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Pearls from artists* # 262

"Big Deal," soft pastel on sandpaper, 58" x 38"

“Big Deal,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 58″ x 38″

* 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 may have been easier to paint bison on the cave walls long ago than to write this (or any other) sentence today.  Other people, in other times and places, had some robust institutions to shore them up:  witness the Church, the clan, ritual, tradition.  It’s easy to imagine that artists doubted their calling less when working in the service of God than when working in the service of self.

Not so today.  Today almost no one feels shored up.  Today artwork does not emerge from secure common ground:  the bison on the wall is someone else’s magic.  Making art now means working in the face of uncertainty; it means living with doubt and contradiction, doing something no one much cares whether you do, and for which there may be neither audience nor reward.  Making the work you want to make means setting aside these doubts so that you may see clearly what you have done, and thereby see where to go next.  Making the work you want to make means finding nourishment within the work itself.  This is not the Age of Faith, Truth, and Certainty.

David Bayles and Ted Orlando in Art & Fear:  Observations On the Perils (and Rewards) of ARTMAKING

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Q: Would you say there is a unifying quality to all of the work you have produced in the last thirty years?

Barbara's portfolio book

Barbara’s portfolio book

A:  Yes, I can think of several.  Whether making pastel paintings or printing photographs in the darkroom, I have always been concerned with quality and craftsmanship and never pronounce a work finished until it is the best thing I can make. 

Although I started out as a maker of photorealist portraits in pastel, for twenty-odd years I have worked with Mexican folk art as my primary subject matter, treating these objects very differently in three separate series:  “Black Paintings,” “Domestic Threats,” and “Gods and Monsters.”  The first two are pastel-on-sandpaper paintings while the last is comprised of chromogenic photographs (c-prints).  A few years ago I also started making “Teleidoscopes” using an iPad app to photograph my Mexican and Guatemalan folk art collection.  This last one is just for fun; I do not offer them for sale.

Soft pastel is my first love and the two series of pastel paintings are my best-known work.  My technique for using pastel continues to evolve in intriguing ways.  I doubt I can ever learn all there is to know not only about color, but also about this medium.  Pastel is endlessly fascinating, which is why I have never wanted to switch to anything else. 

Comments are welcome!      

Q: In terms of change where will you take your work next?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  That’s difficult to say because creating new pastel paintings is a somewhat mysterious process.  Change happens on its own timetable and in its own way rather than from my efforts to exert conscious control over it.  In essence it is my job to keep working in the studio, to be sensitive and true to my own creative process, and to go where the work leads.  I doubt that I could work otherwise and still claim to be authentic.

Comments are welcome!     

Pearls from artists* # 152

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

“Between,” 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.

The first picture I took of a black man was easy.

That’s the way it sometimes goes for me:  I start on a new series of pictures and right away, in some kind of perverse bait-and-switch, I get a good one.  This freak of a good picture inevitably inspires a cocky confidence, making me think this new project will be a stroll in the park.  But, then, after sometimes two or three more good ones, the next dozen are duds, and that cavalier stroll becomes an uphill slog.  It isn’t long before I have to take a breather, having reached the first significant plateau of doubt and lightweight despair.  The voice of that despair suggests seducingly to me that I should give up, that I’m a phony, that I’ve made all the good pictures I’m ever going to, and I have nothing more worth saying.

That voice is easy to believe, and, as photographer and essayist (and my early mentor) Ted Orland has noted, it leaves me with only two choices:  I can resume the slog and take more pictures, thereby risking further failure and despair, or I can guarantee failure and despair by not making more pictures.  It’s essentially a decision between uncertainty and certainty and, curiously, uncertainty is the comforting choice.

Sally Mann in Hold Still:  A Memoir with Photographs

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Pearls from artists* # 125

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

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

My own natural proclivity is to categorize the world around me, to remove unfamiliar objects from their dangerous  perches by defining, compartmentalizing and labeling them.  I want to know what things are and I want to know where they are and I want to control them.  I want to remove the danger and replace it with the known.  I want to feel safe.  I want to feel out of danger.

And yet, as an artist, I know that I must welcome the strange and the unintelligible into my awareness and into my working process.  Despite my propensity to own and control everything around me, my job is to “make the familiar strange and the strange familiar,” as Bertolt Brecht recommended:  to un-define and un-tame what has been delineated by belief systems and conventions, and to welcome the discomfort of doubt and the unknown, aiming to make visible what has become invisible by habit.

Because life is filled with habit, because our natural desire is to make countless assumptions and treat our surroundings as familiar and unthreatening, we need art to wake us up.  Art un-tames, reifies and wakes up the part of our lives that have been put to sleep and calcified by habit.  The artist, or indeed anyone who wants to turn daily life into an adventure, must allow people, objects and places to be dangerous and freed from the definitions that they have accumulated over time.            

Anne Bogart in What’s the Story:  Essays about art, theater, and storytelling

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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!    

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!