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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!    

Q: When did you begin seriously studying photography?

Exhibition catalogue, 2009 solo exhibition at HP Garcia Gallery, NYC; see Blogroll on sidebar to view

Exhibition catalogue, 2009 solo exhibition at HP Garcia Gallery, NYC; click
“Exhibition catalogue” under Blogroll to view inside pages

A: After I lost my husband, Bryan, on 9/11 – as I’ve discussed elsewhere, Bryan photographed most of the setups for my “Domestic Threats” series – I needed to find a way to continue making art. In June 2002 I began studying photography at the International Center of Photography (ICP) in New York. I took a one week 4 x 5 view camera workshop because Bryan had photographed the setups with a Toyo-Omega view camera. I was surprised to discover that I had absorbed quite a bit of technical information just by watching him. Once I completed the workshop, I decided to start over and to learn as much as I could about photography. So I enrolled in Photography I. Over the next several years I completed about a dozen courses at ICP, eventually learning to make my own large-scale chromogenic prints. Around 2007 I began working seriously as a photographer, creating my photographic series, “Gods and Monsters,” with Bryan’s Mamiya 6 camera. In October 2009 HP Garcia Gallery in New York gave me my first solo photography exhibition (see “Exhibition catalogue” under Blogroll).
I’m busy getting ready for my next solo show there in October. This exhibition will be fairly comprehensive and will include recent photographs (diptychs and single images), new work from the “Black Paintings” series, and a selection of Mexican and Guatemalan figures. There will be an exhibition catalogue and later in the fall, the gallery will publish the first book about my work. I am particularly thrilled about the book, a new, but long overdue, career milestone!

Q: There is plenty of joyful and vibrant color in your work, but shadows are also ever-present. I would almost go as far as calling them the supporting players of your compositions. Can you elaborate on their importance and significance?

"She Embraced It and Grew Stronger,"  soft pastel on sandpaper

“She Embraced It and Grew Stronger,” soft pastel on sandpaper

A: When I arrange the setups, I spend a lot of time lighting them, mainly in a search for intriguing cast shadows. At one point in the “Domestic Threats” series the shadows became so important that I thought of them as physical objects in their own right. So I made them very prominent, outlined them, and otherwise gave them added emphasis. Often they had no relation to the actual objects as I created any shadow shapes that looked interesting in the painting. When I go to art galleries and museums, I always look at the shadows surrounding well-lit three dimensional objects. I find shadows quite fascinating. How less visually satisfying Calder’s mobiles and stabiles would be without the cast shadows!

Q: How has photography changed your approach to painting?

Untitled chromogenic print

Untitled chromogenic print, 24″ x 24″ on 30″ x 40″ Fujicolor crystal archives paper, edition of 5

A: 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 using 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. 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. Along the way I discovered that the sense of composition and color I had 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. Photographs – from the initial impulse to create a setup to hanging a framed chromogenic print on the wall – can be made in weeks.