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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

Comments are welcome!

Q: What’s on the easel today?

Work in progress

Work in progress

A:  For nearly two weeks this pastel painting, “Majordomo,” has been on “pause” due to the corona virus.  I’m able to work on it now sporadically.

Comments are welcome!

Q: How long did it take you to discover the properties of pastel? (Liliana Mileo via facebook.com/BarbaraRachko/)

A charcoal self-portrait from 1988

A charcoal self-portrait from 1988

A:  After I moved to Alexandria, Virginia in the mid-1980s, I began taking classes at The Art League School.  I was extremely unhappy with my career as a Navy Lieutenant.  I worked as a computer analyst for the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon and was searching for something more meaningful to do with my life.

I began with a basic drawing class and liked it.  I enrolled in more classes and decided to spend two years working exclusively in black and white media, such as charcoal and graphite, before advancing to color.  Fortunately, early on I found an excellent teacher in Lisa Semerad.  I remain deeply grateful for the strong foundational drawing skills she imparted to me during this period.

After two years I tried water color and soon discovered it was not for me, a perfectionist who needs to refine my work.  Then I tried etching and found it extremely tedious, the antithesis of instant gratification.

Finally I began studying soft pastel with Diane Tesler, another gifted teacher, and fell in love with this medium!  At The Art League School I also completed a one-week workshop with Albert Handell, who introduced me to the archival sandpaper that I have been using ever since.

While I fell in love with pastel three decades ago, I continue to learn about its unique properties.  I am pushing pastel to new heights as my techniques continually evolve.  This is a lifetime journey of learning.  I hope to never know all there is to know.

Comments are welcome!  Ask anything and I may answer in a future blog post, as you’ve seen here with Liliana’s question.

 

Pearls from artists* # 384

Overlooking Copacabana, Bolivia and Lake Titicaca

Overlooking Copacabana, Bolivia and Lake Titicaca

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

Carnival in Oruro [Bolivia] is a glorious spectacle.  It’s flash, pomp and brilliance can be enjoyed without understanding its long history and intricate mythologies.  Still, the onlooker is left with a thousand questions that are not so easily answered.  Behind the glitter of Carnival lie the history, the timeless myths and the distinct traditions of this mining community.

According to the Spanish writer Jean Laude, “The function of the mask is to reaffirm, at regular intervals, the truth and presence of myths in everyday life.”  This suggests that masks should be studied in context, noting their association with the individual dancer and the history, myths and traditions of the community that produces them.  The mask has to be animated within its ritual, comic or social role.

A first step in appreciating the masks is to understand something of the land and people that crafted them.  Oruro is a mining city on the open Altiplano at 3,700 meters (12,144 ft.) above sea level.  The sky appears a rarified blue, it is intensely cold and a constant wind lifts dust to the eyes.  During the year no more than 125,000 people live in the city.  Suddenly in the weeks of Carnival, the population doubles or triples.

Three languages, Quechua, Aymara, and Spanish are spoken in Oruro.  Their use reflects an ancient pattern of conquest in the history of this land.  It is said that the Urus, whose language is now almost lost, were the first inhabitants.  In time they were dominated by the Aymara tribes.  Later, Quechua was introduced as the Inca advanced their empire from Cuzco.  Ultimately the Spanish arrived and founded the present city in 1601 to exploit rich mineral deposits found in the seven hills.

Today, descendants of the Urus live near Oruro around the shore of Lake Poopo.  Elements of their distinctive culture remain but they have no wealth in comparison with the more dominant Aymara and Quechua who surround them.  A further change came in the recent past because Oruro has acted as a magnet, attracting many people from the countryside to work in the mines.

On one side were the Urus, ancient owners of all the land which now only carries their name (Uro Uro = Oruro).  On the other side were the miners, many of whom were Quechua and Aymara migrants.  In the middle is “Carnival.”

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

Comments are welcome!

Q: Can you tell us about the different series of work you have created and what they embody?

Barbara’s studio with work in progress

Barbara’s studio with work in progress

A:  The Black Paintings series of pastel-on-sandpaper paintings grew directly from an earlier series, Domestic Threats.  While both use cultural objects as surrogates for human beings acting in mysterious, highly-charged narratives, in the Black Paintings I replaced all background details of my actual setup (furniture, rugs, etc.) with lush black pastel.  In this work the ‘actors’ are front and center.

While traveling in Bolivia two years ago, I visited a mask exhibition at the National Museum of Ethnography and Folklore in La Paz.  The masks were presented against black walls, spot-lit, and looked eerily like 3D versions of my Black Paintings.  I immediately knew I had stumbled upon a gift.  So  far I have completed nine pastel paintings in the Bolivianos series.  One is awaiting finishing touches, one is in progress now, and I am planning the next one.

