Blog Archives

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: How many days a week do you work on your art?

Working on “Jokester”

At work

A:  My life is devoted to art and to art-making.  Working in pastel is slow and labor-intensive – in a good year I make four or five pastel paintings – so maintaining good work habits is imperative.  As a fulltime professional artist, I strive to  keep regular studio hours.  I work five days a week, roughly seven hours a day.

However, running the business side of things is an every day activity:  marketing, interviews, applying for exhibitions, making photographs, documenting my professional activities, sending JPEGs, responding to inquiries, etc.  There is always something to do!

Comments are welcome!   

Q: What do you do when you are feeling undervalued and/or misunderstood as a visual artist?

On a favorite walk

On a favorite walk

A:  After more than three decades as a professional artist, I wish I could say this rarely happens, but that’s not the case.  People say dumb things to artists all the time and I’m no exception.  Often I tune it out, remembering the title of a terrific book by Hugh MacLeod called, “Ignore Everybody and 39 Other Keys to Creativity.”  Come to think of it, it’s time for a re-read of Hugh’s wise book.

But ignoring people is not always possible.  So I might take a break from the studio, go for a long walk along the Hudson River, compose photographs, think about what’s bothering me, and try to refocus and remember all the positive things that art-making has brought to my life.  I always feel better after this simple ritual.

Here’s another helpful quote that I read recently and try to remember:

‘’An artist cannot fail; it is a success to be one.” – Charles Cooley

I wonder, what do you do?

Comments are welcome!

 

Q: As you reflect on your overall art career beginning with your art education, what major event stands out as an important sign that you were headed in the right direction?

"His Mortal Enemy Was Poised Ready to Strike," soft pastel on sandpaper

“His Mortal Enemy Was Poised Ready to Strike,” soft pastel on sandpaper

A:  In 1989 I left a career in the Navy to pursue life as a full-time professional artist.  In July 1996 Bryan and I were traveling in Mexico.  Something told me to check the phone messages at our Virginia house so I did.  

There was a message from Mia Kim, the director of Brewster Arts Ltd. on West 57th Street in Manhattan, requesting a dozen large pastel paintings for a two-person exhibition in October, just three months away!

At the time I was still living in Alexandria, Virginia so exhibiting in Manhattan – let alone securing prestigious gallery representation – seemed a far-off dream.   Yes, I had sent Mia slides, but she had not seen my work in person.   She first saw my “Domestic Threats” pastel paintings when I delivered them to the gallery for exhibition.  The show was called “Monkey Business.”

Brewster Arts was an elegant New York gallery that specialized in Latin American Art.  There was just one other non-Latina artist that Mia represented, Leonora Carrington, whom I met that October at my opening.   I remember Mia introducing me and declaring to the entire crowd, “Barbara has the SOUL of a Latina.”  I’ve always loved that.  It was the first time I realized I was really on my way!

Brewster Arts Ltd. continued to represent my work until the gallery closed some years later.

Comments are welcome!

Q: Was there a pivotal time in your life when you were forced to choose between two different paths? Do you have any regrets?

Barbara’s studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  In 1988 I was a Navy Lieutenant working at the Pentagon as a computer analyst. I hated my boring job! For about two years I had been taking drawing classes at the Art League School in Alexandria, VA and was rapidly improving. More importantly, I discovered that making art was endlessly fascinating and challenging.

After much soul searching, I made the scary decision to resign from active duty.  Sept. 30, 1989 was my last day. I have been a professional visual artist ever since and surprisingly (to me!), have never needed a day job.

However, for fourteen years I remained in the Naval Reserve, working in Virginia one weekend a month and for two weeks each year. After I moved to New York in 1997, I used to take Amtrak to Washington, DC. I would go from my full time New York artist’s life to my part time military life. It was extremely interesting to be around such different types of people, to say the least! On November 1, 2003 I retired as a Navy Commander.

I have never, ever regretted the path I chose. I love being an artist and would not want to spend my life doing anything else.

Comments are welcome!

Q: For many artists the hardest thing is getting to work in the morning. Do you have any rituals that get you started?

Entering Barbara’s studio

Entering Barbara’s studio

A:  That has rarely been a problem because I love to work.  The highlight of my day is time spent in the studio.  After arriving, I begin working immediately or I read about art for a short time.  When I pick up a pastel, it’s to begin working on something left unfinished from the day before.

Generally, I keep regular hours and strive to use studio time well.  As a professional artist, one absolutely must be a self-starter!  No one else cares about our work the way we do. Really why would they, when only the maker has invested so much love, knowledge, craftsmanship, experience, devotion, insight, money, etc. in the effort to evolve and improve.

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: Can you describe a single habit that you believe contributes to your professional success?

Barbara's studio with work in progress

Barbara’s studio with work in progress

A:  It’s probably the fact that I keep regular studio hours.  Contrary to the cliche of artists working in spurts, I continually work in the studio at least seven hours a day, five days a week, with Wednesdays and Sundays as my days off.  I devote another two hours or so in the mornings and evenings for art business tasks:  email, sending out jpegs, social media, etc.  I always remember something Katharine Hepburn said:  “Without discipline there is no life.”

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 197

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

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

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

As Kenneth Burke says in ‘Counter-Statement:’  “[Great] artists feel as opportunity what others feel as menace.  This ability does not, I believe, derive from exceptional strength, it probably arises purely from professional interest the artist may take in his difficulties.”  

Marianne Moore in Writers at Work:  The Paris Review Interviews Second Series, edited by George Plimpton

Comments are welcome! 

 

Q: How many studios have you had since you’ve been a professional artist?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A: I am on my third, and probably last, studio.  I say ‘probably’ because I love my space and have no desire to move.  Plus, it would be a tremendous amount of work to relocate, considering that I have been in my West 29th Street studio since 1997. 

My very first studio, in the late 1980s, was the spare bedroom of my house in Alexandria, Virginia.  I set up a studio there while I was on active duty in the Navy.  When I resigned my commission, I was required to give the President an entire year’s advance notice.  Towards the end of that year I remember calling in sick so I could stay home and make art.       

In the early 1990s I rented a studio on the third floor of the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria.  For a while I enjoyed working there, but the constant interruptions – in an art center that is open to the public – became tiresome.  

In 1997 I had the opportunity to move to New York.  I desperately craved solitary hours to work in peace, without interruption, so at first I didn’t have a telephone.  I still don’t have WiFi there because my studio is reserved strictly for creative work.

Moving from Virginia to New York in 1997 was relatively easy.  My aunt, who planned to be in California to continue her Buddhist studies, offered me her rent-controlled sixth-floor walkup on West 13th Street.  I looked at just one other studio before signing a sublease for my space at 208 West 29th Street.  I had heard about the vacancy through a college friend of my husband, Bryan.  Karen, the lease-holder, was relocating to northern California to work on “Star Wars” with George Lucas.  After several years, she decided not to return to New York and I have been the lease-holder ever since.  

Comments are welcome!

 

%d bloggers like this: