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Pearls from artists* # 384

Overlooking Copacabana, Bolivia and Lake Titicaca

Overlooking Copacabana, Bolivia and Lake Titicaca

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

Carnival in Oruro [Bolivia] is a glorious spectacle.  It’s flash, pomp and brilliance can be enjoyed without understanding its long history and intricate mythologies.  Still, the onlooker is left with a thousand questions that are not so easily answered.  Behind the glitter of Carnival lie the history, the timeless myths and the distinct traditions of this mining community.

According to the Spanish writer Jean Laude, “The function of the mask is to reaffirm, at regular intervals, the truth and presence of myths in everyday life.”  This suggests that masks should be studied in context, noting their association with the individual dancer and the history, myths and traditions of the community that produces them.  The mask has to be animated within its ritual, comic or social role.

A first step in appreciating the masks is to understand something of the land and people that crafted them.  Oruro is a mining city on the open Altiplano at 3,700 meters (12,144 ft.) above sea level.  The sky appears a rarified blue, it is intensely cold and a constant wind lifts dust to the eyes.  During the year no more than 125,000 people live in the city.  Suddenly in the weeks of Carnival, the population doubles or triples.

Three languages, Quechua, Aymara, and Spanish are spoken in Oruro.  Their use reflects an ancient pattern of conquest in the history of this land.  It is said that the Urus, whose language is now almost lost, were the first inhabitants.  In time they were dominated by the Aymara tribes.  Later, Quechua was introduced as the Inca advanced their empire from Cuzco.  Ultimately the Spanish arrived and founded the present city in 1601 to exploit rich mineral deposits found in the seven hills.

Today, descendants of the Urus live near Oruro around the shore of Lake Poopo.  Elements of their distinctive culture remain but they have no wealth in comparison with the more dominant Aymara and Quechua who surround them.  A further change came in the recent past because Oruro has acted as a magnet, attracting many people from the countryside to work in the mines.

On one side were the Urus, ancient owners of all the land which now only carries their name (Uro Uro = Oruro).  On the other side were the miners, many of whom were Quechua and Aymara migrants.  In the middle is “Carnival.”

El Carnaval de Oruro by Manuel Vargas in Mascaras de los Andes Bolivianos, Editorial Quipus and Banco Mercantil

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: Have any artists influenced you technically?

Barbara at work, Photo: Marianne Barcellona

Barbara at work, Photo: Marianne Barcellona

A:  I’d have to say no one, because my technique of using soft pastel on sandpaper is largely self-invented and it continues to slowly evolve.  I apply up to thirty layers of pigment, blending it with my fingers, and creating new colors directly on the sandpaper.  It is a rather meticulous process that suits my personality.

My unique way of applying and mixing pastel is a richly complex science of color.  This intricate technique is one of the reasons that my pastel paintings cannot be forged by anyone.

Every great artist throughout history has invented their own techniques and created a world that is uniquely theirs, with its own iconography, its own laws, and its own specific concerns.  Artists who are most worthy of the name create their own tasks and make and break their own rules.  

Comments are welcome!

Q: I just got home from my first painting experience… three hours and I am exhausted! Yet you, Barbara, build up as many as 30 layers of pastel, concentrate on such intricate detail, and work on a single painting for months. How do you do it?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  The short answer is that I absolutely love making art in my studio and on the best days I barely even notice time going by!  

Admittedly, it’s a hard road.  Pursuing life as an artist takes a very special and rare sort of person.  Talent and having innate gifts are a given, merely the starting point.  We must possess a whole cluster of characteristics and be unwavering in displaying them.  We are passionate, hard-working, smart, devoted, sensitive, self-starting, creative, hard-headed, resilient, curious, persistent, disciplined, stubborn, inner-directed, tireless, strong, and on and on.  Into the mix add these facts.  We need to be good business people. Even if we are, we are unlikely to make much money.  We are not respected as a profession.  People often misunderstand us:  at best they ignore us, at worst they insult our work and us, saying we are lazy, crazy, and more.

The odds are stacked against any one individual having the necessary skills and stamina to withstand it all.  So many artists give up, deciding it’s too tough and just not worth it, and who can blame them?  This is why I believe artists who persevere over a lifetime are true heroes.  It’s why I do all I can to help my peers.  Ours is an extremely difficult life – it’s impossible to overstate this – and each of us finds our own intrinsic rewards in the work itself.  Otherwise there is no reason to stick with it.  Art is a calling and for those of us who are called, the work is paramount.  We build our lives around the work until all else becomes secondary and falls away.  We are in this for the duration.

In my younger days everything I tried in the way of a career eventually became boring. Now with nearly thirty years behind me as a working artist, I can still say, “I am never bored in the studio!”  It’s difficult to put into words why this is true, but I know that I would not want to spend my time on this earth doing anything else.  How very fortunate that I do not have to do so!

Comments are welcome!

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