Q: You are a multi-talented woman! Tell us about your book, “From Pilot to Painter,” and how writing, for you, compares to painting and photography. Which do you prefer?
A: I am pleased that my eBook FROM PILOT TO PAINTER is available on Amazon and iTunes. It is based on my blog and is part memoir, including my personal loss on 9/11, insights into my creative practice, and intimate reflections on what it’s like to be an artist living in New York City now. The eBook includes new material not found on the blog, plus 25+ reproductions of my vibrant pastel-on-sandpaper paintings, a Foreword by Ann Landi (who writes for ARTnews and The Wall Street Journal), and more.
“Barbara Rachko’s Colored Dust” (the title of my blog) continues to be a crucial part of my overall art practice. Blogging twice a week forces me to think deeply about my work and to explain it clearly to others. The process has helped me develop a better understanding about why I make art and has encouraged me to become a better writer.
From the beginning in the 1980s I used photographs as reference material and Bryan would shoot 4” x 5” negatives of my elaborate setups with his Toyo-Omega view camera. In those days I rarely picked up a camera except when we were traveling. After Bryan was killed on 9/11, I inherited his extensive camera collection – old Nikons, Leicas, Graphlex cameras, etc. – and I wanted to learn how to use them. In 2002 I enrolled in a series of photography courses (about 10 over 4 years) at the International Center of Photography in New York. I learned how to use all of Bryan’s cameras and how to make my own big color prints in the darkroom. Along the way I discovered that the sense of composition, form, and color I developed over many years as a painter translated well into photography. The camera was just another medium with which to express my ideas. Astonishingly, in 2009 I had my first solo photography exhibition in New York.
It’s wonderful to be both a painter and a photographer. Pastel painting will always be my first love, but photography lets me explore ideas much faster than I ever could as a painter. Paintings take months of work. To me, photographs – from the initial impulse to hanging a framed print on the wall – are instant gratification.
For two years I have been using my iPad Pro to capture thousands of travel photographs. Most recently, I visited Gujarat and Rajasthan in India. I have never been inclined to use a sketchbook so composing photos on my iPad keeps my eye sharp while I’m halfway around the world, far from my studio practice.
Comments are welcome!
A: The Black Paintings series of pastel-on-sandpaper paintings grew directly from an earlier series, Domestic Threats. While both use cultural objects as surrogates for human beings acting in mysterious, highly-charged narratives, in the Black Paintings I replaced all background details of my actual setup (furniture, rugs, etc.) with lush black pastel. In this work the ‘actors’ are front and center.
While traveling in Bolivia two years ago, I visited a mask exhibition at the National Museum of Ethnography and Folklore in La Paz. The masks were presented against black walls, spot-lit, and looked eerily like 3D versions of my Black Paintings. I immediately knew I had stumbled upon a gift. So far I have completed nine pastel paintings in the Bolivianos series. One is awaiting finishing touches, one is in progress now, and I am planning the next one.
All of my pastel paintings are an example of a style called “contemporary conceptual realism” in which things are not quite as innocent as they seem. In this sense each painting is a kind of Trojan horse. There is plenty of backstory to my images, although I usually prefer not to over-explain them. Some mystery must always remain in art.
The world I depict is that of the imagination and this realm owes little debt to the natural world. I recently gave an art talk where I was reminded how fascinating it is to learn how others respond to my work. As New York art critic Gerrit Henry once remarked, “What we bring to a Rachko… we get back, bountifully.”
Comments are welcome!
*an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.
Like the cyclotrons of physicists, the artistic work is a machine for uncovering hidden layers of reality. It gives us insight into the psychic forces that shape the world, enabling us to divine where we come from and where we are heading. It is in this sense that art can be said to be prophetic.
J.F. Martel in Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice: A Treatise, Critique, and Call to Action
Comments are welcome!
A: Generally, it depends on who is doing the asking. If it’s an organization that has been supportive of my work, I am pleased to help with fundraising. If the organization and I have never connnected before, their out-of-the-blue request sometimes feels disrespectful. Artists invest decades, vast amounts of money, and plenty of blood, sweat, and tears to become the skilled creators that we are. And a New York artist’s overhead is considerable. I know of no artists who create their hard-fought work only to give it away.
Under certain conditions, however, I will participate. Here is my response to a recent donation request.
Thank you for contacting me. Certainly your organization sounds worthwhile.
However, you may be unaware that artists may deduct ONLY the cost of materials when we give our work to auctions. I suggest that you ask one of your supporters to buy a pastel painting and donate it next year (there is a one-year waiting period for collectors to take this tax deduction). Then we have a win-win-win! I get paid, the collector/donor gets to enjoy owning my beautiful work for a year AND take a tax deduction for the full amount that he/she paid for it. Plus, your organization gets to sell my painting at next year’s auction.
Don’t you agree this is a better approach for everyone involved?
Comments are welcome!
A: In a sense my subject matter – folk art, masks, carved wooden animals, papier mâché figures, toys – chose me. With it I have complete freedom to experiment with color, pattern, design, and other formal properties. In other words, although I am a representational artist, I can do whatever I want since the depicted objects need not look like real things. Execution is everything now.
