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Q: What do you see when you look back at your early efforts?

"Myth Meets Dream," soft pastel on sandpaper, 47" x 38,” 1993

“Myth Meets Dream,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 47″ x 38,” 1993

A:  I see continuity in subject matter and in medium, surely.  For thirty-three years I have been inspired by foreign travel and research.  In addition, I remain devoted to pushing the limits of what soft pastel can do and to promoting its merits as a fine art medium.

Here and there I see details I would render differently now; not exactly mistakes, but things that maybe could be done better.  Fortunately, I think, all of my work is framed behind glass or plexiglas, making it extremely difficult to attempt revisions.  

Perhaps most important of all, I see the long personal road that has advanced my work to its present state.  Each gain has been hard-fought.  

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

Comments are welcome!         

Pearls from artists* # 144

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.

Art and design are rule-based.  This flies in the face of everything that most people have been taught before, namely, that art and design are about freedom.  I remember reading a wonderful analogy about this concept many years ago in an out-of-print, early twentieth-century book on design.  The author asked us to imagine a flying kite – the quintessential emblem of unrestricted, spontaneity, soaring in the wind.  Keeping taught the line between you and the kite, however, is the source of that freedom.  Here’s another way of putting it:  “Creativity arises out of the tension between the rules and imagination.”

Leslie Hirst in The Art of Critical Making:  Rhode Island School of Design on Creative Practice, Rosanne Somerson and Mara L. Hermano, editors

Comments are welcome!    

Q: Where do you want your work to go in the future?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  Recently I answered a question about why I create, but now that I think about it, the same answer applies to what I want to do as an artist in the future:  

~ to create bold and vibrant pastel paintings and photographs that have never existed before  

~ to continue to push my primary medium – soft pastel on sandpaper – as far as I can and to use it in more innovative ways  

~ to create opportunities for artistic dialogue with people who understand and value the work to which I am devoting my life  

The last has always been the toughest.  I sometimes think of myself as Sisyphus because expanding the audience for my art is an ongoing uphill battle.  Many artist friends tell me they feel the same way about building their audience.  It’s one of the most difficult tasks that we have to do as artists.  I heard Annie Leibovitz interviewed on the radio once and remember her saying that after 40 years as a photographer, everything just gets richer.  Notice that she didn’t say it gets any easier; she said, “it just gets richer.”  I have been a painter for nearly  30 years and a photographer for 11.  I agree completely.  All artists have to go wherever our work goes.  Creating art and watching the process evolve is an endlessly fascinating intellectual journey.  I wouldn’t want to be spending my time on earth doing anything else!

Comments are welcome!

Q: What have you learned about the people of Mexico through your travels, reading, and research?

A corner of the studio

A corner of the studio

A:  It didn’t take long to become smitten with these beautiful people.  It happened on my first trip there in 1992 when Bryan and I, along with busloads of other tourists, were visiting the Oaxacan cemeteries on The Day of the Dead.  The Oaxaquenos 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 them and with their beliefs.  My studies since that time have given me a deeper appreciation for the art, architecture, history, mythology, etc. that comprise the extremely rich and complex story of Mexico as a cradle of civilization in the West.  It is a wonderfully heady mix and hopefully some of it comes through in my work as a painter and a photographer.

By the way I often wonder why the narrative of Mexico’s fascinating history was not taught in American public schools, at least not where I went to public school in suburban New Jersey.  Mexico is our neighbor, for goodness sake, but when I speak to many Americans about Mexico they have never learned anything about the place!  It’s shocking, but many people think only “Spring Break” and/or “Drug Wars,” when they hear the word “Mexico.”  As a kid I remember learning about Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, and other early civilizations in the Middle East, Europe, and Asia, but very little about Mexico.  We learned about the Maya, when it was still believed that they were a peaceful people who devoted their lives to scientific and religious pursuits, but that story was debunked years ago.  And I am fairly sure that not many Americans even know that Maya still exist in the world … in Mexico and in Guatemala.   There are a few remote places that were not completely destroyed by Spanish Conquistadores in the 16th century and later.  I’ve been to Mayan villages in Guatemala and seen shamans performing ancient rituals.  For an artist from a place as rooted in the present moment as New York, it’s an astounding thing to witness!  

Comments are welcome!

Q: At the end of last Saturday’s (September 28th) post you mentioned something called, “Esala Perahera.” What is that?

