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Pearls from artists* # 425

Gladstone, NJ

Gladstone, NJ

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

And yet books were faithful companions for Vincent, an important source of sustenance during his times of melancholy:  he periodically re-read his favourites, finding new meaning in the text and illustrations each time.  Van Gogh read in at least two ways: first “breathlessly,’ and then ‘by careful exploration.’  But we could add a third and a fourth way:  thirdly as an artist, and fourthly from the perspective of the writer he perhaps knew himself to be.  To Vincent, reading books meant above all to ‘seek in them the artist who made them,’ as he wrote to his sister Willemien.  He sought to open an internal dialogue with other writers as artists, and meditated on their words, stopping to consider and reconsider a phrase to make it resonate within him  He did this in more than one language – internalizing words, ruminating, bending them to his will, and finally assigning them to a fate of his choosing, over the years.  Remarkably several Prefaces by French Naturalist novelists such as Zola, De Goncourts or Maupassant (today considered genuine manifestos) were among the pages that truly challenged and engaged his mind.  In them he found the freedom that he was seeking in painting – the ‘confirmation’ of his own ideas, inspiration and encouragement.  The work of the illustrators of his favorite books and magazines equally attracted him and had a lingering effect on him, on which he paused to reflect repeatedly, extracting inspiration indirectly.              
Mariella Guzzoni in Vincent’s Books:  Van Gogh and the Writers Who Inspired Him 

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Pearls from artists* # 414

New York, NY

New York, NY

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

As we grow into our true artistic selves, we start to realize that the tools don’t matter, the story does.  Your point of view and the way that you express yourself as a photographer are how you tell the stories that matter to you.  And that, my friends, is therapeutic.

There’s a certain amount of Zen in that act.  Peace and tranquility are hard to come by in today’s world.  But through photography, we all have a chance to find both.

As photographers, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that our ability to use a camera gives us a chance to show everyone else who we are.  Young photographers often obsess over doing something new. Older photographers, like Rick and I, realize that the real goal is in being you.  So focus on being you not on being new for new’s sake.  This is the path to both inner and outer success.

People will ask you what you photograph.  I personally am often described as a bird photographer.  But we are not what we do.  It’s important to note the difference.  And that is because people don’t care what you do.  They care why you do it.  If you are doing what you are meant to do, you will be able to articulate your own why. 

Scott Bourne in Photo Therapy Motivation and Wisdom by Rick Sammon 

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 400

In the studio with friends

In the studio with friends

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

A student in the audience raised her hand and asked me:

“Why should I live?”

… In the very act of asking that question, you are seeking reasons for your convictions, and so you are committed to reason as the means to discover and justify what is important to you.  And there are so many reasons to live!

As a sentient being, you have the potential to flourish.  You can refine your faculty of reason itself by learning and debating.  You can seek explanations of the natural world through science, and insight into the human condition through the arts and humanities.  You can make the most of your capacity for pleasure and satisfaction, which allowed your ancestors to thrive and thereby allowed you to exist.  You can appreciate the beauty and the richness of the natural and cultural world.  As the heir to billions of years of life perpetuating itself, you can perpetuate life in turn.  You have been endowed with a sense of sympathy – the ability to like , love, respect, help, and show kindness – and you can enjoy the gift of mutual benevolence with friends, family, and colleagues.

And because reason tells you that none of this is particular to you, you have the responsibility to provide to others what you expect for yourself.  You can foster the welfare of other sentient beings by enhancing life, health, knowledge, freedom, abundance, safety, beauty, and peace.  History shows that when we sympathize with others and apply our ingenuity to improving the human condition, we can make progress in doing so, and you can help to continue that progress.

Stephen Pinker in Enlightenment Now:  The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress 

Comments are welcome!

Q: Can you briefly explain how the Bolivian Carnival masks you depict in your work are used?

Museum of Ethnography and Folklore, La Paz, Bolivia

Museum of Ethnography and Folklore, La Paz, Bolivia

A:  The masks depict important figures from Bolivian folklore traditions and are used in Carnival celebrations in the town of Oruro.  Carnival occurs every year in late February or early March.  I had hoped to visit again this year, but political instability in Bolivia made a trip too risky.

Carnival in Oruro revolves around three great dances.  The dance of “The Incas” records the conquest and death of Atahualpa, the Inca emperor when the Spanish arrived in 1532.  “The Morenada” music and dance style from the Bolivian Andes was possibly inspired by the suffering of African slaves brought to work in the silver mines of Potosi.  The dance of “The Diablada” depicts Saint Michael fighting against Lucifer and the seven deadly sins.  Lucifer was disguised in seven different masks derived from medieval Christian symbols aor totemic animals that became nd mostly devoid of pre-Columbian elements (except that became attached to Christianity after the Conquest).  Typically, in these dances the cock represents Pride, the dog Envy, the pig Greed, the female devil Lust, etc.

Comments are welcome!  