This was not always the case. I started out in the 1980s as a traditional photorealist, except I worked in pastel on sandpaper. (For example, see the detail in Sam’s sweater above). As I slowly learned and mastered my craft, depicting three-dimensional people and objects hyper-realistically in two dimensions on a piece of sandpaper was thrilling… until one day it wasn’t.
My personal brand of photorealism became too easy, too limiting, too repetitive, and SO boring to execute! In 1989 I had at last extricated myself from a dull career as a Naval officer working in Virginia at the Pentagon. Then after much planning, in 1997 I was a full-time professional artist working in New York.
Certainly I was not going to throw away this opportunity by making boring photorealist art. I wanted to do so much more as an artist: to experiment with techniques, with composition, to see what I could make pastel do, to let my imagination play a larger role in the paintings I made. I was ready to devote the time and do whatever it took to push my art further.
After spending the early creative years perfecting my technical skills, I built on what I had learned. I began breaking rules – slowly at first – in order to push myself onward. And I continue to do so, never knowing what’s next. Hopefully, in 2018 my art is richer for it.
Comments are welcome!
Q: (Part II) Would you share your story of how creating art enabled you to heal after losing your husband on 9/11?
A: Continued from last Saturday’s post…
Because I use reference photos for my pastel paintings, the first challenge was to learn how to use Bryan’s 4 x 5 view camera. At that time I was not a photographer. Always Bryan had taken reference photos for me.
In July 2002 I enrolled in a view camera workshop at New York’s International Center of Photography. Much to my surprise I had already absorbed quite a lot from watching Bryan. After the initial workshop, I continued more formal studies of photography for a few years. In 2009, I am proud to say, I was invited to present a solo photography exhibition at a New York gallery!
In 2003 I resumed making my “Domestic Threats” series of pastel paintings, something that had seemed impossible after Bryan’s death. The first large pastel painting that I created using a reference photograph taken by me confirmed that my life’s work could continue. The title of that painting, “She Embraced It and Grew Stronger,” was autobiographical. “She” is me, and “it” meant continuing on without Bryan and living life for both of us.
Having had a long successful run, the “Domestic Threats” series finally ended in early 2007. Around that time I was feeling happier and had come to better terms with losing Bryan. While this is a tragedy I will never truly be at peace with, dealing with the loss became easier with time.
Then in 2007 I suddenly became blocked and did not know where to take my work next. I had never experienced creative block and for a full-time professional artist, this was a painful few months. Still, I continued to go to the studio every day and eventually, thanks to a confluence of favorable circumstances, the block ended.
My next pastel painting series was called, “Black Paintings.” I viewed the black background as literally, the very dark place that I was emerging from, exactly like the figures emerging in these paintings. The figures themselves were wildly colorful and full of life, but that black background is always there.
Still the work continues to evolve. Recently I began my third pastel painting series called, “Bolivianos,” based on a mask exhibition encountered in La Paz at the Museum of Ethnography and Folklore. Many people have proclaimed this to be my most bold, daring, and exciting pastel painting series yet. And I think they may be right! Continuing on the journey I began 30+ years ago, I am looking forward to creating many new, striking pastel paintings!
Comments are welcome!
Q: Would you speak about how important it was to get back to work after losing your husband on 9/11?
A: On September 11, 2001, my husband Bryan, a high-ranking federal government employee, a brilliant economist (with an IQ of 180 he is still the smartest man I’ve ever met) and a budget analyst at the Pentagon, was en route to Monterrey, CA to give his monthly guest lecture for an economics class at the Naval Postgraduate College. He had the horrible misfortune of flying out of Dulles airport and boarding the plane that was high-jacked and crashed into the Pentagon, killing 189 people. Losing Bryan was the biggest shock of my life and devastating in every possible way.
The following summer I was ready to – I HAD to – get back to work. Learning about photography and pastel painting became avenues to my well-being. I use reference photos for my paintings, so my first challenge was to learn how to use Bryan’s 4 x 5 view camera (Bryan always took these reference photos for me).
In July 2002 I enrolled in a one-week view camera workshop at the International Center of Photography in New York. Much to my surprise, I had already acquired substantial technical knowledge from watching Bryan. Still, after the initial workshop, I threw myself into this new medium and continued studying photography at ICP for several years. I began with Photography I and enrolled in many more classes until I gradually learned how to use Bryan’s extensive camera collection, to properly light my setups, and to print large chromogenic photographs in a darkroom.
In October 2009 it was very gratifying to have my first solo photography exhibition with HP Garcia in New York. (Please see http://barbararachko.art/images/PDFS/BarbaraRachko-HPGargia.pdf). I vividly remember tearing up at the opening as I imagined Bryan looking down at me with his beautiful smile, beaming as he surely would have, so proud of me for having become a respected photographer.
Continuing to make art had seemed an impossibility after Bryan’s death. However, the first large pastel painting that I created using a self-made reference photograph proved my life’s work could continue. The title of that painting, “She Embraced It and Grew Stronger,” is certainly autobiographical. “She” is me, and “it” means continuing on without Bryan and living life for both of us.
Comments are welcome!