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Q: When did your love of indigenous artifacts begin? Where have you traveled to collect these focal points of your works and what have those experiences taught you?

Mexico City

Mexico City

A:  As a Christmas present in 1991 my future sister-in-law sent me two brightly painted wooden animal figures from Oaxaca, Mexico. One was a blue polka-dotted winged horse.  The other was a red, white, and black bear-like figure. 

I was enthralled with this gift and the timing was fortuitous because I had been searching for new subject matter to paint. I started asking artist-friends about Oaxaca and learned that it was an important art hub.  Two well-known Mexican painters, Rufino Tamayo and Francisco Toledo, had gotten their start there, as had master photographer Manuel Alvarez Bravo.  There was a “Oaxacan School of Painting” (‘school’ meaning a style) and Alvarez Bravo had established a photography school there (the building/institution kind). I began reading everything I could find.  At the time I had only been to Mexico very briefly, in 1975.  

The following autumn, Bryan and I planned a two-week trip to visit Mexico. We timed it to see Day of the Dead celebrations in Oaxaca.  (During my research I had become fascinated with this festival).  We spent one week in Oaxaca followed by one week in Mexico City.  My interest in collecting Mexican folk art was off and running!

Along with busloads of other tourists, we visited several cemeteries in small Oaxacan towns for the “Day of the Dead.” The indigenous people tending their ancestors’ 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 these beautiful people and their beliefs. 

From Oaxaca we traveled to Mexico City, where again I was entranced, but this time by the rich and ancient history.  We visited the National Museum of Anthropology, where I was introduced to the fascinating story of ancient Mesoamerican civilizations; the ancient city of Teotihuacan, which the Aztecs discovered as an abandoned city and then occupied as their own; and the Templo Mayor, the historic center of the Aztec empire, infamous as a place of human sacrifice.  I was astounded!  Why had I never learned in school about Mexico, this highly developed cradle of Western civilization in our own hemisphere, when so much time had been devoted to the cultures of Egypt, Greece, and elsewhere? When I returned home to Virginia I began reading everything I could find about ancient Mexican civilizations, including the Olmec, Zapotec, Mixtec, Aztec, and Maya. The first trip to Mexico opened up a whole new world and was to profoundly influence my future work. I would return there many more times, most recently to study Olmec art and archeology. In subsequent years I have traveled to Guatemala, Peru, Bolivia and other countries in search of inspiration and subject matter to depict in my work.

Comments are welcome!

Q: I have been always fascinated with the re-contexualizing power of Art and with the way some objects or even some concepts often gain a second life when they are “transduced” on a canvas or in a block of marble. So I would like to ask you if in your opinion, personal experience is an absolutely indespensable part of a creative process. Do you think that a creative process could be disconnected from direct experience?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  Certainly personal experience is an indispensable and inseparable part of the creative process. For me art and life are one and I suspect that is true for most artists. When I look at each of my pastel paintings I can remember what was going on in my life at the time I made it. Each is a sort of veiled autobiography waiting to be decoded and in a way, each is also a time-capsule of the larger zeitgeist. It’s still a mystery how exactly this happens but all lived experience – what’s going on in the world, books I’m reading and thinking about, movies I’ve seen that have stayed with me, places I’ve visited, etc. – overtly and/or not so obviously, finds its way into the work. 

Life experience also explains why the work I do now is different from my work even five years ago.  In many ways I am not the same person.     

The inseparableness of art and life is one reason that travel is so important to my creative process.   Artists always seek new influences that will enrich and change our work.  To be an artist, indeed to be alive, is to never stop learning and growing.      

Comments are welcome!    

Q: Who is your favorite artist and why?

Catalogue of Matisse's late work

Catalogue of Matisse’s late work

A:  I admire the work of many artists, but if I have to choose only one then I’d say Matisse.  Whenever there is a Matisse exhibition in New York, I try to see it at least once.  Many years ago I read Hillary Spurling’s definitive two-volume biography (The Unknown Matisse, published 1998, and Matisse the Master, 2005) and became fascinated with how his life unfolded, how Matisse struggled and overcame daunting obstacles in order to  make art, and how his work continued to grow and evolve throughout his long life.  

I believe that Matisse and I are kindred souls in three respects:  we both came from unpromising beginnings (he from a textile family in northern France, me from a blue collar family in New Jersey), our fathers did not support our interest in becoming artists, and he famously worked in series (I am well into my third series).

Comments are welcome! 

Q: Would you speak about your first trip to Mexico?

 

With an amate tree at Chalcatzingo

With an amate tree at Chalcatzingo

A:  In the early 90’s my late husband, Bryan, and I made our first trip to Oaxaca and to Mexico City.  At the time I had become fascinated with the Mexican “Day of the Dead” celebrations so our trip was timed to see them firsthand.  Along with busloads of other tourists, we visited several cemeteries in small Oaxacan towns.  The indigenous people 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 these beautiful people and their beliefs.  From Oaxaca we traveled to Mexico City, where again I was entranced, but this time by the rich and ancient history.  On that first trip to Mexico we visited the National Museum of Anthropology, where I was introduced to the fascinating story of ancient Mesoamerican civilizations  (it is still one of my favorite museums in the world); the ancient city of Teotihuacan, which the Aztecs discovered as an abandoned city and then occupied as their own; and the Templo Mayor, the historic center of the Aztec empire, infamous as a place of human sacrifice.  I was astounded!  Why had I never learned in school about Mexico, this highly developed cradle of Western civilization in our own hemisphere, when so much time had been devoted to the cultures of Egypt, Greece, and elsewhere? When I returned home to Virginia I began reading everything I could find about ancient Mexican civilizations, including the Olmec, Zapotec, Mixtec, Aztec, and Maya. This first trip to Mexico opened up a whole new world and was to profoundly influence my future work. I would return there many more times, most recently this past March to study Olmec art and culture.

Comments are welcome!

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