Blog Archives

Q: Would you elaborate as to how your recent trip to Bolivia is influencing your work just now?

La Paz, Bolivia

La Paz, Bolivia

A:   I consider myself extremely fortunate to have seen a mask exhibition at the National Museum of Ethnography and Folklore when I visited La Paz in May.  Presented as they were against black walls with dramatic spot-lighting, the masks looked exactly like 3D versions of my paintings!  These old Bolivian masks were stunning.

I spent a long time there composing photographs on my iPad.  Immediately I knew this exhibition was a gift because I now had material to keep me busy in the studio for several years.

I have completed the first pastel painting in my new series, “Bolivianos,” and am far along into the second.  I’m looking forward to many more to come!

Comments are welcome!

Q: How long does it take you to complete a pastel-on-sandpaper painting?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  Mine is a slow and labor-intensive process.  First, there is foreign travel to find the cultural objects – masks, carved wooden animals, paper mâché figures, and toys – that are my subject matter.  If they are heavy I ship them home.  

Next comes planning exactly how to photograph them, lighting and setting everything up, and shooting a roll of 220 film with my Mamiya 6 camera.  I still like to use an analog camera for my fine art work, although I am rethinking this.  I have the film developed, decide which image to use, and order a 20” x 24” reference photograph from Manhattan Photo on West 20th Street.  

Then I am ready to start.  I work on each pastel-on-sandpaper painting for approximately three months.  I am in my studio 7 to 8 hours a day, five days a week.  During that time I make thousands of creative decisions as I apply and layer soft pastels (I have 8 tables-worth to choose from!), blend them with my fingers, and mix new colors directly on the sandpaper.  A finished piece consists of up to 30 layers of soft pastel.  My self-invented technique accounts for the vivid, intense color that often leads viewers of my originals to look very closely and ask, “What medium is this?”  I believe I am pushing soft pastel to its limits, using it in ways that no other artist has done.

Comments are welcome!

Q: Can you speak about what draws you to the Mexican and Guatemalan figures that you collect?

Shop in Panajachel, Guatemala, Photo:  Donna Tang

Shop in Panajachel, Guatemala, Photo: Donna Tang

A:  I search the markets and bazaars of Mexico, Guatemala, and elsewhere for folk art objects – masks, carved wooden animals, papier mache figures, children’s toys – to bring back to New York to paint and photograph. Color is very important – the brighter and the more eye-catching the patterns are on these objects the better – plus they must be unique and have lots of personality. I try not to buy anything mass-produced or obviously made for the tourist trade. The objects must have been used or otherwise look like they’ve had a life (i.e., been part of religious festivities) to draw my attention. How and where each one comes into my possession is an important part of my creative process.

Finding, buying, and getting them back to the U.S. is always circuitous, but that, too, is part of the process, an adventure, and often a good story. Here’s an example. In 2009 I was in a small town on the shores of Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, called Panajachel. After returning from a boat ride across the lake, my friends and I were walking back to our hotel when we discovered a wonderful mask store. I spent some time looking around, made my selections, and was ready to buy five exquisitely-made standing wooden figures, when I learned that Tomas, the store owner, did not accept credit cards. I was heart-broken and thought, “Oh, no, I’ll have to leave them behind.” However, thanks to my good friend, Donna, whose Spanish is much more fluent than mine, the three of us brain-stormed until finally, Tomas had an idea. I could pay for the figures at the hotel up the block and in a few days when the hotel was paid by the credit card company, the hotel would pay Tomas. Fabulous! Tomas, Donna, and I walked to the hotel, where the transaction was made and the first hurdle was overcome. Working out the packing and shipping arrangements took another hour or two, but during that time Tomas and I became friends and exchanged telephone numbers (the store didn’t even have a telephone so he gave me the phone number of the post office next door, saying that when I called, he could easily run next door!). Most surprisingly, the package was waiting for me in New York when I returned home from Guatemala.

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 69

Masks from Sri Lanka, Mexico, and Bali

Masks from Sri Lanka, Mexico, and Bali

*

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 mission is to stay hungry.  Once you need to know, you can proceed and draw distinctions.  From the heat of this necessity, you reach out to content – the play, the theme, or question – and begin to listen closely, read, taste, and experience it.  You learn to differentiate and interpret the sensations received while engaged with content.  The perception forms the  basis for expression.   

Have you ever been so curious about something that the hunger to find out nearly drives you to distraction?  The hunger is necessity.  As an artist, your entire artistic abilities are shaped by how  necessity has entered your life and then how you sustain it.  It is imperative to maintain artistic curiosity and necessity.  It is our job to maintain in this state of feedforward as long as humanly possible.  Without necessity as the fuel for expression, the content remains theoretical.  The drive to taste, discover, and express what thrills and chills the soul is the point.  Creation must begin with personal necessity rather than conjecture about audience taste or fashion.

Anne Bogart in and then, you act:  making art in an unpredictable world 

Comments are welcome! 

Q: Your relationship with photography has changed considerably over the years. How did you make use of photography in your first series of pastel-on-sandpaper paintings, “Domestic Threats”?

