Blog Archives

Q; What was the spark that got you started? (Question from Barbara Smith via Facebook)

Ensign Barbara Rachko, circa 1983
Ensign Barbara Rachko, circa 1983

A: If I had to select one factor, I would say, profound unhappiness with my professional life. In 1986 I was a 33-year-old Navy Lieutenant working as a computer analyst at the Pentagon. I hated my job, was utterly miserable, and moreover, I was trapped because unlike many jobs, it’s not possible to resign a Naval commission with two weeks notice.

My bachelor’s degree had been in psychology. When I was in my 20s and before I joined the Navy, I had spent two years and my own money training to become a licensed commercial pilot and Boeing-727 Flight Engineer. I had planned to become an airline pilot, but due to bad timing (airlines were not hiring pilots when I was looking for a job), that did not come to pass.

So there I was with absolutely no interest, nor any training in computers, working for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and completely bored. I knew I must have taken a wrong turn somewhere and resolved to make a significant change. Searching around, I discovered a local art school, the Art League School in Alexandria, VA, and began taking drawing classes.

One drawing class lead to more. Within a couple of years, due to being highly motivated to change my life, my technical skills rapidly improved. Even then, I believe, it was obvious to anyone who knew me that I had found my calling. I resigned my active duty Naval commission and have been a fulltime professional artist since October 1989. (Note: For fourteen more years I remained in the Naval Reserve working, mostly at the Pentagon, one weekend a month and two weeks each year, and retired as a Navy Commander in 2003).

Life as a self-employed professional artist is endlessly varied, fulfilling, and interesting. I have never once regretted my decision to pursue art fulltime!

Comments are welcome!

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

A wall in Barbara's studio

A wall in Barbara’s studio

A:  When I left the active duty Navy in 1989, my co-workers threw a farewell party.  One of the parting gifts I received was a small plaque from a young enlisted woman whom I had supervised. The words on the plaque deeply resonated with me, since I was about to make a significant, risky, and scary career change.  It was the perfect gift for someone facing the uncertainty of an art career.

Many years later Tina’s plaque is still a proud possession of mine.  It is hanging on the wall behind my easel, to be read every day as I work.  It says:

“Excellence can be attained if you…

Care more than others think is wise…

Risk more than others think is safe…

Dream more than others think is practical…

Expect more than others think is possible.”

Comments are welcome!

 

 

Q: Would you speak about the creative process that resulted in your 1994 pastel painting, “Amok”?

Barbara with “Amok” photo and painting
Barbara with “Amok,” c-print and pastel painting

A: Behind me in the photo above is one of my circa 1994 50” x 40” c-prints, signed by both Bryan, my late husband, and me. The photo was my reference for a pastel painting titled, “Amok” (right, above).

I staged these photos in our Alexandria house (staged photography was popular then), refined the composition over days or weeks, and lit the scene using two tungsten studio lights. I was careful to accentuate the shadows, doing what I could to light everything as though it were a film noir set. (Film noir is still a favorite movie genre of mine).

In those days I knew nothing about photography so I considered these photos collaborations, since Bryan clicked the shutter. (He typically shot two pieces of film using his old Toyo Omega 4 x 5 view camera with a rented wide angle lens). Bryan was reluctant to take any credit- insisting that the idea, concept, etc. were mine – but I persuaded him to also sign the photos. (How I wish he were still around to fill in forgotten details about our collaboration).

People enjoyed and often asked to purchase the reference photos so I sometimes had them enlarged and sold them. The dragon in the foreground is significant because it was my first purchase in Oaxaca during our initial trip to Mexico.

If anyone is interested, please remind me to tell the (long) story about how I got it home on the plane!  

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 398

Negombo, Sri Lanka 2013

Negombo, Sri Lanka 2013

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

Marcus Aurelius asks us to note the passing of time with open eyes.  Ten thousand years or ten thousand days, nothing can stop time, or change the fact that I would be turning seventy years old in the Year of the Monkey.  Seventy.  Merely a number but one indicating a significant percentage of the allotted sand in an egg timer, with oneself the darn egg.  The grains pour and I find myself missing the dead more than usual.  I notice that I cry more when watching television, triggered by romance, a retiring detective hit in the back while staring into the sea, a weary father lifting his infant from a crib.  I notice that my own tears burn my eyes, that I am no longer a fast runner and that my sense of time seems to be accelerating.

Patty Smith in Year of the Monkey

Comments are welcome!

