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Q: What has been your biggest challenge so far?

"Us and Them," soft pastel on sandpaper, 47" x 38" image, 60" x 50" framed

“Us and Them,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 47″ x 38″ image, 60″ x 50″ framed

A:  On September 11, 2001, my husband Bryan, a high-ranking federal government employee, a brilliant economist (with an IQ of 180 he is the smartest man I have ever known) and a budget analyst at the Pentagon, was en route to Monterrey, CA to give his monthly guest lecture for an economics class at the Naval Postgraduate College. He had the horrible misfortune of flying out of Dulles Airport and boarding the plane that was high-jacked and crashed into the Pentagon, killing 189 people. Losing Bryan was the biggest shock of my life and devastating in every possible way.

The following summer I was ready to – I HAD to – get back to work. Learning about photography and pastel painting became avenues to my well-being. I use reference photos for my paintings, so my first challenge was to learn how to use Bryan’s 4 x 5 view camera (Bryan always took these reference photos for me).

In July 2002 I enrolled in a one-week view camera workshop at the International Center of Photography in New York. Much to my surprise, I had already acquired substantial technical knowledge from watching Bryan. Still, after the initial workshop, I threw myself into this new medium and continued studying photography at ICP for several years. I began with Photography I and enrolled in many more classes until I gradually learned how to use Bryan’s extensive camera collection, to properly light my setups, and to print large chromogenic photographs in a darkroom.

In October 2009 it was very gratifying to have my first solo photography exhibition with HP Garcia in New York. Please see http://barbararachko.art/images/PDFS/ BarbaraRachko-HPGargia.pdf. I vividly remember tearing up at the opening as I imagined Bryan looking down at me with his beautiful smile, beaming as he surely would have, so proud of me for having become a respected photographer.

Continuing to make art had seemed an impossibility after Bryan’s death. However, the first large pastel painting that I created using a self-made reference photograph proved my life’s work could continue. The title of that painting, “She Embraced It and Grew Stronger,” is certainly autobiographical. “She” is me, and “it” means continuing on without Bryan and living life for both of us.

Comments are welcome!

Q: How long did it take you to discover the properties of pastel? (Liliana Mileo via facebook.com/BarbaraRachko/)

A charcoal self-portrait from 1988

A charcoal self-portrait from 1988

A:  After I moved to Alexandria, Virginia in the mid-1980s, I began taking classes at The Art League School.  I was extremely unhappy with my career as a Navy Lieutenant.  I worked as a computer analyst for the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon and was searching for something more meaningful to do with my life.

I began with a basic drawing class and liked it.  I enrolled in more classes and decided to spend two years working exclusively in black and white media, such as charcoal and graphite, before advancing to color.  Fortunately, early on I found an excellent teacher in Lisa Semerad.  I remain deeply grateful for the strong foundational drawing skills she imparted to me during this period.

After two years I tried water color and soon discovered it was not for me, a perfectionist who needs to refine my work.  Then I tried etching and found it extremely tedious, the antithesis of instant gratification.

Finally I began studying soft pastel with Diane Tesler, another gifted teacher, and fell in love with this medium!  At The Art League School I also completed a one-week workshop with Albert Handell, who introduced me to the archival sandpaper that I have been using ever since.

While I fell in love with pastel three decades ago, I continue to learn about its unique properties.  I am pushing pastel to new heights as my techniques continually evolve.  This is a lifetime journey of learning.  I hope to never know all there is to know.

Comments are welcome!  Ask anything and I may answer in a future blog post, as you’ve seen here with Liliana’s question.

 

Q: During one of the most gripping times of your life, you were personally affected by the 9/11 attack on our country. Your husband was killed on the plane that crashed into the Pentagon. Would you mind telling us about it and how it has shaped your work?

‘Mi Teleferico’ line, La Paz, Bolivia

‘Mi Teleferico’ line, La Paz, Bolivia

A:  In the summer of 2002 I was ready to – I HAD to – get back to work in my studio. I knew exactly what I must do.  More than ever before, learning and painting would become the avenues to my well-being.

Because I use reference photos for my pastel paintings, the first challenge was to learn how to use Bryan’s 4 x 5 view camera. At that time I was not a photographer. Bryan had always taken reference photos for me.

In July 2002 I enrolled in a view camera workshop at New York’s International Center of Photography. Much to my surprise I had already absorbed quite a lot from watching Bryan. After the initial workshop, I continued more formal studies of photography for several years. In 2009, I am proud to say, I was invited to present a solo photography exhibition at a New York gallery!

