Blog Archives

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!     

Q: Would you say there is a unifying quality to all of the work you have produced in the last thirty years?

Barbara's portfolio book

Barbara’s portfolio book

A:  Yes, I can think of several.  Whether making pastel paintings or printing photographs in the darkroom, I have always been concerned with quality and craftsmanship and never pronounce a work finished until it is the best thing I can make. 

Although I started out as a maker of photorealist portraits in pastel, for twenty-odd years I have worked with Mexican folk art as my primary subject matter, treating these objects very differently in three separate series:  “Black Paintings,” “Domestic Threats,” and “Gods and Monsters.”  The first two are pastel-on-sandpaper paintings while the last is comprised of chromogenic photographs (c-prints).  A few years ago I also started making “Teleidoscopes” using an iPad app to photograph my Mexican and Guatemalan folk art collection.  This last one is just for fun; I do not offer them for sale.

Soft pastel is my first love and the two series of pastel paintings are my best-known work.  My technique for using pastel continues to evolve in intriguing ways.  I doubt I can ever learn all there is to know not only about color, but also about this medium.  Pastel is endlessly fascinating, which is why I have never wanted to switch to anything else. 

Comments are welcome!      

Q: Why do you prefer not to explain your titles and imagery?

"Truth Betrayed by Innocence," soft pastel on sandpaper, 58" x 38"

“Truth Betrayed by Innocence,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 58″ x 38″

A:  It’s mainly because answers close down imagination and creativity.  I enjoy hearing alternative interpretations of my pastel paintings.  People are wildly imaginative and each person brings unique insights to their art viewing.  By leaving meanings open, conversation is generated.  Most artists want viewers to talk about their work.

Once at a public artist’s talk that I attended, I was told by an artist that my interpretation of her title was completely wrong.  First of all, how can an interpretation honestly expressed by your audience be “wrong?”  Art is as open to interpretation as a Rorschach test (art IS a kind of Rorshach test).  Then she explained the thinking behind her title and succeeded in cutting off all further conversation.  I felt belittled.  Later several people told me that my interpretation was much more compelling.  Still, the experience was mortifying and I hope to never do that to anyone.

Comments are welcome!  

Q: How do you achieve such richness of color in your pastel-on-sandpaper paintings?

"Motley," soft pastel on sandpaper, 38" x 58"

“Motley,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 38″ x 58″

 

A:  This results from the several months of studio time and many layers of soft pastel that go into creating each painting.  In a sense my technique is analogous to glazing done by the Old Masters.  They slowly built up layers of thin paint to achieve a high degree of finish.  Colors were not mixed physically, but optically.  I gradually build up layers of soft pastel, as many as 30, to create a pastel painting.  After a color is applied, 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 overall painting.

Comments are welcome!     

Pearls from artists* # 129

 

Chalcatzingo, Mexico

Chalcatzingo, Mexico

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

A painter friend of mine once told me that he thought of sound as an usher for the here and now.  When he was a small child, Adam suffered an illness that left him profoundly deaf for several months.  His memories of that time are vivid and not, he insists, at all negative.  Indeed, they opened a world in which the images he saw could be woven together with much greater freedom and originality than he’d ever known.  The experience was powerful enough that it helped steer him toward his lifelong immersion in the visual arts.  “Sound imposes a narrative on you,” he said, “and it’s always someone else’s narrative.  My experience of silence was like being awake inside a dream I could direct.”

George Prochnik in In Pursuit of Silence:  Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise 

Comments are welcome!