Blog Archives

Q: How do you think living in New York affects your work?

Lower Manhattan

Lower Manhattan

A:  Arguably, life in New York provides an artist with direct access to some of the best international art of the past, the present, and probably the future.  It is possible to see more art here – both good and bad – than in any other American city.  

Just pick up any local magazine and scan the art listings!  Our problem is never that there isn’t anything interesting to see or do.  It’s “how do we zero in on the most significant local cultural activities, ones that might contribute to making us better artists?”   

Certainly a visual artist’s work is consciously and unconsciously influenced not only by what she sees in museums and galleries, but by walking around the city.  That’s partly why I am an inveterate walker.  I never know what amazing things I am going to see when I leave my apartment.

Although living in New York City is a rich and heady mix for anyone, it is more so for sensitive artists.  Artists are virtual sponges, soaking up experiences, processing them, and mysteriously expressing them in our work. 

New York lets an artist ponder excellence as we see and experience firsthand what is possible.  The best of the best manages to make its way here.    

Undoubtedly, my own work is richer for having spent the last eighteen years in this fascinating, wild, and crazy city.  For a visual artist New York is an infinitely fascinating place to live.

Comments are welcome! 

Q: In the “Black Paintings” you create a deep intellectual interaction and communicate a wide variety of states of mind. I admit that certain “Black Paintings” unsettle me a bit. I see in this series an effective mix between anguish and happiness. Rather than simply describing something, these paintings pose a question and force us to contemplation. Can you talk about this aspect of your work?

"The Storyteller," soft pastel on sandpaper, 20" x 26"

“The Storyteller,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 20″ x 26″

A:  I’m sure you and other viewers will see all kinds of states of mind, like anguish, happiness, and everything in between.  I think that’s wonderful because it means my work is communicating a message to you.  Sometimes people have told me that my images are unsettling and that’s fine, too.  I would never presume to tell anyone what to think about my work.  As one reviewer put it, “What you bring to my work you get back in spades!”  

Some of this is intentional, but some is not.  My day-to-day experiences – what I’m thinking about, what I’m feeling, what I’m reading, the music I’m listening to, etc. –  get embedded into the work. I don’t understand exactly how that happens, but I am glad it happens. This work does come from a deep place, much deeper than I am able to explain even to myself. After nearly three decades as an artist, the intricacies of my creative process are still a mystery. Personally, I am very fond of mysteries and don’t need to understand it all.  

Comments are welcome!

Q: Another interesting series of yours that has impressed me is your recent “Black Paintings.” The pieces in this series are darker than the ones in “Domestic Threats.” You create an effective mix between the dark background and the few bright tones, which establish such a synergy rather than a contrast, and all the dark creates a prelude to light. It seems to reveal such a struggle, a deep tension, and intense emotions. Any comments on your choice of palette and how it has changed over time?

West 29th Street studio

West 29th Street studio

A:  That is a great question!  

You are correct that my palette has darkened. It’s partly from having lived in New York for so long. This is a generally dark city. We famously dress in black and the city in winter is mainly greys and browns.  

Also, the “Black Paintings” are definitely post-9/11 work. My husband, Bryan, was tragically killed onboard the plane that crashed into the Pentagon. Losing Bryan was the biggest shock I ever have had to endure, made even harder because it came just 87 days after we had married. We had been together for 14 ½ years and in September 2001 were happier than we had ever been. He was killed so horribly and so senselessly. Post 9/11 was an extremely difficult, dark, and lonely time.  

In the summer of 2002 I resumed making art, continuing to make “Domestic Threats” paintings. That series ran its course and ended in 2007. Around then I was feeling happier and had come to better terms with losing Bryan (it’s something I will never get over but dealing with loss does get easier with time). When I created the first “Black Paintings” I consciously viewed the background as literally, the very dark place that I was emerging from, exactly like the figures emerging in these paintings. The figures themselves are wildly colorful and full of life, so to speak, but that black background is always there.       

Comments are welcome!     

Q: Last week you spoke about what happens before you begin a pastel painting. Would you talk about how you actually make the work?

Beginning a new pastel painting

Beginning a new pastel painting

A:  I work on each pastel-on-sandpaper painting for approximately three months.  I try to be in my studio 7 to 8 hours a day, five days a week. 

I make thousands of creative decisions as I apply and layer soft pastels (I have thousands 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 before.

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: How do you experience art in New York?

 

 

Lower Manhattan

Lower Manhattan

 

A:  As a New York artist I am very fortunate to live in a city with a vibrant, exciting cultural scene.  Simply put, art is in the air here and I take inspiration from everything I see and experience:  painting, photography, sculpture, installation, performance art, public art, dance, theater, film, opera, jazz, etc.  This city itself is an endlessly fascinating place.  Visually it is always thrilling!  I never know what I am going to see – good and bad – whenever I leave my apartment.  

