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Pearls from artists* # 518

Barbara with a work 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.

“It’s more than beauty that I feel in music – that I think musicians feel in music. What we know we feel we’d like to convey to the listener. We hope that this can be shared by all. I think, basically, that’s what it is we are trying to do. We never talked about just what we were trying to do. If you ask me that question, I might say this today and tomorrow say something entirely different, because there are many things to do in music.

“But, overall, I think the main thing a musician would like to do is to give a picture to the listener of the many wonderful things he knows of and senses in the universe. That’s what music is to me – it’s just another way of saying this is a big, beautiful universe we live in, that’s been given to us, and here’s an example of just how magnificent and encompassing it is. That’s what I would like to do. I think that’s one of the greatest things you can do in life, and we all try to do it in some way. The musician’s is through his music.”

John Coltrane in Coltrane on Coltrane: The John Coltrane Interviews

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Pearls from artists* # 513

At Riverfront Art Gallery, Yonkers, 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.

… you will never be able to create anything interesting out of your life if you don’t believe that you’re entitled to at least try. Creative entitlement doesn’t mean behaving like a princess or acting as though the world owes you anything whatsoever. No, creative entitlement simply means believing that you are allowed to be here, and that – merely by being here – you are allowed to have a voice and a vision of your own.

The poet David Whyte calls this sense of creative entitlement “the arrogance of belonging,” and claims that it is an absolutely vital privilege to cultivate if you wish to interact more vividly with life. Without this arrogance of belonging, you will never be able to take any creative risks whatsoever. Without it, you will never push yourself out of the suffocating insulation of personal safety into the frontiers of the beautiful and the unexpected.

The arrogance of belonging is not about egotism or self-absorption. In a strange way, it’s the opposite; it is a divine force that will actually take you out of yourself and allow you to engage more fully with life. Because often what keeps you from creative living is your self-absorption (your self-doubt, your self-disgust, your self-judgment, your crushing sense of self-protection). The arrogance of belonging pulls you out of the darkest depths of self-hatred – not by saying “I am the greatest!” but merely saying “I am here!”

Elizabet Gilbert in Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear

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Pearls from artists* # 501

New York 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.

When I talk about “creative living” here, please understand that I am not necessarily talking about pursuing a life that is professionally or exclusively devoted to the arts. I’m not saying that you must become a poet who lives on a mountaintop in Greece, or that you must perform at Carnegie Hall, or that you must win the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. (Though if you want to attempt any of these feats, have at it. I love to watch people swing for the bleachers.) No, when I refer to “creative living,” I am speaking more broadly. I’m talking about living a life that is driven more strongly by curiosity than by fear.

... A creative life is an amplified life. It’s a bigger life, a happier life, an expanded life, and a hell of a lot more interesting life. Living in this manner – continually and stubbornly bringing forth the jewels that are hidden within you – is a fine art, in and of itself.

Elizabeth Gilbert in Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear

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Q: What was the first New York gallery that represented your work and how did they find you?

Exhibition Review

A: My first (and still the best) New York gallery was Brewster Gallery on West 57th Street in what, in 1996, was the most important gallery district in Manhattan. By joining Brewster, my work was exhibited alongside an impressive list of Latin American painters and sculptors such as Leonora Carrington, Frida Kahlo, Francisco Zuniga, Rufino Tamayo, Diego Rivera, Francisco Toledo, and more. Brewster was a prestigious and elegant gallery, well-known throughout the Latin American art world for their superb exhibitions and their contributions to art history scholarship.

Since I am not Latina, my work was selected by virtue of its Mexican subject matter and level of craftsmanship. Mia Kim, the owner/director, told me that amidst so many deserving, unrepresented, and talented artists of Latin American heritage, she was sometimes challenged to defend her decision to represent me. Mia’s response was always, “Barbara may not be of Latin American ancestry, but she most assuredly has the soul of a Latina! Her work has obvious affinities to Leonora’s, the other non-Latina that we represent.”

In July of 1996, while I was still living in Virginia, I mailed a slide sheet and reviews to Brewster, thinking that during the slow summer months, perhaps someone might actually LOOK at my material. Then I forgot all about it as Bryan and I headed off on a trip to Mexico. While we were in Mexico City, something told me to check our phone messages at the house in Alexandria. I did so and was floored to hear Mia offer me representation and a two-person show in October. The first time she would even see my work in person would be when I delivered it to the gallery!

In October my “Domestic Threats” pastel paintings were paired with work by Cuban artist, Tomas Esson, for an exhibition called “Monkey Business.” The opening was extremely well-attended by a sophisticated international New York crowd. A highlight was meeting Leonora Carrington, one of my artist heroes of long standing. Afterwards a large group of us were wined and dined at a French restaurant around the corner on West 58th Street. I remember looking at Bryan and saying, “I think I’ve made it!” The next day there was a favorable review in a publication called, “Open Air.” After working in complete obscurity for thirteen years, I was finally on my way.

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Pearls from artists* # 441

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

The most perennially popular category of art is the cheerful, pleasant, and pretty kind: meadows in spring, the shade of trees on hot summer days, pastoral landscapes, smiling children. This can be deeply troubling to people of taste and intelligence.   

