Blog Archives

Q: Would you talk about how the Judas figures you depict in your pastel paintings function in Mexico?

Some Judases

Some Judases

A:  Here’s a good explanation from a website called “Mexican Folk Art Guide”:

“La quema de Judas or the Judas burning in Mexico is a celebration held on Sabado de Gloria (Holy Saturday).  Papier mache figures symbolizing Judas Iscariot stuffed with fireworks are exploded in local plazas in front of cheerful spectators. 

The Judases exploded in public spaces can measure up to 5 meters, while 30 cm ones can be found with a firework in their back to explode at home.

In Mexico la quema de Judas dates from the beginning of the Spanish colony when the Judas effigies were made with hay and rags and burned.  Later as paper became available and the fireworks techniques arrived, thanks to the Spanish commerce route from the Philippines, the Judases were made out of cardboard, stuffed with fireworks, and exploded.

After the Independence War the celebration lost its religious character and became a secular activity.  The Judas effigies were stuffed with candies, bread, and cigarettes to attract the crowds into the business [establishment] that sponsored the Judas. 

Judas was then depicted as a devil and identified with a corrupt official, or any character that would harm people.  In 1849 a new law stipulated that it was forbidden to relate a Judas effigy with any person by putting a name on it or dressing it in a certain way to be identified with a particular person.”                                     

This is why whenever I bring home a Judas figure from Mexico, I feel like I have rescued it from a fire-y death!

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 139

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

“Broken,” 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.

Leaving a show of Pat Steir’s work called Winter Paintings at Cheim & Read Gallery, I thought back some years to when the Walker Art Center’s then curator Richard Flood was walking us through the Center’s collection and we came upon an abstract expressionist painting by Joan Mitchell that was so striking I asked him why it had taken so long for her to be recognized.  He answered with a wry expression:  “It’s the problem of beauty!”

A few days earlier our friends Kol and Dash came to lunch at our home, and Dash said at this time most visual art is conceptual.  “It’s a way of thinking,” she said.

Story/Time:  The Life of an Idea/Bill T. Jones

Comments are welcome! 

Q: You often speak about the Mexican and Guatemalan figures in your paintings as serving a function analogous to actors in a repertory company. In other words, a particular figure plays a different role each time it appears in one of your pastel paintings. Would you choose a figure and show how you have painted it through the years?

 

A Chinese-influenced figure Barbara brought home from Mexico City in 1999.

A Chinese-influenced figure Barbara brought home from Mexico City in 1999.

"Answering the Call," 58" x 38," soft pastel on sandpaper, 2000

“Answering the Call,” 58″ x 38,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 2000

"Scene Fifteen:  Living Room," 26" x 20" soft pastel on sandpaper, 2002

“Scene Fifteen: Living Room,” 26″ x 20″ soft pastel on sandpaper, 2002

 

"Sometimes He Still Tried to Restrain Her," 58" x 38," soft pastel on sandpaper, 2005

“Sometimes He Still Tried to Restrain Her,” 58″ x 38,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 2005

"Scene Twenty-One:  Living Room," 20" x 26," soft pastel on sandpaper, 2006 (see feet at top)

“Scene Twenty-One: Living Room,” 20″ x 26,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 2006 (see feet at top)

"Epiphany," 38" x 58," soft pastel on sandpaper, 2012

“Epiphany,” 38″ x 58,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 2012

"The Ancestors," soft pastel on sandpaper, 58" x 38," 2013

“The Ancestors,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 58″ x 38,” 2013

"The Storyteller," soft pastel on sandpaper, 20" x 26," 2014

“The Storyteller,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 20″ x 26,” 2014

And she is in the painting that is on my easel now.  See my February 14 blog post.

Comments are welcome!

Q: What’s on the easel today?

Work in progress

Work in progress

 

A:  I am in the early stages – only 3 or 4 layers of pastel applied so far – on a large pastel painting with the working title, “He and She.”  The figures are two favorites –  a four-foot tall male and female couple, made of carved wood and silver and gold-leaf.  I found them years ago at Galerie Eugenio in Mexico City. 

These are the largest heads I have ever painted.  As I work on this piece I remember one of my teachers saying, “Never paint a head larger than life-size.”  Well, here’s to breaking rules.     

