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Pearls from artists* # 474

“Madame Roulin and Her Baby,” 1888, Oil on canvas, Vincent Van Gogh, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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

If ever an artist needed a degree of protection against his public, surely it is Vincent van Gogh. Reproductions of his most emblematic paintings, especially the gyrating nightscapes and the blazing series of sunflower studies made in his late years, adorn countless bedrooms, living rooms, and bathrooms all across what used to be known as the developed world. The popularity of the works executed in the great flowering of this last period, which began around the time of his revelatory visit in the autumn of 1885 to the newly completed Rijksmuseum, in Amsterdam, and ended when he died less than five years later at the age of thirty-seven, is unparalleled. Of the great ones among his contemporaries, and there were many, only Degas can come near to rivaling him as a mainstay of interior decoration.

John Banville in His Own Worst Enemy, The New York Review of Books, May 13, 2021

Comments are welcome!

Q: Who are you and what do you do? (Question from “Arts Illustrated”)

At the studio
At the studio

A: Here is my professional bio.

I am an American contemporary artist and author who divides my time between residences in New York City and Alexandria, VA.  I am best known for my pastel-on-sandpaper paintings, my  eBook, “From Pilot to Painter,” and this blog, which now has over 70,000 subscribers!

Friends say that I have led an extraordinary, inspiring life.  I learned to fly at the age of 25 and became a commercial pilot and Boeing-727 flight engineer before joining the Navy. As a Naval officer I spent many years working at the Pentagon and retired as a Commander.

On 9/11 my husband, Dr. Bryan C. Jack, was tragically killed on the plane that hit the Pentagon.

I use my large collection of Mexican and Guatemalan folk art – masks, carved wooden animals, papier mâché figures, and toys – to create one-of-a-kind pastel-on-sandpaper paintings that combine reality and fantasy and depict personal narratives.   In 2017 I traveled to Bolivia where I became inspired to paint Bolivian Carnival masks. 

My pastel paintings are bold, vibrant, and extremely unusual.  Perhaps my business card says it all: “Revolutionizing Pastel as Fine Art!”

I exhibit nationally and internationally and have won many accolades during my 30+ years as a professional artist.  For additional info, please see the links in the sidebar.

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* #447

Barbara’s studio
Barbara’s studio

Cameron Crowe: I think this collection is a powerful gift, especially to young artists. It’s a portrait of you at a certain time in your life when you were having success. You could have plateaued at this stage for an entire career. Many did. But I listen to this and think the hidden message is don’t stop growing. Don’t stop heading to those deeper waters… challenge yourself… look where it may take you.

Joni Mitchell: That’s what the Van Gogh exhibition was to me. When I went to see the Van Gogh exhibition they had all his paintings arranged chronologically, and you’d watch the growth as you walk along. That was so inspiring to me, and I started to paint again. If it serves that purpose, that would be great. Really, that would make me very happy. It shows that from this… because the latter work is much richer and deeper and smarter, and the arrangements are interesting, too. Musically I grow, and I grow as a lyricist, so there’s a lot of growth taking place. The early stuff – I shouldn’t be such a snob against it. A lot of these songs, I just lost them. They fell away. They only exist in these recordings. For so long I rebelled against the term: “I was never a folk singer.” I would get pissed off if they put that label on me. I didn’t think it was a good description of what I was. And then I listened, and… it was beautiful. It made me forgive my beginnings. And I had this realization…

CC: What was it?

Joni: Oh God! (Laughs) I was a folksinger!

In A Conversation with Joni Mitchell by Cameron Crowe from Joni Mitchell Archives Volume I: The Early Years (1963-1967) 5 CD set

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 440

“Conundrum,” Soft Pastel on Sandpaper, 38” x 58” image, 50” x 70” framed
“Conundrum,” Soft Pastel on Sandpaper, 38” x 58” Image, 50” x 70” Framed

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

Most artists desire recognition, and the persistent lack of it may be a bitter pill to swallow.  The artist who is too-soon recognized, as Norman Mailer felt himself to be, might argue that early fame is harder on the artist than years of obscurity.   But the composer with a score for a powerful symphony locked away in his drawer, and the actress who has never found a way into a great drama, are hard-pressed to agree with Mailer.  Similarly, the painter who has her entire output of paintings to enjoy for herself because she cannot sell them may praise her fortitude and applaud her accomplishments, but still experiences great sadness.

 If you are not honored with real, appropriate recognition, you struggle not to consider yourself a failure.  You may argue that it is the world that has failed you… but it is hard to take comfort in that knowledge.  You need recognition more than you need accurate understanding of why recognition has eluded you.  And as you deal, during your years in the trenches, with what may turn out to be a maddingly insufficient lack of recognition, you are challenged to find ways of maintaining your faith, courage, good cheer, and emotional equilibrium.      

Eric Maisel, A Life in the Arts:  Practical Guidance and Inspiration for Creative and Performing Artists

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 428

View from Isla del Sol in Bolivia

View from Isla del Sol in Bolivia

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

In its spectacle and ritual the Carnival procession in Oururo bears an intriguing resemblance to the description given by Inca Garcilaso de la Vega of the great Inca festival of Inti Raymi, dedicated to the Sun.  Even if Oururo’s festival did not develop directly from that of the Inca, the 16th-century text offers a perspective from the Andean tradition:

“The curacas (high dignitaries) came to their ceremony in their finest array, with garments and head-dresses richly ornamented with gold and silver.

