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Q: Do you have a home studio or do you go to an outside studio to work? Which do you prefer and why?

At work

At work

A: I have always preferred a separate studio. Pastel creates a lot of dust, it’s toxic to breathe, plus I do not want to live with the mess! I need a place to go in the mornings, someplace where I can focus and work without any distractions. It’s difficult to do that at home.

From the beginning of my time as an artist, in the mid-1980’s, I had a studio. My first one was in the spare bedroom of the Alexandria, Virginia, house that I shared with my late husband, Bryan, and that I still own.

For about three years in the 1990s I had a studio on the third floor of the Torpedo Factory Art Center, a building in Alexandria, VA that is open to the public. People would come in, watch artists at work, and sometimes buy a piece of art.

In April 1997 an opportunity to move to New York arose and I didn’t look back. By then I was showing in a good 57th Street gallery, Brewster Arts Ltd. (the gallery focused exclusively on Latin American artists; I was in the company of Leonora Carrington, Rufino Tamayo, Diego Rivera, etc.), and I had managed to find a New York agent, Leah Poller, with whom to collaborate.

I looked at only one other space before finding my West 29th Street studio and knew instantly it was the one! An old friend of Bryan’s from Cal Tech rented the space next door and he had told us it was available. Initially the studio was a sublet. The lease-holder was a painter headed to northern California to work temporarily for George Lucas at the Lucas Ranch. After several years she decided to stay so I was able to take over the lease. I feel extremely fortunate to have been in my West 29th Street, New York City space now for twenty-three years. In a city where old buildings are perpetually knocked down to make way for new ones this is rare.

My studio is an oasis in a chaotic city, a place to make art, to read, and to think. I love to walk in the door every morning and I feel calmer the moment I arrive. It’s my absolute favorite place in New York! Sometimes I think of it as my best creation. For more about this please see

https://artofcollage.wordpress.com/2020/04/30/artists-and-their-relationship-to-their-studio

Comments are welcome!

Q: I understand your comments to mean that being at the studio challenges you to be your best. How (why) do you think that works? (Question from Nancy Nikkal)

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

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

A: I am always trying to push my pastel techniques further, seeking to figure out new ways to render my subject matter, expanding my technical vocabulary. It would be monotonous to keep working the same old way.  Wasn’t it John Baldessari who said, “No more boring art?”  He was talking about art that’s boring to look at.  Well, as someone who CREATES art I don’t want to be bored during the making so I keep challenging myself.  I love learning, in general, and I especially love learning new things about soft pastel.

Very often I start a project because I have no idea how to depict some particular subject using pastel.  For example, one of the reasons I undertook “Avenger” was to challenge myself to render all of that hair!  Eventually I managed to figure it out and I learned a few new techniques in the process.

Comments are welcome!

Q: Your work is unlike anyone else’s. There is such power and boldness in your pastels. What processes are you using to create such poignant and robustly colored work?

Barbara working on an interview. Photo: Maria Cox

Barbara working on an interview. Photo: Maria Cox

A:  For thirty-three years I have worked exclusively in soft pastel on sandpaper.  Pastel, which is pigment and a binder to hold it together, is as close to unadulterated color as an artist can get.  It allows for very saturated color, especially using the self-invented techniques I have developed and mastered. I believe my “science of color” is unique, completely unlike how any other artist works.  I spend three to four months on each painting, applying pastel and blending the layers together to mix new colors on the paper.  

The acid-free sandpaper support allows the buildup of 25 to 30 layers of pastel as I slowly and meticulously work for hundreds of hours to complete a painting.  The paper is extremely forgiving.  I can change my mind, correct, refine, etc. as much as I want until a painting is the best I can create at that moment in time. 

My 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 the sandpaper.  In addition to the thousands of pastels that I have to choose from, I make new colors directly on the paper.  Regardless of size, each pastel painting takes about four months and hundreds of hours to complete.  

I have been devoted to soft pastel from the beginning.  In my blog and in numerous interviews online and elsewhere, I continue to expound on its merits.  For me no other fine art medium comes close. 

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 countries 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: 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!