Waiting for the Perahera to start, Kandy, Sri Lanka

Waiting for the Perahera to start, Kandy, Sri Lanka

Mending an elephant's headdress, Kandy, Sri Lanka

Mending an elephant’s headdress, Kandy, Sri Lanka

Preparations - planning what to do in case an elephant charges

Preparations – planning what to do in case an elephant charges

Flame throwers watching a man balancing on one stilt

Flame throwers watching a man balancing on one stilt

First elephant in the procession

First elephant in the procession

Drummers, Kandy, Sri Lanka

Drummers, Kandy, Sri Lanka

Three elephants, Kandy, Sri Lanka

Three elephants, Kandy, Sri Lanka

A single "tusker," Kandy, Sri Lanka

A single “tusker,” Kandy, Sri Lanka

Esala Perahera, Kandy, Sri Lanka

Esala Perahera, Kandy, Sri Lanka

After the festival

After the festival

A:  My trip to Sri Lanka was timed so that I could observe it first hand.  Here is a description from the “Insight Guide to Sri Lanka:”

The lunar month of Esala is a month for festivals and peraheras all around the island.  Easily the finest and the most famous is the Esala Perahera held at Kandy over the ten days leading up to the Esala Poya (full moon) day (late July or early August).  The festival dates back to ancient Anuradhapura, when the Tooth Relic (of the Buddha) was taken through the city in procession, and the pattern continues to this day, with the relic carried at the head of an enormous procession which winds its way round and round the city by night.  The perahera becomes gradually longer and more lavish over the 10 days of the festival, until by the final night it has swollen to include a cast of hundreds of elephants and thousands of dancers, drummers, fire-eaters, acrobats, and many others – an extraordinary sight without parallel anywhere else in Sri Lanka, if not the whole of Asia.

I would go further and add that the Esala Perahera is one of the world’s great festivals.  Who could ever imagine such a spectacle?  It may be a cliché to say it, but travel is ultimately the best education. 

Comments are welcome!   

Q: Would you please share a few more of your pastel portraits?

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

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

"Jules," soft pastel on sandpaper, 28" x 22", 1989

“Jules,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 28″ x 22″, 1989

"The Post Oak Jacks," soft pastel on sandpaper, 31" x 39", 1990

“The Post Oak Jacks,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 31″ x 39″, 1990

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

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

A:   See the four above.  As in my previous post, I reshot photographs from my portfolio book so the colors above have faded.  Many years later, however, my originals are as vibrant as ever. 

“Reunion” (bottom) is the last commissioned portrait I ever made.  Early on I knew that portraiture was too restrictive and that I wanted my work to  evolve in a completely different direction.  However, I didn’t know yet what that direction would be.     

Comments are welcome! 

Q: Can we see some of your early potraits?

"Krystyn," charcoal, 22" x 30", 1989

“Krystyn,” charcoal, 22″ x 30″, 1989

"John," soft pastel on sandpaper, 22" x 28", 1989

“John,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 22″ x 28″, 1989

A:   The  reproductions above are two of my earliest.  The portrait of Bryan (see last week’s post) is hanging at the school that was named for him, Dr. Bryan C. Jack Elementary School, in Tyler, Texas.  Krystyn’s portrait is hanging in my dining room in Alexandria, VA – I liked it too much to part with it.  I have no idea where the one of John is now. 

Note that the actual paintings are more vibrant than the 8 x 10’s shown above.  For example, the background of John’s painting is a brilliant green.  To obtain the images above I re-photographed photos from my portfolio book.  These photos, unlike the originals, have faded over the years.  That’s one more reason that my originals need to be seen in person.    

Comments are welcome!

Q: What is your best time of day to paint?

The High Line - Barbara's morning commute to the studio

The High Line – Barbara’s  morning commute to the studio

A:  I have always been an early riser and a morning person, from my student pilot days when I’d be at an airport in New Jersey ready to takeoff in a Cessna by 6 a.m., through my days as a Naval officer starting work at the Pentagon at 7, until now when I typically get up before 6 (thanks to my cat, who likes to eat breakfast early).  Always I am most energetic in the mornings so that’s when I am most productive and have my best ideas.  Generally, I try to arrive at the studio before 10 a.m. and work until 5 p.m. or later.

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 41

White Sands, NM

White Sands, NM

* 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 you look at the work of an artist over a lifetime there is always transformation.  Some hit a lively place early and then seem to lose it later.  Others find that place progressively throughout their life; others still, find it late.  But regardless, they are all learning to isolate the poetic place within them.  That focus on the poetic in our own work increases our appreciation of the beauty around us, increases our growth, and increases our divine connection.

One thing you see in many artists’ work is that as they continue over the decades to translate their experience of the poetic into form, they learn to communicate better.  They strip away all the extraneous stuff and artistic baggage they had.  They say more with less.

The problem is seldom that what we truly, deeply experience is too simple to simplify.  There is power in stripping everyhing away to reveal the vision.  That’s what takes a lifetime.

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

Comments are welcome!

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