For reference I am looking at a digital photograph shot with my Canon T3i.  My usual practice is to make a c-print from a negative made with my Mamiya 6, but the photo clipped to my easel above is from a high resolution JPEG.  Typically I set up a scene at home on a black cloth and photograph it, but my reference photo was taken in my studio without rearranging anything.  In  this painting I am breaking a few rules, while my creative process is perhaps evolving towards  greater simplicity.         

Comments are welcome!

Q: Would you speak about your first trip to Mexico?

 

With an amate tree at Chalcatzingo

With an amate tree at Chalcatzingo

A:  In the early 90’s my late husband, Bryan, and I made our first trip to Oaxaca and to Mexico City.  At the time I had become fascinated with the Mexican “Day of the Dead” celebrations so our trip was timed to see them firsthand.  Along with busloads of other tourists, we visited several cemeteries in small Oaxacan towns.  The indigenous people 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 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.  On that first trip to Mexico we visited the National Museum of Anthropology, where I was introduced to the fascinating story of ancient Mesoamerican civilizations  (it is still one of my favorite museums in the world); 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. This 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 this past March to study Olmec art and culture.

Comments are welcome!

Q: I just got home from my first painting experience… three hours and I am exhausted! Yet you, Barbara, build up as many as 30 layers of pastel, concentrate on such intricate detail, and work on a single painting for months. How do you do it?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  The short answer is that I absolutely love making art in my studio and on the best days I barely even notice time going by!  

Admittedly, it’s a hard road.  Pursuing life as an artist takes a very special and rare sort of person.  Talent and having innate gifts are a given, merely the starting point.  We must possess a whole cluster of characteristics and be unwavering in displaying them.  We are passionate, hard-working, smart, devoted, sensitive, self-starting, creative, hard-headed, resilient, curious, persistent, disciplined, stubborn, inner-directed, tireless, strong, and on and on.  Into the mix add these facts.  We need to be good business people. Even if we are, we are unlikely to make much money.  We are not respected as a profession.  People often misunderstand us:  at best they ignore us, at worst they insult our work and us, saying we are lazy, crazy, and more.

The odds are stacked against any one individual having the necessary skills and stamina to withstand it all.  So many artists give up, deciding it’s too tough and just not worth it, and who can blame them?  This is why I believe artists who persevere over a lifetime are true heroes.  It’s why I do all I can to help my peers.  Ours is an extremely difficult life – it’s impossible to overstate this – and each of us finds our own intrinsic rewards in the work itself.  Otherwise there is no reason to stick with it.  Art is a calling and for those of us who are called, the work is paramount.  We build our lives around the work until all else becomes secondary and falls away.  We are in this for the duration.

In my younger days everything I tried in the way of a career eventually became boring. Now with nearly thirty years behind me as a working artist, I can still say, “I am never bored in the studio!”  It’s difficult to put into words why this is true, but I know that I would not want to spend my time on this earth doing anything else.  How very fortunate that I do not have to do so!

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: At the end of last Saturday’s (September 28th) post you mentioned something called, “Esala Perahera.” What is that?

Waiting for the Perahera to start, Kandy, Sri Lanka

Waiting for the Perahera to start, Kandy, Sri Lanka

Mending an elephant's headdress, Kandy, Sri Lanka

Mending an elephant’s headdress, Kandy, Sri Lanka

Preparations - planning what to do in case an elephant charges

Preparations – planning what to do in case an elephant charges

Flame throwers watching a man balancing on one stilt

Flame throwers watching a man balancing on one stilt

First elephant in the procession

First elephant in the procession

Drummers, Kandy, Sri Lanka

Drummers, Kandy, Sri Lanka

Three elephants, Kandy, Sri Lanka

Three elephants, Kandy, Sri Lanka

A single "tusker," Kandy, Sri Lanka

A single “tusker,” Kandy, Sri Lanka

Esala Perahera, Kandy, Sri Lanka

Esala Perahera, Kandy, Sri Lanka

After the festival

After the festival

A:  My trip to Sri Lanka was timed so that I could observe it first hand.  Here is a description from the “Insight Guide to Sri Lanka:”

The lunar month of Esala is a month for festivals and peraheras all around the island.  Easily the finest and the most famous is the Esala Perahera held at Kandy over the ten days leading up to the Esala Poya (full moon) day (late July or early August).  The festival dates back to ancient Anuradhapura, when the Tooth Relic (of the Buddha) was taken through the city in procession, and the pattern continues to this day, with the relic carried at the head of an enormous procession which winds its way round and round the city by night.  The perahera becomes gradually longer and more lavish over the 10 days of the festival, until by the final night it has swollen to include a cast of hundreds of elephants and thousands of dancers, drummers, fire-eaters, acrobats, and many others – an extraordinary sight without parallel anywhere else in Sri Lanka, if not the whole of Asia.