… The worries about prettiness are twofold. First, pretty pictures are alleged to feed sentimentality. Sentimentality is a symptom of insufficient engagement with complexity, by which one really means problems. The pretty picture seems to suggest that in order to make life nice, one merely has to brighten up the apartment with a depiction of some flowers. If we were to ask the picture what is wrong with the world, it might be taken as saying ‘You don’t have enough Japanese water gardens’ – a response that appears to ignore all the more urgent problems that confront humanity (primarily economic, but also moral, political, and sexual). The very innocence and simplicity of the picture seems to mitigate against any attempt to improve life as a whole. Secondly, there is the related fear that prettiness will numb us and leave us insufficiently critical and alert to the injustices surrounding us.

Alain de Botton and John Armstrong in Art as Therapy 

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Pearls from artists* # 409

Recent works in progress

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.

Poets can look at a painting and understand it without having it spelled out [and] painters can read poetry… People say, I don’t understand what it means, about John Ashbery’s poetry.  Painters would never say that… The idea of “I don’t understand what it means,” looking at abstract painting and saying, “Explain it to me, what does it mean?”  You don’t say that, and you don’t ask people to explain music.  And so, poets, painters, composers don’t need explanations.  Explanations are for other people… burdened by logic.

Elaine de Kooning quoted in Mary Gabriel in Ninth Street Women

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Pearls from artists* # 337

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.

I think society did a great disservice to artists when we started saying they were geniuses, instead of saying they had geniuses.  That happened around the Renaissance, with the rise of a more rational and human-centered view of life.  The gods and the mysteries fell away, and suddenly we put all credit and blame for creativity on the artists themselves – making the all-too-fragile humans completely responsible for the vagaries of inspiration.

In the process, we also venerated art and artists beyond their appropriate stations.  The distinction of “being a genius” (and the rewards and status often associated with it) elevated creators into something like a priestly cast – and perhaps even into minor deities – which I think is a bit too much pressure for mere mortals, no matter how talented.  That’s when artists start to really crack, driven mad and broken in half by the weight and weirdness of their gifts.       

Elizabeth Gilbert in Big Magic:  Creative Living Beyond Fear

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Pearls from artists* # 198

"Troublemaker," soft pastel on sandpaper, 20" x 26"

“Troublemaker,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 20″ x 26″

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

The writer doesn’t need economic freedom.  All he needs is a pencil and some paper.  I’ve never known anything good in writing to come from having accepted any free gift of money.  The good writer never applies to a foundation.  He’s too busy writing something.  If he isn’t first rate he fools himself by saying he hasn’t got time or economic freedom.  Good art can come out of thieves, bootleggers, or horse swipes.  People really are afraid to find out just how much hardship and poverty they can stand.  They are afraid to find out how tough they are.  Nothing can destroy the good writer.  The only thing that can alter the good writer is death.  Good ones don’t have time to bother with success or getting rich…

Nothing can injure a man’s writing if he’s a first-rate writer.  If a man is not a first-rate writer, there’s not anything that can help it much.  The problem does not apply if he is not first-rate, because he has already sold his soul for a swimming pool.

William Faulkner in Writers at Work:  The Paris Review Interviews First Series, edited and with an introduction by Malcolm Cowley

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Q: Your pastel paintings are immediately recognizable as yours alone. Did you consciously try to develop a signature style in your work?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A: I don’t believe that is even possible.  An artist’s style is something that evolves with plain hard work and experience, over many years of trial and error, as one finds what techniques work best and discards those that don’t.  It is a process of continually experimenting, refining, and clarifying.  In other words, style is something that emerges naturally as you gradually strive to improve your art-making. 

Style develops in close connection to what an artist is saying as she undergoes a very personal and idiosyncratic journey.  Again, it would seem improbable for an artist to strive for any particular style, since style is not something over which an artist can exert much conscious control. 

I would even say that each artist’s unique style is inevitable.  It would be nearly impossible now to make a pastel painting or photograph that does NOT look like a Rachko. 

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Pearls from artists* # 152

"Between," soft pastel on sandpaper, 20" x 26"

“Between,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 20″ x 26″

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

The first picture I took of a black man was easy.

That’s the way it sometimes goes for me:  I start on a new series of pictures and right away, in some kind of perverse bait-and-switch, I get a good one.  This freak of a good picture inevitably inspires a cocky confidence, making me think this new project will be a stroll in the park.  But, then, after sometimes two or three more good ones, the next dozen are duds, and that cavalier stroll becomes an uphill slog.  It isn’t long before I have to take a breather, having reached the first significant plateau of doubt and lightweight despair.  The voice of that despair suggests seducingly to me that I should give up, that I’m a phony, that I’ve made all the good pictures I’m ever going to, and I have nothing more worth saying.

That voice is easy to believe, and, as photographer and essayist (and my early mentor) Ted Orland has noted, it leaves me with only two choices:  I can resume the slog and take more pictures, thereby risking further failure and despair, or I can guarantee failure and despair by not making more pictures.  It’s essentially a decision between uncertainty and certainty and, curiously, uncertainty is the comforting choice.

Sally Mann in Hold Still:  A Memoir with Photographs

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