I have been living here since April 1997.  The city provides a heady mix to ponder and this mix mysteriously enriches, influences, and somehow finds its way into the work.  I have been an artist for nearly thirty years and I continue to be intrigued with watching the intricacies of how my creative process evolves and grows.    

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!

Pearls from artists* # 71

New York street

New York street

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

Artists are individuals willing to articulate in the face of flux and transformation.  And the successful artist finds new shapes for our present ambiguities and uncertainties.  The artist becomes the creator of the future through the violent act of articulation. I say violent because articulation is a forceful act.  It demands an aggressiveness and an ability to enter into the fray and translate that experience into expression.  In the articulation begins a new organization of the inherited landscape.

My good friend the writer Charles L. Mee, Jr. helped me to recognize the relationship between art and the way societies are structured.  He suggested that, as societies develop, it is the artists who articulate the necessary myths that embody our experience of life and provide parameters for ethics and values.  Every so often the inherited myths lose their value because they become too small and confined to contain the complexities of the ever-transforming and expanding societies. In that moment new myths are needed to encompass who we are becoming.  These new constructs do not eliminate anything already in the mix; rather, they include fresh influences and engender new formations.  The new mythologies always include ideas, cultures and people formerly excluded from the previous mythologies.  So, deduces Mee, the history of art is the history of inclusion. 

Ann Bogart in A Director Prepares:  Seven Essays on Art and Theater

Comments are welcome!

Q: What have you learned about the people of Mexico through your travels, reading, and research?

A corner of the studio

A corner of the studio

A:  It didn’t take long to become smitten with these beautiful people.  It happened on my first trip there in 1992 when Bryan and I, along with busloads of other tourists, were visiting the Oaxacan cemeteries on The Day of the Dead.  The Oaxaquenos tending their ancestor’s 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 them and with their beliefs.  My studies since that time have given me a deeper appreciation for the art, architecture, history, mythology, etc. that comprise the extremely rich and complex story of Mexico as a cradle of civilization in the West.  It is a wonderfully heady mix and hopefully some of it comes through in my work as a painter and a photographer.

By the way I often wonder why the narrative of Mexico’s fascinating history was not taught in American public schools, at least not where I went to public school in suburban New Jersey.  Mexico is our neighbor, for goodness sake, but when I speak to many Americans about Mexico they have never learned anything about the place!  It’s shocking, but many people think only “Spring Break” and/or “Drug Wars,” when they hear the word “Mexico.”  As a kid I remember learning about Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, and other early civilizations in the Middle East, Europe, and Asia, but very little about Mexico.  We learned about the Maya, when it was still believed that they were a peaceful people who devoted their lives to scientific and religious pursuits, but that story was debunked years ago.  And I am fairly sure that not many Americans even know that Maya still exist in the world … in Mexico and in Guatemala.   There are a few remote places that were not completely destroyed by Spanish Conquistadores in the 16th century and later.  I’ve been to Mayan villages in Guatemala and seen shamans performing ancient rituals.  For an artist from a place as rooted in the present moment as New York, it’s an astounding thing to witness!  

Comments are welcome!

Q: Why do you have so many pastels?

Barbara's pastels

Barbara’s pastels

A: Our eyes can see infinitely more colors than the relative few that are made into pastels. When I layer pigments onto the sandpaper, I mix new colors directly on the painting. The short answer is, I need lots of pastels so that I can make new colors.

I’ve been working exclusively with soft pastel for nearly 27 years. Whenever I feel myself getting into a rut in how I select and use my colors, I look around for new materials to try.   I’m in one of those periods now and plan to buy  soft pastels made by Henri Roché in Paris.  (Not long ago I received a phone call from their artist’s liaison and was offered samples based on my preferences.  Wow, what great colors!).  Fortunately, new brands of soft pastels are continually coming onto the market. There are pastels that are handmade by artists – I love discovering these – and new ones manufactured by well-known art supply companies.  Some sticks of soft pastel are oily, some are buttery, some more powdery, some crumble easily, some are more durable.  Each one feels distinct in my hand.

Furthermore, they each have unique mixing properties.  It’s an under-appreciated science that I stumbled upon (or maybe I invented it, I’m not sure since I can’t know on a deep level how other pastel painters work). In this respect soft pastel is very different from other paint media. Oil painters, for example, need only a few tubes of paint to make any color in the world. I don’t go in much for studying color theory as a formal discipline. If you want to really understand and learn how to use color, try soft pastel and spend 10,000+ hours (the amount of time Malcolm Gladwell says, in his book, “Outliers,” that it takes to master a skill) figuring it all out for yourself!

Comments are welcome.

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