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Pearls from artists* # 446

At the studio. Photo: Kimberly Kevorkian

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

What stops us in our tracks? I am rarely stopped by something or someone I can instantly know. In fact, I have always been attracted to the challenge of getting to know what I cannot instantly categorize or dismiss, whether an actor’s presence, a painting, a piece of music, or a personal relationship. It is the journey towards the object of attraction that interests me. We stand in relation to one another. We long for the relationship that will change our vistas. Attraction is an invitation to an evanescent journey, to a new way of experiencing life or perceiving reality.

An authentic work of art embodies intense energy. It demands response. You can either avoid it, shut it out, or meet it and tussle. It contains attractive and complicated energy fields and a logic all its own. It does not create desire or movement in the receiver, rather it engenders what James Joyce labelled ‘aesthetic interest.’ You are stopped in your tracks. You cannot easily walk by it and go on with your life. You find yourself in relation to something that you cannot readily dismiss.

Anne Bogart in A Director Prepares: Seven Essays on Art and Theater

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Pearls from artists* # 437

Dragonfly on final approach

Dragonfly on final approach

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

There really is nothing to fear in fantasy unless you are afraid of the uncertainty.  This is why it’s hard for me to imagine that anyone who likes science can dislike fantasy.  Both are based so profoundly on the admission of uncertainty, the welcoming acceptance of unanswered questions.  Of course, the scientist seeks to ask how things are the way they are, not to imagine how they might be otherwise.  But are the two operations opposed, or related?  We can’t question reality directly, only by questioning our conventions, our belief, our orthodoxy, our construction of reality.  All Galileo said, all Darwin said, was, “It doesn’t have to be the way we thought it was.”       

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

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Pearls from artists # 429

“Vincent’s Books” by Mariella Guzzoni

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

Vincent [van Gogh] found himself in perfect harmony with[Emile] Zola’s world view.  Neither of them sugarcoated or idealized the harsh reality of the everyday life that surrounded them, or the subjects it offered up.  The same reality was at the heart of both of their work.  In July 1883, Vincent read Zola’s essay on art, ‘Le Moment artistique,’ contained in one of his critical works on literary and artistic life, Mes haines (My Hatreds), in which Zola reflected on a crucial aspect of artistic creativity, going beyond the word ‘realistic;’ ‘the word “realist” means nothing to me, and I declare reality subordinate to temperament.’  Therefore, according to Zola, a ‘work of art is a corner of creation seen through a temperament.’ Vincent did not comment on this passage directly, but in his lines we see that in Zola’s words he found confirmation of his own beliefs.  To Theo, in 1885, he wrote of his attempts to capture the effects of light in The Potato Eaters:   “Not always literally exactly – rather never exactly – for one sees nature through one’s temperament.”  The two contrasting souls that live side by side in the author of Les Rougon Macquart, one methodical, the other creative, reflected Vincent’s own creative approach.                     

Mariella Guzzoni in Vincent’s Books:  Van Gogh and the Writers Who Inspired Him 

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Q: What kind of art do you create?

At work

At work

A:  I live in the West Village in New York City and have been a working artist for thirty-four years. I create original pastel paintings that use my large collection of Mexican and Guatemalan folk art – masks, carved wooden animals, papier mache figures, and toys – as subject matter. Blending with my fingers, I spend months painstakingly applying dozens of layers of soft pastel onto acid-free sandpaper. My self-invented technique achieves extraordinarily rich, vibrant color and results in paintings that uniquely combine reality, fantasy, and autobiography. Please see https://barbararachko.art/en/

For the last three years I have been working on a series called, “Bolivianos,” based on an exhibition of Carnival masks seen in La Paz. Art critics and others have said that these are my strongest pastel paintings so far. As I write I am working on the fifteenth piece in the series.  

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Pearls from artists* # 410

Mexico City

Mexico City

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

Faced with the disparities between lived reality and America’s professed ideals of inclusion and equity, countless artists have begun embracing the social role of art and using aesthetic means to speak out against all manner of injustice.  In such a climate, the Mexican muralists [Jose Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera, and David Alfaro Siqueiros] have once again emerged as models of how to marry aesthetic rigor and vitality to socially conscious subject matter that addresses the most fundamental questions concerning our collective pursuit of a more just and equitable society.  Not withstanding the rich cultural ties and decades of migration that have long existed between the United States and Mexico, the relationship between the two countries has always been fraught, marked as much by mutual wariness and bouts of hostility as by a spirit of camaraderie and cooperation  Yet the ugliness and xenophobia of the recent debates on the American side echoes the worst of the past.  It thus seems more imperative than ever to acknowledge the profound and enduring influence Mexican muralism has had on artmaking in the United States and to highlight the beauty and power that can emerge from the free and vibrant cultural exchange between the two countries.  As much as did American artists decades ago, artists in the United States today stand to benefit from an awareness of how dynamically and inventively the Mexican muralists used their art to project the ideals of compassion, justice, and solidarity.  They remain a source of powerful inspiration for their seamless synthesis of ethics, art, and action.

Vida Americana:  Mexican Muralists Remake American Art, 1925 – 1945, edited by Barbara Haskell

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Q: Can you give us your current elevator pitch?

