Blog Archives

Q: Would you elaborate as to how your recent trip to Bolivia is influencing your work just now?

La Paz, Bolivia

La Paz, Bolivia

A:   I consider myself extremely fortunate to have seen a mask exhibition at the National Museum of Ethnography and Folklore when I visited La Paz in May.  Presented as they were against black walls with dramatic spot-lighting, the masks looked exactly like 3D versions of my paintings!  These old Bolivian masks were stunning.

I spent a long time there composing photographs on my iPad.  Immediately I knew this exhibition was a gift because I now had material to keep me busy in the studio for several years.

I have completed the first pastel painting in my new series, “Bolivianos,” and am far along into the second.  I’m looking forward to many more to come!

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 233

"Alone Together," soft pastel on sandpaper, 20" x 26"

“Alone Together,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 20″ x 26″

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

These words are true for most artists, not only writers.

There is the gift, of course, which is inseparable from – though not the same as – a need, a hunger for expression.  It is possible to have the gift without the need.  It is possible to have the need without the gift.  The former can lead to a happy and contented life.  I have seen promising young writers discard their gift, shrugging it off like a wrap on a warm summer evening.  They don’t care.  They don’t want or need it.  The other, however, is a painful situation:  the hunger for self-expression without the gift – that ineffable thing you can’t teach, or buy, or will into being.  This story often ends in resentment and unfulfillment.  Then there is endurability – Ted Solotaroff’s word –  the ability to withstand the years in the cold, the solitary life, the affronts and indignities, the painful rejections that never end.  The gift and the hunger are nothing without that endurability.  But up there with the gift, the hunger, and endurance is another trait, without which the writer’s life can’t possibly work.

The writing life is full of risk.  There is the creative risk – the willingness to fall flat on our face again and again – but there is also practical risk.  As in, it may not work out.   We don’t get brownie points for trying really hard.  When we set our hopes on this life, we are staking our future on the contents of our own minds.  On our ability to create and continue to create.  We have nothing but this.  No 401(k), no pension plan, often no IRA, no plans – God knows – for retirement.  We have to accept living with profound uncertainty.

 Dani Shapiro in Still Writing:  The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life 

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 123

"Quartet" with self-portrait

“Quartet” with self-portrait

 

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

We artists should not underestimate the importance of the stories we tell ourselves about how our art will make a difference.  These motivational fictions describe the ways a work might interact with the world to justify our extravagant, and potentially narcissistic labors:  that our art has transformational potential.  A work might be understood as being critical of society or sanctuary from it, for instance, or a Trojan horse sent to the enemy as a nasty gift to unsettle their deeply entrenched frames of mind.  We need renewable encouragement to make fresh work year after year in the face of uncertain rewards.

David Humphrey quoted in THE ART LIFE:  On Creativity and Career by Stuart Horodner

Comments are welcome!

Q: In light of the realities you discussed last week (see blog post of Aug. 24), what keeps you motivated to make art?

A favorite book

A favorite book

A:  In essence it’s that I have always worked much harder for love than for money.  I absolutely love my work, my creative process, and my chosen life.  I have experienced much tragedy –  no doubt there is more to come – but through it all, my journey as an artist is a continual adventure that gives me the ultimate freedom to spend my time on this earth as I want.  In my work I make the rules, set my own tasks, and resolve them on my own timetable.  What could be better than that? 

Furthermore, I know that I have a gift and with that comes a profound responsibility, an obligation to develop and use it to the best of my ability, regardless of what it may cost.  And when I say “cost,” I do not mean only money.   Art is a calling and all self-respecting artists do whatever is necessary to use and express our gifts.  

In “The Gift” Lewis Hyde says, “A gift is a thing we do not get by our own efforts.  We cannot buy it, we cannot acquire it through an act of will.  It is bestowed upon us.  Thus we rightly speak of “talent” as a “gift” for although a talent can be perfected through an act of will, no effort in the world can cause its initial appearance.  Mozart, composing on the harpsichord at the age of four, had a gift.”

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!  

Q: Why do you need to use a photograph as a reference source to make a pastel painting?

