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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!

My blog turns 7 years old on July 15! Here is the very first post from July 15, 2012. Q: What does it take to be an artist, especially one living and working in New York?

Barbara's Studio

Barbara’s Studio with works in progress.

A:  The three Big P’s – Patience, Persistence, and Passion.  Without all three you will not have the stamina to work tirelessly for very little external reward.  You can expect help from no one. 

There are so many obstacles to art-making and countless reasons to just give up.  When you really think about it, it’s amazing that great art gets made at all.  So why do we do it?  Above all it’s about making our time on earth matter, about devotion to our innate gifts and love of our hard-fought creative process. 

And, my God, it even gets harder as we get older!  So what do we do?  We dig in that much deeper.  It’s a most noble and sacred calling – you know when you have it – and that’s what separates those of us who are in it for the long haul from the wimps, fakers, and hangers-on.  I say to my fellow artists who continue to work despite the endless challenges, we are all true heroes! 

__________

Lucky me to still be in the same studio!  However, when you visit now, you see more tables full of pastels, more postcards on the walls, newer pastel paintings, etc.  What I wrote seven years ago still rings true.  

Most importantly, THANK YOU to my 42,000+ subscribers for taking this journey with me!

Comments are welcome!     

Q: Would you speak about the meaning of your work and the different materials you use?

About half of Barbara’s pastels

About half of Barbara’s pastels

A:  It is as difficult to explain the meaning of my art as it is to interpret the meaning of life!  I am invested in and concerned with process:  foreign travel, prodigious reading, devotion to craft, months of slow meticulous work in the studio trying to create an exciting work of art that has never been seen before, etc.  I love making pastel paintings!  Many years ago I challenged myself to push the limits of what soft pastel can achieve.  I am still doing so.

I leave it to others – viewers, arts writers, critics, art historians – to study my creative journey and talk about meanings.  I believe an artist is inspired to create and viewers ponder the creation.  I would not presume to tell anyone how to react to my work.

For many years I have been devoted to promoting soft pastel as a fine art medium.  There are excellent reasons it has been around for five hundred years!  It is the most permanent of media. There’s no liquid binder to cause oxidizing or cracking over time, as happens with oil paint.  Pastel colors are intense because they are close to being pure pigment.  Pastel allows direct application (no brushes) with no drying time and no color changes.

I use UArt acid-free sandpaper.  This is not sandpaper from a hardware store.  It is made for artists who work in pastel and allows me to build up layers of pigment without using a fixative.  My process – slowly applying and layering pastels, blending and mixing new colors directly on the paper, making countless adjustments, searching for the best and/or most vivid colors – continually evolves.  Each pastel painting takes months to create.

Comments are welcome!

Q: How do you deal with the loneliness of working in a studio?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  I never feel lonely when I’m working.  I love being in my studio and even after thirty years, still find the whole process of making a pastel painting completely engaging.  

Painting is the one activity that not only uses all of my mental and physical abilities, but challenges me to push further.  I am at my best in the studio.

Because there is always more to learn and process into the work, creating art is endlessly fascinating!  Most artists probably feel the same way.  It’s one of the reasons we persist.  

Comments are welcome!           

Q: Have any artists influenced you technically?

Barbara at work, Photo: Marianne Barcellona

Barbara at work, Photo: Marianne Barcellona

A:  I’d have to say no one, because my technique of using soft pastel on sandpaper is largely self-invented and it continues to slowly evolve.  I apply up to thirty layers of pigment, blending it with my fingers, and creating new colors directly on the sandpaper.  It is a rather meticulous process that suits my personality.

My unique way of applying and mixing pastel is a richly complex science of color.  This intricate technique is one of the reasons that my pastel paintings cannot be forged by anyone.

Every great artist throughout history has invented their own techniques and created a world that is uniquely theirs, with its own iconography, its own laws, and its own specific concerns.  Artists who are most worthy of the name create their own tasks and make and break their own rules.  

Comments are welcome!

Q: Why do you make art?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  This is an excellent question and one I like to revisit because with all the day-to-day frustrations and disappointments that are a normal part of an artist’s life, it is easy to forget what is important.  

First, I make art because I have a gift and a desire to share it with others.  To not develop, express, and share all that I have to say through my work is unthinkable.

Second, I make art because it is what gives my life direction and purpose.  I believe that each human being has his or her own quest, driven by passion, to fulfill a certain duty. Recall Joseph Campbell’s, “The Hero’s Journey.”  I need to make art in order to feel that I am living up to my highest potential. 

Third, for inexplicable reasons (to me, anyway) soft pastel is an undervalued medium.  I fell in love with pastel above all other media and hope to demonstrate that great art can be created with it.  This is one of the drives that keeps me steadily working.

