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Pearls from artists* # 301

Untitled reference photo for a pastel painting in the “Bolivianos” series

Untitled reference photo for a pastel painting in the “Bolivianos” series

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

In 1917 the ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev commissioned a new libretto from Jean Cocteau.  When the young poet asked for advice on how to proceed, Diaghilev replied with a simple directive:  “Astonish me.”  The phrase would serve Cocteau as a mantra throughout his career, resurfacing, for instance, at the beginning of his classic film Orpheus.  Not surprising, as few statements could better encapsulate the impetus that has driven artistic creation since the beginning.  Astonishment is the litmus test of art, the sign by which we know we have been magicked out of practical and utilitarian enterprises to confront the bottomless dream of life in sensible form.  Art astonishes and is born of astonishment.  There is only one thing that it can be said to “communicate” more effectively than other mediums can, and that is “the weirdness of the Real.”         

J.F. Martel in Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice:  A Treatise, Critique, and Call to Action 

Comments are welcome!

Q: How do you document your work?

Barbara's portfolio book

Barbara’s portfolio book

A:  I have been a professional artist for thirty years so some things have changed and some haven’t.  I have a portfolio book of 8 x 10 photographs of all my pastel paintings.  Since my process is slow and meticulous, the latest, “Troublemaker,” is pastel painting number 124.  

I have always gotten my work professionally photographed.  Until 2001 my husband Bryan was my photographer and since then I have hired three people.  To document older work I have slides, 4 x 5 transparencies, and color and black and white 4 x 5 negatives.  I continued with slides and film longer than many artists, but finally switched to digital files a few years ago when buying film and processing it became difficult.

Comments are welcome!            

Q: How long does it take you to complete a pastel-on-sandpaper painting?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  Mine is a slow and labor-intensive process.  First, there is foreign travel to find the cultural objects – masks, carved wooden animals, paper mâché figures, and toys – that are my subject matter.  If they are heavy I ship them home.  

Next comes planning exactly how to photograph them, lighting and setting everything up, and shooting a roll of 220 film with my Mamiya 6 camera.  I still like to use an analog camera for my fine art work, although I am rethinking this.  I have the film developed, decide which image to use, and order a 20” x 24” reference photograph from Manhattan Photo on West 20th Street.  

Then I am ready to start.  I work on each pastel-on-sandpaper painting for approximately three months.  I am in my studio 7 to 8 hours a day, five days a week.  During that time I make thousands of creative decisions as I apply and layer soft pastels (I have 8 tables-worth to choose from!), blend them with my fingers, and mix new colors directly on the sandpaper.  A finished piece consists of up to 30 layers of soft pastel.  My self-invented technique accounts for the vivid, intense color that often leads viewers of my originals to look very closely and ask, “What medium is this?”  I believe I am pushing soft pastel to its limits, using it in ways that no other artist has done.

Comments are welcome!

Q: What does your creative process look like when you are ready to begin a new painting?

 

Preliminary sketch

Preliminary sketch

A:  My working methods have changed dramatically over the years with my current process being a much-simplified version of how I used to work.  In other words as I pared down my imagery in the “Black Paintings,” my process quite naturally pared down, too. 

One constant is that I have always worked in series with each pastel painting leading quite logically to the next.  Another is that I always have set up a scene, lit and photographed it, and worked with a 20″ x 24″ photograph as the primary reference material.  In the “Domestic Threats” series I shot with a 4″ x 5″ view camera.  Nowadays the first step is to decide which photo I want to make into a painting (currently I have a backlog of images to choose from) and to order a 19 1/2″ x 19 1/2″ image (my Mamiya 6 shoots square images and uses film) printed on 20″ x 24″ paper.  I get the print made at Manhattan Photo on West 20th Street in New York.  Typically I have in mind the next two or three paintings that I want to create.

Once I have the reference photograph in hand, I make a preliminary tonal charcoal sketch on a piece of white drawing paper.  The sketch helps me think about how to proceed and points out potential problem areas ahead.  For example, in the photograph above I had originally thought about creating a vertical painting, but changed to horizontal format after discovering spatial problems in my sketch.  

Also, I decided to make a small painting now because it has been two years since I last worked in a smaller (than my usual 38″ x 58″) size.  I am re-using the photograph on which “Epiphany” is based.  Using a photograph a second time lets me see how my working methods have evolved over time.     

Comments are welcome! 

Q: How do you experience art in New York?

 

 

Lower Manhattan

Lower Manhattan

 

A:  As a New York artist I am very fortunate to live in a city with a vibrant, exciting cultural scene.  Simply put, art is in the air here and I take inspiration from everything I see and experience:  painting, photography, sculpture, installation, performance art, public art, dance, theater, film, opera, jazz, etc.  This city itself is an endlessly fascinating place.  Visually it is always thrilling!  I never know what I am going to see – good and bad – whenever I leave my apartment.  

I have been living here since April 1997.  The city provides a heady mix to ponder and this mix mysteriously enriches, influences, and somehow finds its way into the work.  I have been an artist for nearly thirty years and I continue to be intrigued with watching the intricacies of how my creative process evolves and grows.    

Comments are welcome!                

Q: Why do people need art in their daily lives?

