Blog Archives

Q: The imagery used throughout your work evoked glimmers of childhood memories, specifically “Punch and Judy” puppet shows. Would you talk about your use of this kind of slightly sinister iconography?

Barbara and Tomas in Panajachel

Barbara and Tomas in Panajachel

A:  I don’t really see my iconography as sinister, although I know some people do.

I search the markets and bazaars of Mexico, Guatemala, and elsewhere for folk art objects – masks, carved wooden animals, papier mache figures, children’s toys – to bring back to New York to photograph and paint.

Color is very important – the brighter and the more eye-catching the patterns are on these objects the better – plus they must be unique and have lots of personality. I try not to buy anything mass-produced or obviously made for the tourist trade. The objects must have been used or otherwise look like they’ve had a life (i.e., been part of religious festivities) to draw my attention. How and where each one comes into my possession is an important part of the creative process. Making this work is a long, complex undertaking with many facets. Finished paintings are always an idiosyncratic blend of reality, fantasy, and autobiography.

Finding, buying, and getting the objects back to the U.S. is sometimes circuitous, but that, too, is part of the process, an adventure, and often a good story. Here’s an example.

In 2009 I was in a small town on the shores of Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, called Panajachel. After returning from a boat ride across the lake, my friends and I were walking back to our hotel when we discovered a wonderful mask store. How fortuitous! I spent some time looking around, made my selections, and was ready to buy five exquisitely-made standing wooden figures, when I learned that Tomas, the store owner, did not accept credit cards. I was heart-broken and thought, “Oh, no, I’ll have to leave these Panajachelitos behind.”

However, thanks to my good friend, Donna, whose Spanish was much more fluent than mine, the three of us brain-stormed until finally, Tomas had an idea. I could pay for the figures at a nearby hotel and in a few days when the hotel was paid by the credit card company, the hotel would pay Tomas. Fabulous! Tomas, Donna, and I walked to the hotel, where the transaction was made and the first hurdle was overcome.

Working out the packing and shipping arrangements took another hour or two. This was a small village off the beaten track so boxes and packing materials were scarce. As we figured out the details, Tomas and I realized we liked and trusted each other, became friends, and exchanged telephone numbers. The store did not even have a telephone so he gave me the phone number of the post office next door, saying that when I called, he could easily run next door!

Most wonderfully, the package was waiting for me in New York when I returned home from Guatemala. All of the objects were unbroken and in excellent condition.

As I travel I am drawn to each of these figures because it possesses a powerful presence that resonates with me.  It’s a mystery really.  I am not sure exactly how or why, but I know each object has lessons to teach as it assumes various roles in yet-to-be-created paintings.

Coming upon a new find I wonder, who made this thing?  How?  Why?  Where?  When?  I feel connected to each object’s creator and curiosity leads me to become a detective and an archaeologist to find out more about it and to figure out how to most effectively use it in my work.

The best way I can describe it:  after three decades of seeking out, collecting, and using these folk art figures as personal symbols in my work, the process has become an enriching personal journey towards greater knowledge and wisdom. They are a vehicle for learning more about the world and and about myself.  And what artist doesn’t love to learn?

Comments are welcome! 

Q: What’s on the easel today?

Work in progress

Work in progress

A:  I continue working on a large pastel painting that combines some of my finds from Oaxaca and Mexico City, Kandy (Sri Lanka), and Panajachel (Guatemala).

Comments are welcome!

Q: What’s on the easel today?

Work in progress

Work in progress

A:  I am in the very early stages of a large pastel painting.  I have never painted any of these figures before and they originated in different parts of the world.  The bird (left) is from the Brooklyn Museum’s store, although it was hand carved in Guatemala.  The standing figure is carved wood with beautiful painted details.  It was a lucky find on a trip to Panajachel, Guatemala.  The armadillo (red and grey) was made by one of my favorite Mexican folk artists (now deceased) and I believe it’s one of the last pieces he completed.  It is a papier mâché figure that I found in a small shop in Mexico City.  The figure on the upper right is a wooden mask bought from a talkative and talented artist at a hotel in Kandy, Sri Lanka.  It depicts nagas (cobras), although you can’t tell that yet in the painting.

Comments are welcome!

Q: Can you talk a little bit about your process? What happens before you even begin a pastel painting?

Barbara in Bali (far right)

Barbara in Bali (far right)

A:  My process is extremely slow and labor-intensive. 

