Blog Archives

Q: When did your love of indigenous artifacts begin? Where have you traveled to collect these focal points of your works and what have those experiences taught you?

Mexico City

Mexico City

A:  As a Christmas present in 1991 my future sister-in-law sent me two brightly painted wooden animal figures from Oaxaca, Mexico. One was a blue polka-dotted winged horse.  The other was a red, white, and black bear-like figure. 

I was enthralled with this gift and the timing was fortuitous because I had been searching for new subject matter to paint. I started asking artist-friends about Oaxaca and learned that it was an important art hub.  Two well-known Mexican painters, Rufino Tamayo and Francisco Toledo, had gotten their start there, as had master photographer Manuel Alvarez Bravo.  There was a “Oaxacan School of Painting” (‘school’ meaning a style) and Alvarez Bravo had established a photography school there (the building/institution kind). I began reading everything I could find.  At the time I had only been to Mexico very briefly, in 1975.  

The following autumn, Bryan and I planned a two-week trip to visit Mexico. We timed it to see Day of the Dead celebrations in Oaxaca.  (During my research I had become fascinated with this festival).  We spent one week in Oaxaca followed by one week in Mexico City.  My interest in collecting Mexican folk art was off and running!

Along with busloads of other tourists, we visited several cemeteries in small Oaxacan towns for the “Day of the Dead.” The indigenous people tending their ancestors’ graves were so dignified and so gracious, even with so many mostly-American tourists tromping around on a sacred night, that I couldn’t help being taken with these beautiful people and their beliefs. 

From Oaxaca we traveled to Mexico City, where again I was entranced, but this time by the rich and ancient history.  We visited the National Museum of Anthropology, where I was introduced to the fascinating story of ancient Mesoamerican civilizations; the ancient city of Teotihuacan, which the Aztecs discovered as an abandoned city and then occupied as their own; and the Templo Mayor, the historic center of the Aztec empire, infamous as a place of human sacrifice.  I was astounded!  Why had I never learned in school about Mexico, this highly developed cradle of Western civilization in our own hemisphere, when so much time had been devoted to the cultures of Egypt, Greece, and elsewhere? When I returned home to Virginia I began reading everything I could find about ancient Mexican civilizations, including the Olmec, Zapotec, Mixtec, Aztec, and Maya. The first trip to Mexico opened up a whole new world and was to profoundly influence my future work. I would return there many more times, most recently to study Olmec art and archeology. In subsequent years I have traveled to Guatemala, Peru, Bolivia and other countries in search of inspiration and subject matter to depict in my work.

Comments are welcome!

Q: What was the first folk art figure you brought back from Mexico?

Mask from Oaxaca

Mask from Oaxaca

A:  In Oaxaca I bought a large carved wooden dragon mask with a Conquistador’s face carved and painted on its back.  My intent was to depict the dragon in a subsequent “Domestic Threats” painting (the series I was working on at the time).  The dragon still hangs in my living room in Alexandria, VA.

This first trip in 1992 was a revelation and marked the start of my on-going love of Mexico:  its people, landscapes, ancient cultures, archaeology, history, art, cuisine, etc. There would be many subsequent trips to Mexico to learn as much as I can about this endlessly interesting cradle of civilization.

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 304

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

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

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

… my job as a fiction writer is to write fiction, not to review it.  Art isn’t explanation.  Art is what an artist does, not what an artist explains.  (Or so it seems to me,  which is why I have  a problem with the kind of modern museum art that involves reading what the artist says about a work in order to find out why one should look at it or “how to experience” it).     

Ursula K. Le Guin in No Time to Spare:  Thinking About What Matters

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! 

Pearls from artists* # 276

The West Village

The West Village

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

 A long time later, after I  became a novelist, I realized that the ambiguities of the human mind are what give fiction and perhaps all art its power.  A good novel gets under our skin, provokes us and haunts us long after the first reading, because we never fully understand the characters.  We sweep through the narrative over and over again, searching for meaning.  Good characters must retain a certain mystery and unfathomable depth, even for the author.  Once we see to the bottom of their hearts, the novel is dead for us.

Eventually, I learned to appreciate both certainty and uncertainty.  Both are necessary in the world.  Both are part of being human.  

Alan Lightman in A Sense of the Mysterious:  Science and the Human Spirit

Comments are welcome!

Q: On an average day in the studio, how much of your time is spent in the physical act of making art?

Working

Working

A:  My typical studio day is from 10:00 to 5:00.  When I arrive, I often read for half an hour.  Reading helps me relax and focus and get into the mindset I need to do my work.   While I read, I look at the painting on my easel, assess it’s current state, and decide where to begin working.

Then I work until lunch time, generally around 1:00.  After lunch I work for another five hours or so, taking a break whenever I want.

This has been more or less my schedule for five days a week for years.  At an earlier point as I was developing my craft, I would work 9- or 10-hour days and six days a week.

My creative process is relatively slow.  In a typical year I create five  new pastel paintings.  This year I am right on schedule.  I have completed four and am working on a fifth.

Comments are welcome!    

Q: What non-art book are you reading now?

Tiwanaku

Tiwanaku

A:  I am reading Kim Mac Quarrie’s, “The Last Days of the Incas.”  It’s fascinating to discover the intricacies of the epic conquest of the short-lived Inca empire.  The book is actually thrilling to read.  Mac Quarrie makes this story come alive.

Last summer I traveled to Peru to investigate the history of the Incas and the civilizations that preceded them.  In May of this year I continued my studies with a trip to Bolivia.  Both trips are proving to be highly inspirational for my art practice. 

Comments are welcome!       

Q: Do you have a daily ritual that helps you start working in your studio?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  In the morning before I start working on a pastel painting, I read for roughly half an hour.  Usually I read something art-related; for example, see the books that are quoted on Wednesdays in “Pearls from artists” on this blog.

As I’m reading, I look across at the painting on my easel and soon something becomes apparent, some annoying thing that needs immediate attention.  That’s where I will begin.  As I’m looking, of course, I’m thinking and the solution to a technical problem becomes obvious.  Before I know it, I’m up and working, slowly improving the painting as I go.    

Comments are welcome!   

Pearls from artists* # 144

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

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

Art and design are rule-based.  This flies in the face of everything that most people have been taught before, namely, that art and design are about freedom.  I remember reading a wonderful analogy about this concept many years ago in an out-of-print, early twentieth-century book on design.  The author asked us to imagine a flying kite – the quintessential emblem of unrestricted, spontaneity, soaring in the wind.  Keeping taught the line between you and the kite, however, is the source of that freedom.  Here’s another way of putting it:  “Creativity arises out of the tension between the rules and imagination.”

Leslie Hirst in The Art of Critical Making:  Rhode Island School of Design on Creative Practice, Rosanne Somerson and Mara L. Hermano, editors

Comments are welcome!    

Q: Do you have a daily artistic practice?

Studio entrance

Studio entrance

A:  In one way or another I suppose I do.  Of course, I don’t go to the studio six days a week like I used to, but I generally work five days, about seven to eight hours per day.  When I am not actually in the studio working at my easel, I try to make use of my time in ways that, hopefully, will make me a better artist.  I am usually reading, studying, looking at art, talking to friends who are artists, thinking about my creative practice, etc.  Art and everything related to it are naturally the focus of my life.

Comments are welcome!    

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