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Q: What art project(s) are you working on currently? What is your inspiration or motivation for this? (Question from artamour)  

Source material for “The Champ”
Source material for “The Champ” (my first “Bolivianos” pastel painting) and “Avenger”

A: While traveling in Bolivia in 2017, I visited a mask exhibition at the National Museum of Ethnography and Folklore in La Paz.  The masks were presented against black walls, spot-lit, and looked eerily like 3D versions of my Black Paintings, the series I was working on at the time.  I immediately knew I had stumbled upon a gift.  To date I have completed seventeen pastel paintings in the Bolivianos series.  One awaits finishing touches, another is in progress, and I am planning the next two, one large and one small pastel painting.

The following text is from my “Bolivianos” artist’s statement.

My long-standing fascination with traditional masks took a leap forward in the spring of 2017 when I visited the National Museum of Ethnography and Folklore in La Paz, Bolivia.  One particular exhibition on view, with more than fifty festival masks, was completely spell-binding.

The masks were old and had been crafted in Oruro, a former tin-mining center about 140 miles south of La Paz on the cold Altiplano (elevation 12,000’).  Depicting important figures from Bolivian folklore traditions, the masks were created for use in Carnival celebrations that happen each year in late February or early March. 

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” dance was once assumed to represent black slaves who worked in the mines, but the truth is more complicated (and uncertain) since only mitayo Indians were permitted to do this work.  The dance of “The Diablada” depicts Saint Michael fighting against Lucifer and the seven deadly sins.  The latter were originally disguised in seven different masks derived from medieval Christian symbols and mostly devoid of pre-Columbian elements (except for totemic animals 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.

The exhibition in La Paz was stunning and dramatic.  Each mask was meticulously installed against a dark black wall and strategically spotlighted so that it became alive.  The whole effect was uncanny.  The masks looked like 3D versions of my “Black Paintings,” a pastel paintings series I have been creating for ten years.  This experience was a gift… I could hardly believe my good fortune!

Knowing I was looking at the birth of a new series – I said as much to my companions as I  remained behind while they explored other parts of the museum – I spent considerable time composing photographs.  Consequently, I have enough reference material to create new pastel paintings in the studio for several years. The series, entitled “Bolivianos,” is arguably my strongest and most striking work to date.

Comments are welcome!

Q: You wear gloves and a mask when you are working in your studio, right? Can you tell me what kinds? (Question from Britta Konau)

Barbara at work

A: I wear a paper surgical mask – the type that has become ubiquitous since COVID – bought from a local medical supply store. I thoroughly coat my hands with barrier cream – Art Guard – to prevent pastel getting into my skin. The cream has an added benefit of making it easy to wash pastel off my hands. (Neither gloves nor individual finger cots ever worked for me. They made my fingers sweat and did not allow for the fine touch needed to blend new colors directly on sandpaper. Plus, they shredded from being rubbed against the paper’s grit). Also, it is very important that you work with your hand below your face so pastel dust falls below your nose, where you are less likely to breathe it in.

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 489

Book Cover

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

Murch: …The only time one is able to exercise control over the film is in the editing. The images themselves are not sufficient. They’re very important, but they’re only images. What’s essential is the duration of each image: the whole eloquence of cinema is that it’s achieved in the editing room.

In The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film by Michael Ondaatje

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Pearls from artists* # 485

New York City

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

[Michael] Ondaatje: It’s an odd thing: I’ve heard you talk about the importance of ambiguity in film, and the need to save that ambiguous quality which exists in a book or painting, and which you think a film does not often have. And at the same time in a mix you are trying to “perfect” that ambiguity.

[Walter] Murch: I know. It’s a paradox. And one of the most fruitful paradoxes, I think, is that even when the film is finished, there should be unsolved problems. Because there’s another stage, beyond the finished film: when the audience views it. You want the audience to be co-conspirators in the creation of this work, just as much as the editor or the mixers or the cameraman or actors are. If by some chemistry you actually did remove all ambiguity in the final mix – even though it had been ambiguous up to that point – I think you would do the film a disservice. But the paradox is that you have to approach every problem as if it’s desperately important to solve it. You can’t say, I don’t want to solve this because it’s got to be ambiguous. If you do that, then there’s a sort of hemorrhaging of the organism.

O: And more of a confusion.

M: Yes. I keep thinking about it, and it’s a wonderful dilemma: you have to acknowledge that there must be unsolved problems at each stage. As hard as you work, you must have this secret, unspoken hope that one very significant problem will remain unsolved. But you never know what that will be until the film is done. You can almost define a film by the problem it poses, that it can’t answer itself, that it asks the audience to solve.

The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film by Michael Ondaatje

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Pearls from artists* # 483

Behind the scenes of our documentary. Photo: David De Hannay

*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 editor has a unique relationship with the actors. I never try to go on to the set to see the actors out of costume or out of character – and also just not to see the set. I only want to see what there is on screen. Ultimately, that’s all the audience is ever going to see. Everyone else working on the film at that stage is party to everything going on around the filmed scene: how cold it was when that scene was shot; who was mad at whom; who is in love with whom; how quickly something was done; what was standing just to the left of the frame. An editor particularly has to be careful that those things don’t exert a hidden influence on the way the film is constructed, can (and should in my view) remain ignorant of all that stuff – in order to find value where others might not see value, and on the other hand, to diminish the value of certain things that other people see as too important. It’s one o the crucial functions of the editor. To take, as far as it is possible, the view of the audience, who is seeing the film without any knowledge of all the things that went into its construction.