 

Q: What is more important to you, the subject of the painting or the way it is executed?

"Sam and Bobo,"soft pastel on sandpaper, 36" x 31", 1989

“Sam and Bobo,”soft pastel on sandpaper, 36″ x 31”, 1989

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: What has been your scariest experience as an artist?

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

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

A:  It was the approximately six months in 2007 when I finished the “Domestic Threats” series and was blocked, certain that a strong body of work was behind me, yet not knowing what in the world to do next!  For a professional artist who had been working non-stop for 21 years, this was a profoundly painful, confusing, and disorienting time.  I remember continuing to force myself to go to the studio and for lack of anything much to do there, spending long hours reading and thinking about art.

Eventually after all of this reflection, I had an epiphany.  “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 considerably richer and more profound than the previous “Domestic Threats.”


Co
mments are welcome! 

Q: Please speak a little about the history of pastel.

Some of Barbara's soft pastels

Some of Barbara’s soft pastels

A:  Pastel has been in use for five hundred years.  Its invention is attributed to the German painter, Johann Thiele, in the 16th century, followed by Venetian artist, Rosalba Carriera, who was the first to use it consistently.  Edgar Degas, the most prolific user of pastel and its great champion, was followed by many artists who used varying techniques.

Degas’ subject matter included ballet dancers, laundresses, milliners, and denizens of the Parisian demimonde.  The pure hues of pastel, plus its direct application, made it his preferred medium.  Rosalba Carriera, a much-admired portrait artist, revolutionized the world of pastel by developing a wider range of colors, expanding pastel’s availability and usefulness.  Mary Cassatt’s pastel portraits of children and family life provided her with a steady income while living in Paris.  American painter William Merritt Chase used pastel to explore plein air painting.  Pastel’s portability and rich colors made it ideal for outdoor landscapes and for capturing light.

Comments are welcome!

Start/finish of “The Orator,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 38″ x 58″

Start

Start

Finish

Finish

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 265

"Colloquium," soft pastel on sandpaper, 58" x 38" image, 70" x 50" framed

“Colloquium,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 58″ x 38″ image, 70″ x 50″ 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.

I remember hearing Adolph Gottlieb on a panel once at NYU, and Adolph said, in effect – I’m not quoting him directly – “I don’t paint for the masses.  I paint for the elite.  The masses are not interested in what I do.  They won’t understand this kind of painting that I do, and it won’t come through to them.”

I understood perfectly what he meant, and I was totally sympathetic.  But the audience, which was not quite an audience of proletariat workers, but an audience of school of education, art teachers, or art teachers to be, were going out of their heads with rage just at the mention of the elite.

I think there is an elite, and there always was an elite for painting or good music or for good literature.  For a long time there has been, and I don’t see anything wrong with it.  What it means to a lot of people, the elite is the wealthy or something like that.  Adolph, I don’t think, was referring to an elite of the wealthy, where the people run the government or something like that, but to those people who are concerned and interested in the most sophisticated, meaningful painting there is.     

The Art Life:  On Creativity and Career by Stuart Horodner

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 262

"Big Deal," soft pastel on sandpaper, 58" x 38"

“Big Deal,” 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.

It may have been easier to paint bison on the cave walls long ago than to write this (or any other) sentence today.  Other people, in other times and places, had some robust institutions to shore them up:  witness the Church, the clan, ritual, tradition.  It’s easy to imagine that artists doubted their calling less when working in the service of God than when working in the service of self.

Not so today.  Today almost no one feels shored up.  Today artwork does not emerge from secure common ground:  the bison on the wall is someone else’s magic.  Making art now means working in the face of uncertainty; it means living with doubt and contradiction, doing something no one much cares whether you do, and for which there may be neither audience nor reward.  Making the work you want to make means setting aside these doubts so that you may see clearly what you have done, and thereby see where to go next.  Making the work you want to make means finding nourishment within the work itself.  This is not the Age of Faith, Truth, and Certainty.

David Bayles and Ted Orlando in Art & Fear:  Observations On the Perils (and Rewards) of ARTMAKING

Comments are welcome!

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