Others, who claimed to descend from a lion, appeared, like Hercules himself, wearing the skin of this animal, including its head.

Others, still, came dressed as one imagines angels with the great wings of the bird called condor, which they considered to be their original ancestor.  This bird is black and white in color, so large that the span of its wing can attain 14 or 15 feet, and so strong that many a Spaniard met death in contest with it.

Others wore masks that gave them the most horrible faces imaginable, and these were he Yuncas (people from the tropics), who came to the feast with the heads and gestures of madmen or idiots.  To complete the picture, they carried appropriate instruments such as out-of-tune flutes and drums, with which they accompanied the antics.

Other curacas in the region came as well decorated or made up to symbolize their armorial bearings.  Each nation presented its weapons:  bows and arrows, lances, darts, slings, maces and hatchets, both short and long, depending upon whether they used them with one hand or two.

They also carried paintings, representing feats they had accomplished in the service of the Sun and of the Inca, and a whole retinue of musicians played on the timpani and trumpets they had brought with them.  In other words, it may be said that each nation came to the feast with everything that could serve to enhance its renown and distinction, and if possible, its precedence over the others.”    

El Carnaval de Oruro by Manuel Vargas in Mascaras de los Andes Bolivianos, Editorial Quipus and Banco Mercantil

Comments are welcome!

Q: What kind of art do you create?

At work

At work

A:  I live in the West Village in New York City and have been a working artist for thirty-four years. I create original pastel paintings that use my large collection of Mexican and Guatemalan folk art – masks, carved wooden animals, papier mache figures, and toys – as subject matter. Blending with my fingers, I spend months painstakingly applying dozens of layers of soft pastel onto acid-free sandpaper. My self-invented technique achieves extraordinarily rich, vibrant color and results in paintings that uniquely combine reality, fantasy, and autobiography. Please see https://barbararachko.art/en/

For the last three years I have been working on a series called, “Bolivianos,” based on an exhibition of Carnival masks seen in La Paz. Art critics and others have said that these are my strongest pastel paintings so far. As I write I am working on the fifteenth piece in the series.  

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 423

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

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

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

I’ve mentioned that Kenneth Clark, the British art historian, said you could take the four best paintings of any artist in history and destroy the rest and the artist’s reputation would still be intact.  This is because in any artist’s life there are moments when everything goes right.  The artist is so in tune with his or her inner vision that there is no restriction.  The divine is being expressed.  Each mark becomes like a note of music in a divine order.

That experience, that prayer of expression, transcends its material and becomes spiritual.  The experience is overwhelming, the joys it communicates explosive.

When on another occasion we can’t find that spiritual level of experience, and so can’t repeat it, the frustration can be cruel and the separation painful.  Here lies the myth of the suffering artist.  It isn’t the art making when it goes well that has any suffering in it.  That is the union with the beloved.  It’s the loss that causes the suffering.  And the problem isn’t something we can necessarily control.  We are instruments, conduits for that expression.  It comes through us by grace.

The idea that we “make” art is perhaps a bit misleading.  The final product is at its best the result of a collaboration with spirit.  We may be separated from a flow within our spirit for weeks.  We continue to paint because there is no knowing at what precise moment it will return.  And when it does we need our faculties alert and our skills honed.  Then the poetry is everywhere.    

Ian Roberts in Creative Authenticity:  16 Principles to Clarify and Deepen Your Artistic Vision

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 407

"Survivors," soft pastel on sandpaper, 20" x 26" image, 28 1/2" x 35" framed

“Survivors,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 20″ x 26″ image, 28 1/2″ x 35″ framed

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

In the images [the paintings of the Chauvet cave in southern  France] this prehistoric people have bequeathed to us, we get a glimpse of something like a shared humanity, but we also gaze into a stranger part of ourselves, something reaching to the depths.  Since we do not know the context in which the paintings were made, we cannot in good faith chalk them up to some clear pragmatic end.  We are seeing art in its naked state, deprived of any discernible appropriation.  This can trouble our secular sensibilities since it confronts us not just with the mysteries of nature, but more strikingly still with the riddle of the presence of such things as us in the otherwise coherent physical world.  Given the fact that the molecular chemistry that makes life possible is the same throughout the cosmos, would finding works of art on Mars or a remote planet be any more uncanny than finding them here on Earth?      

J.F. Martel in Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice:  A Treatise, Critique, and Call to Action

Comments are welcome!

Q: I especially enjoy your “Black Paintings” series. You mention being influenced by the story of how Miles Davis developed cool jazz, making this work uniquely American all around. How did you use jazz history in this series?

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

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

A:  In 2007 I finished the Domestic Threats series and was blocked, certain that a strong body of work was behind me. But what would come next?  

The idea for the Black Paintings began when I attended a jazz history course at Lincoln Center and learned how Miles Davis developed cool jazz from bebop. In bebop the notes were played hard and fast as musicians showcased their musical virtuosity. Cool jazz was a much more relaxed style with fewer notes being played. In other words, the music was pared down to its essentials. Similarly, the Black Paintings evolved from dense, intricate compositions into paintings that depicted only the essential elements. As the series evolved, what was left out became more important, resulting in more demands being placed on the viewer.

Eventually, after much reflection, I had an epiphany and my painful creative block ended.  “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 richer and more profound than the previous Domestic Threats.

Comments are welcome!

Q: Can you tell us about the different series of work you have created and what they embody?

Barbara’s studio with work in progress

Barbara’s studio with work in progress

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!

 

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