Pearls from artists* # 377

Barbara’s studio

Barbara’s studio

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

Life for an artist, any artist, was difficult.  There were few rewards other than the most important, which was satisfying one’s need to create.  But in the art world of galleries, collections, and museums that the avant-garde artists in New York would inherit in the late 1940s, the difficulties experienced by the men who painted and sculpted would be nothing compared to those of the women.  Society might mock the men’s work and disparage them for being “bums,” but at least they were awarded the dignity of ridicule.  Women had to fight with every fiber of their being not to be completely ignored.  In a treatise on men and women in America published at the start of the war, author Pearl S. Buck wrote,

The talented woman… must have, besides their talent, an unusual energy which drives them… to exercise their own powers.  Like talented men, they are single-minded creatures, and they can’t sink into idleness nor fritter away life and time, nor endure discontent.  They possess that rarest gift, integrity of purpose… Such women sacrifice, without knowing they do, what many other women hold dear – amusement, society, play of one kind or another –  to choose solitude and profound thinking and feeling, and at last final expression.

“To what end?” another woman might ask.  To the end, perhaps… of art – art which has lifted us out of mental and spiritual savagery.”

Mary Gabriel in Ninth Street Women

Comments are welcome!

Q: Do you enjoy being interviewed?

In the studio

In the studio

A:  I do very much.  Each new interview is another opportunity to discover what is remembered, what is kept because it still seems important, and how certain details are selected from amongst all the accumulated memories of a lifetime.  My own story is continually evolving as some facts are left out or rearranged, and others added.  New connections keep being made while some others are discarded.  I find it fascinating to read over old interviews and compare them with what I remember in the present.

Comments are welcome!

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: I especially enjoy your “Black Paintings” series. You mention being influenced by the story of how Miles Davis developed cool jazz, making this work uniquely American all around. How did you use jazz history in this series?

"Between," soft pastel on sandpaper, 20" x 26"

“Between,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 20″ x 26″

A:  In 2007 I finished the Domestic Threats series and was blocked, certain that a strong body of work was behind me. But what would come next?  

The idea for the Black Paintings began when I attended a jazz history course at Lincoln Center and learned how Miles Davis developed cool jazz from bebop. In bebop the notes were played hard and fast as musicians showcased their musical virtuosity. Cool jazz was a much more relaxed style with fewer notes being played. In other words, the music was pared down to its essentials. Similarly, the Black Paintings evolved from dense, intricate compositions into paintings that depicted only the essential elements. As the series evolved, what was left out became more important, resulting in more demands being placed on the viewer.

Eventually, after much reflection, I had an epiphany and my painful creative block ended.  “Between,” with drastically simplified imagery, was the first in a new series called Black Paintings.  I like to think this series includes work that is richer and more profound than the previous Domestic Threats.

Comments are welcome!

Q: Your work is unlike anyone else’s. There is such power and boldness in your pastels. What processes are you using to create such poignant and robustly colored work?

Barbara working on an interview. Photo: Maria Cox

Barbara working on an interview. Photo: Maria Cox

A:  For thirty-three years I have worked exclusively in soft pastel on sandpaper.  Pastel, which is pigment and a binder to hold it together, is as close to unadulterated color as an artist can get.  It allows for very saturated color, especially using the self-invented techniques I have developed and mastered. I believe my “science of color” is unique, completely unlike how any other artist works.  I spend three to four months on each painting, applying pastel and blending the layers together to mix new colors on the paper.  

The acid-free sandpaper support allows the buildup of 25 to 30 layers of pastel as I slowly and meticulously work for hundreds of hours to complete a painting.  The paper is extremely forgiving.  I can change my mind, correct, refine, etc. as much as I want until a painting is the best I can create at that moment in time. 

My techniques for using soft pastel achieve rich velvety textures and exceptionally vibrant color.  Blending with my fingers, I painstakingly apply dozens of layers of pastel onto the sandpaper.  In addition to the thousands of pastels that I have to choose from, I make new colors directly on the paper.  Regardless of size, each pastel painting takes about four months and hundreds of hours to complete.  

I have been devoted to soft pastel from the beginning.  In my blog and in numerous interviews online and elsewhere, I continue to expound on its merits.  For me no other fine art medium comes close. 

My subject matter is singular.  I am drawn to Mexican, Guatemalan, and Bolivian cultural objects—masks, carved wooden animals, papier mâché figures, and toys.  On trips to these countries and elsewhere I frequent local mask shops, markets, and bazaars searching for the figures that will populate my pastel paintings.  How, why, when, and where these objects come into my life is an important part of the creative process.  Each pastel painting is a highly personal blend of reality, fantasy, and autobiography.

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 365

Ahmedabad, India

Ahmedabad, 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.

The important thing is the intersection between intuition and discipline, because you have to be alert and at the same time invisible.  The eye has to be alert and capture very quickly everything you have inside you – I don’t know how to explain it.  What the eye sees is the synthesis of what you are or what you’ve learned to do, this is the language of photography…

Graciela Iturbide in Eyes to Fly With:  Portraits, Self-Portraits, and Other Photographs

Comments are welcome!

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