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Q: Why do you make art?

“Why Do I Make Art” by Ursula von Rydingsvard

“Why Do I Make Art” by Ursula von Rydingsvard

A:  Last spring I viewed Ursula von Rydingsvard’s exhibition at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.  One thing that stayed with me is her wall text, “Why Do I Make Art by Ursula von Rydingsvard” in which she listed a few dozen benefits that art-making has brought to her life.  

I want to share some of my own personal reasons 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 or to Public Radio stations.

5.   Because when I am working in the studio, if I want, I can tune out the world and all of it’s 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: Where did you grow up and what were some early milestones or experiences that contributed to you becoming an artist later in life?

“The Sleeping Gypsy,” Henri Rousseau, oil on canvas, 1897

“The Sleeping Gypsy,” Henri Rousseau, oil on canvas, 1897

A:  I grew up in a blue collar family in Clifton, New Jersey, a suburb about fifteen miles west of Manhattan. My father was a television repairman for RCA. My mother stayed home to raise my sister and me (at the time I had only one sister, Denise; my sister Michele was born much later).  My parents were both first-generation Americans and no one in my extended family had gone to college yet. I was a smart kid who showed some artistic talent in kindergarten and earlier.  I remember copying the Sunday comics, which in those days appeared in all the newspapers, and drawing small still lifes I arranged for myself. I have always been able to draw anything, as long as I can see it. 

Denise, a cousin, and I enrolled in Saturday morning “art classes” at the studio of a painter named Frances Hulmes in Rutherford, NJ.  I was about 6 years old. I continued the classes for 8 years and became a fairly adept oil painter. Since we lived so close to New York City, my mother often took us to museums, particularly to the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Museum of Natural History.  Like so many young girls, I fell in love with Rousseau’s “The Sleeping Gypsy” and was astonished by Picasso’s “Guernica” when it was on long-term loan to MoMA. I have fond memories of studying the dioramas at the Museum of Natural History (they are still my favorite part of the museum). As far as I know, there were no artists in my family so, unfortunately, I had no role models.  At the age of 14 my father decided that art was not a serious pursuit – declaring, it is “a hobby, not a profession” – and abruptly stopped paying for my Saturday morning lessons. With no financial or moral support to pursue art, I turned my attention to other interests, letting my artistic abilities go dormant.

Comments are welcome!

 

Q: What has been your scariest experience as an artist?

"Between," soft pastel on sandpaper, 20" x 26"

“Between,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 20″ x 26″

A:  It was the approximately six months in 2007 when I finished the “Domestic Threats” series and was blocked, certain that a strong body of work was behind me, yet not knowing what in the world to do next!  For a professional artist who had been working non-stop for 21 years, this was a profoundly painful, confusing, and disorienting time.  I remember continuing to force myself to go to the studio and for lack of anything much to do there, spending long hours reading and thinking about art.

Eventually after all of this reflection, I had an epiphany.  “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 considerably richer and more profound than the previous “Domestic Threats.”


Co
mments are welcome! 

Q: Would you talk about your first solo exhibition in a commercial gallery?

"Big Deal," soft pastel on sandpaper, 58" x 38"

“Big Deal,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 58″ x 38″

A:  Although I had exhibited in a number of non-profit galleries in Virginia, Washington, DC, Maryland, New Jersey, and New York, my first solo in a commercial gallery was at 479 Gallery, 520 Broadway, in July 1996.  The previous summer I had entered a juried exhibition there.  My work won first prize and I was awarded a solo show.  

This exhibition was soon followed by representation at an important New York gallery, Brewster Fine Arts, at 41 West 57th Street.  I had my first two-person exhibition at Brewster in October 1996.  The gallery specialized in art by Latin American artists.  Besides myself, the sole non-Latina represented by Brewster was Leonora Carrington.  I quickly began exhibiting alongside a group of illustrious artists:  Leonora, Rufino Tamayo, Francisco Toledo, Francisco Zuniga, and other Latin American masters.  I could hardly believe my good fortune!   

Comments are welcome!       

Q: Do you have any unfinished pastel paintings?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  It has been roughly 20 years since I started a painting that I couldn’t resolve and finish.  This may or may not be a good thing.  It could mean that I am not experimenting or pushing myself enough.  On the other hand, having worked as a professional artist for nearly thirty years, I am confident of my ability to think through and find solutions for finishing each painting, regardless of the difficulties encountered along the way.