 

With Ida Bagus Anom, Mas, Bali; Photo:  Donna Tang

With Ida Bagus Anom, Mas, Bali; Photo: Donna Tang

A:  That is for each person to decide, but as someone who devotes every waking moment to my work and to becoming a better artist, I cannot imagine my life without art.  

I will tell you a little about what art has done for me.  In my younger days boredom was a strong motivator.  I left the active duty Navy out of boredom.  I couldn’t bear not being intellectually challenged (most of my jobs consisted of paper-pushing), not using my flying skills (at 27 I was a licensed commercial pilot and Boeing-727 flight engineer), and not developing my artistic talents.  In what surely must be a first, the Navy turned me into a hard-working and disciplined artist.  And once I left the Navy there was no plan B.  There was no time to waste.  It was “full speed ahead.” 

Art is a calling.  You do not need to be told this if you are among those who are called.  It’s all about “the work,” that all-consuming focus of an artist’s life.  If a particular activity doesn’t seem likely to make me a better artist, I tend to avoid it.  I work hard to nourish and protect my  gifts.  As artists we invent our own tasks, learn whatever we need in order to progress, and complete projects in our own time.  It is life lived at its freest. 

My art-making has led me to fascinating places:  Mexico, Guatemala, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, France, England, Italy, Bali, Java, Sri Lanka, and more; and to in-depth studies of intriguing subjects:  drawing, color, composition, art and art history, the art business, film and film history, photography, mythology, literature, music, jazz and jazz history, and archaeology, particularly that of ancient Mesoamerica (Olmec, Zapotec, Mixtec, Aztec, Maya, etc.).  And this rich mixture continually grows!  For anyone wanting to spend their time on earth learning and meeting new challenges, there is no better life! 

Comments are welcome!

Q: How do you decide on the titles for your pastel paintings?

"Stigmata," soft pastel on sandpaper, 28" x 48"

“Stigmata,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 28″ x 48″

A:  Usually a title suggests itself over the course of the months I spend on a painting.  Sometimes it comes from a book I’m reading, from a piece of music, a film, bits of overheard conversation.  A title can come from anywhere, but finding the best one is key.  I like what Jean Cocteau says about this:

One title alone exists.  It will be, so it is.  Time conceals it from me.  How discover it, concealed by  a hundred others?  I have to avoid the this, the that.  Avoid the image.  Avoid the descriptive and the undescriptive.  Avoid the exact meaning and the inexact.  The soft, the hard.  Neither long nor short.  Right to catch the eye, the ear, the mind.  Simple to read and to remember.  I had announced several.  I had to repeat them twice and the journalists still got them wrong.  My real title defies me.  It enjoys its hiding place, like a child one keeps calling, and whom one believes drowned in the pond.    

Once I have the best title, I make sure it fits the painting exactly.  How I do that is difficult to explain.  It’s an intuitive process that involves adjusting colors, shapes, and images so that they fit the painting’s meaning, i.e., the meaning hinted at by the title.

Comments are welcome!        

Pearls from artists* # 45

iPad photo

iPad photo

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

Why do you write plays?  I am asked by the novelist.  Why do you write novels?  I am asked by the dramatist.  Why do you make films?  I am asked by the poet.  Why do you draw?  I am asked by the critic.  Why do you write?  I am asked by the draughtsman.  Yes, why?  I wonder.  Doubtless so that my seed may be blown all over the place.  I know little about this breath within me, but it is not gentle.  It does not care for the sick.  It is unmoved by fatigue.  It takes advantage of my gifts.  It wants to do its part.  It is not inspiration, it’s expiration one should say.  For this breath comes from a zone in man into which man cannot descend, even if Virgil were to lead him there, for Virgil himself did not descend into it.

Jean Cocteau in The Difficulty of Being

Comments are welcome!  

Pearls from artists* # 43

Boulder, CO

Boulder, CO

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

Why would anyone read a book instead of watching big people move on a screen?  Because a book can be literature.  It is a subtle thing – a poor thing, but our own.  In my view, the more literary the book – the more purely verbal, crafted sentence by sentence, the more imaginative, reasoned, and deep – the more likely people are to read it.  The people who read are the people who like literature, after all, whatever that might be.  They like, or require, what books alone have.  If they want to see films that evening, they will find films.  If they do no like to read, they will not.  People who read are not too lazy to flip on the television; they prefer books.  I cannot imagine a sorrier pursuit than struggling for years to write a book that attempts to appeal to people who do not read in the first place.   

Annie Dillard in The Writing Life

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 40

Balinese boy in Hindu dress

Balinese boy in Hindu dress

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

A film is a succession of snapshots more or less posed, and it only very rarely gives us the illusion of the unexpected and rare.  Ninety films out of a hundred are merely interminable poses.  One doesn’t premeditate a photograph like a murder or a work of art.

Photography is rather like those huge American department stores where you find all you want:  old master paintings, locomotives, playing cards, tempests, gardens, opera glasses, pretty girls.  But steer clear at all costs of the floorwalkers.  They are terrible chatterbox bores who have no idea what they are saying.

A photographer for the Daily Mirror said to me:  “The most beautiful photos I’ve ever taken were on a day I had forgotten my film.”

That photographer is a poet, perhaps, but quite certainly an imbecile.  The photographer’s personality?

Obviously each of them blows his nose in his own fashion.  But the most successful photographs are not those that required the most trouble.

That would be just too easy.

Carlo Rim in On the Snapshot

Comments are welcome!