you is far, then your distance is already among the stars and very large; rejoice in your growth, in which you naturally can take no one with you, and be kind to those who remain behind, and be sure and calm before them and do not torment them with your doubts and do not frighten them with your confidence or joy, which they could not understand.  Seek yourself some sort of simple and loyal community with them, which need not necessarily change as you yourself become different and again different; love in them life in an unfamiliar form and be considerate of aging people, who fear that being-alone in which you trust.  Avoid contributing material to the drama that is always stretched taut between parents and children; it uses up much of the children’ energy and consumes the love of their elders, which is effective and warming even if it does not comprehend.  Ask no advice from them and count upon no understanding; but believe in a love that is being stored up for you like an inheritance and trust that in this love there is a strength and a blessing, out beyond which you do not have to step in order to go very far!            

Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, Translation by M.D. Herter Norton

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 210

Lima bootery (with self-portrait)

Lima, Peru (with self-portrait)

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

Much that is said about beauty and its importance in our lives ignores the minimal beauty of an unpretentious street, a nice pair of shoes or a tasteful piece of wrapping paper, as though these things belonged to a different order of value from a church by Bramante or a Shakespeare sonnet.  Yet these minimal beauties are far more important to our daily lives, and far more intricately involved in our own rational decisions, than the great works which (if we are lucky) occupy our leisure hours.  They are part of the context in which we live our lives, and our desire for harmony, fittingness and civility expressed and confirmed in them.  Moreover, the great works of architecture often depend for their beauty on the humble context that these lesser beauties provide.  Longhena’s church on the Grand Canal would lose its confident and invocatory presence, were the modest buildings which nestle in its shadow to be replaced with cast-concrete office blocks, of the kind that ruin the aspect of St.  Paul’s.

Beauty:  A Very Short Introduction, by Roger Scruton

Comments are welcome!

 

Pearls from artists* # 204

Barbara's studio with work in progress

Barbara’s studio with work in progress

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

It has been said that science helps us understand what we can do; the arts and humanities – our culture and values – help us decide what to do.  Studying the arts and humanities develops critical-thinking skills and nimble habits of mind, provides historical and cultural perspective and fosters the ability to analyze, synthesize and communicate.

As author Daniel Pink observed, “The last few decades have belonged to a certain kind of person with a certain kind of mind – computer programmers who could crank code, lawyers who could craft contracts, MBAs who could crunch numbers…  The future belongs to a very different kind of mind – creators and empathizers, pattern recognizers and meaning makers.  These people – artists, inventors, designers, storytellers, caregivers, consolers, big-picture thinkers – will now reap society’s richest rewards and share its greatest joys.”

David J. Skorton, Director of the Smithsonian Institution in “What Do We Value?” Museum, May/June 2016

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 202

 

Soft pastels

Soft pastels

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

When you’re working on something, you always wonder, “Can I get away with this?  Is it working?”  It’s the space between that I’ve been interested in for a long time.  I think that when I started to make, say, a triptych that came from an observation of a little Picasso drawing, the spaces in between became as important as the three actual pieces.  It’s especially true of the Wallpaper piece.  But most of the changes in my own work really evolve from one piece to the next:  from looking at my own work, the works of others, and things in my studio.  It happens when you see something that you didn’t see previously, like those scraps of clay that became the wall pieces.  It’s similar to the space that I’ve explored for years and years between artist and craftsperson, which is both interesting and challenging, and I don’t think that one thing is inferior to the other.  Each has a different goal, a different function.  Its my responsibility how nd where my work is viewed in different contexts.

In Conversation:  Betty Woodman with Phong Bui, The Brooklyn Rail, April 2016

Comments are welcome!    

Pearls from artists* # 181

"Epiphany," soft pastel on sandpaper, 38" x 58"

“Epiphany,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 38″ x 58″

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

It takes courage to face the unfamiliar, to espouse the different; courage to fight one’s own prejudices only less than those of others.  Was it not a little child who first dared call the emperor naked?  It took great fortitude for Kepler to adhere to his new notion of infinity (as the second focus of a parabola), for, as he said, “The idea seems absurd, but I can find no flaw in it”; just as it did for Galileo to murmur among his inquisitors, “Yet the world does move.”  Most of us will never achieve great imaginative insights; we might at least attempt to be tolerant of those offered by others.

The Biological Basis of Imagination by R.W. Gerard in The Creative Process edited by Brewster Ghiselin

Comments are welcome!

 

Pearls from artists* # 179

"Offering," soft pastel on sandpaper, 20" x 26"

“Offering,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 20″ x 26″

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

Michael Kimmelman:  You studied art in school.  You started collecting early.

David Bowie:  Yeah, I collected very early on.  I have a couple of Tintorettos, which I’ve had for many, many years.  I have a Rubens.  Art was, seriously, the only thing I’ve ever wanted to own.  It has always been for me a stable nourishment.  I use it.  It can change the way that I feel in the mornings.  The same work can change me in different ways, depending on what I’m going through.  For instance, somebody I like very much is Frank Auerbach.  I think there are some mornings that if we hit each other a certain way – myself and a portrait by Auerbach – the work can magnify the kind of depression I’m going through.  It will give spiritual weight to the angst.  Some mornings I’ll look at it and go:  “Oh, God, Yeah!  I know!”  But that same painting, on a different day, can produce in me the incredible feeling of the triumph of trying to express myself as an artist.  I can look at it and say:  “My God, Yeah!  I want to sound like that looks.”

“At Heart an Artist with Many Muses,” by Michael Kimmelman, The New York Times, Friday, January 15, 2016

Comments are welcome!  

 

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