Blog Archives

Q: What inspires you to start your next painting? (Question from Nancy Nikkal)

Source material for “The Champ”
Source material for “The Champ” and “Avenger”

A: For my current series, “Bolivianos,” I am using as source/reference material c-prints composed at a La Paz museum in 2017. I began the series by picking my favorite from this group of photos (“The Champ” and later, “Avenger”) before continuing with others selected for prosaic reasons such as I like some aspect of the photo, to push my technical skills by figuring out how to render some item in pastel, to challenge myself to make a pastel painting that is more exciting than the photo, etc. I like to think I have mostly succeeded.

At this time I am running low on images and have not yet imagined what comes next. Do I travel to La Paz again in 2021 to capture new photos? This series was a surprise gift so I am reluctant to deliberately chase after it knowing that ‘lightning never strikes twice.’ Will travel even be possible this year with Covid-19? These are questions I am wrestling with now.

Comments are welcome!

Q; What was the spark that got you started? (Question from Barbara Smith via Facebook)

Ensign Barbara Rachko, circa 1983
Ensign Barbara Rachko, circa 1983

A: If I had to select one factor, I would say, profound unhappiness with my professional life. In 1986 I was a 33-year-old Navy Lieutenant working as a computer analyst at the Pentagon. I hated my job, was utterly miserable, and moreover, I was trapped because unlike many jobs, it’s not possible to resign a Naval commission with two weeks notice.

My bachelor’s degree had been in psychology. When I was in my 20s and before I joined the Navy, I had spent two years and my own money training to become a licensed commercial pilot and Boeing-727 Flight Engineer. I had planned to become an airline pilot, but due to bad timing (airlines were not hiring pilots when I was looking for a job), that did not come to pass.

So there I was with absolutely no interest, nor any training in computers, working for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and completely bored. I knew I must have taken a wrong turn somewhere and resolved to make a significant change. Searching around, I discovered a local art school, the Art League School in Alexandria, VA, and began taking drawing classes.

One drawing class lead to more. Within a couple of years, due to being highly motivated to change my life, my technical skills rapidly improved. Even then, I believe, it was obvious to anyone who knew me that I had found my calling. I resigned my active duty Naval commission and have been a fulltime professional artist since October 1989. (Note: For fourteen more years I remained in the Naval Reserve working, mostly at the Pentagon, one weekend a month and two weeks each year, and retired as a Navy Commander in 2003).

Life as a self-employed professional artist is endlessly varied, fulfilling, and interesting. I have never once regretted my decision to pursue art fulltime!

Comments are welcome!

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

A wall in Barbara's studio

A wall in Barbara’s studio

A:  When I left the active duty Navy in 1989, my co-workers threw a farewell party.  One of the parting gifts I received was a small plaque from a young enlisted woman whom I had supervised. The words on the plaque deeply resonated with me, since I was about to make a significant, risky, and scary career change.  It was the perfect gift for someone facing the uncertainty of an art career.

Many years later Tina’s plaque is still a proud possession of mine.  It is hanging on the wall behind my easel, to be read every day as I work.  It says:

“Excellence can be attained if you…

Care more than others think is wise…

Risk more than others think is safe…

Dream more than others think is practical…

Expect more than others think is possible.”

Comments are welcome!

 

 

Pearls from artists* # 433

Chatting with Jenny Holzer.  It looks like she did not want her picture taken, but she was actually waiving. VIGIL: Jenny Holzer and @creativetime

Chatting with Jenny Holzer.  It looks like she did not want her picture taken, but she was actually waiving.

*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 positions exist, the artistic and the commercial.  Between these two an abiding tension persists.  The eighteenth-century American painter Gilbert Stuart complained, “What a business is that of portrait painter.  He is brought a potato and is expected to paint a peach.”  The artist learns that the public wants peaches, not potatoes.  You can paint potatoes if you like, write potatoes, dance potatoes, and compose potatoes, you can with great and valiant effort communicate with some other potato-eaters and peach-eaters.  In so doing you contribute to the world’s reservoir of truth and beauty.  But if you won’t give the public peaches, you won’t be paid much.