On Editing Actors, by Walter Murch in The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film, by Michael Ondaatje

Comments are welcome!

Q: What country’s artistic style influenced you the most over the years? (Question from Arte Realizzata)

Barbara’s studio with some of her Mexican and Guatemalan folk art

A: Undoubtedly, I would have to say Mexico.  As a Christmas present in 1991 my future sister-in-law sent 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. Soon I started asking artist-friends about Oaxaca and learned that it was an important art hub.  At least two well-known Mexican painters, Rufino Tamayo and Francisco Toledo, had gotten their start there , as had master photographer Manual Alvarez Bravo.  There was a “Oaxacan School of Painting” (‘school’ meaning a style, not an actual building) 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, having made a road trip to Ensenada with my cousin and best friend from college. The following autumn my then-boyfriend, Bryan, and I planned a two-week trip to visit Mexico. We timed it to see Day of the Dead celebrations in Oaxaca.  (In my reading 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!  

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 482

One of Viscarra’s masks at MUSEF La Paz

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

Devils’ heads with daring and disturbing eyes, twisted horns, abundant grey hair and hooked noses hang on the blue walls of Antonio Viscarra’s house. Long benches covered with old, multi-colored cushions in Bolivian motifs surround the concrete floor of the small room. Several dozen of these hanging faces, which seem to watch in silence from the darkness, are ready to be used in festivals and traditional dances.

The maskmaker or “maestro” as he is called, lives [deceased now] in the area of Avenida Buenos Aires, far from the political and administrative center of the city of La Paz, but rather at the very center of the other La Paz (Chuquiago in the Aymara language) where many peasant immigrants have settled, and which for that reason, is the center of the city’s popular culture.

Viscarra is the oldest creator of masks in La Paz, and his work has helped to conserve, and at the same time to rejuvenate, the tradition of using masks in Bolivian dances. If economic progress and alienation have contributed to the excessive adornment of new masks with glass and other foreign materials, Viscarra, in an attempt to recover the distinctive, original forms, has gone back to the 100-year-old molds used by his grandfather. His work has been exhibited in Europe, in the United States and in South America, Most important, however, is that Viscarra is transmitting his knowledge to his children, ensuring that this form of authentic Bolivian culture will never die.

…Viscarra inherited the old mask molds from his grandfather and was told to take good care of them because some day he might need them. After keeping them carefully put away for 50 years, the maestro used them again for an exhibition of masks prepared in 1984, slowly recreating the original masks, beautiful in their simplicity, in their delicate craftsmanship and in their cultural value. In this way, the masks which emerged from the old molds are regaining their past prestige and importance.

Antonio Viscarra, The mask Maker by Wendy McFarren in Masks of the Bolivian Andes, Editorial Quipus and Banco Mercantil

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 470

Richard Deutsch, “Against the Day,” 2007, granite, at the Kreeger Museum, Washington, DC

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

Find something that is really meaningful to you – that’s the most important thing at the end of the day. Even if everything goes well, there are still those moments when you see through it all. Once you see through the fame, money, and social life and ask yourself, “What is this all about? What does it mean to me?,” it’s great if you can see your work clearly and what you see is important to you.

That same thing goes on the other side. When you wonder why you go through all this hell and you’re struggling, at least you see that you really enjoy what you do, you are fulfilled by what you make, and you believe in it.

Charles Long, artist, Mount Baldy, CA, in Art/Work: Everything You Need to Know (And Do) As You Pursue Your Art Career by Heather Darcy Bhandari and Jonathan Melber

Comments are welcome!

Q: Why art? (Question from “Arts Illustrated”)

Barbara’s studio
Barbara’s studio

A: I love this question!  I remember being impressed by Ursula von Rydingsvard’s exhibition at the National Museum of Women in the Arts a few years ago.  What stayed with me most was her wall text, “Why Do I Make Art by Ursula von Rydingsvard.”  There she listed a few dozen benefits that art-making has brought to her life.

I want to share some of my own personal reasons for art-making 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.

5.   Because when I am working in the studio, if I want, I can tune out the world and all of its 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: What is the most important factor behind your success?

At work
At work

A: In a word, I’d say it’s love. I love soft pastel! I love being an artist! I love looking at the thousands of pastels in my studio while I think about the possibilities for mixing new colors and making exciting new pastel paintings. Soft pastels are rich and intense.

Even after more than thirty years as an artist, I still adore what I am able to accomplish. I continually refine my craft as I push pastel to new heights. My business card says it all: “Revolutionizing Pastel as Fine Art!”

The surfaces of my finished pastel paintings are velvety and demanding of close study and attention. Soft pastel on sandpaper – no other medium is as sensuous or as satisfying. Who could argue with that!

Comments are welcome!

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