Blog Archives

Pearls from artists* # 274

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.

“Beauty is never enough,” he said.  “Meaning is more important.  If something catches people’s eyes enough to make them move around it, they will build a story around it.  And that will not just be about beauty.”

Eric Charles-Donatien in Feathered Glory:  In a studio in Paris, an old craft is given new life by Burkhard Bilger in The New Yorker, Sept. 25, 2017

Comments are welcome!

Q: Can you talk a little bit about your process? What happens before you even begin a pastel painting?

Barbara in Bali (far right)

Barbara in Bali (far right)

A:  My process is extremely slow and labor-intensive. 

First, there is foreign travel – often to Mexico, Guatemala or someplace in Asia – to find the cultural objects – masks, carved wooden animals, paper mâché figures, and toys – that are my subject matter.  I search the local markets, bazaars, and mask shops for these folk art objects. I look for things that are old, that look like they have a history, and were probably used in religious festivals of some kind. Typically, they are colorful, one-of-a- kind objects that have lots of inherent personality. How they enter my life and how I get them back to my New York studio is an important part of my art-making practice. 

My working methods have changed dramatically over the nearly thirty years that I have been an artist. My current process is a much simplified version of how I used to work.  As I pared down my imagery in the current series, “Black Paintings,” my creative process quite naturally pared down, too. 

One constant is that I have always worked in series with each pastel painting leading quite naturally to the next.  Another is that I always set up a scene, plan exactly how to light and photograph it, and work with a 20″ x 24″ photograph as the primary reference material. 

In the setups I look for eye-catching compositions and interesting colors, patterns, and shadows.  Sometimes I make up a story about the interaction that is occurring between the “actors,” as I call them.

In the “Domestic Threats” series I photographed the scene with a 4″ x 5″ Toyo Omega view camera.  In my “Gods and Monsters” series I shot rolls of 220 film using a Mamiya 6. I still like to use an old analog camera for fine art work, although I have been rethinking this practice.   

Nowadays the first step is to decide which photo I want to make into a painting (currently I have a backlog of photographs to choose from) and to order a 19 1/2″ x 19 1/2″ image (my Mamiya 6 shoots square images) printed on 20″ x 24″ paper.  They recently closed, but I used to have the prints made at Manhattan Photo on West 20th Street in New York.  Now I go to Duggal.  Typically I have in mind the next two or three paintings that I want to create.

Once I have the reference photograph in hand, I make a preliminary tonal charcoal sketch on a piece of white drawing paper.  The sketch helps me think about how to proceed and points out potential problem areas ahead. 

Only then am I ready to start actually making the painting. 

Comments are welcome!    

Q: How did you happen to have a photograph published in The Wall Street Journal?

Sun Tunnels by Nancy Holt

Sun Tunnels by Nancy Holt

   A.  That is a long story.  To get far away from New York for the ten-year anniversary of 9/11, my friend, Donna Tang, and I planned a two-week road trip to see land art sites in Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado. (Donna did excellent research).                                                      

We hoped for a private tour of Roden Crater with James Turrell, which is not easy to arrange.  I had also invited my friend Ann Landi, an art critic and arts writer, to join us, hoping she might get an interview with Turrell and write an article for Artnews.  Turrell has been working on Roden Crater for 30+ years so Ann was interested in seeing it too!  Ann contacted Turrell’s gallery – Gagosian – but they later relayed Turrell’s refusal.  

We were planning to see other land art sites.  As an alternative to Roden Crater and Turrell, Ann pitched a story to The Wall Street Journal about Sun Tunnels and Nancy Holt (Robert Smithson’s wife, who as the only woman in the land art movement, has never been given her due).   The Journal said yes, so Ann made plans to join Donna and me in Salt Lake City.  

The three of us visited Sun Tunnels, Spiral Getty, and other sites together.  Ann had a brand new point-and-shoot camera that she hadn’t yet learned how to use.  I always take lots of photos whenever I travel.  After we returned home, I sent Ann a few images and she asked permission to submit them with her article.  I was thrilled when The Wall Street Journal requested JPEGs.  It was the first time I’ve had a photograph published in a major newspaper.

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 110

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.

A well-lived life should be worth attention.  At the very least, you should find your own story engaging.  In presenting yourself to yourself and others, then, you should keep in mind the rules that good playwrights follow.  Like a good character – you should be making choices that are explicable – choices that appear to be coming from a mind in working order.  Your choices should be reasonably coherent with each other, also, so as to support the thought that there is a real person – you – behind those choices.

Paul Woodruff, philosopher, quoted in What’s the Story:  Essays about art, theater, and storytelling by Anne Bogart

Comments are welcome!  

Q: Would you speak about your first trip to Mexico?