One of Barbara's reference photos

One of Barbara’s reference photos

A:  When I was about 4 or 5 years old I discovered that I had a natural ability to draw anything that I could see.  It’s the way my brain is wired and it is a gift!  One of my earliest memories as an artist is of copying the Sunday comics.  Always it has been much more difficult to draw what I CANNOT see, i.e., to recall how things look solely from memory or to invent them outright.

The evolution of my pastel-on-sandpaper paintings has been the opposite of what one might expect.  I started out making extremely photo-realistic portraits.  I remember feeling highly unflattered when after months of hard work, someone would look at my completed painting and say, “It looks just like a photograph!”  I know this was meant as a compliment, but to me it meant that I had failed as an artist.   Art is so much more than copying physical appearances.

So I resolved to move away from photo-realism.  It has been slow going and part of me still feels like a slacker if I don’t put in all the details.  But after nearly three decades I have arrived at my present way of working, which although still highly representational, contains much that is made up, simplified, and/or stylized.  As I have always done, I continue to work from life and from photographs, but at a certain point I put everything aside and work solely from memory.

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 13

"Stigmata," soft pastel on sandpaper

“Stigmata,” soft pastel on sandpaper

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

Putting aside Steven’s references to God, I enjoy this quote. Give us what you’ve got, indeed!

Are you a born writer?  Were you put on earth to be a painter, a scientist, an apostle of peace?  In the end the question can only be answered by action.

Do it or don’t do it.

It may help to think of it this way.  If you were meant to cure cancer or write a symphony or crack cold fusion and you don’t do it, you not only hurt yourself, even destroy yourself, you hurt your children.  You hurt me.  You hurt the planet.

You shame the angels who watch over you and you spite the Almighty, who created you and only you with your unique gifts, for the sole purpose of nudging the human race one millimeter farther along its path back to God.

Creative work is not a selfish act or a bid for attention on the part of the actor.  It’s a gift to the world and every being in it.  Don’t cheat us of your contribution.  Give us what you’ve got.

Steven Pressfield, The War of Art

Comments are welcome.

Pearls from artists* # 10

West 28th Street

West 28th Street

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

That art that matters to us – which moves the heart, or revives the soul,or delights the senses, or offers courage for living, however we choose to describe the experience – that work is received by us as a gift is received.  Even if we are touched by a work of art something comes to us which has nothing to do with the piece.  I went to see a landscape painter’s works, and that evening, walking among pine trees near my home, I could see the shapes  and colors I had not seen the day before. The spirit of an artist’s gifts can wake our own.  The work appeals, as Joseph Conrad says, to a part of our being which is itself a gift and not an acquisition.  Our sense of harmony can hear the harmonies that Mozart heard.  We may not have the power to profess our gifts as the artist does,and yet we come to recognize, and in a sense to receive, the endowments of our being through the agency of his creation.  We feel fortunate, even redeemed.  The daily commerce of our lives – “sugar for sugar and salt for salt,” as the blues singers say – proceeds at its own constant level, but a gift revives the soul.  When we are moved by art we are grateful that the artist lived, grateful that he labored in the service of his gift.

If a work of art is the emanation of its maker’s gift and if it is received by its audience as a gift, then is it, too, a gift?  I have framed the question to imply an affirmative answer, but I doubt we can be so categorical.  Any object, any item of commerce, becomes one kind of property or another depending on how we use it.  Even if a work of art contains the spirit of the artist’s gift, it does  not follow that the work itself is a gift.  It is what we make of it.

And yet, that said, it must be added that the way we treat a thing can sometimes change its nature.  For example, religions often prohibit the sale of sacred objects, the implication being that their sanctity is lost if they are bought and sold.  A work of art seems to be a hardier breed; it can be sold in the market and still emerge a work of art.  But if it is true that in the essential commerce of art a gift is carried by the work from the artist to his audience, if I am right to say that where there is no gift there is no art, then it is possible to destroy a work of art by converting it into a commodity.  Such, at any rate, is my position.  I do not maintain that art cannot  be bought and sold; I do maintain that the gift portion of the work places a constraint upon our merchandising.       

Lewis Hyde, The Gift

Comments are welcome.