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Pearls from artists* # 494

Shamans, Tiwanaku, Bolivia

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

Emile Cartailhac was a man who could admit when he was wrong. This was fortunate, because in 1902 the French prehistorian found himself writing an article for L’Anthropolgie in which he did just that. In “Mea culpa d’un sceptique” he recanted the views he had spent the previous 20 years forcefully and scornfully maintaining: that prehistoric man was incapable of fine artistic expression and that the cave paintings found in Altmira, northern Spain, were forgeries.

The Paleothithic paintings at Altamira, which were produced around 14,000 B.C., were the first examples of prehistoric cave art to be officially discovered. It happened by chance in 1879, when a local landowner and amateur archaeologist was busily brushing away at the floor of the caves, searching for prehistoric tools. His nine-year-old daughter, Maria Sanz de Sautuola – a grave little thing with cropped hair and lace-up booties – was exploring farther on when she suddenly looked up, exclaiming, “Look, Papa, bison!” She was quite right: a veritable herd, subtly colored with black charcoal and ocher, ranged over the ceiling. When her father published the finding in 1880, he was met with ridicule. The experts scoffed at the very idea that prehistoric man – savages really – could have produced sophisticated polychrome paintings. The esteemed Monsieur Cartailhac and the majority of his fellow experts, without troubling to go and see the cave for themselves, dismissed the whole thing as a fraud. Maria’s father died, a broken and dishonored man, in 1888, four years before Cartailhac admitted his error.

After the discovery of many more caves and hundreds of lions, handprints, horses, women, hyenas, and bison, the artistic abilities of prehistoric man are no longer in doubt. It is thought that these caves were painted by shamans trying to charm a steady supply of food for their tribes. Many were painted using the pigment most readily available in the caves at the time: the charred stick remnants of their fires. At its simplest, charcoal is the carbon-rich by-product of organic matter – usually wood – and fire. It is purest and least ashy when oxygen has been restricted during it’s heating.

In The Secret Lives of Color by Kassia St. Clair

Comments are welcome!

Q: Do you have any mentors?

Barbara’s studio

Barbara’s studio

A.  Unfortunately, no, I have had to forge my own path.  I did not attend art school, but I have been fortunate to have had two excellent life-changing teachers. 

To read about my circuitous path to becoming an artist, please see https://barbararachko.art/en/art-market

Comments are welcome!

Q: Do you have a home studio or do you go to an outside studio to work? Which do you prefer and why?

At work

At work

A: I have always preferred a separate studio. Pastel creates a lot of dust, it’s toxic to breathe, plus I do not want to live with the mess! I need a place to go in the mornings, someplace where I can focus and work without any distractions. It’s difficult to do that at home.

From the beginning of my time as an artist, in the mid-1980’s, I had a studio. My first one was in the spare bedroom of the Alexandria, Virginia, house that I shared with my late husband, Bryan, and that I still own.

For about three years in the 1990s I had a studio on the third floor of the Torpedo Factory Art Center, a building in Alexandria, VA that is open to the public. People would come in, watch artists at work, and sometimes buy a piece of art.

In April 1997 an opportunity to move to New York arose and I didn’t look back. By then I was showing in a good 57th Street gallery, Brewster Arts Ltd. (the gallery focused exclusively on Latin American artists; I was in the company of Leonora Carrington, Rufino Tamayo, Diego Rivera, etc.), and I had managed to find a New York agent, Leah Poller, with whom to collaborate.

I looked at only one other space before finding my West 29th Street studio and knew instantly it was the one! An old friend of Bryan’s from Cal Tech rented the space next door and he had told us it was available. Initially the studio was a sublet. The lease-holder was a painter headed to northern California to work temporarily for George Lucas at the Lucas Ranch. After several years she decided to stay so I was able to take over the lease. I feel extremely fortunate to have been in my West 29th Street, New York City space now for twenty-three years. In a city where old buildings are perpetually knocked down to make way for new ones this is rare.