All of my pastel paintings are an example of a style called “contemporary conceptual realism” in which things are not quite as innocent as they seem.  In this sense each painting is a kind of Trojan horse.  There is plenty of backstory to my images, although I usually prefer not to over-explain them.  Some mystery must always remain in art.

The world I depict is that of the imagination and this realm owes little debt to the natural world.  I recently gave an art talk where I was reminded how fascinating it is to learn how others respond to my work.  As New York art critic Gerrit Henry once remarked, “What we bring to a Rachko… we get back, bountifully.” 

Comments are welcome!

 

Q: Can you speak about a book (or books) that deeply influenced you as an artist?

Barbara's well-worn copy of "Camille Pissarro:  Letters to His Son Lucien"

Barbara’s well-worn copy of “Camille Pissarro: Letters to His Son Lucien”

A:  One such book that stands out is “Camille Pissaro:  Letters to His Son Lucien.”  The book is comprised of weekly letters from a father conveying wisdom about his craft, art, and life, over roughly twenty years, to a beloved son, who is just beginning his artistic journey.  I discovered this gem about thirty years ago when I was just starting to find my way as an artist, too.  Pissarro’s words are beautiful, poignant, and deeply felt.   He has much to say to artists because, sadly, we still contend with the same problems, such as how to remain authentic and earn a living, how to deal with galleries and collectors, how to stay focused on the work, etc.  I often enjoy rereading favorite passages simply because it makes me feel less alone as an artist.

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 185

Beginning of a 20" x 26" pastel painting

Beginning of a 20″ x 26″ pastel painting

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

All of us fail to match our dream of perfection.  So I rate us on the basis of our splendid failure to do the impossible.  In my opinion, if I could write all my work again, I am convinced that I would do it better, which is the healthiest condition for an artist.  That’s why he keeps on working, trying again; he believes each time that this time he will do it, bring it off.  Of course he won’t, which is why this condition is healthy.  Once he did it, once he matched the work to the image, the dream, nothing would remain but to cut his throat, jump off the other side of that pinnacle of perfection into suicide.  I’m a failed poet.  Maybe every novelist wants to write poetry first, finds he can’t, and then tries the short story, which is the most demanding after poetry.  And failing at that, only then does he take up novel writing.

William Faulkner in Writers at Work:  The Paris Review Interviews First Series

Comments are welcome!

   

Pearls from artists* 178

Barbara's studio with recent works in progress

Barbara’s studio with recent works in progress

* 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 individuals have never had enough time, and they’ve never had enough resources, and they’ve never had enough support or patronage or reward… and yet they still persist in creating.  They persist because they care.  They persist because they are called to be makers, by any means necessary.

…The essential ingredients for creativity remain exactly the same for everybody:  courage, enchantment, permission, persistence, trust – and those elements are universally accessible.  Which does not mean that creative living is always easy; it merely means that creative living is always possible.  

Elizabeth Gilbert in Big Magic:  Creative Living Beyond Fear  

Comments are welcome! 

 

Q: When you left the Navy you worked on commission as a portrait artist. Why don’t you accept commissions now?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  As I have often said, I left the active duty Navy in 1989, but stayed in the Reserves. The Reserves provided a small part-time income and the only requirement was that I work one weekend a month and two weeks each year.  Plus, I could retire after 13 more years and receive a pension.  (In 2003 I retired from the Navy Reserve as a Commander).  The rest of the time I was free to pursue my studio practice. 

For a short time I made a living making commissioned photo-realist portraits in soft pastel on sandpaper.  However, after a year I became very restless.  I remember thinking, “I did not leave a boring job just to make boring art!”  I lost interest in doing commissions because what I wanted to accomplish personally as an artist did not coincide with what portrait clients wanted.  I finished my final portrait commission in 1990 and never looked back. 

To this day I remain reluctant to accept a commission of any kind.  So I am completely free to paint whatever I want, which is the only way to evolve as a serious, deeply committed artist.      

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 64

High Line, New York, NY

High Line, New York, NY

* 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 soon as an artist has located the vital center of his activities, nothing will be more important than for him to remain within this center and never move further away from it (which is, of course, also the center of his nature, of his world) than the interior walls of his quietly and steadily expanding achievement.  His place is not, never, not even for a moment, next to the beholder and critic (at least no longer in an environment where all that is visible becomes ambiguous and preliminary, an auxiliary construction and temporary scaffolding for something else).  And one basically needs to be an acrobat to leap back safely and unharmed from this point of view into one’s inner center (the distances are too great and all the spots too destabilized to risk such an entirely inquisitive feat).  Most artists today use up their strength in this back-and-forth, and in addition to wasting their energy they get terribly confused and lose a part of their essential innocence to the sin of having taken their work from the outside by surprise, to have tasted it, to have joined others in enjoying it!     

Ulrich Baer, editor, The Wisdom of Rilke

Comments are welcome!

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