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Pearls from artists* # 377

Barbara’s studio

Barbara’s studio

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

Life for an artist, any artist, was difficult.  There were few rewards other than the most important, which was satisfying one’s need to create.  But in the art world of galleries, collections, and museums that the avant-garde artists in New York would inherit in the late 1940s, the difficulties experienced by the men who painted and sculpted would be nothing compared to those of the women.  Society might mock the men’s work and disparage them for being “bums,” but at least they were awarded the dignity of ridicule.  Women had to fight with every fiber of their being not to be completely ignored.  In a treatise on men and women in America published at the start of the war, author Pearl S. Buck wrote,

The talented woman… must have, besides their talent, an unusual energy which drives them… to exercise their own powers.  Like talented men, they are single-minded creatures, and they can’t sink into idleness nor fritter away life and time, nor endure discontent.  They possess that rarest gift, integrity of purpose… Such women sacrifice, without knowing they do, what many other women hold dear – amusement, society, play of one kind or another –  to choose solitude and profound thinking and feeling, and at last final expression.

“To what end?” another woman might ask.  To the end, perhaps… of art – art which has lifted us out of mental and spiritual savagery.”

Mary Gabriel in Ninth Street Women

Comments are welcome!

Q: When did your love of indigenous artifacts begin? Where have you traveled to collect these focal points of your works and what have those experiences taught you?

Mexico City

Mexico City

A:  As a Christmas present in 1991 my future sister-in-law sent me two brightly painted wooden animal figures from Oaxaca, Mexico. One was a blue polka-dotted winged horse.  The other was a red, white, and black bear-like figure. 

I was enthralled with this gift and the timing was fortuitous because I had been searching for new subject matter to paint. I started asking artist-friends about Oaxaca and learned that it was an important art hub.  Two well-known Mexican painters, Rufino Tamayo and Francisco Toledo, had gotten their start there, as had master photographer Manuel Alvarez Bravo.  There was a “Oaxacan School of Painting” (‘school’ meaning a style) and Alvarez Bravo had established a photography school there (the building/institution kind). I began reading everything I could find.  At the time I had only been to Mexico very briefly, in 1975.  

The following autumn, Bryan and I planned a two-week trip to visit Mexico. We timed it to see Day of the Dead celebrations in Oaxaca.  (During my research I had become fascinated with this festival).  We spent one week in Oaxaca followed by one week in Mexico City.  My interest in collecting Mexican folk art was off and running!

Along with busloads of other tourists, we visited several cemeteries in small Oaxacan towns for the “Day of the Dead.” The indigenous people tending their ancestors’ 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 these beautiful people and their beliefs. 

From Oaxaca we traveled to Mexico City, where again I was entranced, but this time by the rich and ancient history.  We visited the National Museum of Anthropology, where I was introduced to the fascinating story of ancient Mesoamerican civilizations; the ancient city of Teotihuacan, which the Aztecs discovered as an abandoned city and then occupied as their own; and the Templo Mayor, the historic center of the Aztec empire, infamous as a place of human sacrifice.  I was astounded!  Why had I never learned in school about Mexico, this highly developed cradle of Western civilization in our own hemisphere, when so much time had been devoted to the cultures of Egypt, Greece, and elsewhere? When I returned home to Virginia I began reading everything I could find about ancient Mexican civilizations, including the Olmec, Zapotec, Mixtec, Aztec, and Maya. The first trip to Mexico opened up a whole new world and was to profoundly influence my future work. I would return there many more times, most recently to study Olmec art and archeology. In subsequent years I have traveled to Guatemala, Peru, Bolivia and other countries in search of inspiration and subject matter to depict in my work.

Comments are welcome!

Q: What was the first folk art figure you brought back from Mexico?

Mask from Oaxaca

Mask from Oaxaca

A:  In Oaxaca I bought a large carved wooden dragon mask with a Conquistador’s face carved and painted on its back.  My intent was to depict the dragon in a subsequent “Domestic Threats” painting (the series I was working on at the time).  The dragon still hangs in my living room in Alexandria, VA.

