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.
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Q: (Part I) Would you share your story of how creating art enabled you to heal after losing your husband on 9/11?
A: On June 16, 2001, I married Dr. Bryan Jack, my longtime companion and soulmate, during a very private ceremony in the garden of an historic Alexandria, Virginia residence. In attendance were a justice of the peace, me, and Bryan. He and I were 48 years old and this was the first marriage for us both. Sadly, we never celebrated an anniversary. Exactly 87 days later my new husband was the victim of a terrorist attack.
On September 11, 2001, Bryan, a high-ranking federal government employee, a brilliant economist, and a budget analyst at the Pentagon, was en route to Monterey, CA to give his monthly guest lecture for an economics class at the Naval Postgraduate College. He boarded the American Airlines plane out of Dulles Airport that was high-jacked and crashed into the Pentagon, killing 189 people.
To this day I consider how easily I, too, could have been killed on 9/11, if I had just decided to travel with Bryan to California. Plus, the plane crashed directly into my Navy office on the fifth floor E-ring of the Pentagon. (I am a retired Navy Commander and worked at the Pentagon for many years). But for a twist of fate, we both would have died: Bryan on the plane, me either beside Bryan or inside the building.
In September 2001 Bryan and I had been together for fourteen and a half years. Surprisingly, we were happier than we had ever been. At a time when other couples we knew were settling into a certain boredom and routine, our life together was growing richer and more interesting. So losing Bryan – especially then – was heart-breaking, cruel, and devastating beyond comprehension. It was so unfair. I was numb and in shock.
The next six months passed by in a blur. But I had made a decision and pledged that I would not let the 9/11 attackers claim me as one more victim. My life had been spared for a reason so I began to pick up the pieces and worked to make every day count. Even many years later, wasting time still feels like a crime.
The following summer I was ready to – I HAD to – get back to work in my studio. I knew exactly what I must do. More than ever before, learning and painting would become the avenues to my well-being.
Continued next week…
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Q: Would you speak about how important it was to get back to work after losing your husband on 9/11?
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.
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Q: Your path into the arts was less than conventional. For many years you were an active duty Naval officer before you retired as a Commander. Oh, and not forgetting the pilot’s licenses you hold! Tell us more about yourself and why you decided to continue your journey into the arts.
A: When I was 25 I earned my private pilot’s license and spent the next two years amassing other licenses and ratings, culminating in a Boeing-727 flight engineer’s certificate. Two years later I joined the Navy. As an accomplished civilian pilot with thousands of flight hours, I expected to fly jets. However, there were few women Navy pilots at the time and they were restricted to training male pilots. There were no women pilots on aircraft carriers and there were no female Blue Angels (the latter is still true).
So in the mid-1980s I was in my early 30s, a lieutenant on active duty in the Navy, working a soul-crushing job as a computer analyst on the midnight shift in a Pentagon basement. It was literally and figuratively the lowest point of my life. Remembering the joyful Saturdays of my youth when I had taken art classes with a local New Jersey painter, I enrolled in a drawing class at the Art League School in Alexandria, Virginia. Initially I wasn’t very good, but it was wonderful to be around other women and a world away from the “warrior mentality” of the Pentagon. And, I was having fun! Soon I enrolled in more classes and became a very motivated full-time art student who worked nights at the Pentagon. As I studied and improved my skills, I discovered my preferred medium – soft pastel on sandpaper.
Although I knew I had found my calling, for more than a year I agonized over whether or not to leave the financial security of the Navy. Once I did decide, there was a long delay. The Navy was experiencing a manpower shortage so Congress had enacted a stop-loss order, which prevented officers from resigning. I could only do what was allowed under the order. I submitted my resignation effective exactly one year later: on September 30, 1989. With Bryan’s (my late husband’s) support, I left the Navy.
I designate October 1, 1989 as the day I became a professional artist. Fortunately, I have never again needed a day job. However, I remained in the Navy Reserve for the next 14 years, working primarily at the Pentagon for two days every month and two weeks each year. I commuted to Washington, DC after I moved to Manhattan in 1997. Finally on November 1, 2003, I officially retired as a Navy Commander.