First, there is foreign travel – often to Mexico, Guatemala or someplace in Asia – to find the cultural objects – masks, carved wooden animals, paper mâché figures, and toys – that are my subject matter.  I search the local markets, bazaars, and mask shops for these folk art objects. I look for things that are old, that look like they have a history, and were probably used in religious festivals of some kind. Typically, they are colorful, one-of-a- kind objects that have lots of inherent personality. How they enter my life and how I get them back to my New York studio is an important part of my art-making practice. 

My working methods have changed dramatically over the nearly thirty years that I have been an artist. My current process is a much simplified version of how I used to work.  As I pared down my imagery in the current series, “Black Paintings,” my creative process quite naturally pared down, too. 

One constant is that I have always worked in series with each pastel painting leading quite naturally to the next.  Another is that I always set up a scene, plan exactly how to light and photograph it, and work with a 20″ x 24″ photograph as the primary reference material. 

In the setups I look for eye-catching compositions and interesting colors, patterns, and shadows.  Sometimes I make up a story about the interaction that is occurring between the “actors,” as I call them.

In the “Domestic Threats” series I photographed the scene with a 4″ x 5″ Toyo Omega view camera.  In my “Gods and Monsters” series I shot rolls of 220 film using a Mamiya 6. I still like to use an old analog camera for fine art work, although I have been rethinking this practice.   

Nowadays the first step is to decide which photo I want to make into a painting (currently I have a backlog of photographs to choose from) and to order a 19 1/2″ x 19 1/2″ image (my Mamiya 6 shoots square images) printed on 20″ x 24″ paper.  They recently closed, but I used to have the prints made at Manhattan Photo on West 20th Street in New York.  Now I go to Duggal.  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. 

Only then am I ready to start actually making the painting. 

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: Can you speak about what draws you to the Mexican and Guatemalan figures that you collect?

Shop in Panajachel, Guatemala, Photo:  Donna Tang

Shop in Panajachel, Guatemala, Photo: Donna Tang

A:  I search the markets and bazaars of Mexico, Guatemala, and elsewhere for folk art objects – masks, carved wooden animals, papier mache figures, children’s toys – to bring back to New York to paint and photograph. Color is very important – the brighter and the more eye-catching the patterns are on these objects the better – plus they must be unique and have lots of personality. I try not to buy anything mass-produced or obviously made for the tourist trade. The objects must have been used or otherwise look like they’ve had a life (i.e., been part of religious festivities) to draw my attention. How and where each one comes into my possession is an important part of my creative process.

Finding, buying, and getting them back to the U.S. is always circuitous, but that, too, is part of the process, an adventure, and often a good story. Here’s an example. In 2009 I was in a small town on the shores of Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, called Panajachel. After returning from a boat ride across the lake, my friends and I were walking back to our hotel when we discovered a wonderful mask store. I spent some time looking around, made my selections, and was ready to buy five exquisitely-made standing wooden figures, when I learned that Tomas, the store owner, did not accept credit cards. I was heart-broken and thought, “Oh, no, I’ll have to leave them behind.” However, thanks to my good friend, Donna, whose Spanish is much more fluent than mine, the three of us brain-stormed until finally, Tomas had an idea. I could pay for the figures at the hotel up the block and in a few days when the hotel was paid by the credit card company, the hotel would pay Tomas. Fabulous! Tomas, Donna, and I walked to the hotel, where the transaction was made and the first hurdle was overcome. Working out the packing and shipping arrangements took another hour or two, but during that time Tomas and I became friends and exchanged telephone numbers (the store didn’t even have a telephone so he gave me the phone number of the post office next door, saying that when I called, he could easily run next door!). Most surprisingly, the package was waiting for me in New York when I returned home from Guatemala.

Comments are welcome!

Q: What have you learned about the people of Mexico through your travels, reading, and research?

A corner of the studio

A corner of the studio

A:  It didn’t take long to become smitten with these beautiful people.  It happened on my first trip there in 1992 when Bryan and I, along with busloads of other tourists, were visiting the Oaxacan cemeteries on The Day of the Dead.  The Oaxaquenos 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 them and with their beliefs.  My studies since that time have given me a deeper appreciation for the art, architecture, history, mythology, etc. that comprise the extremely rich and complex story of Mexico as a cradle of civilization in the West.  It is a wonderfully heady mix and hopefully some of it comes through in my work as a painter and a photographer.

