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Q: Why art? (Question from “Arts Illustrated”)

Barbara’s studio
Barbara’s studio

A: I love this question!  I remember being impressed by Ursula von Rydingsvard’s exhibition at the National Museum of Women in the Arts a few years ago.  What stayed with me most was her wall text, “Why Do I Make Art by Ursula von Rydingsvard.”  There she listed a few dozen benefits that art-making has brought to her life.

I want to share some of my own personal reasons for art-making here, in no particular order.  My list keeps changing, but these are true at least for today. 

1.   Because I love the entire years-long creative process – from foreign travel whereby I discover new source material, to deciding what I will make, to the months spent in the studio realizing my ideas, to packing up my newest pastel painting and bringing it to my Virginia framer’s shop, to seeing the framed piece hanging on a collector’s wall, to staying in touch with collectors over the years and learning how their relationship to the work changes.

2.   Because I love walking into my studio in the morning and seeing all of that color!  No matter what mood I am in, my spirit is immediately uplifted.  

3.   Because my studio is my favorite place to be… in the entire world.  I’d say that it is my most precious creation.  It’s taken more than twenty-two years to get it this way.  I hope I never have to move!

4.   Because I get to listen to my favorite music all day.

5.   Because when I am working in the studio, if I want, I can tune out the world and all of its urgent problems.  The same goes for whatever personal problems I am experiencing.

6.   Because I am devoted to my medium.  How I use pastel continually evolves.  It’s exciting to keep learning about its properties and to see what new techniques will develop.

7.   Because I have been given certain gifts and abilities and that entails a sacred obligation to USE them.  I could not live with myself were I to do otherwise.

8.   Because art-making gives meaning and purpose to my life.  I never wake up in the morning wondering, how should I spend the day?  I have important work to do and a place to do it.  I know this is how I am supposed to be spending my time on earth.

9.   Because I have an enviable commute.  To get to my studio it’s a thirty-minute walk, often on the High Line early in the morning before throngs of tourists have arrived.

10.  Because life as an artist is never easy.  It’s a continual challenge to keep forging ahead, but the effort is also never boring.  

11.  Because each day in the studio is different from all the rest. 

12.  Because I love the physicality of it.  I stand all day.  I’m always moving and staying fit.

13.  Because I have always been a thinker more than a talker.  I enjoy and crave solitude.  I am often reminded of the expression, “She who travels the farthest, travels alone.”  In my work I travel anywhere.

14.  Because spending so much solitary time helps me understand what I think and feel and to reflect on the twists and turns of my unexpected and fascinating life.

15.  Because I learn about the world.  I read and do research that gets incorporated into the work.

16.  Because I get to make all the rules.  I set the challenges and the goals, then decide what is succeeding and what isn’t.  It is working life at its most free.

17.  Because I enjoy figuring things out for myself instead of being told what to do or how to think.

18.  Because despite enormous obstacles, I am still able to do it.  Art-making has been the focus of my life for thirty-three years – I was a late bloomer – and I intend to continue as long as possible.

19.  Because I have been through tremendous tragedy and deserve to spend the rest of my life doing exactly what I love.  The art world has not caught up yet, but so be it.  This is my passion and my life’s work and nothing will change that.

20.  Because thanks to the internet and via social media, my work can be seen in places I have never been to and probably will never go.

21.  Because I would like to be remembered.  The idea of leaving art behind for future generations to appreciate and enjoy is appealing.

