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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!

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: You recently spent several weeks in Sri Lanka. After experiencing so many new sights and sounds, is it difficult to get back to work in your studio?

Cave temple at Natha Devale, Sri Lanka

Cave temple at Natha Devale, Sri Lanka

A:  It definitely requires some readjustment and a period –  maybe a day or two – during which I feel removed from the painting on my easel and need time to become reacquainted with it.  It’s a time to refocus, stay put, and reflect.  For weeks I’ve led an action-packed life, exploring a fascinating country on the other side of the world.  Over time, all of the experiences I’ve had will stay with me, or not, and in some ways begin to influence my work. 

It’s funny.  I often think of my studio as a cave.  It’s a rather dark place and sometimes I have to force myself to go.  In Sri Lanka I saw many ancient Buddhist cave temples, wild and vibrant, with colorful paintings on the walls and ceilings, chock full of statues of Buddha and other deities.  My travels have given me a new appreciation of the riches to be found in caves of all sorts, including (especially) my own studio!    

Comments are welcome!         

Q: What is it about soft pastel that you find so intriguing that you use it as your primary fine art medium?

Some of Barbara's pastels

Some of Barbara’s pastels

A:  For starters it’s the medium that I fell in love with many years ago.  I recently read this article online, “What is Pastel?” by Mike Mahon, and will quote it because it neatly sums up  what I love about working with pastel.

Pastel is the most permanent of all media when applied to conservation ground and properly framed. Pastel has no liquid binder that may cause it to oxidize with the passage of time as oftentimes happens with other media.

In this instance, Pastel does not refer to pale colors, as the word is commonly used in cosmetic and fashion terminology. The pure, powdered pigment is ground into a paste with a minimum amount of gum binder, rolled into sticks and dried. The infinite variety of colors in the Pastel palette range from soft and subtle to hard and brilliant.

An artwork is created by stroking the stick of dry pigment across an abrasive ground, embedding the color in the “tooth” of the ground. If the ground is completely covered with Pastel, the work is considered a Pastel painting; whereas, leaving much of the ground exposed produces a Pastel sketch. Techniques vary with individual artists. The Pastel medium is favored by many artists because it allows a spontaneous approach. There is no drying time, therefore, no change in color occurs after drying as it does in other media.

Did you know that a particle of Pastel pigment seen under a microscope looks like a diamond with many facets? It does! Therefore, Pastel paintings reflect light like a prism. No other medium has the same power of color or stability.

Historically, Pastel can be traced back to the 16th century. Its invention is attributed to the German painter, Johann Thiele. A Venetian woman, Rosalba Camera, was the first to make consistent use of Pastel. Chardin did portraits with an open stroke, while La Tour preferred the blended finish. Thereafter, a galaxy of famous artists—Watteau, Copley, Delacroix, Millet, Manet, Renoir, Toulouse Lautrec, Vuillard, Bonnard, Glackens, Whistler, Hassam, William Merritt Chase—used Pastel for a finished work rather than for preliminary sketches.

Pastels from the 16th century exist today, as fresh as the day they were painted. Edgar Degas was the most prolific user of Pastel and its champion. His protégé, Mary Cassat, introduced Pastel to her friends in Philadelphia and Washington, and thus to the United States. In the Spring of 1983, Sotheby Parke Bernet sold at auction, two Degas Pastels for more than $3,000,000 each! Both Pastels were painted about 1880.

Note: Do not confuse Pastel with “colored chalk.” Chalk is a porous, limestone substance impregnated with dyes, whereas, Pastel is pure pigment—the same as is used in other permanent painting media.

Today, Pastel paintings have the stature of oil and watercolor as a major fine art medium. Many of our most renowned, living artists have distinguished themselves in Pastel and have enriched the art world with this beautiful medium.

So knowing all this, I often wonder, why don’t more artists use pastel?  Is it because framing is a big issue?  Works on paper need to be framed and pastel paintings have unique problems (see my April 27, 2013 blog post).  Second only to the cost of maintaining a studio in New York City, frames are my single largest business expense.  Sometimes I am grateful that pastel is a very slow medium.  I typically finish 4 or 5 paintings in a year, which means I only have to pay for 4 or 5 frames!

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 23

LACMA

LACMA

* 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 composition arises out of asking questions.  I am reminded of a story early on about a class with Schoenberg.  He had us go to the blackboard to solve a particular problem in counterpoint (though it was a class in harmony).  He said, “When you have a solution, turn around and let me see it.”  I did that.  He then said, “Now another solution, please.”  I gave another and another until finally, having made seven or eight, I reflected a moment and then said with some certainty, “There aren’t any more solutions.”  He said, “OK.  What is the principle underlying all the solutions?”  I couldn’t answer his question; but I had always worshiped the man, and at that point I did even more.  He ascended, so to speak.  I spent the rest of my life, until recently, hearing him ask that question over and over.  And then it occurred to me through the direction that my work has taken, which is renunciation of choices and the substitution of asking questions, that the principle underlying all of the solutions that I had given him was the question that he had asked, because they certainly didn’t come from any other point.  He would have accepted that answer, I think.  The answers have the questions in common.  Therefore the question underlies the answers.              

John Cage quoted in Kay Larson, Where the Heart Beats:  John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists 

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 18

West Village

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.

Those who would make art might well begin by reflecting on the fate of those who preceded them:  most who began, quit.  It’s a genuine tragedy.  Worse yet, it’s an unnecessary tragedy.  After all, artists who continue and artists who quit share an immense field of common emotional ground.  (Viewed from the outside, in fact, they’re indistinguishable).  We’re all subject to a familiar and universal progression of human troubles – troubles we routinely survive, but which are (oddly enough) routinely fatal to the art-making process.  To survive as an artist requires confronting these troubles.  Basically, those who continue to make art are those who have learned how to continue – or more precisely, have learned how to not quit.

But curiously, while artists always have a myriad of reasons to quit, they consistently wait for a handful of specific moments to quit.  Artists quit when they convince themselves that their next effort is already doomed to fail.  And artists quit when they lose the destination for their work – for the place their work belongs.

Virtually all artists encounter such moments.  Fear that your next work will fail is a normal, recurring, and generally healthy part of the art-making cycle.  It happens all the time:  you focus on some new idea in your work, you try it out, run with it for awhile, reach a point of diminishing returns, and eventually decide it’s not worth pursuing further.  Writers even have a phrase for it – “the pen has run dry” – but all media have their equivalents.  In the normal artistic cycle this just tells you that you’ve come full circle, back to that point where you need to begin cultivating the next new idea.  But in artistic death it marks the last thing that happens:  you play out an idea, it stops working, you put the brush down… and thirty years later you confide to someone over coffee that, well, yes, you had wanted to paint when you were much younger.  Quitting is fundamentally different from stopping.  The latter happens all the time.  Quitting happens once.  Quitting means not starting again – and art is all about starting again.

David Bayles and Ted Orland, Art & Fear

Comments are welcome!  

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