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 and I feel calmer the moment I arrive. It’s my absolute favorite place in New York! Sometimes I think of it as my best creation. For more about this please see

https://artofcollage.wordpress.com/2020/04/30/artists-and-their-relationship-to-their-studio

Comments are welcome!

Q: All artists go through periods when they wonder what it’s all for. What do you do during times like that?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  Fortunately, that doesn’t happen very often.  I love and enjoy all the varied facets involved in being an artist, even (usually) the business aspects, which are just another puzzle to be solved.  I have vivid memories of being stuck in a job that I hated, one I couldn’t immediately leave because I was an officer in the US Navy.  Life is so much better as a visual artist!

I appreciate the freedom that comes with being a self-employed artist.  The words of Louise Bourgeois often come to mind:  “It is a PRIVILEGE to be an artist.” 

Still, with very valid reasons, no one ever said that an artist’s life is easy.  It is difficult at every phase.  

Books offer sustenance, especially ones written by artists who have endured all sorts of terrible hardships beyond anything artists today are likely to experience.  I just pick up a favorite book.  My Wednesday blog posts, “Pearls from artists,” give some idea of the sorts of inspiration I find.  I read the wise words of a fellow artist, then I get back to work.  As I quickly become intrigued with the problems at hand in a painting, all doubt usually dissolves. 

I  try to remember:  Artists are extremely fortunate to be doing what we love and what we are meant to do with our short time on earth.  What more could a person ask?  

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: You have spoken about learning to fly at the age of 25. What airplanes did you fly?

Cessna 150

Cessna 150

A:  I learned to fly at a small airport in Caldwell, NJ.  Flying is expensive and since I didn’t have much money, I sought a job at Liberty Aviation, the local flight school, in exchange for flying lessons.  For every three hours I worked, I earned a flying lesson.  At the time it cost $25/hour to rent a plane, plus $10/hour for an instructor, and I was fortunate to find an excellent flight instructor who offered to teach me for free. 

After I completed ground school at Clifton High School, I took my first flying lesson.  It was on April 1, 1978 in a (two-seat) Cessna 150.  During the following months I flew every chance I could, in Cessna 150s and newer Cessna 152s, and also occasionally in Piper Cherokees.  On September 24, 1978 I received my private pilot’s license. 

Then I got checked-out in a larger (four-seat) Cessna 172.  For my instrument training I flew Cessna 150s and 172s.  I received my instrument rating in April 1979. 

Next I trained for a commercial pilot’s license and a multi-engine rating.  I flew Cessna 172s and a twin-engine Piper Seminole and obtained my license and rating in May 1980. 

In December 1980 I began Boeing 727 flight engineer training at Flight International in Atlanta, GA.  Most of this was in Boeing-727 flight simulators with Delta airline pilots as instructors.  My check-ride was in a Boeing-727 owned by FedEx.  I received my flight engineer’s certificate in February 1981.  At the time I was the only woman in the entire school!

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 82

"The Sovereign," soft pastel on sandpaper, 58" x 38"

“The Sovereign,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 58″ x 38″

* 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 isn’t psychology.  For one thing art deals in images, not language.  Images precede language and are closer to feelings.  They summon feelings before they’re named and categorized, when they’re still fresh and sometimes hard to recognize or identify.

For another thing, to translate his vision an artist uses materials that are, for lack of a better word, alchemical.  Paint, for example, has this wonderful, mysterious quality –  a smell and a sensuous, velvety feel and an ability to hold color and light – that unlocks and speeds up one’s creative metabolism.  And paint captures my every impulse – from my broadest conceptions to the tiniest ticks and tremors of my wrist.

There are literally no words to describe what occurs when an image suddenly and unexpectedly appears on the canvas.  Sometimes it’s serendipity, the result of a fortunate brushstroke.  Sometimes I think it has to do with the inherent qualities of paint, or the slickness of a surface, or the fullness or acuity of a brush.  And sometimes when I’ve got a good rhythm going and everything comes together, I feel as though it produces the purest expression of who I am and what I am and how I perceive the world.   

