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Pearls from artists* # 508

Books!

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

Wherever I’ve lived my room and soon

the entire house is filled with books;

poems, stories, histories, prayers of

all kinds stand up gracefully or are

heaped on shelves, on the floor, on

the bed. Strangers old and new offering

their words bountifully and thoughtfully,

lifting my heart.

But wait! I’ve made a mistake! How

could these makers of so many books

that have given so much to my life –

how could they possibly be strangers?

Mary Oliver in Upstream: Selected Essays

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Pearls from artists* # 507

Working on “Raconteur”
Working on “Raconteur”

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

Intellectual work sometimes, spiritual work certainly, artistic work always – these are forces that fall within its [uncertainty and the unknown] grasp, forces that must travel beyond the realm of the hour and the restraint of the habit. Nor can the actual work be well separated from the entire life. Like the Knights of the Middle Ages, there is little the creatively inclined person can do but prepare himself, body and spirit, for the labor to come – for his adventures are all unknown. And no artist could go about his work, or would want to, with less than extraordinary energy and concentration. The extraordinary is what art is about.

Mary Oliver in Upstream: Selected Essays

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Pearls from artists* # 504

Big Sur sunset Photo: Donald Davis

* 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 a project doesn’t work out, you can always think of it as having been a worthwhile and constructive experiment. You can resist the seductions of grandiosity, blame, and shame. You can support other people in their creative efforts, acknowledge the truth that there’s plenty of room for everyone. You can measure your worth by your dedication to your path, not by your successes or failure. You can battle your demons (through therapy, recovery, prayer, or humility) instead of battling your gifts – in part by realizing that your demons were never the ones doing the work, anyhow. You can believe that you are neither a slave to inspiration nor its master, but something far more interesting – its partner – and that the two of you are working together toward something intriguing and worthwhile. You can live a long life, moving and doing really cool things the entire time. You might earn a living with your pursuits or you might not, but you can recognize that this is not really the point. And at the end of your days, you can thank creativity for having blessed you with a charmed, interesting, passionate existence.

Elizabeth Gilbert in Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear

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Q: How would you describe the inside of your studio?

Barbara’s Studio

A: 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 because it is my absolute favorite place in New York! Even after thirty-six years, I still find the entire process of making a pastel painting completely engaging. I try to push my pastel techniques further every time I work in the studio.

There’s one more thing about my studio: I consider it my best creation because it’s a physical environment that anyone can walk into and occupy, as compared to my artworks, which are 2D paintings hanging flat on a wall.  It has taken 25 years to get it the way it is now.  I believe my studio is the best reflection of my growth as an artist.  It changes and evolves as I change over the decades.

Comments are welcome!

Q: When did you start using the sandpaper technique and why (Question from “Arte Realizzata”)

The start of a new pastel-on-sandpaper painting

A: In the late 1980s when I was studying at the Art League School in Alexandria, VA, I enrolled in  a three-day pastel workshop with Albert Handel, an artist known for his southwest landscapes in pastel and oil paint.  I had just begun working with soft pastel and was experimenting with paper.  Handel suggested I try Ersta fine sandpaper.  I did and nearly three decades later, I’ve never used anything else. 

This paper is acid-free and accepts dry media, mainly pastel and charcoal.   It allows me to build up layer upon layer of pigment and blend, without having to use a fixative.  The tooth of the paper almost never gets filled up so it continues to hold pastel.  (On the rare occasion when the tooth DOES fill up, which sometimes happens with problem areas that are difficult to resolve, I take a bristle paintbrush, dust off the unwanted pigment, and start again).  My entire technique – slowly applying soft pastel, blending and creating new colors directly on the paper, making countless corrections and adjustments, rendering minute details, looking for the best and/or most vivid colors – evolved in conjunction with this paper. 

I used to say that if Ersta ever went out of business and stopped making sandpaper, my artist days would be over.  Thankfully, when that DID happen, UArt began making a very similar paper.  I buy it in two sizes – 22″ x 28″ sheets and 56″ wide by 10-yard-long rolls.  The newer version of the rolled paper is actually better than the old, because when I unroll it, it lays flat immediately.  With Ersta I would lay the paper out on the floor for weeks before the curl would give way and it was flat enough to work on.

Comments are welcome!

Q: How do you work and approach your subject? (Question from “Arts Illustrated”)

At work
At work

A: Undoubtedly, I could not make my work without UART sandpaper since my entire pastel technique evolved around it.  I use 400 0r 500 grit.  My favorite thing about it is its ‘tooth’ (i.e. texture or roughness).  

Over the many months I spend creating a pastel painting, I build layer upon layer of soft pastel.  Because the paper I use is relatively “toothy,” it accepts all of the pastel the painting needs.  And as many people know, I own and use thousands of soft pastels!

Many layers of soft pastel and several months of studio time go into creating each painting.  My self-invented technique is analogous to the glazing techniques used by the Old Masters, who slowly built up layers of thin oil paint to achieve a high degree of finish.  Colors were not only mixed physically, but optically.  

Similarly, I gradually build up layers of soft pastel, as many as thirty, to create a pastel painting.  After applying a color, I blend it with my fingers and push it into the sandpaper’s tooth.  It mixes with the color beneath to create a new color, continually adding richness, saturation, and intensity to the piece.  By the time a pastel painting is finished, the colors are bold, vibrant, and exciting.

