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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: 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 do you see when you look back at your early efforts?

"Myth Meets Dream," soft pastel on sandpaper, 47" x 38,” 1993

“Myth Meets Dream,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 47″ x 38,” 1993

A:  I see continuity in subject matter and in medium, surely.  For thirty-three years I have been inspired by foreign travel and research.  In addition, I remain devoted to pushing the limits of what soft pastel can do and to promoting its merits as a fine art medium.

Here and there I see details I would render differently now; not exactly mistakes, but things that maybe could be done better.  Fortunately, I think, all of my work is framed behind glass or plexiglas, making it extremely difficult to attempt revisions.  

Perhaps most important of all, I see the long personal road that has advanced my work to its present state.  Each gain has been hard-fought.  

Comments are welcome!

Q: It is well known that you gain inspiration from foreign travel. Has anyone ever accused you of stealing their culture?

The Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca

The Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca

A:  Yes, a few people have done so via comments on Facebook.  It came as a shock.  

The logic of such an accusation presumes ownership.   I don’t believe any person has a claim to owning culture.

Travel is arguably the best education there is.  My travels around the world, supplemented with lots of research once I return home, are an important part of my creative process.  This is how I develop ideas to forge a way ahead.  It is difficult and solitary work.

Every artist is tasked with remaining open to influences – however, wherever, and whenever they appear.   Somewhat late in life, travel as a source of inspiration found ME.  And it has been a blessing!

People around the world have become fans.  Many send messages of thanks saying they are proud that some aspect of their country’s culture has inspired my work.  I am always grateful and touched to know this.

Comments are welcome!

Q: Do you plan your work in advance or is it improvisation?

Barbara’s studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  My process is somewhere in between those two.  I work from my own set-up or on-site photographs and make a preliminary sketch in charcoal before I start a pastel painting.  Thousands of decisions about composition, color, etc. occur as I go along. 

Although it starts out somewhat planned, I have no idea what a pastel painting will look like when it’s finished.  Each piece takes about three months, not counting foreign travel, research, and a gestation period of several months to determine what the next pastel painting will even be.

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 227

Madurai, India

Madurai, 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.

 As George Grosz said, at that last meeting he attended at the National Institute, “How did I come to be a great artist?  Endless curiosity, observation, research – and a great amount of joy in the thing.”  It is a matter of taking a liking to things.  Things that were in accordance with your taste.  I think that was it.  And we didn’t care how unhomogenous they might seem.  Didn’t Aristotle say that it is the mark of a poet to see resemblances between apparently incongruous things?  There was any amount of attraction about it. 

Ezra Pound in Writers at Work:  The Paris Review Interviews Second Series, edited by George Plimpton

Comments are welcome! 

Q: What historical art movement do you most identify with?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  I’d have to say that I identify most with surrealism, although my work does not exactly fit into any particular art historical movement.  When I was first finding my way as an artist, I read everything I could find about surrealism in art and in literature.  This research still res0nates deeply and is a tremendous influence on my studio practice.  Elements of surrealism DO fit my work.  Here’s an excerpt from Wikipedia:

Surrealism is a cultural movement that began in the early 20s and is best known for its visual artworks and writings.  The aim was to “resolve the previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality.”  Artists painted unnerving, illogical scenes with photographic precision, created strange creatures from everyday objects and developed painting techniques that allowed the unconscious to express itself.  

Surrealist works feature the element of surprise, unexpected juxtapositions and non sequitur; however, many Surrealist artists and writers regard their work as an expression of the philosophical movement first and foremost, with the works being an artifact.  Leader Andre Breton was explicit in his assertion that Surrealism was, above all, a revolutionary movement.

I hope to expand on this in a future post.

Comments are welcome!            

Pearls from artists* # 187

"Big Wow," soft pastel on sandpaper, 38" x 58"

“Big Wow,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 38″ x 58″

* 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 George Grosz said, at that last meeting he attended at the National Institute, “How did I come to be an artist?  Endless curiosity, observation, research – and a great amount of joy in the thing.”  It was a matter of taking a liking to things.  Things that were in accordance with your taste.  I think that was it.  And we didn’t care how unhomogenous they might seem.  Didn’t Aristotle say that it is the mark of a poet to see resemblances between apparently incongruous things?  There was any amount of attraction about it.