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 425

Gladstone, NJ

Gladstone, NJ

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

And yet books were faithful companions for Vincent, an important source of sustenance during his times of melancholy:  he periodically re-read his favourites, finding new meaning in the text and illustrations each time.  Van Gogh read in at least two ways: first “breathlessly,’ and then ‘by careful exploration.’  But we could add a third and a fourth way:  thirdly as an artist, and fourthly from the perspective of the writer he perhaps knew himself to be.  To Vincent, reading books meant above all to ‘seek in them the artist who made them,’ as he wrote to his sister Willemien.  He sought to open an internal dialogue with other writers as artists, and meditated on their words, stopping to consider and reconsider a phrase to make it resonate within him  He did this in more than one language – internalizing words, ruminating, bending them to his will, and finally assigning them to a fate of his choosing, over the years.  Remarkably several Prefaces by French Naturalist novelists such as Zola, De Goncourts or Maupassant (today considered genuine manifestos) were among the pages that truly challenged and engaged his mind.  In them he found the freedom that he was seeking in painting – the ‘confirmation’ of his own ideas, inspiration and encouragement.  The work of the illustrators of his favorite books and magazines equally attracted him and had a lingering effect on him, on which he paused to reflect repeatedly, extracting inspiration indirectly.              
Mariella Guzzoni in Vincent’s Books:  Van Gogh and the Writers Who Inspired Him 

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 410

Mexico City

Mexico City

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

Faced with the disparities between lived reality and America’s professed ideals of inclusion and equity, countless artists have begun embracing the social role of art and using aesthetic means to speak out against all manner of injustice.  In such a climate, the Mexican muralists [Jose Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera, and David Alfaro Siqueiros] have once again emerged as models of how to marry aesthetic rigor and vitality to socially conscious subject matter that addresses the most fundamental questions concerning our collective pursuit of a more just and equitable society.  Not withstanding the rich cultural ties and decades of migration that have long existed between the United States and Mexico, the relationship between the two countries has always been fraught, marked as much by mutual wariness and bouts of hostility as by a spirit of camaraderie and cooperation  Yet the ugliness and xenophobia of the recent debates on the American side echoes the worst of the past.  It thus seems more imperative than ever to acknowledge the profound and enduring influence Mexican muralism has had on artmaking in the United States and to highlight the beauty and power that can emerge from the free and vibrant cultural exchange between the two countries.  As much as did American artists decades ago, artists in the United States today stand to benefit from an awareness of how dynamically and inventively the Mexican muralists used their art to project the ideals of compassion, justice, and solidarity.  They remain a source of powerful inspiration for their seamless synthesis of ethics, art, and action.

Vida Americana:  Mexican Muralists Remake American Art, 1925 – 1945, edited by Barbara Haskell

Comments are welcome!

Q: Do you have a favorite art book?

Favorite art book

Favorite art book

A:  Since I have quoted numerous passages from it on Wednesdays in “Pearls from artists,” it should come as no surprise that I am enamored of “Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice: A Treatise, Critique, and Call to Action” by JF Martel.  This gem has become a bible to be read and reread as an endless source of wisdom, inspiration, and solace for myself and for other contemporary artists.  I even referred to it while writing the mission statement for New York Dreamers Art Group, the artists’ collective founded earlier this year.

Were someone to ask “what one book would you recommend that every visual artist read?”, Martel’s masterwork is my answer.  It is a constant companion kept in my backpack to reread at odd times whenever I have spare moments.  I keep finding new insights to savor and ponder and still cannot get enough of this terrific book!

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 355

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

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

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

True art provides us with truth in a manner analogous to science.  Its prophetic dimension – its knack for showing us the side of things that our interests blind us to – make it a source of knowledge, even though it is knowledge of a kind that instrumental reason has little time for.  The psychologists who revolutionized our understanding of human psychology in the earliest twentieth century drew on two principal sources to build their concepts:  the dream life of their patients and the great art of the past.  Without this recognition of the primacy of imagination, Freud and Jung could never have drawn their maps of the psyche.  Those who work for a better world would do well to follow their example and find the guiding patterns of life in the prophetic artistic works of the past and present.  Only art can act as a counter-weight to that uniquely modern mentality that, wherever it becomes the only game in town, seeks to persuade us that the proper goal of human beings is to contain, dissect, and control everything – that even the most persistent mysteries are just problems to be solved.