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A: I believe my first sale was “Bryan’s Ph.D.” I made it in 1990 as one of several small paintings created to improve my skills at rendering human hands in pastel. I had recently left the Navy and was building a career as a portrait artist. Bryan, my late husband, was often my model for these studies, not only because it was convenient, but because he had such beautiful hands.
In 1990 Bryan was working on his Ph.D. in economics at the University of Maryland. In this painting he is drawing a diagram that illustrates a theoretical point about “international public goods,” the subject of his research. He was sitting in an old wooden rocking chair in our backyard in Alexandria, VA. I still own the chair and the house. I photographed his hands close-up and then created the painting. I don’t remember which of Bryan’s cameras I used, but it was one that took 35 mm film; perhaps his Nikon F-2. Somewhere I must still have the negative and the original reference photo.
“Bryan’s Ph.D.” is 11″ x 13 1/2″ and it sold for $500 at a monthly juried exhibition at The Art League in Alexandria. I have not seen it since 1990. (Above is a photograph of “Bryan’s Ph.D.” from my portfolio book).
Not long ago the owner contacted me, explaining that she had received the painting as a gift from her now ex-husband. She was selling it because it evoked bitter memories of her divorce. Her phone call was prompted by uncertainty about the painting’s value now. She had a likely buyer and needed to know what price to charge.
I was saddened because I have so many beautiful memories of this particular painting and of an idyllic time in my life with Bryan. He was on a leave of absence from the Pentagon to work on his dissertation, while I was finished with active duty. At last I was a full time artist, busily working in the spare bedroom that we had turned into my first studio.
My conversation with the owner was a reminder that once paintings are let out into the world, they take on associations that have nothing to do with the personal circumstances surrounding their creation. In short, what an artist creates solely out of love, stands a good chance of not being loved or appreciated by others. This is one reason to only sell my work to people I select personally. I ended the telephone conversation hoping that “Bryan’s Ph.D.” fares better in its new home.
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Q: Another interesting series of yours that has impressed me is your recent “Black Paintings.” The pieces in this series are darker than the ones in “Domestic Threats.” You create an effective mix between the dark background and the few bright tones, which establish such a synergy rather than a contrast, and all the dark creates a prelude to light. It seems to reveal such a struggle, a deep tension, and intense emotions. Any comments on your choice of palette and how it has changed over time?
A: That is a great question!
You are correct that my palette has darkened. It’s partly from having lived in New York for so long. This is a generally dark city. We famously dress in black and the city in winter is mainly greys and browns.
Also, the “Black Paintings” are definitely post-9/11 work. My husband, Bryan, was tragically killed onboard the plane that crashed into the Pentagon. Losing Bryan was the biggest shock I ever have had to endure, made even harder because it came just 87 days after we had married. We had been together for 14 ½ years and in September 2001 were happier than we had ever been. He was killed so horribly and so senselessly. Post 9/11 was an extremely difficult, dark, and lonely time.
In the summer of 2002 I resumed making art, continuing to make “Domestic Threats” paintings. That series ran its course and ended in 2007. Around then I was feeling happier and had come to better terms with losing Bryan (it’s something I will never get over but dealing with loss does get easier with time). When I created the first “Black Paintings” I consciously viewed the background as literally, the very dark place that I was emerging from, exactly like the figures emerging in these paintings. The figures themselves are wildly colorful and full of life, so to speak, but that black background is always there.
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A: I am pushing soft pastel to its limits, using it in ways that no artist has done before. I want people to see what is possible to accomplish with this medium. Because I have experienced unspeakable heartache – the loss of my husband on 9/11, onboard the high-jacked airplane that crashed into the Pentagon – when viewers learn about my life story, I hope to serve as an inspiration to keep forging ahead regardless of what tragedies life may bring. These are the main reasons that I wrote my eBook.
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