Eric Fischl and Michael Stone in Bad Boy:  My Life on and off the Canvas

Comments are welcome!

Q: I just got home from my first painting experience… three hours and I am exhausted! Yet you, Barbara, build up as many as 30 layers of pastel, concentrate on such intricate detail, and work on a single painting for months. How do you do it?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  The short answer is that I absolutely love making art in my studio and on the best days I barely even notice time going by!  

Admittedly, it’s a hard road.  Pursuing life as an artist takes a very special and rare sort of person.  Talent and having innate gifts are a given, merely the starting point.  We must possess a whole cluster of characteristics and be unwavering in displaying them.  We are passionate, hard-working, smart, devoted, sensitive, self-starting, creative, hard-headed, resilient, curious, persistent, disciplined, stubborn, inner-directed, tireless, strong, and on and on.  Into the mix add these facts.  We need to be good business people. Even if we are, we are unlikely to make much money.  We are not respected as a profession.  People often misunderstand us:  at best they ignore us, at worst they insult our work and us, saying we are lazy, crazy, and more.

The odds are stacked against any one individual having the necessary skills and stamina to withstand it all.  So many artists give up, deciding it’s too tough and just not worth it, and who can blame them?  This is why I believe artists who persevere over a lifetime are true heroes.  It’s why I do all I can to help my peers.  Ours is an extremely difficult life – it’s impossible to overstate this – and each of us finds our own intrinsic rewards in the work itself.  Otherwise there is no reason to stick with it.  Art is a calling and for those of us who are called, the work is paramount.  We build our lives around the work until all else becomes secondary and falls away.  We are in this for the duration.

In my younger days everything I tried in the way of a career eventually became boring. Now with nearly thirty years behind me as a working artist, I can still say, “I am never bored in the studio!”  It’s difficult to put into words why this is true, but I know that I would not want to spend my time on this earth doing anything else.  How very fortunate that I do not have to do so!

Comments are welcome!

Q: How do you feel about accepting commissions?

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

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

A:  By the time I left the Navy in 1989 to devote myself to making art, I had begun a career as a portrait painter.  I needed to make money, this was the only way I could think of to do so, and I had perfected the craft of creating photo-realistic portraits in pastel.  It worked for a little while. 

A year later I found myself feeling bored and frustrated for many reasons.  I didn’t like having to please a client because their concerns generally had little to do with art.  Once I ensured that the portrait was a good (and usually flattering) likeness, there was no more room for experimentation, growth, or creativity.  I believed (and still do) that I could never learn all there was to know about soft pastel.  I wanted to explore color and composition and take this under-appreciated medium as far as possible.  It seemed likely that painting portraits would not allow me to accomplish this.  Also, I tended to underestimate the amount of time needed to make a portrait  and charged too small a fee.

So I decided commissioned portraits were not for me and made the last one in 1990 (above).  I feel fortunate to have the freedom to create work that does not answer to external concerns.  

Comments are welcome!        

Q: How do you define success as an artist?

Self-portrait at an architect's estate in Sri Lanka

Self-portrait at an architect’s estate in Sri Lanka

A:  This is another question that has many answers depending more or less on how things are progressing in the studio.  I’d say that you are a successful artist if you are able to keep working and evolving, and are mostly living by your own rules, using your time as you see fit to become a better artist.  This means navigating through all the ups and downs, the obstacles – and we know there are many – to art-making and finding joy and on-going discovery in your own particular creative process.  The work is everything, as we always say, but hopefully, you have found an appreciative audience and do sell a piece of art now and then.  

I know that I am more fortunate than many.  Over time I’ve realized that money, i.e., sales, is one of the less important aspects of being an artist.  The richness that being a professional artist brings to my life goes far beyond anything that can be acquired with cash!  

Comments are welcome!    

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