Blog Archives

Q: Would you speak about the meaning of your work and the different materials you use?

About half of Barbara’s pastels

About half of Barbara’s pastels

A:  It is as difficult to explain the meaning of my art as it is to interpret the meaning of life!  I am invested in and concerned with process:  foreign travel, prodigious reading, devotion to craft, months of slow meticulous work in the studio trying to create an exciting work of art that has never been seen before, etc.  I love making pastel paintings!  Many years ago I challenged myself to push the limits of what soft pastel can achieve.  I am still doing so.

I leave it to others – viewers, arts writers, critics, art historians – to study my creative journey and talk about meanings.  I believe an artist is inspired to create and viewers ponder the creation.  I would not presume to tell anyone how to react to my work.

For many years I have been devoted to promoting soft pastel as a fine art medium.  There are excellent reasons it has been around for five hundred years!  It is the most permanent of media. There’s no liquid binder to cause oxidizing or cracking over time, as happens with oil paint.  Pastel colors are intense because they are close to being pure pigment.  Pastel allows direct application (no brushes) with no drying time and no color changes.

I use UArt acid-free sandpaper.  This is not sandpaper from a hardware store.  It is made for artists who work in pastel and allows me to build up layers of pigment without using a fixative.  My process – slowly applying and layering pastels, blending and mixing new colors directly on the paper, making countless adjustments, searching for the best and/or most vivid colors – continually evolves.  Each pastel painting takes months to create.

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 198

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

“Troublemaker,” 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.

The writer doesn’t need economic freedom.  All he needs is a pencil and some paper.  I’ve never known anything good in writing to come from having accepted any free gift of money.  The good writer never applies to a foundation.  He’s too busy writing something.  If he isn’t first rate he fools himself by saying he hasn’t got time or economic freedom.  Good art can come out of thieves, bootleggers, or horse swipes.  People really are afraid to find out just how much hardship and poverty they can stand.  They are afraid to find out how tough they are.  Nothing can destroy the good writer.  The only thing that can alter the good writer is death.  Good ones don’t have time to bother with success or getting rich…

Nothing can injure a man’s writing if he’s a first-rate writer.  If a man is not a first-rate writer, there’s not anything that can help it much.  The problem does not apply if he is not first-rate, because he has already sold his soul for a swimming pool.

William Faulkner in Writers at Work:  The Paris Review Interviews First Series, edited and with an introduction by Malcolm Cowley

Comments are welcome!

Q: What one piece of artistic “equipment” could you not live without?

Untouched sandpaper

Untouched sandpaper

A:  Undoubtedly, I could not make my work without UART sandpaper.  Over the many months I spend creating a painting, I build layer upon layer of soft pastel.  Because this paper is so “toothy,” it accepts all of the pastel the painting needs.  

As many people know, I own and use a lot of soft pastel!  My entire technique evolved around this sandpaper, which allows me to add and blend as many as thirty layers.

Comments are welcome!           

Pearls from artists* # 154

Idea for a painting

Idea for a painting

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

Often the public forms an idea of inspiration that is quite false, almost a religious notion.  Alas!  I do not believe that inspiration falls from heaven.  I think it rather the result of a profound indolence and of our incapacity to put to work certain forces in ourselves.  These unknown forces work deep within us, with the aid of the elements of daily life, its scenes and passions, and, they burden us and oblige us to conquer the kind of somnolence in which we indulge ourselves like invalids who try to prolong dream and dread resuming contact with reality, in short when the work that makes itself in us and in spite of us demands to be born, we can believe that this work comes to us from beyond and is offered by the gods.  The artist is more slumberous in order that he shall  not work.  By a thousand ruses, he prevents his nocturnal work from seeing the light of day.

For it is at the moment that consciousness must take a precedence and that it becomes necessary to find the means which permit the unformed work to take form, to render it visible to all.  To write, to conquer ink and paper, accumulate letters and paragraphs, divide them with periods and commas, is a different matter than carrying the dream of a play or of a book.

Jean Cocteau: The Process of Inspiration in The Creative Process, edited by Brewster Ghiselin

Comments are welcome!  

Pearls from artists* # 151

“The Storyteller,” 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.

I am a storyteller, for better and for worse.  I suspect that a feeling for stories, for narrative, is a universal human disposition, going with our powers of language, consciousness of self, and autobiographical memory.

The act of writing, when it goes well, gives me a pleasure, a joy, unlike any other.  It takes me to another place – irrespective of my subject – where I am totally absorbed and oblivious to distracting thoughts, worries, preoccupations, or indeed the passage of time.  In those rare, heavenly states of mind, I may write nonstop until I can no longer see the paper.  Only then do I realize that evening has come and that I have been writing all day.

Over a lifetime, I have written millions of words, but the act of writing seems as fresh, and as much fun, as when I started it nearly seventy years ago. 

On the Move:  A Life by Oliver Sacks

Comments are welcome!

Q: Would you talk about how the Judas figures you depict in your pastel paintings function in Mexico?

Some Judases

Some Judases

A:  Here’s a good explanation from a website called “Mexican Folk Art Guide”:

“La quema de Judas or the Judas burning in Mexico is a celebration held on Sabado de Gloria (Holy Saturday).  Papier mache figures symbolizing Judas Iscariot stuffed with fireworks are exploded in local plazas in front of cheerful spectators. 

The Judases exploded in public spaces can measure up to 5 meters, while 30 cm ones can be found with a firework in their back to explode at home.

In Mexico la quema de Judas dates from the beginning of the Spanish colony when the Judas effigies were made with hay and rags and burned.  Later as paper became available and the fireworks techniques arrived, thanks to the Spanish commerce route from the Philippines, the Judases were made out of cardboard, stuffed with fireworks, and exploded.

