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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* # 451

Barbara’s studio

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

Your attitude towards resistance determines the success of your work and your future. Resistance should be cultivated. How you meet these obstacles that present themselves in the light of any endeavor determine the direction of your life and career.

Allow me to propose a few suggestions about how to handle the natural resistances that your circumstances might offer. Do not wait for enough time or money to accomplish what you think you have in mind. Work with what you have right now. Work with the architecture you see around you right now. Do not what for what you assume is the appropriate, stress-free environment in which to generate expression. Do not wait for maturity or insight or wisdom. Do not wait till you are sure you know what you are doing. Do not wait until you have enough technique. What you do now, what you make of your present circumstances will determine the quality of your future endeavors.

And, at the same time, be patient.

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

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 448

Museum of Ethnography and Folklore, La Paz, Bolivia
Museum of Ethnography and Folklore, La Paz, 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.

Memory plays a huge role in the artistic process. Every time you stage a play, you are embodying a memory. Human beings are stimulated to tell stories from the experience of remembering an incident or a person. The act of expressing what is remembered is actually, according to the philosopher Richard Rorty, an act of re-description. In redescribing something, new myths are created. Rorty suggests that there is no objective reality, no Platonic ideal. We create truths by describing, or re-describing, our beliefs and observations. Our task, and the task of every artist and scientist, is to redescribe our inherited assumptions and invented fictions in order to create new paradigms for the future.

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

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 445

Artists at work… our documentary film crew!

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

My good friend the writer Charles L. Mee, Jr helped me to recognize the relationship between art and the way societies are structured. He suggested that, as societies develop, it is the artists who articulate the necessary myths that embody our experience of life and provide parameters for ethics and values. Every so often the inherited myths lose their value because they become too small and confined to contain the complexities of the ever-transforming and expanding societies. In that moment new myths are needed to encompass who we are becoming. These new constructs do not eliminate anything already in the mix; rather, they include fresh influences and engender new formations. The new mythologies always include ideas, cultures and people formerly excluded from the previous mythologies. So, deduces Mee, the history of art is the history of inclusion.

I believe that the new mythologies will be created and articulated in art, in literature, painting and poetry. It is the artists who will create a livable future through their ability to articulate in the face of flux and change.

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

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 444

Barbara working on an interview. Photo: Maria Cox
Barbara working on an interview. Photo: Maria Cox

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

Artists are individuals willing to articulate in the face of flux and transformation. And the successful artist finds new shapes for our present ambiguities and uncertainties. The artist becomes the creator of the future through the violent act of articulation. I say violent because articulation is a forceful act. It demands an aggressiveness and an ability to enter into the fray and translate that experience into expression. In the articulation begins a new organization of the inherited landscape.

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

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 416

"Acolytes," soft pastel on sandpaper, 38" x 58"

“Acolytes,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 38″ x 58″

* 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 young man was experiencing that profound emotion which has stirred the hearts of all great artists when, in the prime of youth and their love of art, they approach a man of genius or stand in the presence of a masterpiece.  There is a first bloom in all human feelings, the result of a noble enthusiasm which gradually fades till happiness is no more than a memory, glory a lie.  Among such fragile sentiments, none so resembles love as the youthful passion of an artist first suffering that initial delicious torture which will be his destiny of glory and woe, a passion brimming with boldness and fear, vague hopes and inevitable frustrations.  The youth who, short of cash but long of talent, fails to tremble upon first encountering a master, must always lack at least one heartstring, some sensitivity in his brushstroke, a certain poetic expressiveness.  There may be concerned boasters prematurely convinced that the future is theirs, but only fools believe them.  In this regard, the young stranger seemed to possess true merit, if talent is to be measured by that initial shyness and that indefinable humility which a man destined for glory is likely to lose in the exercise of his art, as a pretty woman loses hers in the stratagems of coquetry.  The habit of triumph diminishes doubt, and humility may be a kind of doubt.         

Honore Balzac in The Unknown Masterpiece

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: 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!

Pearls from artists* # 352

"Provocateur," soft pastel on sandpaper, 26" x 20"

“Provocateur,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 26″ x 20″

*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 jester was certainly a key player in medieval court politics.  His power, however, was commensurate with his acknowledged irrelevance to the state apparatus.  As the eternal outsider, ridiculed or at best ignored by the elite unless he was actually entertaining them, he acquired the right to speak truths that others would speak at their peril.  Yet if the imprudent king simply saw the Fool as a source of amusement, the wise king saw in his antics and wordplay the pattern of the past, present, and future.  In the same way, art is the joker in the hand that was dealt to humanity.  Nothing is easier than dismissing it as a frivolity, and yet those who meet it on its own ground gain access to the hidden facets of their situation.  It is by virtue of its very separateness, its position outside the realm of the useful and the practical, that art reveals the Real.  Paradoxically, art has political value only when appraised outside of any political framework.       

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

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 322

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

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

Think, dear sir, of the world you carry within you, and call this thinking what you will:  whether it be remembering your own childhood or yearning toward your own future – only be attentive to that which rises up in you and set it above everything that you observe about you.  What goes on in your innermost being is worthy of your whole love; you must somehow keep working at it and not lose too much time and too much courage in clarifying your attitude toward people.       

Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, Translation by M.D. Herter Norton

Comments are welcome!

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