I would go further and add that the Esala Perahera is one of the world’s great festivals.  Who could ever imagine such a spectacle?  It may be a cliché to say it, but travel is ultimately the best education. 

Comments are welcome!   

Q: To be a professional visual artist is to have two full-time jobs because an artist must continually balance the creative and the business sides of things. How do you manage to be so productive?

No computer in sight

No computer in sight

A:  With social media and other new ways of doing business, managing it all is getting more difficult every day.  Bear in mind that I say this as someone who does not have the extra time commitment of a day job, nor do I have children or other family members to care for.  I have no idea how other visual artists, who may have these responsibilities and more, keep up with all the tasks that need to be done.  In The Artist’s Guide:  How to Make A Living Doing What You Love, Jackie Battenfield lists a few of them (believe me, there are others):

…being an artist isn’t just about making art.  You have many other responsibilities –  managing a studio, looking for opportunities, identifying an audience for your work, caring for and protecting what you have created, and securing money, time, and space – in addition to whatever is  happening in your personal life.

To begin with I try to maintain regular studio hours.  I generally work on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, and once I’m at the studio I stay there for a minimum of 7 hours.  To paint I need daylight so in the spring and summer my work day tends to be longer.  My pastel-on-sandpaper paintings are extremely labor-intensive.  I need to put in sufficient hours in order to accomplish anything.  When I was younger I used to work in my studio 6 days a week, 9 hours or more a day.  I have more commitments now, and can no longer work 60+ hours a  week, but I still try to stick to a schedule.  And once I’m at the studio I concentrate on doing the creative work, period.

I am productive when I keep the business and creative sides physically separate., ie., no computers, iPads, etc. are allowed into the studio.  Recently I tried an experiment.  I brought my iPad to the studio, thinking, “Surely I am disciplined enough to use it only during my lunch break.”  But no, I wasted so much time checking email, responding to messages on Facebook, etc., when I should have been focusing on solving problems with the painting that was on my easel.  I learned a good lesson that day and won’t bring my iPad to the studio again.

As has long  been my practice, I concentrate on business tasks when I get home in the evening and on my, so called, days off.  After a day spent working in the studio, I generally spend a minimum of two to three hours more to answer email, apply for exhibitions, work on my blog, email images to people who need them, etc.  At present I  have part-time help with social media – the talented Barbra Drizin, of Start from Scratch Social Media – although my time commitment there is growing, too, as more details need my attention.

No one ever said it would be easy being a professional artist, but then again, I would not choose to spend my days any other way.  As I often say, “Being an artist is a calling.  Contrary to popular belief, it is NOT a life for wimps… or slackers.”

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 34

On the High Line

On the High Line

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

To collect photographs is to collect the world.  Movies and television programs light up walls, flicker, and go out; but with still photographs the image is also an object, lightweight, cheap to produce, easy to carry about, accumulate, store.

In Godard’s Les Carabiniers (1963), two sluggish lumpen-peasants are lured into joining the king’s army by the promise that they will be able to loot, rape, kill, or do whatever else they please to the enemy, and get rich.  But the suitcase of booty that Michel-Ange and Ulysse triumphantly bring home, years later, to their wives turns out to contain only picture postcards, hundreds of them, of monuments, department stores, mammals, wonders of nature, methods of transport, works of art, and other classified treasures from around the globe.

Godard’s gag vividly parodies the equivocal magic of the photographic image.  Photographs are perhaps the most mysterious of all the objects that make up, and thicken, the environment we recognize as modern.

Photographs really are experience captured, and the camera is the ideal arm of consciousness in its acquisitive mood.

Susan Sontag in On Photography

Comments are welcome!