After the Independence War the celebration lost its religious character and became a secular activity.  The Judas effigies were stuffed with candies, bread, and cigarettes to attract the crowds into the business [establishment] that sponsored the Judas. 

Judas was then depicted as a devil and identified with a corrupt official, or any character that would harm people.  In 1849 a new law stipulated that it was forbidden to relate a Judas effigy with any person by putting a name on it or dressing it in a certain way to be identified with a particular person.”                                     

This is why whenever I bring home a Judas figure from Mexico, I feel like I have rescued it from a fire-y death!

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!   

Pearls from artists* # 127

eBook cover

eBook cover

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

Two facts differentiate Daybook from my work in visual art.

The first is the simple safety of numbers.  There are 6500 Daybooks in the world.  My contribution to them was entirely mental, emotional.  I never put my hand on a single copy of these objects until I picked up a printed book.  I made no physical effort; no blood, no bone marrow moved from me to them.  I do not mean that I made no effort.  On the contrary, the effort was excruciating because it was so without physical involvement, so entirely hard-wrought out of nothing physical at all; no matter how little of the material world goes into visual art, something of it always does, and that something keeps you company as you work.  There seems to me no essential difference in psychic cost between visual and literary effort,  The difference is in what emerges as result.  A work of visual art is painfully liable to accident; months of concentration and can be destroyed by a careless shove.  Not so 6500 objects.  This fact gives me a feeling of security like that of living in a large, flourishing, and prosperous family.

Ancillary to this aspect is the commonplaceness of a book.  People do not have to go much out of their way to get hold of it, and they can carry it around with them and mark it up, and even drop it in a tub while reading in a bath.  It is a relief to have my work an ordinary part of life, released from the sacrosanct precincts of galleries and museums.  A book is also cheap.  Its cost is roughly equivalent to its material value as an object, per se.  This seems to me more healthy than the price of art, which bears no relation to its quality and fluctuates in the marketplace in ways that leave it open to exploitation.  An artist who sells widely has only to mark a piece of paper for it to become worth an amount way out of proportion to its original cost.  This aspect of art has always bothered me, and is one reason why I like teaching;  an artist can exchange knowledge and experience for money in an economy as honest as that of a bricklayer.   

Anne Truitt in Turn:  The Journal of an Artist

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 124

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.

You give yourself a creative life – pursuing those questions and aesthetic conditions that mean the most to you.  What are you interested in?  Landscape and gender and nuclear power are each worthy subjects and there are plenty more.  Do you aspire to exhibit in museums or public spaces or virtual realms?  Your job is to figure out how to best engage these distinct contexts.  Your studio may be a large industrial space or a second bedroom or the kitchen table, where you can work days or nights while wearing your favorite sweatpants and drinking tea as music blasts or silence is maintained.  You might produce five or fifty objects a year, using bronze or oil paint or folded paper, and these can be large or tiny, made to last for centuries or a few weeks.  Maybe you’ve been a printmaker for several years and all of a sudden you decide to make videos.  OK.  You might be influenced by Pop Art or Minimalism or Feminism or Fluxus.  How are you using these various histories to your advantage?  Does Edward Hopper or Gordon Matta-Clark or Agnes Martin or David Hammons inspire you?  If not, who does?  Try to understand the reasons for your choices, and if you feel the need to shift gears, indulge that impulse.  Grant yourself the permission to acquire new skills, travel to biennials, buy a new computer, start a reading group.  Risk not knowing what will happen when you do.

Stephen Horodner in THE ART LIFE:  On Creativity and Career

Comments are welcome!    

Q: Can you talk a little bit about your process? What happens before you even begin a pastel painting?

Barbara in Bali (far right)

Barbara in Bali (far right)

A:  My process is extremely slow and labor-intensive. 

First, there is foreign travel – often to Mexico, Guatemala or someplace in Asia – to find the cultural objects – masks, carved wooden animals, paper mâché figures, and toys – that are my subject matter.  I search the local markets, bazaars, and mask shops for these folk art objects. I look for things that are old, that look like they have a history, and were probably used in religious festivals of some kind. Typically, they are colorful, one-of-a- kind objects that have lots of inherent personality. How they enter my life and how I get them back to my New York studio is an important part of my art-making practice. 

My working methods have changed dramatically over the nearly thirty years that I have been an artist. My current process is a much simplified version of how I used to work.  As I pared down my imagery in the current series, “Black Paintings,” my creative process quite naturally pared down, too. 

One constant is that I have always worked in series with each pastel painting leading quite naturally to the next.  Another is that I always set up a scene, plan exactly how to light and photograph it, and work with a 20″ x 24″ photograph as the primary reference material. 

In the setups I look for eye-catching compositions and interesting colors, patterns, and shadows.  Sometimes I make up a story about the interaction that is occurring between the “actors,” as I call them.

In the “Domestic Threats” series I photographed the scene with a 4″ x 5″ Toyo Omega view camera.  In my “Gods and Monsters” series I shot rolls of 220 film using a Mamiya 6. I still like to use an old analog camera for fine art work, although I have been rethinking this practice.   

Nowadays the first step is to decide which photo I want to make into a painting (currently I have a backlog of photographs to choose from) and to order a 19 1/2″ x 19 1/2″ image (my Mamiya 6 shoots square images) printed on 20″ x 24″ paper.  They recently closed, but I used to have the prints made at Manhattan Photo on West 20th Street in New York.  Now I go to Duggal.  Typically I have in mind the next two or three paintings that I want to create.

Once I have the reference photograph in hand, I make a preliminary tonal charcoal sketch on a piece of white drawing paper.  The sketch helps me think about how to proceed and points out potential problem areas ahead. 

Only then am I ready to start actually making the painting. 

Comments are welcome!