Blog Archives

Pearls from artists* # 202

 

Soft pastels

Soft pastels

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

When you’re working on something, you always wonder, “Can I get away with this?  Is it working?”  It’s the space between that I’ve been interested in for a long time.  I think that when I started to make, say, a triptych that came from an observation of a little Picasso drawing, the spaces in between became as important as the three actual pieces.  It’s especially true of the Wallpaper piece.  But most of the changes in my own work really evolve from one piece to the next:  from looking at my own work, the works of others, and things in my studio.  It happens when you see something that you didn’t see previously, like those scraps of clay that became the wall pieces.  It’s similar to the space that I’ve explored for years and years between artist and craftsperson, which is both interesting and challenging, and I don’t think that one thing is inferior to the other.  Each has a different goal, a different function.  Its my responsibility how nd where my work is viewed in different contexts.

In Conversation:  Betty Woodman with Phong Bui, The Brooklyn Rail, April 2016

Comments are welcome!    

Q: In terms of change where will you take your work next?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  That’s difficult to say because creating new pastel paintings is a somewhat mysterious process.  Change happens on its own timetable and in its own way rather than from my efforts to exert conscious control over it.  In essence it is my job to keep working in the studio, to be sensitive and true to my own creative process, and to go where the work leads.  I doubt that I could work otherwise and still claim to be authentic.

Comments are welcome!     

Pearls from artists* # 150

 

Tile worker, South India

Tile worker, South India

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

You wait for your eye to sort of “turn on,” for the elements to fall into place and that ineffable rush to occur, a feeling of exultation when you look through that ground glass, counting ever so slowly, clenching teeth and whispering to Jessie to holdstillholdstillholdstill and just knowing that it will be good, that it is true.  Like the one true sentence that Hemingway writes about in A Moveable Feast, that incubating purity and grace that happens, sometimes, when all the parts come together.

And these pictures have come quickly, in a rush… like some urgent bodily demand.  They have been obvious, they have been right there to be taken, almost like celestial gifts.  

Sally Mann in Hold Still:  A Memoir with Photographs

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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: In the “Black Paintings” you create a deep intellectual interaction and communicate a wide variety of states of mind. I admit that certain “Black Paintings” unsettle me a bit. I see in this series an effective mix between anguish and happiness. Rather than simply describing something, these paintings pose a question and force us to contemplation. Can you talk about this aspect of your work?

"The Storyteller," soft pastel on sandpaper, 20" x 26"

“The Storyteller,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 20″ x 26″

A:  I’m sure you and other viewers will see all kinds of states of mind, like anguish, happiness, and everything in between.  I think that’s wonderful because it means my work is communicating a message to you.  Sometimes people have told me that my images are unsettling and that’s fine, too.  I would never presume to tell anyone what to think about my work.  As one reviewer put it, “What you bring to my work you get back in spades!”  

Some of this is intentional, but some is not.  My day-to-day experiences – what I’m thinking about, what I’m feeling, what I’m reading, the music I’m listening to, etc. –  get embedded into the work. I don’t understand exactly how that happens, but I am glad it happens. This work does come from a deep place, much deeper than I am able to explain even to myself. After nearly three decades as an artist, the intricacies of my creative process are still a mystery. Personally, I am very fond of mysteries and don’t need to understand it all.  

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 120

In the studio, Photo: Britta Konau

In the studio, Photo: Britta Konau

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

In solitude artists can experiment, make a mess, sustain notes for the joy of it, imagine themselves on any stage in any play.  In the studio or practice room, they are not on display and need not wear their public face.  They can be their silent selves, their worst selves. If there is unfreedom on the stage or in the gallery, there is freedom in the studio.  As the visual artist Allen Kaprow put it, “Artists’ studios do not look like galleries, and when an artist’s studio does, everyone is suspicious.”  Galleries are for show; studios are where messes are made and where the real work happens.

Eric Maisel in A Life in the Arts

Comments are welcome! 

Q: I have been always fascinated with the re-contexualizing power of Art and with the way some objects or even some concepts often gain a second life when they are “transduced” on a canvas or in a block of marble. So I would like to ask you if in your opinion, personal experience is an absolutely indespensable part of a creative process. Do you think that a creative process could be disconnected from direct experience?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  Certainly personal experience is an indispensable and inseparable part of the creative process. For me art and life are one and I suspect that is true for most artists. When I look at each of my pastel paintings I can remember what was going on in my life at the time I made it. Each is a sort of veiled autobiography waiting to be decoded and in a way, each is also a time-capsule of the larger zeitgeist. It’s still a mystery how exactly this happens but all lived experience – what’s going on in the world, books I’m reading and thinking about, movies I’ve seen that have stayed with me, places I’ve visited, etc. – overtly and/or not so obviously, finds its way into the work. 

Life experience also explains why the work I do now is different from my work even five years ago.  In many ways I am not the same person.     

The inseparableness of art and life is one reason that travel is so important to my creative process.   Artists always seek new influences that will enrich and change our work.  To be an artist, indeed to be alive, is to never stop learning and growing.      

Comments are welcome!    

Q: Last week you spoke about what happens before you begin a pastel painting. Would you talk about how you actually make the work?

Beginning a new pastel painting

Beginning a new pastel painting

A:  I work on each pastel-on-sandpaper painting for approximately three months.  I try to be in my studio 7 to 8 hours a day, five days a week. 

I make thousands of creative decisions as I apply and layer soft pastels (I have thousands to choose from), blend them with my fingers, and mix new colors directly on the sandpaper.   A finished piece consists of up to 30 layers of soft pastel. 

My self-invented technique accounts for the vivid, intense color that often leads viewers of my originals to look very closely and ask, “What medium is this?”  I believe I am pushing soft pastel to its limits, using it in ways that no other artist has done before.

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!    

Pearls from artists* # 103

Quemado, NM

Quemado, NM

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

There are times when the art-maker’s solitude feels mildly pleasant, or deeply pleasurable, or even blissful.  Many people refer to Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi’s concept of “flow” as their experience of art-making – that state of being in which one is focused and concentrated, removed from time, energized, and not lonely at all.  But flow happens most readily when the task is not too frustrating, and when the obstacles feel manageable.  I feel flow more readily when the writing is going well than when I’m trying to wrangle with some thorny bit of it.  Then I feel unflow and, sometimes, too alone with the labor and very glad to have fond people close at hand in my life and in my memory.

Janna Malamud Smith in An Absorbing Errand:  How Artists and Craftsmen Make Their Way to Mastery

Comments are welcome!