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Q: Why do you make art?

“Why Do I Make Art” by Ursula von Rydingsvard

“Why Do I Make Art” by Ursula von Rydingsvard

A:  Last spring I viewed Ursula von Rydingsvard’s exhibition at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.  One thing that stayed with me is her wall text, “Why Do I Make Art by Ursula von Rydingsvard” in which she listed a few dozen benefits that art-making has brought to her life.  

I want to share some of my own personal reasons 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 or to Public Radio stations.

5.   Because when I am working in the studio, if I want, I can tune out the world and all of it’s 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!

Q: You are a multi-talented woman! Tell us about your book, “From Pilot to Painter,” and how writing, for you, compares to painting and photography. Which do you prefer?

“From Pilot to Painter”

“From Pilot to Painter”

A:  I am pleased that my eBook FROM PILOT TO PAINTER is available on Amazon and iTunes.  It is based on my blog and is part memoir, including my personal loss on 9/11, insights into my creative practice, and intimate reflections on what it’s like to be an artist living in New York City now. The eBook includes new material not found on the blog, plus 25+ reproductions of my vibrant pastel-on-sandpaper paintings, a Foreword by Ann Landi (who writes for ARTnews and The Wall Street Journal), and more.

“Barbara Rachko’s Colored Dust” (the title of my blog) continues to be a crucial part of my overall art practice.  Blogging twice a week forces me to think deeply about my work and to explain it clearly to others.  The process has helped me develop a better understanding about why I make art and has encouraged me to become a better writer.

From the beginning in the 1980s I used photographs as reference material and Bryan would shoot 4” x 5” negatives of my elaborate setups with his Toyo-Omega view camera. In those days I rarely picked up a camera except when we were traveling. After Bryan was killed on 9/11, I inherited his extensive camera collection – old Nikons, Leicas, Graphlex cameras, etc. – and I wanted to learn how to use them. In 2002 I enrolled in a series of photography courses (about 10 over 4 years) at the International Center of Photography in New York. I learned how to use all of Bryan’s cameras and how to make my own big color prints in the darkroom. Along the way I discovered that the sense of composition, form, and color I developed over many years as a painter translated well into photography. The camera was just another medium with which to express my ideas. Astonishingly, in 2009 I had my first solo photography exhibition in New York.

It’s wonderful to be both a painter and a photographer. Pastel painting will always be my first love, but photography lets me explore ideas much faster than I ever could as a painter. Paintings take months of work. To me, photographs – from the initial impulse to hanging a framed print on the wall – are instant gratification.

For two years I have been using my iPad Pro to capture thousands of travel photographs.  Most recently, I visited Gujarat and Rajasthan in India. I have never been inclined to use a sketchbook so composing photos on my  iPad keeps my eye sharp while I’m halfway around the world, far from my studio practice.

Comments are welcome!

Q: Do you remember the first pastel painting that you ever made?

First framed pastel painting, 1988

First framed pastel painting, 1988

A:  Yes, it was a small head-and-neck portrait of a live model in a figure drawing class at The Art League School in Alexandria, VA.   I don’t know what became of it.

I also remember the first pastel painting that I ever framed because it is still hanging in my Alexandria house. It is dated 1988 (see photo) and was made in a one-week workshop with Diane Tesler at The Art League.  The workshop was specifically to teach artists how to paint from photographs and it was my first time studying with Diane.  I made the mistake of bringing, as reference material, a magazine photograph that was originally a perfume ad in the The Sunday Times Magazine. Diane tactfully explained that it was wrong to use someone else’s photograph instead of my own, but let me do it this one time. 

So many years later walking by my painting I still think of Diane.  She taught me a valuable lesson:  do not use anyone else’s photographs, ever!  

Comments are welcome!   

 

Q: How do you store your pastel paintings?

Storage closet

Storage closet

A:  Well, I wish I could say that every pastel painting has sold as soon as it was completed, but that is a rarity that has only happened twice.  As soon as possible after I finish a painting, I bring it to the framer.  Pastel paintings are susceptible to smudging and other odd dangers (even a sneeze!) until they are under Plexiglas.  

Framed work can easily and safely be stored by hanging it on a wall in my studio or standing it upright and face up, and leaning against a wall.  When I put paintings in my storage closet for the longer term, I wrap them in bubble wrap.

The downside of having to frame everything is that it is a considerable expense.  However, the upside is that I am always ready for a solo exhibition.  Gallerists have called at the last minute when one of their exhibitions ran into unexpected problems.  Usually, I am able to step right in.     

Comments are welcome!        

Pearls from artists* # 135

 

Chalcatzingo (Mexico)

Chalcatzingo (Mexico)

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

[Meredith Monk on beginning a new piece and whether it gets easier over time].