Repeatedly artists take the heroic potato position.  They want their work to be good, honest, powerful – and only then successful.  They want their work to be alive, not contrived and formulaic.  As the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch put it:  “No longer shall I paint interiors, and people reading, and women knitting.  I shall paint living people, who breathe and feel and suffer and love.”

The artist is interested in the present and has little desire to repeat old, albeit successful formulas.  As the painter Jenny Holzer put it, “I could do a pretty good third generation-stripe painting, but so what? 

The unexpected result of the artist’s determination to do his [sic] own best art is that he is put in an adversarial relationship with the public.  In that adversarial position he comes to feel rather irrational for what rational person would do work that’s not wanted? 

…Serious work not only doesn’t sell well, it’s also judged by different standards.  If the artist writes an imperfect but commercial novel it is likely to be published and sold.  If his screenplay is imperfect but commercial enough it may be produced.  If it is imperfect and also uncommercial it will not be produced.  If his painting is imperfect but friendly and familiar it may sell well.  If it is imperfect and also new and difficult, it may not sell for decades, if ever.

Ironically enough, the artist attempting serious work must also attain the very highest level of distinction possible.  He must produce Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov but not also The Insulted and Injured or A Raw Youth, two of Dostoevsky’s nearly unknown novels.  He is given precious little space in this regard.      

I daresay, this last is why I devote my life to creating the most unique, technically advanced pastel paintings anyone will see!

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!

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: What advice would you give to up and coming artists, as well as experienced artists, who want to reach the level of publicity and notoriety that you have achieved?

On my studio wall

On my studio wall

A:  I have several pieces of advice:

Build a support network among your fellow artists, teachers, and friends.  It is tough to be an artist, period.  Be sure to read plenty of books by and about artists.  You will learn that all have experienced similar challenges.

Do whatever you must to keep working – no matter what!  Being an artist never gets easier.  There are always new obstacles and you will discover solutions over time.

When I left the active duty Navy in 1989, my co-workers threw a farewell party.  One of the parting gifts I received was a small plaque from a young enlisted woman whom I had supervised.  The words on the plaque deeply resonated with me, since I was about to make a significant and risky career change.  It was the perfect gift for someone facing the uncertainty of an art career. 

Many years later the plaque is still a proud possession of mine.  It hangs on the wall behind my easel, to be read every day as I work.  It says:

“Excellence can be attained if you…

Care more than others think is wise…

Risk more than others think is safe…

Dream more than others think is practical…

Expect more than others think is possible.”

I continue to live by these wise words.

Comments are welcome!

Q: Why do you make art?

“Why Do I Make Art” by Ursula von Rydingsvard

“Why Do I Make Art” by Ursula von Rydingsvard

A:  Last spring I viewed Ursula von Rydingsvard’s exhibition at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.  One thing that stayed with me is her wall text, “Why Do I Make Art by Ursula von Rydingsvard” in which she listed a few dozen benefits that art-making has brought to her life.  

I want to share some of my own personal reasons here, in no particular order.  My list keeps changing, but these are true at least for today. 

1.   Because I love the entire years-long creative process – from foreign travel whereby I discover new source material, to deciding what I will make, to the months spent in the studio realizing my ideas, to packing up my newest pastel painting and bringing it to my Virginia framer’s shop, to seeing the framed piece hanging on a collector’s wall, to staying in touch with collectors over the years and learning how their relationship to the work changes.

2.   Because I love walking into my studio in the morning and seeing all of that color!  No matter what mood I am in, my spirit is immediately uplifted.  

3.   Because my studio is my favorite place to be… in the entire world.  I’d say that it is my most precious creation.  It’s taken more than twenty-two years to get it this way.  I hope I never have to move!

4.   Because I get to listen to my favorite music all day or to Public Radio stations.

5.   Because when I am working in the studio, if I want, I can tune out the world and all of it’s urgent problems.  The same goes for whatever personal problems I am experiencing.