Discussing Bolivian masks with Nika, Photo: David De Hannay

Discussing Bolivian masks with Nika, Photo: David De Hannay

A:  Here it is:

I am a New York visual artist, blogger, and author.  For thirty-four years I have been creating original pastel-on-sandpaper paintings that depict my large collection of Mexican and Guatemalan folk art – masks, carved wooden animals, papier mache figures, and toys.  “Bolivianos,” my current series, is based on a mask exhibition I saw and photographed in La Paz in 2017 at the National Museum of Folklore and Ethnography.     

My technique is self-invented and involves applying dozens of layers of soft pastel onto acid-free sandpaper to create new colors directly on the paper.  Each pastel painting takes several months to complete.  Typically, I make four or five each year.  I achieve extraordinarily rich, vibrant color in pastel paintings that are a unique combination of reality, fantasy, and autobiography.

My background is unusual for an artist.  I am a pilot, a retired Navy Commander, and a 9/11 widow.  Besides making art, I am a published blogger and author best known for my popular blog, “Barbara Rachko’s Colored Dust” (53,000+ subscribers!) and my eBook, “From Pilot to Painter,” on Amazon and iTunes.

Please see images and more at http://barbararachko.art/en/

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Pearls from artists* # 385

Potosí, Bolivia

Potosí, 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.

Sunday of Carnival, the parade begins.  For a whole day of celebration in music and dance, people can express their hope and fears, revive their myths and escape to a reality far from everyday life.

Thousands of spectators arrive from different parts if Bolivia and other countries.  Filling the streets, they straddle benches, window ledges, balconies, cats and eve hang from walls or roofs to witness the entrance of the Carnival.  Thus is the magnificent parade when Carnival makes its official entry into Oruro.  The comparsas (dance troupes) dance to music for20 blocks, nearly eight lies, to the Church of the Virgin of Socavón (Virgin of the Mine). Each tries to out do the next in the brilliance of their costumes, the energy of their dancing and the power of their music.  All their efforts are dedicated to the Virgin whose shrine is found on the hill called Pie de Gallo.

If there are thousands of spectators, there are also thousands of dancers from the city and other parts of the country.  Among the most remarkable are the Diablos and Morenos which count for eight of the 40 or 50 participating groups.  Keeping in mind that the smallest troupes have between 30 and 50 embers and the largest between 200 and 300, it is possible to calculate the number of dancers and imagine the spectacle.

Each dance recalls a particular aspect of life in the Andes.  Lifted from different periods and places, the dances offer a rich interpretation of historical events, creating an imaginative mythology for Oruro.

… Carnival blends indigenous beliefs and rituals with those introduced by the Spaniards.  Both systems of belief have undergone transformations, each making allowance for the other, either through necessity or familiarity.  The Christianity  fought from Europe becomes loaded with new meanings while the myths and customs of the Andes accommodate their language and creativity to the reality of their conquered world.  The process can be seen as a struggle culminating in a ‘mestizaje’ or new cultural mix.

El Carnaval de Oruro by Manuel Vargas in Mascaras de los Andes Bolivianos, Editorial Quipus and Banco Mercantil

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Pearls from artists* # 379

"Blind Faith," 38" x 58," soft pastel on sandpaper

“Blind Faith,” 38″ x 58,” soft pastel on sandpaper

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

Elaine’s and Bill’s [de Kooning] relationship involved a continual exchange of ideas that wasn’t restricted to conversations with friends.  In the quiet of their studio when they were finally alone, they’d climb into bed and Elaine would read to Bill.  Faulkner was a favorite.  She also read Ambrose Bierce’s Civil War tales.  And she would read Kierkegaard.  That nineteenth-century father of Existentialism wrote with great passion about the essential solitude and uncertainty of the human struggle.  They were words of consolation for Bill and Elaine who, though confident in their paths as artists, could not have been free of the nagging fear that they might spend their lives looking and never find what they sought in their work.  Kierkegaard seemed to say that it didn’t matter, that it was striving that counted, and he described the need to reconcile oneself to the unknowable that was man’s fate.  The artist, he said, had a crucial role to play in that regard.  Like a religious figure who was an envoy from a realm most people could not access, the artist through his or her work revealed pure spirit so that men mired in the bitter reality of daily life might find the strength to continue.

Mary Gabriel in Ninth Street Women

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Pearls from artists* # 375

Tile worker in South India

Tile worker in South India

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

With the camera you interpret reality.  Photography is not truth.  The photographer interprets reality and, above all, constructs his own reality according to his own awareness or his own emotions.  Sometimes it’s complicated because it’s a kind of schizophrenic phenomenon.  Without the camera, you see the world in one way, with the camera, in another.  Through the window, you’re composing, and even dreaming about, this reality as if, through the camera, you were synthesizing what you are with what you’ve learned of a certain place.  Then you make your own image, your own interpretation.  The same thing happens to a writer as to a photographer.  It’s impossible to capture the truth of life.

Graciela Iturbide in Eyes to Fly With:  Portraits, Self-Portraits, and Other Photographs

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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!

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