Blog Archives

Q: What’s on the easel today?

Work in progress

Work in progress

A:  I’m working on a large pastel painting based on a photograph shot when I was vacationing recently in La Paz, Bolivia.  How fortuitous to stumble upon a mask exhibition at The National Museum of Ethnography and Folklore!  It felt as though the exhibition somehow was staged for me, just waiting for me to come along and photograph it. 

Incredibly, I returned to New York, after a spectacular trip to Bolivia, and found myself with photographs that are inspiring a new series.  Certainly this has never happened before!  The series is tentatively called, “Bolivianos.”             

Comments are welcome!

Q: What’s on the easel today?

Work in progress

Work in progress

A:  “White Star,” 38″ x 58″ is slowly progressing.  The title of this painting alludes to David Bowie’s last album, “Dark Star” and is my somewhat more optimistic take on that phrase.   

The white Guatemalan figure and the Sri Lankan mask on the top right still could use more details.  Over time the “Black Paintings” series is becoming more about what is left out. So how much detail to add is an open question.  

Comments are welcome!  

Q: What has been your scariest experience as an artist?

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

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

A:  I’d say it was the approximately six months in 2007 when I finished the “Domestic Threats” series and was blocked, certain that a strong body of work was behind me, but not knowing what in the world to do next.  For a professional artist who had been prolific and non-stop for 21 years, this was a profoundly painful, confusing, and disorienting time.  What I remember most is continuing to force myself to go to the studio any way and, for lack of anything productive to do there, spending long hours soul-searching and reading and thinking about art.

Eventually after all of this self-reflection I figured things out and had an epiphany.  “Between,” with drastically simplified imagery, was the first painting in a new series, the “Black Paintings.”  The series continues and if I may say so, includes some of my most accomplished work to date.        

Comments are welcome! 

Q: What is the one painting that you never want to sell?

"No Cure for Insomnia," pastel on sandpaper, 58" x 38"

“No Cure for Insomnia,” pastel on sandpaper, 58″ x 38″

A:  There are two:  “Myth Meets Dream” and “No Cure for Insomnia.”  Both are part of my “Domestic Threats” series and were breakthroughs at the time I made them.  They are relatively early works – the first from 1993, the latter from 1999 – and were important in my artistic development. 

“Myth Meets Dream” is the earliest pastel painting in which I depict Mexican figures.  It includes two brightly painted, carved wooden animals from Oaxaca sent to me in 1992 by my sister-in-law.  I have spoken about them before.  These figures were the beginning of my ongoing fascination with Mexico. 

“No Cure for Insomnia” includes a rare self-portrait and is set in my late aunt’s sixth-floor walkup on West 13th Street, where I lived when I moved to New York in 1997.  My four years there were very productive.  

Comments are welcome!  

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

Comments are welcome!         

Q: How do you know when a series has ended?

 

"A Promise, Meant to be Broken," soft pastel on sandpaper, 58" x 38"

“A Promise, Meant to be Broken,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 58″ x 38″

A:  I suppose it’s when there is nothing left to say within a particular body of work.  The urgency to add something I haven’t tried vanishes.  Usually I can’t even think of anything I haven’t tried. 

I knew with certainty that the “Domestic Threats” series was finished while “A Promise Meant to be Broken” was still on my easel.  It’s no accident that I included a self-portrait.  This painting was my way of saying good-bye to an important body of work – literally turning my back on it – and summing up where the work had taken me. 

For artists each series is a creative journey with a beginning, a middle, and an end.  At a certain point it’s over.  Then you build on what you’ve accomplished and move on to create something new.  The connection between new work and old may not always be obvious, but one thing is certain:  all the previous work laid the groundwork for what you make today.    

Comments are welcome!

Q: Why do you call the small paintings in your “Domestic Threats” series, “Scenes?”

"Scene Thirteen: Bathroom," 26" x 20", soft pastel on sandpaper

“Scene Thirteen: Bathroom,” 26″ x 20″, soft pastel on sandpaper

"He Urged Her to Abdicate," 58" x 38," soft pastel on sandpaper

“He Urged Her to Abdicate,” 58″ x 38,” soft pastel on sandpaper

A:  At first I didn’t know what to call them.  I was looking for a word that meant “a piece of some larger whole.”  Initially the word “shard” – a fragment of pottery – came to mind.  However, that didn’t capture the meaning I was seeking, since my paintings have little to do with pottery. 

My large “Domestic Threats” paintings are theatrical.  There is substantial labor and much thought involved in their creation, so I often think of myself as a director and each image as a play. 

Small “Domestic Threats” paintings are made from a portion of a photograph that I use as reference  for a larger painting.  For example, “Scene Thirteen:  Bathroom” (above, top) is a small version of “He Urged Her to Abdicate” (above, bottom). 

A “portion” of a play is a “Scene” so that’s what I finally named them.  Additionally, I numbered the paintings in order of their creation and added the room where each takes place.

Comments are welcome! 