6.   Because I am devoted to my medium.  How I use pastel continually evolves.  It’s exciting to keep learning about its properties and to see what new techniques will develop.

7.   Because I have been given certain gifts and abilities and that entails a sacred obligation to USE them.  I could not live with myself were I to do otherwise.

8.   Because art-making gives meaning and purpose to my life.  I never wake up in the morning wondering, how should I spend the day?  I have important work to do and a place to do it.  I know this is how I am supposed to be spending my time on earth.

9.   Because I have an enviable commute.  To get to my studio it’s a thirty-minute walk, often on the High Line early in the morning before throngs of tourists have arrived.

10.  Because life as an artist is never easy.  It’s a continual challenge to keep forging ahead, but the effort is also never boring.  

11.  Because each day in the studio is different from all the rest. 

12.  Because I love the physicality of it.  I stand all day.  I’m always moving and staying fit.

13.  Because I have always been a thinker more than a talker.  I enjoy and crave solitude.  I am often reminded of the expression, “She who travels the farthest, travels alone.”  In my work I travel anywhere.

14.  Because spending so much solitary time helps me understand what I think and feel and to reflect on the twists and turns of my unexpected and fascinating life.

15.  Because I learn about the world.  I read and do research that gets incorporated into the work.

16.  Because I get to make all the rules.  I set the challenges and the goals, then decide what is succeeding and what isn’t.  It is working life at its most free.

17.  Because I enjoy figuring things out for myself instead of being told what to do or how to think.

18.  Because despite enormous obstacles, I am still able to do it.  Art-making has been the focus of my life for thirty-three years – I was a late bloomer – and I intend to continue as long as possible.

19.  Because I have been through tremendous tragedy and deserve to spend the rest of my life doing exactly what I love.  The art world has not caught up yet, but so be it.  This is my passion and my life’s work and nothing will change that.

20.  Because thanks to the internet and via social media, my work can be seen in places I have never been to and probably will never go.

21.  Because I would like to be remembered.  The idea of leaving art behind for future generations to appreciate and enjoy is appealing.

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 317

Fifth Avenue

Fifth Avenue

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

But everything that may some day be possible to many the solitary man can now prepare and build with his hands, that err less.  Therefore, dear sir, love your solitude and bear with sweet-sounding lamentation the suffering it causes you.  For those who are near you are far, you say, and that shows it is beginning to grow wide about you.  And when what is near you is far, then your distance is already among the stars and very large; rejoice in your growth, in which you naturally can take no one with you, and be kind to those who remain behind, and be sure and calm before them and do not torment them with your doubts and do not frighten them with your confidence or joy, which they could not understand.  Seek yourself some sort of simple and loyal community with them, which need not necessarily change as you yourself become different and again different; love in them life in an unfamiliar form and be considerate of aging people, who fear that being-alone in which you trust.  Avoid contributing material to the drama that is always stretched taut between parents and children; it uses up much of the children’ energy and consumes the love of their elders, which is effective and warming even if it does not comprehend.  Ask no advice from them and count upon no understanding; but believe in a love that is being stored up for you like an inheritance and trust that in this love there is a strength and a blessing, out beyond which you do not have to step in order to go very far!            

Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, Translation by M.D. Herter Norton

Comments are welcome!

Q: Do you have an essential philosophy that guides you in your creative expression?

A wall in Barbara's studio

A wall in Barbara’s studio

A:  Here are my two essential philosophies:

“Give it all you’ve got and keep going.”  I wrote this years ago on a piece of paper and tacked it onto the wall behind my easel so I can always see it.

“Excellence can be attained if you… care more than others think is wise… risk more than others think is safe… dream more than others think is practical… expect more than others think is possible.”  These words are on a small plaque, also tacked on the wall behind my easel.  A co-worker gave this to me when I resigned my Naval commission to pursue an art career.

Comments are welcome!

 

 

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