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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.

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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

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Q: When did your love of indigenous artifacts begin? Where have you traveled to collect these focal points of your works and what have those experiences taught you?

Mexico City

Mexico City

A:  As a Christmas present in 1991 my future sister-in-law sent me two brightly painted wooden animal figures from Oaxaca, Mexico. One was a blue polka-dotted winged horse.  The other was a red, white, and black bear-like figure. 

I was enthralled with this gift and the timing was fortuitous because I had been searching for new subject matter to paint. I started asking artist-friends about Oaxaca and learned that it was an important art hub.  Two well-known Mexican painters, Rufino Tamayo and Francisco Toledo, had gotten their start there, as had master photographer Manuel Alvarez Bravo.  There was a “Oaxacan School of Painting” (‘school’ meaning a style) and Alvarez Bravo had established a photography school there (the building/institution kind). I began reading everything I could find.  At the time I had only been to Mexico very briefly, in 1975.  

The following autumn, Bryan and I planned a two-week trip to visit Mexico. We timed it to see Day of the Dead celebrations in Oaxaca.  (During my research I had become fascinated with this festival).  We spent one week in Oaxaca followed by one week in Mexico City.  My interest in collecting Mexican folk art was off and running!

Along with busloads of other tourists, we visited several cemeteries in small Oaxacan towns for the “Day of the Dead.” The indigenous people tending their ancestors’ 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.  We visited the National Museum of Anthropology, where I was introduced to the fascinating story of ancient Mesoamerican civilizations; 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. The 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 to study Olmec art and archeology. In subsequent years I have traveled to Guatemala, Peru, Bolivia and other countries in search of inspiration and subject matter to depict in my work.

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 364

"White Star," soft pastel on sandpaper, 38" x 58"

“White Star,” 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.

If we are left unmoved by a painting of the Virgin, it is likely because the artist was unmoved in the painting of her.  The subject matter is mostly irrelevant; it is important only as a vehicle for the artist’s attention.  Authenticity comes from how deeply the artist felt.  And this is the key to how much silence, how much consciousness or attention, the art contains.

subject matter, if the artist is even using it, is just an armature for the artist to engage his intensity of feeling.  It is the quality of your attention that influences how you see and how deeply you feel.  Different artists have affinities for different subject matter as a way into expressing themselves deeply.  And that depth is the quality, we, the viewers, respond to.  It is what we continue to respond to over the centuries in great works of art.  The fact that things last, that we continue to admire them, is in the end a good indicator of their quality, of their silence.  Art museums therefore, have little nodes of silence nestling in their galleries.  They are filled with, to use André Malraux’s expression, “the voices of silence.”

Ian Roberts in Creative Authenticity:  16 Principles to Clarify and Deepen Your Artistic Vision

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Pearls from artists* # 360

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.

Human beings have been creative beings for a really long time – long enough and consistently enough that it appears to be a totally natural impulse.  To put the story in perspective, consider this fact:  the earliest evidence of recognizable human art is forty thousand years old.  The earliest evidence of human agriculture, by contrast is only ten thousand years old.  Which means that somewhere in our collective evolutionary story, we decided it was way more important to make attractive, superfluous items than it was to learn how to regularly feed ourselves.   

Elizabeth Gilbert in Big Magic:  Creative Living Beyond Fear

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Q: As you reflect on your overall art career beginning with your art education, what major event stands out as an important sign that you were headed in the right direction?

"His Mortal Enemy Was Poised Ready to Strike," soft pastel on sandpaper

“His Mortal Enemy Was Poised Ready to Strike,” soft pastel on sandpaper

A:  In 1989 I left a career in the Navy to pursue life as a full-time professional artist.  In July 1996 Bryan and I were traveling in Mexico.  Something told me to check the phone messages at our Virginia house so I did.  

There was a message from Mia Kim, the director of Brewster Arts Ltd. on West 57th Street in Manhattan, requesting a dozen large pastel paintings for a two-person exhibition in October, just three months away!

At the time I was still living in Alexandria, Virginia so exhibiting in Manhattan – let alone securing prestigious gallery representation – seemed a far-off dream.   Yes, I had sent Mia slides, but she had not seen my work in person.   She first saw my “Domestic Threats” pastel paintings when I delivered them to the gallery for exhibition.  The show was called “Monkey Business.”

Brewster Arts was an elegant New York gallery that specialized in Latin American Art.  There was just one other non-Latina artist that Mia represented, Leonora Carrington, whom I met that October at my opening.   I remember Mia introducing me and declaring to the entire crowd, “Barbara has the SOUL of a Latina.”  I’ve always loved that.  It was the first time I realized I was really on my way!

Brewster Arts Ltd. continued to represent my work until the gallery closed some years later.

Comments are welcome!

Q: What do you see when you look back at your early efforts?

"Myth Meets Dream," soft pastel on sandpaper, 47" x 38,” 1993

“Myth Meets Dream,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 47″ x 38,” 1993

A:  I see continuity in subject matter and in medium, surely.  For thirty-three years I have been inspired by foreign travel and research.  In addition, I remain devoted to pushing the limits of what soft pastel can do and to promoting its merits as a fine art medium.

Here and there I see details I would render differently now; not exactly mistakes, but things that maybe could be done better.  Fortunately, I think, all of my work is framed behind glass or plexiglas, making it extremely difficult to attempt revisions.  

Perhaps most important of all, I see the long personal road that has advanced my work to its present state.  Each gain has been hard-fought.  

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 333

Studio entrance

Studio entrance

*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 Greeks and Romans both believed in the idea of an external daemon of creativity – a sort of house elf, if you will, who lived within the walls of your home and who sometimes aided you in your labors.  The Romans had a specific term for that helpful house elf.  They called it your genius – your guardian deity, the conduit of your inspiration.  Which is to say, the Romans didn’t believe that an exceptionally gifted person was a genius; they believed that an exceptionally gifted person had a genius.

It’s a subtle but important distinction (being vs. having) and, I think, it’s a wise psychological construct.  The idea of an external genius helps to keep an artist’s ego in check, distancing him somewhat from the burden of taking either full credit or full blame for the outcome of his work. If your work is successful, in other words, you are obliged to thank your external genius for the help, thus holding you back from total narcissism.  And if your work fails, it’s not entirely your fault.  You can say, “Hey, don’t look at me – my genius didn’t show up today!”

Either way, the vulnerable human ego is protected.

Protected from the corrupting influence of praise.

Protected from the corrosive effects of shame.       

Elizabeth Gilbert in Big Magic:  Creative Living Beyond Fear

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 288

Los Cabos, Mexico

Los Cabos, 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.

I always forget how important the empty days are, how important it may be sometimes not to expect to produce anything, even a few lines in a journal.  I am still pursued by a neurosis about work inherited from my father.  A day where one has not pushed oneself to the limit seems a damaged damaging day, a sinful day.  Not so!  The most valuable thing we can do for the psyche, occasionally, is to let it rest, wander, live in the changing light of a room, not try to be or do anything whatever.  

May Sarton in Journal of a Solitude: The intimate diary of a year in the life of a creative woman

Comments are welcome!

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