Blog Archives

Q: Would you describe your current work in a few sentences?

Barbara’s Studio

A: Of course, my art practice continually evolves and so does my thinking about its meaning. Using my own iPad photographs of Bolivian Carnival masks from Oruro as source material, for the past five years I have been slowly building a rogue’s gallery of beautiful, if somewhat misunderstood, characters probably best described as oddballs and misfits. For me, the paintings have a deeper meaning as archetypes of the collective unconscious. Creating this series is an act of genuine love. It is my hope that the ”Bolivianos” pastel paintings convey my deep respect and compassion for people around the world.

Comments are welcome!

Q: What was the first review you ever received and how did you get it?

My first review!

A: In 1991 I was in my late thirties and had resigned my active duty Naval commission two years before. I had been an artist for five years. I was anxious to get my pastel paintings exhibited, seen by an audience, and collected! As I worked hard to build my resume, I hustled to exhibit in all sorts of spaces that were not galleries: restaurants, hospitals, real estate offices, law offices, theaters, doctors’ offices, and more. The goal was to just get the work out of my home studio.

In December 1991 I presented a solo exhibition at Dumbarton Church in Georgetown (Washington, DC). For years Bryan had volunteered to set up chairs, a Steinway piano, and other miscellaneous equipment for their classical music concert series. The church’s downstairs space was used to showcase artists’ work. So I applied for a solo exhibition, was accepted, and got my first review in a local Washington, DC newspaper called “Eye Wash!”

Moral: artists have to work extremely hard for every little thing that comes our way!

Comments are welcome!

Q: What art project(s) are you working on currently? What is your inspiration or motivation for this? (Question from artamour)  

Source material for “The Champ”
Source material for “The Champ” (my first “Bolivianos” pastel painting) and “Avenger”

A: While traveling in Bolivia in 2017, 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, the series I was working on at the time.  I immediately knew I had stumbled upon a gift.  To date I have completed seventeen pastel paintings in the Bolivianos series.  One awaits finishing touches, another is in progress, and I am planning the next two, one large and one small pastel painting.

The following text is from my “Bolivianos” artist’s statement.

My long-standing fascination with traditional masks took a leap forward in the spring of 2017 when I visited the National Museum of Ethnography and Folklore in La Paz, Bolivia.  One particular exhibition on view, with more than fifty festival masks, was completely spell-binding.

The masks were old and had been crafted in Oruro, a former tin-mining center about 140 miles south of La Paz on the cold Altiplano (elevation 12,000’).  Depicting important figures from Bolivian folklore traditions, the masks were created for use in Carnival celebrations that happen each year in late February or early March. 

Carnival in Oruro revolves around three great dances.  The dance of “The Incas” records the conquest and death of Atahualpa, the Inca emperor when the Spanish arrived in 1532.  “The Morenada” dance was once assumed to represent black slaves who worked in the mines, but the truth is more complicated (and uncertain) since only mitayo Indians were permitted to do this work.  The dance of “The Diablada” depicts Saint Michael fighting against Lucifer and the seven deadly sins.  The latter were originally disguised in seven different masks derived from medieval Christian symbols and mostly devoid of pre-Columbian elements (except for totemic animals that became attached to Christianity after the Conquest).  Typically, in these dances the cock represents Pride, the dog Envy, the pig Greed, the female devil Lust, etc.

The exhibition in La Paz was stunning and dramatic.  Each mask was meticulously installed against a dark black wall and strategically spotlighted so that it became alive.  The whole effect was uncanny.  The masks looked like 3D versions of my “Black Paintings,” a pastel paintings series I have been creating for ten years.  This experience was a gift… I could hardly believe my good fortune!

Knowing I was looking at the birth of a new series – I said as much to my companions as I  remained behind while they explored other parts of the museum – I spent considerable time composing photographs.  Consequently, I have enough reference material to create new pastel paintings in the studio for several years. The series, entitled “Bolivianos,” is arguably my strongest and most striking work to date.

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 492

Explaining my work at a gallery opening. Photo: David De Hannay

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

Start with the community you know, who knows you. who’s interested in whatever it is that you’ve put together with your work or your gallery space or your magazine or your brand or your performance series. Start with who you know and build from there.

I think it’s about working in a way that’s true to yourself and that allows things to happen naturally, with bits of prodding to bring new people into contact with what you do.

Peter Eleey, curator, in Art/Work: Everything You Need to Know (and Do) As You Pursue Your Art Career by Heather Darcy Bhandari and Jonathan Melber

Comments are welcome!

Q: What’s on the easel today?

Work in progress

A: I’m in the early stages of a new 58” x 38” pastel painting that will be number 19 in the “Bolivianos” series. Stay tuned!

Comments are welcome!

Q: What makes you drawn to face masks?

“Raconteur,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 58” x 38,” in progress

A: For me a mask is so much more than a mask.  It is almost a living thing with its own soul and with a unique history.  I always wonder, who created this mask?  For what purpose?  Where has it been?  What stories would it tell if it could?  In my current “Bolivianos” series I feel as though I am creating portraits of living, or perhaps once living, beings.