Comments are welcome! 

Q: All artists go through periods when they wonder what it’s all for. What do you do during times like that?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  Fortunately, that doesn’t happen very often.  I love and enjoy all the varied facets involved in being an artist, even (usually) the business aspects, which are just another puzzle to be solved.  I have vivid memories of being stuck in a job that I hated, one I couldn’t immediately leave because I was an officer in the US Navy.  Life is so much better as a visual artist!

I appreciate the freedom that comes with being a self-employed artist.  The words of Louise Bourgeois often come to mind:  “It is a PRIVILEGE to be an artist.” 

Still, with very valid reasons, no one ever said that an artist’s life is easy.  It is difficult at every phase.  

Books offer sustenance, especially ones written by artists who have endured all sorts of terrible hardships beyond anything artists today are likely to experience.  I just pick up a favorite book.  My Wednesday blog posts, “Pearls from artists,” give some idea of the sorts of inspiration I find.  I read the wise words of a fellow artist, then I get back to work.  As I quickly become intrigued with the problems at hand in a painting, all doubt usually dissolves. 

I  try to remember:  Artists are extremely fortunate to be doing what we love and what we are meant to do with our short time on earth.  What more could a person ask?  

Comments are welcome!      

Pearls from artists* # 124

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.

You give yourself a creative life – pursuing those questions and aesthetic conditions that mean the most to you.  What are you interested in?  Landscape and gender and nuclear power are each worthy subjects and there are plenty more.  Do you aspire to exhibit in museums or public spaces or virtual realms?  Your job is to figure out how to best engage these distinct contexts.  Your studio may be a large industrial space or a second bedroom or the kitchen table, where you can work days or nights while wearing your favorite sweatpants and drinking tea as music blasts or silence is maintained.  You might produce five or fifty objects a year, using bronze or oil paint or folded paper, and these can be large or tiny, made to last for centuries or a few weeks.  Maybe you’ve been a printmaker for several years and all of a sudden you decide to make videos.  OK.  You might be influenced by Pop Art or Minimalism or Feminism or Fluxus.  How are you using these various histories to your advantage?  Does Edward Hopper or Gordon Matta-Clark or Agnes Martin or David Hammons inspire you?  If not, who does?  Try to understand the reasons for your choices, and if you feel the need to shift gears, indulge that impulse.  Grant yourself the permission to acquire new skills, travel to biennials, buy a new computer, start a reading group.  Risk not knowing what will happen when you do.

Stephen Horodner in THE ART LIFE:  On Creativity and Career

Comments are welcome!    

Pearls from artists* # 122

Sanur, Bali

Sanur, Bali

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

Most significant growth in my life has been the direct result of errors, mistakes, accidents, faulty assumptions and wrong moves.  I have generally learned more from my mistakes and my so-called failures than any successes or instances of “being right.”  I would venture to propose that this equation is also true in the world at large.  Error is a powerful animating ingredient in political, scientific and historical evolution as well as in art and mythology.  Error is a necessity.  The question I had to ask myself was:  how can I cultivate a tolerance and an appetite for being wrong, for error?

In the face of an exceedingly complicated world, there are too many people who are invested in “being right.”  These people are dangerous.  Their authority is based on their sense of certainty.  But innovation and invention do not only happen with smart people who have all of the answers.  Innovation results from trial and error.  The task is to make good mistakes, good errors, in the right direction.

There are many reasons that we get things as wrong as often as we do.  Failures of perception, the cause of most error, are far more common in our daily lives than we like to think.  We make errors because of inattention, because of poor preparation and because of haste.  We err as a result of hardened prejudices about how things are.  We err because we neglect to think things through.  Our senses betray us constantly.  But the chaos caused by being wrong also  awakens energy and consciousness in us.  In the moments that we realize our faults of perception, we are jerked into an awareness of our humanity.  The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek wrote, “Consciousness originates with something going terribly wrong.”

Anne Bogart in “What’s the Story:  Essays about art, theater, and storytelling

Comments are welcome!     

Pearls from artists* # 98

Teleidoscope

Teleidoscope

* 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 work of art can start you thinking about some aesthetic or philosophical problem; it can suggest some new method, some fresh approach to fiction.  But the relationship between reading and writing is rarely so clear-cut…

To be truthful, some writers stop you dead in your tracks by making you see your own work in the most unflattering light.  Each of us will meet a different harbinger of personal failure, some innocent genius chosen by us for reasons having to do with what we see as our own inadequacies.  The only remedy to this I have found is to read a writer whose work is entirely different from another, though not necessarily more like your own – a difference that will remind you of how many rooms there are in the house of art.

Francine Prose in Reading Like a Writer:  A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them  

Comments are welcome!

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