Marianne Moore in Writers at Work:  The Paris Review Interviews  Second Series, edited by George Plimpton

Comments are welcome! 

Q: What was the first painting you ever sold?

“Bryan’s Ph.D.”, 11″ x 13 1/2″, soft pastel on sandpaper

A:  I believe my first sale was “Bryan’s Ph.D.”  I made it in 1990 as one of several small paintings created to improve my skills at rendering human hands in pastel.  I had recently left the Navy and was building a career as a portrait artist.  Bryan, my late husband, was often my model for these studies, not only because it was convenient, but because he had such beautiful hands. 

In 1990 Bryan was working on his Ph.D. in economics at the University of Maryland.  In this painting he is drawing a diagram that illustrates a theoretical point about “international public goods,” the subject of his research.  He was sitting in an old wooden rocking chair in our backyard in Alexandria, VA.  I still own the chair and the house.  I photographed his hands close-up and then created the painting.  I don’t remember which of Bryan’s cameras I used, but it was one that took 35 mm film; perhaps his Nikon F-2.  Somewhere I must still have the negative and the original reference photo.

“Bryan’s Ph.D.” is 11″ x 13 1/2″ and it sold for $500 at a monthly juried exhibition at The Art League in Alexandria.  I have not seen it since 1990.  (Above is a photograph of “Bryan’s Ph.D.” from my portfolio book).

Not long ago the owner contacted me, explaining that she had received the painting as a gift from her now ex-husband.  She was selling it because it evoked bitter memories of her divorce.  Her phone call was prompted by uncertainty about the painting’s value now.  She had a likely buyer and needed to know what price to charge.

I was saddened because I have so many beautiful memories of this particular painting and of an idyllic time in my life with Bryan.  He was on a leave of absence from the Pentagon to work on his dissertation, while I was finished with active duty.  At last I was a full time artist, busily working in the spare bedroom that we had turned into my first studio.  

My conversation with the owner was a reminder that once paintings are let out into the world, they take on associations that have nothing to do with the personal circumstances surrounding their creation.  In short, what an artist creates solely out of love, stands a good chance of not being loved or appreciated by others.  This is one reason to only sell my work to people I select personally.  I ended the telephone conversation hoping that “Bryan’s Ph.D.” fares better in its new home.  

Comments are welcome!     

Q: How did you happen to have a photograph published in The Wall Street Journal?

Sun Tunnels by Nancy Holt

Sun Tunnels by Nancy Holt

   A.  That is a long story.  To get far away from New York for the ten-year anniversary of 9/11, my friend, Donna Tang, and I planned a two-week road trip to see land art sites in Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado. (Donna did excellent research).                                                      

We hoped for a private tour of Roden Crater with James Turrell, which is not easy to arrange.  I had also invited my friend Ann Landi, an art critic and arts writer, to join us, hoping she might get an interview with Turrell and write an article for Artnews.  Turrell has been working on Roden Crater for 30+ years so Ann was interested in seeing it too!  Ann contacted Turrell’s gallery – Gagosian – but they later relayed Turrell’s refusal.  

We were planning to see other land art sites.  As an alternative to Roden Crater and Turrell, Ann pitched a story to The Wall Street Journal about Sun Tunnels and Nancy Holt (Robert Smithson’s wife, who as the only woman in the land art movement, has never been given her due).   The Journal said yes, so Ann made plans to join Donna and me in Salt Lake City.  

The three of us visited Sun Tunnels, Spiral Getty, and other sites together.  Ann had a brand new point-and-shoot camera that she hadn’t yet learned how to use.  I always take lots of photos whenever I travel.  After we returned home, I sent Ann a few images and she asked permission to submit them with her article.  I was thrilled when The Wall Street Journal requested JPEGs.  It was the first time I’ve had a photograph published in a major newspaper.

Comments are welcome!

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