This first trip in 1992 was a revelation and marked the start of my on-going love of Mexico:  its people, landscapes, ancient cultures, archaeology, history, art, cuisine, etc. There would be many subsequent trips to Mexico to learn as much as I can about this endlessly interesting cradle of civilization.

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 203

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

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

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

One day, looking for something that might interest those few buyers there were, Marquet and I decided to reconnoiter.  So we went to the Pavillon de Rohan, to the Galeries de Rivoli, where there were dealers in engraving and in all kinds of curiosities that might attract foreign customers.  We each came back with an idea:  mine was to do  a park landscape with swans.  I went to the Bois de Boulogne to do a study of the lake.  Then I went to buy a photo showing swans and tried to combine the two.  Only it was very bad; I didn’t like it – in fact nobody liked it; it was impossible; it was stodgy.  I couldn’t change; I couldn’t counterfeit the frame of mind of the customers on the rue de Rivoli or anywhere else.  So I put my foot through it.  

I understood then that I had no business painting to please other people; it wasn’t possible. Either way, when I started a canvas, I painted it the way I wanted with things that interested me.  I knew very well that it wouldn’t sell, and I kept putting off the confection of a picture that would sell.  And then the same thing would happen the next time.

There are plenty of artists who think it’s smart to make paintings to sell.  Then – when they have acquired a certain reputation, a degree of independence – they want to paint things for themselves.  But that simply isn’t possible.  Painting’s an uphill task and if you want to find out what you’re capable of, you can’t dillydally on the way.  

Chatting with Henri Matisse:  The Lost 1941 Interview, Henri Matisse with Pierre Courthion, edited by Serge Guilbaut, translated by Chris Miller

Comments are welcome!

  

 

 

Q: What historical art movement do you most identify with?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  I’d have to say that I identify most with surrealism, although my work does not exactly fit into any particular art historical movement.  When I was first finding my way as an artist, I read everything I could find about surrealism in art and in literature.  This research still res0nates deeply and is a tremendous influence on my studio practice.  Elements of surrealism DO fit my work.  Here’s an excerpt from Wikipedia:

Surrealism is a cultural movement that began in the early 20s and is best known for its visual artworks and writings.  The aim was to “resolve the previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality.”  Artists painted unnerving, illogical scenes with photographic precision, created strange creatures from everyday objects and developed painting techniques that allowed the unconscious to express itself.  

Surrealist works feature the element of surprise, unexpected juxtapositions and non sequitur; however, many Surrealist artists and writers regard their work as an expression of the philosophical movement first and foremost, with the works being an artifact.  Leader Andre Breton was explicit in his assertion that Surrealism was, above all, a revolutionary movement.

I hope to expand on this in a future post.

Comments are welcome!            

Q: Do you have any favorites among the Mexican and Guatemalan folk art figures that you depict in your work?

Idea for an upcoming pastel painting

Idea for an upcoming pastel painting

A:  I suppose it seems that way, since I certainly paint some figures more than others.  My favorite characters change, depending on what is happening in my work.  My current favorites are a figure I have never painted before (the Balinese dragon above) and several Mexican and Guatemalan figures last painted years ago.  All will make an appearance in a pastel painting for which I am still developing preliminary ideas (above).

Comments are welcome!    

Pearls from artists* # 165

"The Space Between," soft pastel on sandpaper, 58" x 38"

“The Space Between,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 58″ x 38″

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

When I have painted a fine picture I have not given expression to a thought!  That is what they say.  What fools people are!  They would strip painting of all its advantages.  A writer has to say almost everything in order to make himself understood, but in painting it is as if some mysterious bridge were set up between the spirit of the persons in the picture and the beholder.  The beholder sees figures, the external appearance of nature, but inwardly he meditates; the true thinking that is common to all men.  Some give substance to it in writing, but in so doing they lose the subtle essence.  Hence, grosser minds are more easily moved by writers than by painters or musicians.  The art of the painter is all the nearer to man’s heart because it seems to be more material.  In painting, as in external nature, proper justice is done to what is finite and to what is infinite, in other words, to what the soul finds inwardly moving in objects that are known through the senses alone.

