Blog Archives

Q: What’s on the easel today?

Work in progress

Work in progress

A. I have just started working on a small pastel painting.  Although the mask looks Tibetan, surprisingly, it is from Bolivia.  It’s one I encountered at a mask exhibition at the Museum of Ethnography and Folklore in La Paz.   This is another in my “Bolivianos” series.

Comments are welcome!

Q: Would you describe how you are taking soft pastel in new directions as a fine art medium?

Barbara at work, Photo: Marianne Barcellona

Barbara at work, Photo: Marianne Barcellona

A:  I have been devoted to soft pastel for more than thirty years.  In this blog and in countless interviews online and elsewhere, I continue to expound on its merits.  For me no other fine art medium comes close.

I have developed my own original methods for working with soft pastel, pushing this venerable 500-year-old medium to its limits and using it in ways that no one has done before.  I have created a unique science of color in which I layer and blend pigments.  When viewers (including fellow artists) see my work in person for the first time, they often ask, “What medium is this?”  

My self-invented techniques for using soft pastel achieve rich velvety textures and exceptionally vibrant color.  Blending with my fingers, I painstakingly apply dozens of layers of pastel onto acid-free sandpaper.  In addition to the thousands of pastels that I have to choose from, I blend new colors directly on the paper.  Each pastel painting takes about three months and hundreds of hours to complete. 

My subject matter is singular.  I am drawn to Mexican, Guatemalan, and Bolivian cultural objects—masks, carved wooden animals, papier mâché figures, and toys.  On trips to these places and elsewhere I frequent local mask shops, markets, and bazaars searching for the figures that will populate my pastel paintings.  How, why, when, and where these objects come into my life is an important part of the creative process.  Each pastel painting is a highly personal blend of reality, fantasy, and autobiography.

Comments are welcome!  

Q: What’s on the easel today?

Work in progress

Work in progress

A:  This is the first day – with only one layer of soft pastel in most places – of a 38″ x 58″ pastel painting.  It’s based on a photo I composed at the National Museum of Ethnography and Folklore in La Paz, Bolivia.  This is the fourth work in my “Bolivianos” series.

Comments are welcome!

Q: What’s on the easel today?

Work in progress

Work in progress

“The Orator,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 38” x 58”

“The Orator,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 38” x 58”

A:  Having finally finished “The Orator” (bottom), I continue working on a small pastel painting that does not have a title yet (top).  The latter is the third piece in my “Bolivianos” series.  

Comments are welcome!

Q: When you are in your studio working on a pastel painting and pause to consider what you have done, do you ask yourself, “Is it good?”

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

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

A:  Certainly, I do.  In addition, I ask myself some other important questions:  

Is it the best I can do?

Is it exciting?

Is it surprising?

Is it idiosyncratic and unique to me?

Is there anything I can do to improve it?

Does it meet (or hopefully exceed) the exacting technical and formal standards I have set for my work?  

Will I be proud to finally see my signature on it?

Comments are welcome!

Q: What’s on the easel today?

Work in progress

Work in progress

A:  I’m working on the third pastel painting in my new “Bolivianos” series.  This one is only a few days old and has no title yet.

Comments are welcome!

Q: Is your work fast or is it slow?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  I work extremely slowly.  I’m a full-time artist and I spend three or four months on each pastel painting, sometimes longer if it’s an especially difficult piece.  

I generally have two pastel paintings in progress and switch off when one is causing problems.  The paintings tend to interact and influence each other.  Having two in progress helps me resolve difficult areas quicker, plus when one is finished, I still have something to work on.  So there’s rarely any dead time in my studio.

Comments are welcome!

Q: Would you speak about how important it was to get back to work after losing your husband on 9/11?

"She Embraced It and Grew Stronger," 2002, the first pastel painting I completed after Bryan was killed

“She Embraced It and Grew Stronger,” 2003, the first pastel painting I completed after Bryan was killed

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!

 

Q: What’s on the easel today?

Work in progress

Work in progress

A:  I am continuing work on “The Orator,” 38″ x 58,” the second pastel painting in my new “Bolivianos” series.

Comments are welcome!

Q: Would you comment on the origin of the title for your photographic series, “Gods and Monsters”?

Untitled c-print, 24" x 24" edition of 5

Untitled c-print, 24″ x 24″ edition of 5

A:  My title is borrowed directly from a 2001 catalogue essay by the late art critic, Gerritt Henry.  The essay was about my first pastel painting series (“Domestic Threats”) and it’s called, “Barbara Rachko:  Gods and Monsters.”  

Among other shared interests, Gerritt and I both loved old Frankenstein movies from the 1940s.  Around 1998 interest in James Whale, who had directed the original films, was riding high thanks to an Oscar-winning biopic about his last days in Hollywood.  The film was called, “Gods and Monsters.”  The title was taken from a line in “Bride of Frankenstein,” in which Dr. Pretorius toasts Dr. Frankenstein saying, “To a new world of gods and monsters.”

My photographic series came after “Domestic Threats” and some years after Gerritt’s essay was published.  When I was searching for a title for the photos, “Gods and Monsters” seemed a perfect fit!

Comments are welcome!