Q: In the “Black Paintings” you create a deep intellectual interaction and communicate a wide variety of states of mind. I admit that certain “Black Paintings” unsettle me a bit. I see in this series an effective mix between anguish and happiness. Rather than simply describing something, these paintings pose a question and force us to contemplation. Can you talk about this aspect of your work?

"The Storyteller," soft pastel on sandpaper, 20" x 26"

“The Storyteller,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 20″ x 26″

A:  I’m sure you and other viewers will see all kinds of states of mind, like anguish, happiness, and everything in between.  I think that’s wonderful because it means my work is communicating a message to you.  Sometimes people have told me that my images are unsettling and that’s fine, too.  I would never presume to tell anyone what to think about my work.  As one reviewer put it, “What you bring to my work you get back in spades!”  

Some of this is intentional, but some is not.  My day-to-day experiences – what I’m thinking about, what I’m feeling, what I’m reading, the music I’m listening to, etc. –  get embedded into the work. I don’t understand exactly how that happens, but I am glad it happens. This work does come from a deep place, much deeper than I am able to explain even to myself. After nearly three decades as an artist, the intricacies of my creative process are still a mystery. Personally, I am very fond of mysteries and don’t need to understand it all.  

Comments are welcome!

Q: Another interesting series of yours that has impressed me is your recent “Black Paintings.” The pieces in this series are darker than the ones in “Domestic Threats.” You create an effective mix between the dark background and the few bright tones, which establish such a synergy rather than a contrast, and all the dark creates a prelude to light. It seems to reveal such a struggle, a deep tension, and intense emotions. Any comments on your choice of palette and how it has changed over time?

West 29th Street studio

West 29th Street studio

A:  That is a great question!  

You are correct that my palette has darkened. It’s partly from having lived in New York for so long. This is a generally dark city. We famously dress in black and the city in winter is mainly greys and browns.  

Also, the “Black Paintings” are definitely post-9/11 work. My husband, Bryan, was tragically killed onboard the plane that crashed into the Pentagon. Losing Bryan was the biggest shock I ever have had to endure, made even harder because it came just 87 days after we had married. We had been together for 14 ½ years and in September 2001 were happier than we had ever been. He was killed so horribly and so senselessly. Post 9/11 was an extremely difficult, dark, and lonely time.  

In the summer of 2002 I resumed making art, continuing to make “Domestic Threats” paintings. That series ran its course and ended in 2007. Around then I was feeling happier and had come to better terms with losing Bryan (it’s something I will never get over but dealing with loss does get easier with time). When I created the first “Black Paintings” I consciously viewed the background as literally, the very dark place that I was emerging from, exactly like the figures emerging in these paintings. The figures themselves are wildly colorful and full of life, so to speak, but that black background is always there.       

Comments are welcome!     

Q: Can you talk a little bit about your process? What happens before you even begin a pastel painting?

Barbara in Bali (far right)

Barbara in Bali (far right)

A:  My process is extremely slow and labor-intensive. 

First, there is foreign travel – often to Mexico, Guatemala or someplace in Asia – to find the cultural objects – masks, carved wooden animals, paper mâché figures, and toys – that are my subject matter.  I search the local markets, bazaars, and mask shops for these folk art objects. I look for things that are old, that look like they have a history, and were probably used in religious festivals of some kind. Typically, they are colorful, one-of-a- kind objects that have lots of inherent personality. How they enter my life and how I get them back to my New York studio is an important part of my art-making practice. 

My working methods have changed dramatically over the nearly thirty years that I have been an artist. My current process is a much simplified version of how I used to work.  As I pared down my imagery in the current series, “Black Paintings,” my creative process quite naturally pared down, too. 

One constant is that I have always worked in series with each pastel painting leading quite naturally to the next.  Another is that I always set up a scene, plan exactly how to light and photograph it, and work with a 20″ x 24″ photograph as the primary reference material. 

In the setups I look for eye-catching compositions and interesting colors, patterns, and shadows.  Sometimes I make up a story about the interaction that is occurring between the “actors,” as I call them.

In the “Domestic Threats” series I photographed the scene with a 4″ x 5″ Toyo Omega view camera.  In my “Gods and Monsters” series I shot rolls of 220 film using a Mamiya 6. I still like to use an old analog camera for fine art work, although I have been rethinking this practice.   

Nowadays the first step is to decide which photo I want to make into a painting (currently I have a backlog of photographs to choose from) and to order a 19 1/2″ x 19 1/2″ image (my Mamiya 6 shoots square images) printed on 20″ x 24″ paper.  They recently closed, but I used to have the prints made at Manhattan Photo on West 20th Street in New York.  Now I go to Duggal.  Typically I have in mind the next two or three paintings that I want to create.

Once I have the reference photograph in hand, I make a preliminary tonal charcoal sketch on a piece of white drawing paper.  The sketch helps me think about how to proceed and points out potential problem areas ahead. 

Only then am I ready to start actually making the painting. 

Comments are welcome!