"Truth Betrayed by Innocence," 2001, 58" x 38", the last pastel painting for which Bryan photographed my setup

“Truth Betrayed by Innocence,” 2001, 58″ x 38″,  the last pastel painting for which Bryan photographed the setup

A:  When my husband, Bryan, was alive I barely picked up a camera, except to photograph sights encountered during our travels. Throughout the 1990s and beyond (ending in 2007), I worked on my series of pastel-on-sandpaper paintings called, “Domestic Threats.”  These were realistic depictions of elaborate scenes that I staged in our 1932 Sears house in Alexandria, Virginia, and later, in a New York sixth floor walk-up apartment, using the Mexican masks, carved wooden animals, and other folk art figures that I found on our trips to Mexico. I staged and lit these setups, while Bryan photographed them using his Toyo-Omega 4 x 5 view camera.  We had been collaborating this way almost from the beginning (we met on February 21, 1986).  Having been introduced to photography by his father at the age of 6, Bryan was a terrific amateur photographer. He would shoot two pieces of 4 x 5 film at different exposures and I would select one, generally the one that showed the most detail in the shadows, to make into a 20 x 24 photograph. The photograph would be my starting point for making the pastel painting. Although I work from life, too, I could not make a painting without mostly looking at a reference photo.  After Bryan was killed on 9/11, I had no choice but to study photography.  Over time, I turned myself into a skilled photographer.

Comments are welcome!

Q: In your earlier “Domestic Threats” series, you liken your paintings to scenes in a movie. Is there an audition process? What qualities must a figure possess to be cast in one of your paintings?

Negotiating with Tomas in Panajachel, Guatemala; photo by Donna Tang

Negotiating with Tomas in Panajachel, Guatemala; photo by Donna Tang

A: There’s not an audition process, but I do feel like the masks and figures call out to me when I’m searching the markets of Mexico and Guatemala. Color is very important – the brighter and the more eye-catching the better – plus they must have lots of “personality.” I try not to buy anything mass-produced or obviously made for tourists. How and where these objects come into my life is an important part of the process. Getting them back to the U.S. is always an adventure. For example, in 2010 I was in Panajachel on the shores of Lake Atitlan in Guatemala. After returning from a boat ride across the lake, my friends and I were walking back to our hotel when we noticed a mask store. This store contained many beautiful things so I spent a long time looking around. Finally, I made my selections and was ready to buy five standing wooden figures, when I learned that Tomas, the store owner, did not accept credit cards. Not having enough cash, I was heart-broken and thought, “Oh, no. I can’t bring these home.” However, thanks to my friend, Donna, whose Spanish was much more fluent than mine, Tomas and she came up with a plan. I would pay for the figures at a nearby hotel and once the owner was paid by the credit card company, he would pay Tomas. Fabulous! Tomas, Donna, and I walked to the hotel, where the transaction was completed. Packing materials are not so easy to find in remote parts of Guatemala so the packing and shipping arrangements took another hour. During the negotiations Tomas and I became friends. We exchanged telephone numbers (he didn’t have a telephone so he gave me the phone number of the post office next door, saying that when I called, he could easily run next door). When I returned to New York ten days later, the package was waiting for me.
While setting up a scene for a painting, I work very intuitively so how the objects are actually “cast” is difficult to say. Looks count a lot – I select an object and put it in a particular place, move it around, and develop a storyline. I spend time arranging lights and looking for interesting cast shadows. I shoot two exposures with a 4 x 5 view camera and order a 20″ x 24″ photograph to use for reference. I also work from the “live” objects. My series, “Domestic Threats,” was initially set in my Virginia house, but in 1997, I moved to a six floor walk-up in New York. For the next few years the paintings were set there, until 2001 when I moved to my current apartment. In a sense the series is a visual autobiography that hints at what my domestic surroundings were like.

Q: Mexico has been a big influence on your work. What first drew you to Mexican folk art – masks, carved wooden animals, papier mâché figures, and toys?

A corner of Barbara's studio

A corner of Barbara’s studio

A: In 1991 my future sister-in-law sent, as a Christmas present, two brightly painted wooden figures from Oaxaca. One was a large, blue and white polka dot flying horse, the other a bear, painted with red, white, and black dots and lines.

At the time I was living in Alexandria, Virginia, studying at the Art league School there, and working as a full-time artist. I had resigned from the Navy after seven years on active duty, although I still worked one weekend a month at the Pentagon as a reservist. I was looking for something new to paint with soft pastel, having found portraits deeply unsatisfying.

I had never seen anything like these Oaxacan figures and was intrigued. I started asking friends about Oaxaca and soon learned that the city has a unique style of painting, the self-titled Oaxacan school, and that the painter, Rufino Tamayo, and husband and wife photographers, Manuel and Lola Alvarez Bravo, were from Oaxaca. (Manuel Alvarez Bravo founded an important photography museum there). 

I had been a fan of Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo and other artists associated with Mexico, and had a long-standing interest in pre-Columbian civilizations. I knew some Spanish, having studied it in high school. I began reading everything I could find about Oaxaca and Mexico and soon became fascinated with the Day of the Dead.

In 1992 my future husband, Bryan, and I made our first trip to Mexico, spending a week in Oaxaca to see Day of the Dead observances and to study the Mixtec and Zapotec ruins (Monte Alban, Yagul, Mitla, etc.), and another week in Mexico City to visit Diego Rivera’s murals at the Ministry of Education, Frida Kahlo’s Casa Azul, and nearby ancient archeological sites (the Templo Mayor, Teotihuacan, etc.).

I began collecting Mexican folk art on that first trip. I still have fond memories of buying my first mask, a big wooden dragon with a Conquistador’s face on its back. Bryan and I found it high on a wall in a dusty Oaxacan shop. The dragon was three and a half feet long and three feet wide. Because it was fragile, we hand-carried it onto the plane and were able to store it in the first class cabin (this was pre-9/11). I chuckle to remember that we covered its finely carved toes with rolled up socks to prevent them from breaking!

I have been back to Mexico many times, mainly visiting the central and southern states. I travel there to study pre-Columbian history, archaeology, mythology, culture, and the arts. It is an endlessly fascinating country that has long been an inspiration for artists.