By the way I often wonder why the narrative of Mexico’s fascinating history was not taught in American public schools, at least not where I went to public school in suburban New Jersey.  Mexico is our neighbor, for goodness sake, but when I speak to many Americans about Mexico they have never learned anything about the place!  It’s shocking, but many people think only “Spring Break” and/or “Drug Wars,” when they hear the word “Mexico.”  As a kid I remember learning about Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, and other early civilizations in the Middle East, Europe, and Asia, but very little about Mexico.  We learned about the Maya, when it was still believed that they were a peaceful people who devoted their lives to scientific and religious pursuits, but that story was debunked years ago.  And I am fairly sure that not many Americans even know that Maya still exist in the world … in Mexico and in Guatemala.   There are a few remote places that were not completely destroyed by Spanish Conquistadores in the 16th century and later.  I’ve been to Mayan villages in Guatemala and seen shamans performing ancient rituals.  For an artist from a place as rooted in the present moment as New York, it’s an astounding thing to witness!  

Comments are welcome!

Q: Is there an overarching narrative in your photographs with Mexican and Guatemalan figures?

Untitled chromogenic print, 24" x 24," edition of 5

Untitled chromogenic print, 24″ x 24,” edition of 5

A:  Maybe, but that’s something for the viewer to judge. I never specify exactly what my work is about for a couple of reasons:  my thinking about the meaning of my work constantly evolves, plus I wouldn’t want to cut off other people’s interpretations.  Everything is equally valid.  I heard Annie Leibovitz interviewed some time ago on the radio. She said that after 40 years as a photographer, everything just gets richer. It doesn’t get easier, it just gets richer. I’ve been a painter for 27 years, a photographer for 11, and I agree completely. Creating this work is an endlessly fascinating intellectual journey.  I realize that I am only one voice in a vast art world, but I hope that through the ongoing series of questions and answers on my blog, I am conveying some sense of how artists work and think.

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 28

Flower sellers in Chichicastenango, Guatemala

Flower sellers in Chichicastenango, Guatemala

* 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 have talked a good deal about our duty, and how we could attain the right goal, and we came to the conclusion that in the first place our aim must be to find a steady position and a profession to which we can entirely devote ourselves.  It is wise to do so, for life is but short and time passes quickly; if one is master of one thing and understands one thing well, one has at the same time insight into and understanding of many things.

One must especially have the end in mind, and the victory one would gain after a whole life of work and effort is better than one that is gained earlier.  Whoever lives sincerely and encounters much trouble and disappointment, but is not bowed down by them, is worth more than one who has always sailed before the wind and has only relative prosperity.  One must never trust the occasion when one is without difficulties.  

Irving Stone with Jean Stone, editors, Dear Theo:  The Autobiography of Vincent Van Gogh

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 15

Somewhere in Guatemala

Somewhere in Guatemala

* 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 first steps of a creative act are like groping in the dark: random and chaotic, feverish, and fearful, a lot of busy-ness with no apparent or definable end in sight. There is nothing yet to research. For me, these moments are not pretty. I look like a desperate woman, tortured by the simple message thumping away in my head: “You need an idea.” It’s not enough for me to walk into a studio and start dancing, hoping that something good will come of my aimless cavorting on the floor. Creativity doesn’t generally work that way for me. (The rare times when it has stand out like April blizzards). You can’t just dance or paint or write or sculpt. Those are just verbs. You need a tangible idea to get you going. The idea, however miniscule, is what turns the verb into a noun – paint into painting, sculpt into sculpture, write into writing, dance into a dance.

… I’m often asked, “Where do you get your ideas?” This happens to anyone who is willing to stand in front of an audience and talk about his or her work. The short answer is: everywhere. It’s like asking, “Where do you find the air you breathe?” Ideas are all around you.

I hesitate to wax eloquent about the omnipresence of ideas and how everything we need to make something out of nothing – tell a story, design a building, hum a melody – already resides within us in our experience, memories, taste, judgment, critical demeanor, humanity, purpose, and humor. I hesitate because it is so blindingly obvious. If I’m going to be a cheerleader for the creative urge, let it be for something other than the oft-repeated notion that ideas are everywhere.

What people are really asking, I suppose, is not, “Where do you get your ideas?” but “How do you get them?”

To answer that, you first have to appreciate what an idea is.

Ideas take many forms. There are good ideas and bad ideas. Big ideas and little ideas.

A good idea is one that turns you on rather than shuts you off. It keeps generating more ides and they improve one another. A bad idea closes doors instead of opening them. It’s confining and restrictive. The line between good and bad ideas is very thin. A bad idea in the hands of the right person can easily be tweaked into a good idea.

Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit: Learn it and Use it for Life: A Practical Guide

Comments are welcome.