The Journal of Eugene Delacroix edited by Hubert Wellington

Comments are welcome!

Q: What’s on the easel today?

Work in progress

Work in progress

A:  I am in the very early stages of a large pastel painting.  I have never painted any of these figures before and they originated in different parts of the world.  The bird (left) is from the Brooklyn Museum’s store, although it was hand carved in Guatemala.  The standing figure is carved wood with beautiful painted details.  It was a lucky find on a trip to Panajachel, Guatemala.  The armadillo (red and grey) was made by one of my favorite Mexican folk artists (now deceased) and I believe it’s one of the last pieces he completed.  It is a papier mâché figure that I found in a small shop in Mexico City.  The figure on the upper right is a wooden mask bought from a talkative and talented artist at a hotel in Kandy, Sri Lanka.  It depicts nagas (cobras), although you can’t tell that yet in the painting.

Comments are welcome!

Q: Would you talk about your use of Mexican and Guatemalan folk art as a convenient way to study formal properties such as color, shape, pattern, composition, etc. in your pastel paintings?

Models, reference photograph, and pastel painting in progress

Models, reference photograph, and pastel painting in progress

A:  For me an interesting visual property of these objects is that they readily present themselves as a vehicle for exploring formal artistic properties, like color, pattern, shape, etc. especially compared to my earlier subject matter:  hyper-realistic portraits and still-lifes.  Intent as I was on creating verisimilitude in the earlier work, there was little room for experimentation.  

Many Mexican and Guatemalan folk art objects are wildly painted and being a lover of color, their brilliant colors and patterns are  what initially attracted me.  As a painter I am free to use their actual appearance as my starting point.  I photograph them out-of-focus and through colored gels in order to change their appearance and make them strange, enacting my own particular version of “rendering the familiar strange.”  Admittedly these objects are not so familiar to begin with. 

When I make a pastel painting I look at my reference photograph and I also look at the objects, positioning them within eye-shot of my easel.  There is no need whatsoever to be faithful to their actual appearance so my imagination takes over.  As I experiment with thousands of soft pastels, with shape, with pattern, with composition, and all the rest, I have one goal in mind – to create the best pastel-on-sandpaper painting I am capable of making. 

Comments are welcome!         

Q: You often speak about the Mexican and Guatemalan figures in your paintings as serving a function analogous to actors in a repertory company. In other words, a particular figure plays a different role each time it appears in one of your pastel paintings. Would you choose a figure and show how you have painted it through the years?

 

A Chinese-influenced figure Barbara brought home from Mexico City in 1999.

A Chinese-influenced figure Barbara brought home from Mexico City in 1999.

"Answering the Call," 58" x 38," soft pastel on sandpaper, 2000

“Answering the Call,” 58″ x 38,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 2000

"Scene Fifteen:  Living Room," 26" x 20" soft pastel on sandpaper, 2002

“Scene Fifteen: Living Room,” 26″ x 20″ soft pastel on sandpaper, 2002

 

"Sometimes He Still Tried to Restrain Her," 58" x 38," soft pastel on sandpaper, 2005

“Sometimes He Still Tried to Restrain Her,” 58″ x 38,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 2005

"Scene Twenty-One:  Living Room," 20" x 26," soft pastel on sandpaper, 2006 (see feet at top)

“Scene Twenty-One: Living Room,” 20″ x 26,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 2006 (see feet at top)

"Epiphany," 38" x 58," soft pastel on sandpaper, 2012

“Epiphany,” 38″ x 58,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 2012

"The Ancestors," soft pastel on sandpaper, 58" x 38," 2013

“The Ancestors,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 58″ x 38,” 2013

"The Storyteller," soft pastel on sandpaper, 20" x 26," 2014

“The Storyteller,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 20″ x 26,” 2014

And she is in the painting that is on my easel now.  See my February 14 blog post.

Comments are welcome!

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