In 2003 I resumed making my Domestic Threats series of pastel paintings, something that had seemed impossible after Bryan’s death. The first large pastel painting that I created using a reference photograph taken by me confirmed that my life’s work could continue. The title of that painting, “She Embraced It and Grew Stronger,” was autobiographical. “She” is me, and “it” meant continuing on without Bryan and living life for both of us.

Having had a long successful run, the Domestic Threats series finally ended in early 2007. Around that time I was feeling happier and had come to better terms with losing Bryan. While this is a tragedy I will never truly be at peace with, dealing with the loss became easier with time.

Then in 2007 I suddenly became blocked and did not know where to take my work next. I had never experienced creative block and especially for a full-time professional artist, this was a painful time. Still, I continued to go to the studio every day and eventually, thanks to a confluence of favorable circumstances, the block ended.

My next pastel painting series was called Black Paintings. I viewed the black background as literally, the very dark place that I was emerging from, exactly like the figures emerging in these paintings. The figures themselves were wildly colorful and full of life, but that black background – one critic has dubbed it my “blackground” – is always there.

Still the work continues to evolve. In 2017 I began my third pastel painting series called Bolivianos, based on a mask exhibition encountered in La Paz at the The National Museum of Ethnography and Folklore. Many people have proclaimed this to be my most bold, daring, and exciting pastel painting series yet. And I think they may be right! Continuing on the journey I began 30+ years ago, I am looking forward to creating many new, striking pastel paintings!

Comments are welcome!

 

Q: Where did you grow up and what were some early milestones or experiences that contributed to you becoming an artist later in life?

“The Sleeping Gypsy,” Henri Rousseau, oil on canvas, 1897

“The Sleeping Gypsy,” Henri Rousseau, oil on canvas, 1897

A:  I grew up in a blue collar family in Clifton, New Jersey, a suburb about fifteen miles west of Manhattan. My father was a television repairman for RCA. My mother stayed home to raise my sister and me (at the time I had only one sister, Denise; my sister Michele was born much later).  My parents were both first-generation Americans and no one in my extended family had gone to college yet. I was a smart kid who showed some artistic talent in kindergarten and earlier.  I remember copying the Sunday comics, which in those days appeared in all the newspapers, and drawing small still lifes I arranged for myself. I have always been able to draw anything, as long as I can see it. 

Denise, a cousin, and I enrolled in Saturday morning “art classes” at the studio of a painter named Frances Hulmes in Rutherford, NJ.  I was about 6 years old. I continued the classes for 8 years and became a fairly adept oil painter. Since we lived so close to New York City, my mother often took us to museums, particularly to the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Museum of Natural History.  Like so many young girls, I fell in love with Rousseau’s “The Sleeping Gypsy” and was astonished by Picasso’s “Guernica” when it was on long-term loan to MoMA. I have fond memories of studying the dioramas at the Museum of Natural History (they are still my favorite part of the museum). As far as I know, there were no artists in my family so, unfortunately, I had no role models.  At the age of 14 my father decided that art was not a serious pursuit – declaring, it is “a hobby, not a profession” – and abruptly stopped paying for my Saturday morning lessons. With no financial or moral support to pursue art, I turned my attention to other interests, letting my artistic abilities go dormant.

Comments are welcome!

 

Q: How did you prepare yourself to change careers and work as a professional artist?

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

“Krystyn,” charcoal, 22″ x 30″, 1989

A:   At the age of 33 I was a Lieutenant in the Navy, working as  computer analyst at the Pentagon.  I was very unhappy with my job.  I began looking for something else to do and discovered The Art League School in Alexandria, VA.  I enrolled in classes with Lisa Semerad, then spent the next two years developing my drawing skills using black and white media (charcoal, pencils, conte crayon, etc.). 

After that I moved on to color media and began studying soft pastel with Diane Tesler.  During this time I was still in the Navy, working the midnight shift at the Pentagon and taking art classes during the day.  I was a very motivated student.    

After three years or so I was getting quite proficient as an artist, entering local juried shows, winning prizes, garnering press coverage, etc.  Prior to my career change, I worked hard to develop my portrait skills.  I really didn’t know how I could make a living other than by making commissioned portraits.  I volunteered to run a weekly life drawing class at The Art League School in Alexandria, VA, where I made hundreds of figure drawings using charcoal. 

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.  Over time I became skilled at making photo-realistic portraits.  In 1989 I resigned from the Navy and have worked full-time as a visual artist ever since.

Comments are welcome!

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