I always say that the fear is overwhelming at the beginning.  It’s like jumping off a cliff.  You have absolutely no idea what is going on.  It is like being a detective.  You try to follow every clue that comes up.  Some of them are McGuffins, but I think that is what the process is.  It starts out with fear, and I think that’s a good thing.  If you know what you are doing already, what is the point in doing it?  It is always like hanging out and tolerating pain and the fear of the unknown.  Then usually what happens is that a little something will come up.  If I am sitting at the piano – and I remember sitting at the piano and almost shaking at the beginning of this piece – one little phrase will come up.  And then you get a little interested in that one little phrase.  Or I say to myself, “Step by step.”  Another thing I say to myself, “Remember playfulness, Meredith?”

What happens at a certain point is that the thing itself starts coming in and you realize that you are more interested than you are afraid.  You are in this thing, whatever it is, and fear is useless at a certain point.  But at the beginning, it is not bad.  It is saying that you are risking.  I think that taking the chance on risking is something that keeps you young.  I’ll tell you, what you are saying about my skills – I don’t find it easier.  It is just as hard as it ever was.  I don’t think, “Now I have these skills.”  I don’t think in those terms at all.

… When you are making something new, you aren’t going to be able to use the same technique that you used on something else.  Maybe other people think it is easier as they go along.  I think part of the challenge is not to rely on things that you know, and to keep on listening.  It is really a process of listening to what something needs.  What’s right for it.   

Conversations with Meredith Monk by Bonnie Marranca

Comments are welcome!  

 

Q: Do you have any essential words that you live by?

Studio wall

Studio wall

A:  I certainly do!  When I left the active duty Navy in 1989, my co-workers threw a farewell party.  One of the parting gifts I received was a small plaque from Tina Greene, a young enlisted woman whom I had supervised.  The words on the plaque deeply resonated with me, since I was about to make a significant, risky, and scary career change.  It was the perfect gift for someone facing the uncertainty of an art career. 

Many years later Tina’s plaque is still a proud possession of mine.  It is hanging on the wall behind my easel, to be read every day as I work.  It says:

“Excellence can be attained if you…

Care more than others think is wise…

Risk more than others think is safe…

Dream more than others think is practical…

Expect more than others think is possible.”

Comments are welcome!

Q: Can we see some of your early potraits?

"Krystyn," charcoal, 22" x 30", 1989

“Krystyn,” charcoal, 22″ x 30″, 1989

"John," soft pastel on sandpaper, 22" x 28", 1989

“John,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 22″ x 28″, 1989

A:   The  reproductions above are two of my earliest.  The portrait of Bryan (see last week’s post) is hanging at the school that was named for him, Dr. Bryan C. Jack Elementary School, in Tyler, Texas.  Krystyn’s portrait is hanging in my dining room in Alexandria, VA – I liked it too much to part with it.  I have no idea where the one of John is now. 

Note that the actual paintings are more vibrant than the 8 x 10’s shown above.  For example, the background of John’s painting is a brilliant green.  To obtain the images above I re-photographed photos from my portfolio book.  These photos, unlike the originals, have faded over the years.  That’s one more reason that my originals need to be seen in person.    

Comments are welcome!

Q: How do you organize your studio?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  Of course, my studio is first and foremost set up as a work space.  The easel is at the back and on either side are two rows of four tables, containing thousands of soft pastels.

Enticing busy collectors, critics, and gallerists to visit is always difficult, but sometimes someone wants to make a studio visit on short notice so I am ready for that.  I have a selection of framed recent paintings and photographs hanging up and/or leaning against a wall.  For anyone interested in my evolution as an artist, I maintain a portfolio book with 8″ x 10″ photographs of all my pastel paintings, reviews, press clippings, etc.  The portfolio helps demonstrate how my work has changed during my nearly three decades as a visual artist.  

Comments are welcome!        

Q: When you set up your figures to photograph, do you create a story?

"He Just Stood There Grinning," soft pastel on sandpaper, " 58" x 38"

“He Just Stood There Grinning,” soft pastel on sandpaper, ” 58″ x 38″

A:  I always did so with my “Domestic Threats” paintings, but not with my current work.  As I set up a group of figures to photograph, I would make up a story about what was happening between them:  what the Day of the Dead skeleton I bought in Mexico City was saying to the frog/fish/human mask from Guerrero, for example.  I was a big kid playing with my favorite toys!  The stories were the spark to get me started on a new project, but I usually forgot about them afterwards.  They were necessary, yet incidental to my creative process, which is probably why I have never written them down.

Years ago I had the experience of being at one of my solo shows when a group of elementary school children came along with their teacher.  The teacher asked them to act out one of the stories in a particular painting.  Ever curious about how people relate to my work, I didn’t introduce myself as the creator of the pieces hanging on the walls.  I no longer remember the details, but their interpretations soon had me laughing.  It is a constant surprise to hear from people encountering my work for the first time what they see in it, especially when those people are young kids with wild imaginations!

Comments are welcome!

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