In a way the masks are a pretext for a return to my early days as an artist.  When I resigned my Naval commission to pursue art full time, I started out as a photo-realist portrait painter.  The twist is that this time I do not have to satisfy a client’s request to make my subjects look younger or more handsome.  I am joyfully free to respond only to the needs of the pastel painting before me on the easel. 

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 474

“Madame Roulin and Her Baby,” 1888, Oil on canvas, Vincent Van Gogh, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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

If ever an artist needed a degree of protection against his public, surely it is Vincent van Gogh. Reproductions of his most emblematic paintings, especially the gyrating nightscapes and the blazing series of sunflower studies made in his late years, adorn countless bedrooms, living rooms, and bathrooms all across what used to be known as the developed world. The popularity of the works executed in the great flowering of this last period, which began around the time of his revelatory visit in the autumn of 1885 to the newly completed Rijksmuseum, in Amsterdam, and ended when he died less than five years later at the age of thirty-seven, is unparalleled. Of the great ones among his contemporaries, and there were many, only Degas can come near to rivaling him as a mainstay of interior decoration.

John Banville in His Own Worst Enemy, The New York Review of Books, May 13, 2021

Comments are welcome!

Q: What’s on the easel today?

In progress

A: I continue slowly working on an untitled 58” x 38” pastel-on-sandpaper painting that is part of the acclaimed “Bolivianos” series.

Comments are welcome!

Q: How do you work and approach your subject? (Question from “Arts Illustrated”)

At work
At work

A: Undoubtedly, I could not make my work without UART sandpaper since my entire pastel technique evolved around it.  I use 400 0r 500 grit.  My favorite thing about it is its ‘tooth’ (i.e. texture or roughness).  

Over the many months I spend creating a pastel painting, I build layer upon layer of soft pastel.  Because the paper I use is relatively “toothy,” it accepts all of the pastel the painting needs.  And as many people know, I own and use thousands of soft pastels!

Many layers of soft pastel and several months of studio time go into creating each painting.  My self-invented technique is analogous to the glazing techniques used by the Old Masters, who slowly built up layers of thin oil paint to achieve a high degree of finish.  Colors were not only mixed physically, but optically.  

Similarly, I gradually build up layers of soft pastel, as many as thirty, to create a pastel painting.  After applying a color, I blend it with my fingers and push it into the sandpaper’s tooth.  It mixes with the color beneath to create a new color, continually adding richness, saturation, and intensity to the piece.  By the time a pastel painting is finished, the colors are bold, vibrant, and exciting.

From the beginning in the 1980s I used photographs as reference material and my late husband, Bryan, would shoot 4” x 5” negatives of my elaborate setups with his Toyo-Omega view camera. In those days I rarely picked up a camera except when we were traveling. After Bryan was killed on 9/11, I inherited his extensive camera collection – old Nikons, Leicas, Graphlex cameras, etc. – and I wanted to learn how to use them. In 2002 I enrolled in a series of photography courses (about 10 over 4 years) at the International Center of Photography in New York. I learned how to use all of Bryan’s cameras and how to make my own big color prints in the darkroom.

Along the way I discovered that the sense of composition, form, and color I developed over many years as a painter translated well into photography. The camera was just another medium with which to express my ideas. Astonishingly, in 2009 I had my first solo photography exhibition in New York.

It’s wonderful to be both a painter and a photographer. Pastel painting will always be my first love, but photography lets me explore ideas much faster than I ever could as a painter. Paintings take months of work. To me, photographs – from the initial impulse to hanging a framed print on the wall – are instant gratification.

For several years I have been using my iPad Pro to capture thousands of travel photographs.  Most recently, I visited Gujarat and Rajasthan in India. I have never been inclined to use a sketchbook so composing photos on my iPad keeps my eye sharp while I’m halfway around the world, far from my studio practice.

My blog, “Barbara Rachko’s Colored Dust,” continues to be a crucial part of my overall art practice.  Blogging twice a week forces me to think deeply about my work and to explain it clearly to others.  The process has helped me develop a better understanding about why I make art and, I like to think, has helped me to become a better writer.

Comments are welcome!

Q: How has photography changed your approach to painting?

Alexandria, VA (composed on an iPad Pro)

A: Except for many hours spent in life-drawing classes and still life setups that I devised when I was learning my craft in the 1980s, I have always worked from photographs. My late husband, Bryan, would shoot 4” x 5” negatives of my elaborate “Domestic Threats” setups using his Toyo-Omega view camera. I rarely picked up a camera except when we were traveling. After Bryan was killed on 9/11, I inherited his extensive (film) camera collection – old Nikons, Leicas, Graphlex cameras, etc. – and needed to learn how to use them. Starting in 2002 I enrolled in a series of photography courses (about 10 over 4 years) at the International Center of Photography in New York. I learned how to use all of Bryan’s cameras and how to make my own big color prints in the darkroom.

Early on I discovered that the sense of composition, color, and form I had developed over many years as a painter translated well into photography. The camera was, and is, just another medium with which to express ideas. Pastel painting will always be my first love. However, pastel paintings take months of work, while photography offers instant gratification, especially with my current preferred camera, an iPad Pro.

Comments are welcome!

%d bloggers like this: