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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!

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

Comments are welcome!

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

Comments are welcome!

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!

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