Blog Archives

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* # 340

Lower Manhattan

Lower Manhattan

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

What, do you suppose, are the lives of those who raise themselves above the level of the common herd?  A continual struggle.  A writer, for instance, must struggle against the laziness which he shares with the ordinary man when it comes to writing, because his genius demands to be heard, it is not merely of an empty desire for fame that he obeys, it is a matter of conscience.  Let those who work coldly and calmly keep silence, for they have no conception of what it means to work under the spur of inspiration – the dread, the terror of rousing the sleeping lion whose roaring moves us to the very depth of our being.  To sum up:  be strong, simple, and true; here is an aim for every moment of the day, and it is always useful.

The Journal of Eugene Delacroix, edited by Hubert Wellington

Comments are welcome! 

 

Q: It is well known that you gain inspiration from foreign travel. Has anyone ever accused you of stealing their culture?

The Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca

The Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca

A:  Yes, a few people have done so via comments on Facebook.  It came as a shock.  

The logic of such an accusation presumes ownership.   I don’t believe any person has a claim to owning culture.

Travel is arguably the best education there is.  My travels around the world, supplemented with lots of research once I return home, are an important part of my creative process.  This is how I develop ideas to forge a way ahead.  It is difficult and solitary work.

Every artist is tasked with remaining open to influences – however, wherever, and whenever they appear.   Somewhat late in life, travel as a source of inspiration found ME.  And it has been a blessing!

People around the world have become fans.  Many send messages of thanks saying they are proud that some aspect of their country’s culture has inspired my work.  I am always grateful and touched to know this.

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 337

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.

I think society did a great disservice to artists when we started saying they were geniuses, instead of saying they had geniuses.  That happened around the Renaissance, with the rise of a more rational and human-centered view of life.  The gods and the mysteries fell away, and suddenly we put all credit and blame for creativity on the artists themselves – making the all-too-fragile humans completely responsible for the vagaries of inspiration.

In the process, we also venerated art and artists beyond their appropriate stations.  The distinction of “being a genius” (and the rewards and status often associated with it) elevated creators into something like a priestly cast – and perhaps even into minor deities – which I think is a bit too much pressure for mere mortals, no matter how talented.  That’s when artists start to really crack, driven mad and broken in half by the weight and weirdness of their gifts.       

Elizabeth Gilbert in Big Magic:  Creative Living Beyond Fear

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!

Q: What more would you wish to bring to your work?

Tile worker in South India

Tile worker in South India

A:  I tend to follow wherever the work leads, rather than directing it.  I have never been able to predict where it will lead or what more might be added.

Travel is essential for inspiration.  Besides many Mexican sojourns, I have been to Bali, Sri Lanka, South India, Guatemala, Honduras, Brazil, Peru, Argentina, Paraguay, and other places.  A second trip to India is upcoming, to Gujarat and Rajistan this time.  

Last year I had the opportunity to go to Bolivia. In La Paz I visited the Museum of Ethnography and Folklore, where a stunning mask exhibition was taking place.  As soon as I saw it, I knew this would be the inspiration for my next series, “Bolivianos.”  So far I have completed six “Bolivianos” pastel paintings with two more in progress now.  This work is getting a lot of press and several critics have declared it to be my strongest series yet.

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* #278

National Museum of Ethnography and Folklore, La Paz, Bolivia

National Museum of Ethnography and Folklore, La Paz, Bolivia

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

Inspiration is an unforeseen quantity, the muse that assails at the hidden hour.  The arrows fly and one is unaware of being struck, and that a host of unrelated catalysts have joined clandestinely to form a system of its own, rendering one with the vibrations of an incurable disease – a burning imagination – at once unholy and divine. 

Patti Smith in Devotion

Comments are welcome!

Q: What is your favorite art museum?

The Great Hall at the Met

The Great Hall at the Met

A:  My favorite art museum is the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.  The Met is peerless!  The breadth and quality of the collection is nearly inexhaustible.  It’s my library, the place I go to for inspiration and to deepen and broaden my knowledge of art.  The Met is a treasure for every working artist.  

Comments are welcome!   

Pearls from artists* # 176

Working on "Charade," Photo:  Marianne Barcellona

Working on “Charade,” Photo: Marianne Barcellona

* 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 don’t demand a translation of the unknown. I don’t need to understand what it all means, or where ideas are originally conceived, or why creativity plays out as unpredictably as it does.  I don’t need to know why we are sometimes able to converse freely with inspiration, when at other times we labor hard in solitude and come up with nothing.  I don’t need to know why an idea visited you today and not me.  Or why it visited us both.  Or why it abandoned us both.

None of us can know such things, for these are among the great enigmas.

All I know for certain is that this is how I want to spend my life – collaborating to the best of my ability with forces of inspiration that I can neither see, nor prove, nor command, nor understand.

It’s a strange line of work, admittedly.

I cannot think of a better way to pass my days.

Elizabeth Gilbert in Big Magic:  Creative Living Beyond Fear

Comments are welcome!

    

Pearls from artists* #172

Barbara in her studio

Barbara in her 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.

I don’t need to understand what it all means, or where ideas are originally conceived, or why creativity plays out as unpredictably as it does.  I don’t need to know why we are sometimes able to converse freely with inspiration, when at other times we labor hard in solitude and come up with nothing. I don’t need to know why an idea visited you today and not me.  Or why it visited us bot.  Or why it abandoned us both.

None of us can know such things, for these are among the great enigmas.

All I know for certain is that this is how I want to spend my life – collaborating to the best of my ability with forces of inspiration that I can neither see, nor prove, nor command, nor understand.

It’s a strange line of work, admittedly.

I cannot think of a better way to pass my days. 

Elizabeth Gilbert in Big Magic:  Creative Living Beyond Fear  

Comments are welcome!    

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