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Pearls from artists* # 153

“So What?”, 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.

Ours is an excessively conscious age.  We know so much, we feel so little.  I have lived enough around painters and around studios to have had all the theories – and how contradictory they are – rammed down my throat.  A man has to have a gizzard like an ostrich to digest all the brass tacks and wire nails of modern art theories.  Perhaps all the theories, the utterly indigestible theories, like nails in an ostrich’s gizzard, do indeed help to grind small and make digestible all the emotional and aesthetic pabulum that lies in an artist’s soul.  But they can serve no other purpose.  Not even corrective.  The modern theories of art make real pictures impossible.  You only get these expositions, critical ventures in paint, and fantastic negations.  And the bit of fantasy that may lie in the negation – as in a Dufy or a de Chirico – is just the bit that has escaped theory and perhaps saves the picture.  Theorise, theorise all you like – but when you start to paint, shut your theoretic eyes and go for it with instinct and intuition.

D.H. Lawrence:  Making Pictures in The Creative Process, edited by Brewster Ghiselin

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: Were there any other artists in your family?

“The Ancestors,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 58″ x 38,” 2013

A:  Unfortunately, I have not been able to reconstruct my family tree further back than two generations.  So as far as I can tell, I am the first artist of any sort, whether musician, actor, dancer, writer, etc. in my  family.  

Both sets of grandparents emigrated to the United States from Europe.  On my mother’s side my Polish grandparents died by the time my mother was 16, years before I was born.  

My paternal grandparents both lived into their 90s.  My father’s mother spoke Czech, but since I did not, it was difficult to communicate.  I never heard any stories about the family she left behind.  My grandfather spoke English, but I don’t remember him ever talking about his childhood or telling stories about his former life.  My most vivid memories of my grandfather are seeing him in the living room watching Westerns on an old-fashioned television.

Sometimes I am envious of artists who had parents, siblings, or extended family who were artists.  How I would have loved to grow up with a family member who was an artist and a role model! 

Comments are welcome!  

Q: Is it possible to sum up your creative practice in seven words?

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

A:  Steadily striving to become a better artist.  Of course, others determine how successful we have been in this regard.

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!  

Pearls from artists* # 139

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

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

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

Leaving a show of Pat Steir’s work called Winter Paintings at Cheim & Read Gallery, I thought back some years to when the Walker Art Center’s then curator Richard Flood was walking us through the Center’s collection and we came upon an abstract expressionist painting by Joan Mitchell that was so striking I asked him why it had taken so long for her to be recognized.  He answered with a wry expression:  “It’s the problem of beauty!”

A few days earlier our friends Kol and Dash came to lunch at our home, and Dash said at this time most visual art is conceptual.  “It’s a way of thinking,” she said.

Story/Time:  The Life of an Idea/Bill T. Jones

Comments are welcome! 

Q: You often speak about the Mexican and Guatemalan figures in your paintings as serving a function analogous to actors in a repertory company. In other words, a particular figure plays a different role each time it appears in one of your pastel paintings. Would you choose a figure and show how you have painted it through the years?

 

A Chinese-influenced figure Barbara brought home from Mexico City in 1999.

A Chinese-influenced figure Barbara brought home from Mexico City in 1999.

"Answering the Call," 58" x 38," soft pastel on sandpaper, 2000

“Answering the Call,” 58″ x 38,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 2000

"Scene Fifteen:  Living Room," 26" x 20" soft pastel on sandpaper, 2002

“Scene Fifteen: Living Room,” 26″ x 20″ soft pastel on sandpaper, 2002

 

"Sometimes He Still Tried to Restrain Her," 58" x 38," soft pastel on sandpaper, 2005

“Sometimes He Still Tried to Restrain Her,” 58″ x 38,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 2005

"Scene Twenty-One:  Living Room," 20" x 26," soft pastel on sandpaper, 2006 (see feet at top)

“Scene Twenty-One: Living Room,” 20″ x 26,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 2006 (see feet at top)

"Epiphany," 38" x 58," soft pastel on sandpaper, 2012

“Epiphany,” 38″ x 58,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 2012

"The Ancestors," soft pastel on sandpaper, 58" x 38," 2013

“The Ancestors,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 58″ x 38,” 2013

"The Storyteller," soft pastel on sandpaper, 20" x 26," 2014

“The Storyteller,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 20″ x 26,” 2014

And she is in the painting that is on my easel now.  See my February 14 blog post.

Comments are welcome!

Q: In the “Black Paintings” you create a deep intellectual interaction and communicate a wide variety of states of mind. I admit that certain “Black Paintings” unsettle me a bit. I see in this series an effective mix between anguish and happiness. Rather than simply describing something, these paintings pose a question and force us to contemplation. Can you talk about this aspect of your work?

"The Storyteller," soft pastel on sandpaper, 20" x 26"

“The Storyteller,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 20″ x 26″

A:  I’m sure you and other viewers will see all kinds of states of mind, like anguish, happiness, and everything in between.  I think that’s wonderful because it means my work is communicating a message to you.  Sometimes people have told me that my images are unsettling and that’s fine, too.  I would never presume to tell anyone what to think about my work.  As one reviewer put it, “What you bring to my work you get back in spades!”  