From the beginning in the 1980s I used photographs as reference material and my late husband, Bryan, would shoot 4” x 5” negatives of my elaborate setups with his Toyo-Omega view camera. In those days I rarely picked up a camera except when we were traveling. After Bryan was killed on 9/11, I inherited his extensive camera collection – old Nikons, Leicas, Graphlex cameras, etc. – and I wanted to learn how to use them. In 2002 I enrolled in a series of photography courses (about 10 over 4 years) at the International Center of Photography in New York. I learned how to use all of Bryan’s cameras and how to make my own big color prints in the darkroom.

Along the way I discovered that the sense of composition, form, and color I developed over many years as a painter translated well into photography. The camera was just another medium with which to express my ideas. Astonishingly, in 2009 I had my first solo photography exhibition in New York.

It’s wonderful to be both a painter and a photographer. Pastel painting will always be my first love, but photography lets me explore ideas much faster than I ever could as a painter. Paintings take months of work. To me, photographs – from the initial impulse to hanging a framed print on the wall – are instant gratification.

For several years I have been using my iPad Pro to capture thousands of travel photographs.  Most recently, I visited Gujarat and Rajasthan in India. I have never been inclined to use a sketchbook so composing photos on my iPad keeps my eye sharp while I’m halfway around the world, far from my studio practice.

My blog, “Barbara Rachko’s Colored Dust,” continues to be a crucial part of my overall art practice.  Blogging twice a week forces me to think deeply about my work and to explain it clearly to others.  The process has helped me develop a better understanding about why I make art and, I like to think, has helped me to become a better writer.

Comments are welcome!

Q: Why art? (Question from “Arts Illustrated”)

Barbara’s studio
Barbara’s studio

A: I love this question!  I remember being impressed by Ursula von Rydingsvard’s exhibition at the National Museum of Women in the Arts a few years ago.  What stayed with me most was her wall text, “Why Do I Make Art by Ursula von Rydingsvard.”  There she listed a few dozen benefits that art-making has brought to her life.

I want to share some of my own personal reasons for art-making 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.

5.   Because when I am working in the studio, if I want, I can tune out the world and all of its 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!

Pearls from artists* #447

Barbara’s studio
Barbara’s studio

Cameron Crowe: I think this collection is a powerful gift, especially to young artists. It’s a portrait of you at a certain time in your life when you were having success. You could have plateaued at this stage for an entire career. Many did. But I listen to this and think the hidden message is don’t stop growing. Don’t stop heading to those deeper waters… challenge yourself… look where it may take you.

Joni Mitchell: That’s what the Van Gogh exhibition was to me. When I went to see the Van Gogh exhibition they had all his paintings arranged chronologically, and you’d watch the growth as you walk along. That was so inspiring to me, and I started to paint again. If it serves that purpose, that would be great. Really, that would make me very happy. It shows that from this… because the latter work is much richer and deeper and smarter, and the arrangements are interesting, too. Musically I grow, and I grow as a lyricist, so there’s a lot of growth taking place. The early stuff – I shouldn’t be such a snob against it. A lot of these songs, I just lost them. They fell away. They only exist in these recordings. For so long I rebelled against the term: “I was never a folk singer.” I would get pissed off if they put that label on me. I didn’t think it was a good description of what I was. And then I listened, and… it was beautiful. It made me forgive my beginnings. And I had this realization…

CC: What was it?

Joni: Oh God! (Laughs) I was a folksinger!

In A Conversation with Joni Mitchell by Cameron Crowe from Joni Mitchell Archives Volume I: The Early Years (1963-1967) 5 CD set

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 443

Working. Photo: Kimberly Okner-Kevorkian
Working. Photo: Kimberly Okner-Kevorkian

*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 theater has been good to me. It has produced great friendships, love, travel, hard work, fun, terror and pleasure. It has also offered an entire life of study. Study is a full-time engagement which includes reading books, reading people, reading situations, reading about the past and reading about the present. To study, you enter into a situation with your whole being, you listen and then begin to move around inside it with your imagination. You can study every situation you are in. You can learn to read life while life is happening.

Anne Bogart in A Director Prepares: Seven Essays on Art and Theatre

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Pearls from artists* # 440

“Conundrum,” Soft Pastel on Sandpaper, 38” x 58” image, 50” x 70” framed
“Conundrum,” Soft Pastel on Sandpaper, 38” x 58” Image, 50” x 70” Framed

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

Most artists desire recognition, and the persistent lack of it may be a bitter pill to swallow.  The artist who is too-soon recognized, as Norman Mailer felt himself to be, might argue that early fame is harder on the artist than years of obscurity.   But the composer with a score for a powerful symphony locked away in his drawer, and the actress who has never found a way into a great drama, are hard-pressed to agree with Mailer.  Similarly, the painter who has her entire output of paintings to enjoy for herself because she cannot sell them may praise her fortitude and applaud her accomplishments, but still experiences great sadness.

 If you are not honored with real, appropriate recognition, you struggle not to consider yourself a failure.  You may argue that it is the world that has failed you… but it is hard to take comfort in that knowledge.  You need recognition more than you need accurate understanding of why recognition has eluded you.  And as you deal, during your years in the trenches, with what may turn out to be a maddingly insufficient lack of recognition, you are challenged to find ways of maintaining your faith, courage, good cheer, and emotional equilibrium.      

Eric Maisel, A Life in the Arts:  Practical Guidance and Inspiration for Creative and Performing Artists

Comments are welcome!

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