Comments are welcome!       

Pearls from artists* # 179

"Offering," soft pastel on sandpaper, 20" x 26"

“Offering,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 20″ x 26″

* 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 Kimmelman:  You studied art in school.  You started collecting early.

David Bowie:  Yeah, I collected very early on.  I have a couple of Tintorettos, which I’ve had for many, many years.  I have a Rubens.  Art was, seriously, the only thing I’ve ever wanted to own.  It has always been for me a stable nourishment.  I use it.  It can change the way that I feel in the mornings.  The same work can change me in different ways, depending on what I’m going through.  For instance, somebody I like very much is Frank Auerbach.  I think there are some mornings that if we hit each other a certain way – myself and a portrait by Auerbach – the work can magnify the kind of depression I’m going through.  It will give spiritual weight to the angst.  Some mornings I’ll look at it and go:  “Oh, God, Yeah!  I know!”  But that same painting, on a different day, can produce in me the incredible feeling of the triumph of trying to express myself as an artist.  I can look at it and say:  “My God, Yeah!  I want to sound like that looks.”

“At Heart an Artist with Many Muses,” by Michael Kimmelman, The New York Times, Friday, January 15, 2016

Comments are welcome!  

 

Q: What’s on the easel today?

Work in progress

Work in progress

A:  I am at work on a small (20″ x 26″) pastel-on-sandpaper painting tentatively called, “Duo.”  My previous painting, “Charade,” was a breakthrough of sorts; at least I hope so, because it was such an ordeal to complete!  

That’s why I am giving myself a break and making a relatively simple piece now.  It’s a way of resting and also of re-filling the well. 

Recently something happened that broke my heart:  I had to put my beloved cat to sleep.  When I look at this image I am reminded of Kit Kat, who was always by my side.  He and I were another “Duo” alluded to in the title of this painting.

Comments are welcome!    

Q: How do you document your work?

Barbara's portfolio book

Barbara’s portfolio book

A:  I have been a professional artist for thirty years so some things have changed and some haven’t.  I have a portfolio book of 8 x 10 photographs of all my pastel paintings.  Since my process is slow and meticulous, the latest, “Troublemaker,” is pastel painting number 124.  

I have always gotten my work professionally photographed.  Until 2001 my husband Bryan was my photographer and since then I have hired three people.  To document older work I have slides, 4 x 5 transparencies, and color and black and white 4 x 5 negatives.  I continued with slides and film longer than many artists, but finally switched to digital files a few years ago when buying film and processing it became difficult.

Comments are welcome!            

Pearls from artists* # 128

 

 

Self-portrait with "Some Things We Regret"

Self-portrait with “Some Things We Regret”

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

A chastening day yesterday.  Color rose up and towered over me and advanced toward me.  A tsunami – only that terrifying Japanese word for tidal wave will do – of color, and I was swept off my feet.  In a frenzy, I tried to catch it.  Sheet after sheet of Arches paper spread around the studio, covering all the surfaces of all my tables and finally the floor.  I tried to keep one step ahead all morning.  In the afternoon, I managed to get a toehold, and once again recognized my limitation:  that vestige of all that a human being could know that is what I do know.  I see this delicate nerve of myself as unimpressive.  The fact is that is all I have.  The richness of years, contained like wine in the goatskin of my body, meets my hand narrowly. 

Anne Truitt in Turn:  The Journal of an Artist

Comments are welcome!   

Q: You have written about how you came to your current subject matter, but what led you away from photorealism to work that while not exactly abstract, leans more in that direction?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  Once I had achieved a high degree of technical facility with soft pastel, there was not much more to be gained from copying reality.  Cameras do an excellent job of that so what would be the point? 

Ultimately, all art lies in following an experience through to the end.  Art is in the choices one makes.  A visual artist’s private decisions about what to include and what to leave out become her unique inimitable style.  Years ago I made a conscious decision to abandon photorealism.  Since then I have been on a journey to work more from imagination and direct experience and less from physical reality. 

It’s funny.  I have always worked from photographs.  Because I have a strong work ethic and substantial technical skill, I often feel like a slacker if I do not put in all the details that I see in the reference photo.  That’s why the journey has been so slow, I think, as I convince myself it’s really ok to omit more and more details.  

Comments are welcome!       

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