Some of this is intentional, but some is not.  My day-to-day experiences – what I’m thinking about, what I’m feeling, what I’m reading, the music I’m listening to, etc. –  get embedded into the work. I don’t understand exactly how that happens, but I am glad it happens. This work does come from a deep place, much deeper than I am able to explain even to myself. After nearly three decades as an artist, the intricacies of my creative process are still a mystery. Personally, I am very fond of mysteries and don’t need to understand it all.  

Comments are welcome!

Q: How do you decide on the titles for your pastel paintings?

"Stigmata," soft pastel on sandpaper, 28" x 48"

“Stigmata,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 28″ x 48″

A:  Usually a title suggests itself over the course of the months I spend on a painting.  Sometimes it comes from a book I’m reading, from a piece of music, a film, bits of overheard conversation.  A title can come from anywhere, but finding the best one is key.  I like what Jean Cocteau says about this:

One title alone exists.  It will be, so it is.  Time conceals it from me.  How discover it, concealed by  a hundred others?  I have to avoid the this, the that.  Avoid the image.  Avoid the descriptive and the undescriptive.  Avoid the exact meaning and the inexact.  The soft, the hard.  Neither long nor short.  Right to catch the eye, the ear, the mind.  Simple to read and to remember.  I had announced several.  I had to repeat them twice and the journalists still got them wrong.  My real title defies me.  It enjoys its hiding place, like a child one keeps calling, and whom one believes drowned in the pond.    

Once I have the best title, I make sure it fits the painting exactly.  How I do that is difficult to explain.  It’s an intuitive process that involves adjusting colors, shapes, and images so that they fit the painting’s meaning, i.e., the meaning hinted at by the title.

Comments are welcome!        

Q: What is it about soft pastel that you find so intriguing that you use it as your primary fine art medium?

Some of Barbara's pastels

Some of Barbara’s pastels

A:  For starters it’s the medium that I fell in love with many years ago.  I recently read this article online, “What is Pastel?” by Mike Mahon, and will quote it because it neatly sums up  what I love about working with pastel.

Pastel is the most permanent of all media when applied to conservation ground and properly framed. Pastel has no liquid binder that may cause it to oxidize with the passage of time as oftentimes happens with other media.

In this instance, Pastel does not refer to pale colors, as the word is commonly used in cosmetic and fashion terminology. The pure, powdered pigment is ground into a paste with a minimum amount of gum binder, rolled into sticks and dried. The infinite variety of colors in the Pastel palette range from soft and subtle to hard and brilliant.

An artwork is created by stroking the stick of dry pigment across an abrasive ground, embedding the color in the “tooth” of the ground. If the ground is completely covered with Pastel, the work is considered a Pastel painting; whereas, leaving much of the ground exposed produces a Pastel sketch. Techniques vary with individual artists. The Pastel medium is favored by many artists because it allows a spontaneous approach. There is no drying time, therefore, no change in color occurs after drying as it does in other media.

Did you know that a particle of Pastel pigment seen under a microscope looks like a diamond with many facets? It does! Therefore, Pastel paintings reflect light like a prism. No other medium has the same power of color or stability.

Historically, Pastel can be traced back to the 16th century. Its invention is attributed to the German painter, Johann Thiele. A Venetian woman, Rosalba Camera, was the first to make consistent use of Pastel. Chardin did portraits with an open stroke, while La Tour preferred the blended finish. Thereafter, a galaxy of famous artists—Watteau, Copley, Delacroix, Millet, Manet, Renoir, Toulouse Lautrec, Vuillard, Bonnard, Glackens, Whistler, Hassam, William Merritt Chase—used Pastel for a finished work rather than for preliminary sketches.

Pastels from the 16th century exist today, as fresh as the day they were painted. Edgar Degas was the most prolific user of Pastel and its champion. His protégé, Mary Cassat, introduced Pastel to her friends in Philadelphia and Washington, and thus to the United States. In the Spring of 1983, Sotheby Parke Bernet sold at auction, two Degas Pastels for more than $3,000,000 each! Both Pastels were painted about 1880.

Note: Do not confuse Pastel with “colored chalk.” Chalk is a porous, limestone substance impregnated with dyes, whereas, Pastel is pure pigment—the same as is used in other permanent painting media.

Today, Pastel paintings have the stature of oil and watercolor as a major fine art medium. Many of our most renowned, living artists have distinguished themselves in Pastel and have enriched the art world with this beautiful medium.

So knowing all this, I often wonder, why don’t more artists use pastel?  Is it because framing is a big issue?  Works on paper need to be framed and pastel paintings have unique problems (see my April 27, 2013 blog post).  Second only to the cost of maintaining a studio in New York City, frames are my single largest business expense.  Sometimes I am grateful that pastel is a very slow medium.  I typically finish 4 or 5 paintings in a year, which means I only have to pay for 4 or 5 frames!

Comments are welcome!