Q: What advice would you give to up and coming artists, as well as experienced artists, who want to reach the level of publicity and notoriety that you have achieved?

On my studio wall

On my studio wall

A:  I have several pieces of advice:

Build a support network among your fellow artists, teachers, and friends.  It is tough to be an artist, period.  Be sure to read plenty of books by and about artists.  You will learn that all have experienced similar challenges.

Do whatever you must to keep working – no matter what!  Being an artist never gets easier.  There are always new obstacles and you will discover solutions over time.

When I left the active duty Navy in 1989, my co-workers threw a farewell party.  One of the parting gifts I received was a small plaque from a young enlisted woman whom I had supervised.  The words on the plaque deeply resonated with me, since I was about to make a significant and risky career change.  It was the perfect gift for someone facing the uncertainty of an art career. 

Many years later the plaque is still a proud possession of mine.  It hangs on the wall behind my easel, to be read every day as I work.  It says:

“Excellence can be attained if you…

Care more than others think is wise…

Risk more than others think is safe…

Dream more than others think is practical…

Expect more than others think is possible.”

I continue to live by these wise words.

Comments are welcome!

Q: How do you think living in New York affects your work?

Lower Manhattan

Lower Manhattan

A:  Arguably, life in New York provides an artist with direct access to some of the best international art of the past, the present, and probably the future.  It is possible to see more art here – both good and bad – than in any other American city.  

Just pick up any local magazine and scan the art listings!  Our problem is never that there isn’t anything interesting to see or do.  It’s “how do we zero in on the most significant local cultural activities, ones that might contribute to making us better artists?”   

Certainly a visual artist’s work is consciously and unconsciously influenced not only by what she sees in museums and galleries, but by walking around the city.  That’s partly why I am an inveterate walker.  I never know what amazing things I am going to see when I leave my apartment.

Although living in New York City is a rich and heady mix for anyone, it is more so for sensitive artists.  Artists are virtual sponges, soaking up experiences, processing them, and mysteriously expressing them in our work. 

New York lets an artist ponder excellence as we see and experience firsthand what is possible.  The best of the best manages to make its way here.    

Undoubtedly, my own work is richer for having spent the last eighteen years in this fascinating, wild, and crazy city.  For a visual artist New York is an infinitely fascinating place to live.

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: Do you have any essential words that you live by?

Studio wall

Studio wall

A:  I certainly do!  When I left the active duty Navy in 1989, my co-workers threw a farewell party.  One of the parting gifts I received was a small plaque from Tina Greene, a young enlisted woman whom I had supervised.  The words on the plaque deeply resonated with me, since I was about to make a significant, risky, and scary career change.  It was the perfect gift for someone facing the uncertainty of an art career. 

Many years later Tina’s plaque is still a proud possession of mine.  It is hanging on the wall behind my easel, to be read every day as I work.  It says:

“Excellence can be attained if you…

Care more than others think is wise…

Risk more than others think is safe…

Dream more than others think is practical…

Expect more than others think is possible.”

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 122

Sanur, Bali

Sanur, Bali

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

Most significant growth in my life has been the direct result of errors, mistakes, accidents, faulty assumptions and wrong moves.  I have generally learned more from my mistakes and my so-called failures than any successes or instances of “being right.”  I would venture to propose that this equation is also true in the world at large.  Error is a powerful animating ingredient in political, scientific and historical evolution as well as in art and mythology.  Error is a necessity.  The question I had to ask myself was:  how can I cultivate a tolerance and an appetite for being wrong, for error?

In the face of an exceedingly complicated world, there are too many people who are invested in “being right.”  These people are dangerous.  Their authority is based on their sense of certainty.  But innovation and invention do not only happen with smart people who have all of the answers.  Innovation results from trial and error.  The task is to make good mistakes, good errors, in the right direction.

There are many reasons that we get things as wrong as often as we do.  Failures of perception, the cause of most error, are far more common in our daily lives than we like to think.  We make errors because of inattention, because of poor preparation and because of haste.  We err as a result of hardened prejudices about how things are.  We err because we neglect to think things through.  Our senses betray us constantly.  But the chaos caused by being wrong also  awakens energy and consciousness in us.  In the moments that we realize our faults of perception, we are jerked into an awareness of our humanity.  The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek wrote, “Consciousness originates with something going terribly wrong.”

Anne Bogart in “What’s the Story:  Essays about art, theater, and storytelling

Comments are welcome!     

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