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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* # 482

One of Viscarra’s masks at MUSEF La Paz

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

Devils’ heads with daring and disturbing eyes, twisted horns, abundant grey hair and hooked noses hang on the blue walls of Antonio Viscarra’s house. Long benches covered with old, multi-colored cushions in Bolivian motifs surround the concrete floor of the small room. Several dozen of these hanging faces, which seem to watch in silence from the darkness, are ready to be used in festivals and traditional dances.

The maskmaker or “maestro” as he is called, lives [deceased now] in the area of Avenida Buenos Aires, far from the political and administrative center of the city of La Paz, but rather at the very center of the other La Paz (Chuquiago in the Aymara language) where many peasant immigrants have settled, and which for that reason, is the center of the city’s popular culture.

Viscarra is the oldest creator of masks in La Paz, and his work has helped to conserve, and at the same time to rejuvenate, the tradition of using masks in Bolivian dances. If economic progress and alienation have contributed to the excessive adornment of new masks with glass and other foreign materials, Viscarra, in an attempt to recover the distinctive, original forms, has gone back to the 100-year-old molds used by his grandfather. His work has been exhibited in Europe, in the United States and in South America, Most important, however, is that Viscarra is transmitting his knowledge to his children, ensuring that this form of authentic Bolivian culture will never die.

…Viscarra inherited the old mask molds from his grandfather and was told to take good care of them because some day he might need them. After keeping them carefully put away for 50 years, the maestro used them again for an exhibition of masks prepared in 1984, slowly recreating the original masks, beautiful in their simplicity, in their delicate craftsmanship and in their cultural value. In this way, the masks which emerged from the old molds are regaining their past prestige and importance.

Antonio Viscarra, The mask Maker by Wendy McFarren in Masks of the Bolivian Andes, Editorial Quipus and Banco Mercantil

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: What’s on the easel today?

Work in progress

Work in progress

A:  I’m continuing to work on a 58” x 38” pastel painting.  The title is not definite yet, although I do have two that I am considering.

Comments are welcome!

Q: What qualities do you think mark the highest artistic achievement?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  If I may speak in the most general terms, several qualities come to mind that, for me, mark real artistic achievement: 

  • firm artistic control that allows the artist to create works that simultaneously demonstrate formal coherence while responding to inner necessity
  • the creation of new forms and techniques that are adapted to expressing the artist’s highly personal vision
  • an authentic and balanced fusion of form, method, and idea
  • using material from one’s own idiosyncratic experiences and subtly transforming it in a personal inimitable way during the creative process
  • the meaning of the thing created is rigorously subordinated to its design, which once established, generates its own internal principles of harmony and coherence  

Comments are welcome! 

Pearls from artists* # 208

View from One World Trade Center

View from One World Trade Center

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

PC:  In your painting, you’ve always kept this speed of movement.  One senses that you work something out slowly, deep down, that it’s hard work, but there’s always something fresh about its expression.

HM:  That’s because I revise my notion several times over.  People often add or superpose – completing things without changing their plan, whereas I rework my plan every time.  I never get tired.  I always start again, working from the previous state.  I try to work in a contemplative state, which is very difficult:  contemplation is inaction, and I act in contemplation.

In all the studies I’ve made from my own ideas, there’s never been a faux pas because I’ve always unconsciously had a feeling for the goal; I’ve made my way toward it the way one heads north, following the compass.  What I’ve done, I’ve done by instinct, always with my sights on a goal I still hope to reach today.  I’ve completed my apprenticeship now.  All I ask is four or five years to realize that goal.

PC:  Delacroix said that too.  Great artists never look back.

HM:  Delacroix also said – ten years after he’d left the place – “I’m just beginning to see Morocco.”  Rodin said to an artist, “You need to stand back a long way for sculpture.”  To which the student replied,  “Master, my studio is only ten meters wide.”

Chatting with Henri Matisse:  The Lost 1941 Interview, Henri Matisse with Pierre Courthion, edited by Serge Guilbaut, translated by Chris Miller

Comments are welcome! 

 

Q: How many studios have you had since you’ve been a professional artist?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A: I am on my third, and probably last, studio.  I say ‘probably’ because I love my space and have no desire to move.  Plus, it would be a tremendous amount of work to relocate, considering that I have been in my West 29th Street studio since 1997. 

My very first studio, in the late 1980s, was the spare bedroom of my house in Alexandria, Virginia.  I set up a studio there while I was on active duty in the Navy.  When I resigned my commission, I was required to give the President an entire year’s advance notice.  Towards the end of that year I remember calling in sick so I could stay home and make art.       

In the early 1990s I rented a studio on the third floor of the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria.  For a while I enjoyed working there, but the constant interruptions – in an art center that is open to the public – became tiresome.  

In 1997 I had the opportunity to move to New York.  I desperately craved solitary hours to work in peace, without interruption, so at first I didn’t have a telephone.  I still don’t have WiFi there because my studio is reserved strictly for creative work.

Moving from Virginia to New York in 1997 was relatively easy.  My aunt, who planned to be in California to continue her Buddhist studies, offered me her rent-controlled sixth-floor walkup on West 13th Street.  I looked at just one other studio before signing a sublease for my space at 208 West 29th Street.  I had heard about the vacancy through a college friend of my husband, Bryan.  Karen, the lease-holder, was relocating to northern California to work on “Star Wars” with George Lucas.  After several years, she decided not to return to New York and I have been the lease-holder ever since.  

Comments are welcome!

 

Start/Finish of “The Ancestors,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 58″ x 38″

Preliminary charcoal sketch on white drawing paper. The white bits are masking tape used to tape several pieces of paper together to make a large sheet.

Preliminary charcoal sketch on white drawing paper.  The white bits are masking tape joining small sheets of paper together to make one that’s 60″ x 40″.

 

Finished and signed

Finished and signed, lower left

Comments are welcome!

 

 

 

Q: Do you have any favorites among the Mexican and Guatemalan folk art figures that you depict in your work?

Idea for an upcoming pastel painting

Idea for an upcoming pastel painting

A:  I suppose it seems that way, since I certainly paint some figures more than others.  My favorite characters change, depending on what is happening in my work.  My current favorites are a figure I have never painted before (the Balinese dragon above) and several Mexican and Guatemalan figures last painted years ago.  All will make an appearance in a pastel painting for which I am still developing preliminary ideas (above).

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!     

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