J.F. Martel in Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice:  A Treatise, Critique, and Call to Action 

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 348

“The Orator” in “Worlds Seen & Unseen” at Westbeth Gallery, NYC

“The Orator” in “Worlds Seen & Unseen” at Westbeth Gallery, NYC

*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 percipient apprehends the primal quality of art as beauty and symbol, in an experience that invariably involves a sense of radical mystery.  Art dissolves the fog of Consensus in which we normally operate to reveal the unseen in the situation.  It places us in exactly the same position as the first people who stared up at the stars in wonder.  The work of art is perpetually new; it demands reinterpretation with each era, each generation, each percipient.  Great works of art are like inexhaustible springs originating from a place beyond our “little world of man.”  They reconnect us with a reality too vast for the rational mind to comprehend.  Therefore, art can be described as the human activity through which our all-too-human mentality is overcome and in light of which all finite judgments are shown to be inefficient.  It is at once a sinking to the source and a leap toward the infinite.   

J.F. Martel in Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice:  A Treatise, Critique, and Call to Action 

Comments are welcome!

Q: In the “Bolivianos” series you are exclusively depict masks. What drew you to them?

Source material for “The Champ”

Source material for “The Champ”

A:  For me a mask is so much more than a mask.  It is a living thing with its own mind, its own soul, and with a unique history.  With this series I feel as though I am creating portraits of living beings.  

These images are a return to my early days because I began as a photo-realist portrait painter.  So I am reconnecting with a first love, except with a welcome twist.  This time I do not have to satisfy a portrait client’s request to make my subject look younger or more handsome.  I am free to respond only to what the work needs. 

Comments are welcome!     

Pearls from artists* # 188

"Offering," soft pastel on sandpaper, 20" x 26"

“Offering,” 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.

HM:  In order to create a work of art, you need an artist, an object, the work, and the audience.  Indeed, where there’s no audience, there’s no artist.  Renoir used to say, “No painters in Hamlet.” meaning that on a desert island you wouldn’t paint.

( I confess I am a little surprised.  For my part, I find it difficult to believe that the true artist cannot work without hope.  It seems to me that art is first and foremost an internal necessity, a need to escape from life.  It is true that this is closer to the mystics’ point of view and that the artist, if he does not work directly for his contemporaries, at least looks forward to some future resonance.  Nonetheless, I ask the same question again.)  

PC:  Even a true painter wouldn’t paint on a desert island?

HM:  No…  Painting is a means of communication, a language.  An artist is an exhibitionist.  Take away his spectators and the exhibitionist slinks off with his hands in his pockets.

The audience is the material in which you work.  You don’t see the face of the audience.  It’s huge, an immense mass.  The public is – listen, it’s the man you encounter one fine day, who says, “Monsieur Matisse, I can’t tell you how much I love your picture, the one you exhibited at the salon,” and this man is a clerk who could never spend a red cent on painting.  The public is not the buyer; the public is the sensitive material on which you hope to leave an imprint.

PC:  Through the picture, the audience returns to the source of emotion.

HM:  Yes, and the artist is the actor, the fellow with the wheedling voice who won’t rest until he’s told you his life story.     

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

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 166

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

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

An interesting discussion at Leblond’s about geniuses and outstanding men.  Dimier thinks that great passions are the source of all genius!  I think that it is imagination alone or, what amounts to the same thing, a delicacy of the senses that makes some men see where others are blind, or rather, makes them see in a different way.  I said that even great passions joined to imagination usually lead to a disordered mind.  Dufresne made a very true remark.  He said that fundamentally, what made a man outstanding was his absolutely personal way of seeing things.  He extended this to include great captains, etc. and, in fact, great minds of every kind.  Hence, no rules whatsoever for the greatest minds; rules are only for people who merely have talent, which can be acquired.  The proof is that genius cannot be transmitted.

The Journal of Eugene Delacroix edited by Hubert Wellington

Comments are welcome! 

Q: How do you decide how much realism and how much imagination to put into a pastel painting?

Models, reference photograph, and pastel painting in progress

Models, reference photograph, and pastel painting in progress

A:  I wouldn’t say “decide” is the right word because creating a painting is not strictly the result of conscious decisions.  I think of my reference photograph, my preliminary sketch, and the actual folk art objects I depict as starting points.  Over the months that it takes to make a pastel painting, the resulting interpretive development pushes the painting far beyond this source material.  When all goes well, the original material disappears and characters that belong to the painting and nowhere else emerge.  

It is a mysterious process that I am still struggling to understand.  This is the best way I can describe what it feels like from the inside, as the maker.  

Comments are welcome!  

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