 

With an amate tree at Chalcatzingo

With an amate tree at Chalcatzingo

A:  In the early 90’s my late husband, Bryan, and I made our first trip to Oaxaca and to Mexico City.  At the time I had become fascinated with the Mexican “Day of the Dead” celebrations so our trip was timed to see them firsthand.  Along with busloads of other tourists, we visited several cemeteries in small Oaxacan towns.  The indigenous people tending their ancestor’s graves were so dignified and so gracious, even with so many mostly-American tourists tromping around on a sacred night, that I couldn’t help being taken with these beautiful people and their beliefs.  From Oaxaca we traveled to Mexico City, where again I was entranced, but this time by the rich and ancient history.  On that first trip to Mexico we visited the National Museum of Anthropology, where I was introduced to the fascinating story of ancient Mesoamerican civilizations  (it is still one of my favorite museums in the world); the ancient city of Teotihuacan, which the Aztecs discovered as an abandoned city and then occupied as their own; and the Templo Mayor, the historic center of the Aztec empire, infamous as a place of human sacrifice.  I was astounded!  Why had I never learned in school about Mexico, this highly developed cradle of Western civilization in our own hemisphere, when so much time had been devoted to the cultures of Egypt, Greece, and elsewhere? When I returned home to Virginia I began reading everything I could find about ancient Mexican civilizations, including the Olmec, Zapotec, Mixtec, Aztec, and Maya. This first trip to Mexico opened up a whole new world and was to profoundly influence my future work. I would return there many more times, most recently this past March to study Olmec art and culture.

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 78

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.

To me, openings are never what you want them to be.  The excitement, relief, anxiety, and anticipation are too much to process.  There’s no apotheosis, no pinnacle, no turning point.  It’s not like theater, where at the end of a performance people get up and applaud.

Nothing gets created at an opening.  Nothing of artistic merit takes place.  All of that important stuff happens in the studio, long before the exhibition, when you’re alone.  For me, anyway, openings are something to get through, an ordeal to be endured.  The bigger the event, the less I remember it.  I pretty much walk in, and wherever I stop is where I stay.  I paint a grin on my face so fixed that by the end of the evening my jaw is sore.  I remember none of the conversations.  I stand there shaking hands, blindly mouthing, “Thank you.  Thank you very much.”  Then eventually April [Gornick, Fischl’s wife] collects me and we leave.

If, on the other hand, you were to ask me what I remember about making the paintings in a show, that’s a different story.  Imagine touching something, stroking it, jostling it, caressing it, and as you’re doing this, you are creating it.  How you touched it is how it came into existence.  Unlike other pleasures, where the feelings fade quickly as details become blurred, with paintings you remember everything.  Within the details are all the bumps and the friction, the memory of when the creative instinct flowed, when you were distracted or lazy or working too hard.  It’s all there on the canvas.  When I look at my paintings again, years later, even, I remember it all – the victory laps and the scars.

Eric Fischl and Michael Stone in Bad Boy:  My Life On and Off the Canvas  

Comments  are welcome! 

Q: Can you speak about what draws you to the Mexican and Guatemalan figures that you collect?

Shop in Panajachel, Guatemala, Photo:  Donna Tang

Shop in Panajachel, Guatemala, Photo: Donna Tang

A:  I search the markets and bazaars of Mexico, Guatemala, and elsewhere for folk art objects – masks, carved wooden animals, papier mache figures, children’s toys – to bring back to New York to paint and photograph. Color is very important – the brighter and the more eye-catching the patterns are on these objects the better – plus they must be unique and have lots of personality. I try not to buy anything mass-produced or obviously made for the tourist trade. The objects must have been used or otherwise look like they’ve had a life (i.e., been part of religious festivities) to draw my attention. How and where each one comes into my possession is an important part of my creative process.

Finding, buying, and getting them back to the U.S. is always circuitous, but that, too, is part of the process, an adventure, and often a good story. Here’s an example. In 2009 I was in a small town on the shores of Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, called Panajachel. After returning from a boat ride across the lake, my friends and I were walking back to our hotel when we discovered a wonderful mask store. I spent some time looking around, made my selections, and was ready to buy five exquisitely-made standing wooden figures, when I learned that Tomas, the store owner, did not accept credit cards. I was heart-broken and thought, “Oh, no, I’ll have to leave them behind.” However, thanks to my good friend, Donna, whose Spanish is much more fluent than mine, the three of us brain-stormed until finally, Tomas had an idea. I could pay for the figures at the hotel up the block and in a few days when the hotel was paid by the credit card company, the hotel would pay Tomas. Fabulous! Tomas, Donna, and I walked to the hotel, where the transaction was made and the first hurdle was overcome. Working out the packing and shipping arrangements took another hour or two, but during that time Tomas and I became friends and exchanged telephone numbers (the store didn’t even have a telephone so he gave me the phone number of the post office next door, saying that when I called, he could easily run next door!). Most surprisingly, the package was waiting for me in New York when I returned home from Guatemala.

Comments are welcome!

Q: What have you learned about the people of Mexico through your travels, reading, and research?

A corner of the studio

A corner of the studio

A:  It didn’t take long to become smitten with these beautiful people.  It happened on my first trip there in 1992 when Bryan and I, along with busloads of other tourists, were visiting the Oaxacan cemeteries on The Day of the Dead.  The Oaxaquenos tending their ancestor’s graves were so dignified and so gracious, even with so many mostly-American tourists tromping around on a sacred night, that I couldn’t help being taken with them and with their beliefs.  My studies since that time have given me a deeper appreciation for the art, architecture, history, mythology, etc. that comprise the extremely rich and complex story of Mexico as a cradle of civilization in the West.  It is a wonderfully heady mix and hopefully some of it comes through in my work as a painter and a photographer.

By the way I often wonder why the narrative of Mexico’s fascinating history was not taught in American public schools, at least not where I went to public school in suburban New Jersey.  Mexico is our neighbor, for goodness sake, but when I speak to many Americans about Mexico they have never learned anything about the place!  It’s shocking, but many people think only “Spring Break” and/or “Drug Wars,” when they hear the word “Mexico.”  As a kid I remember learning about Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, and other early civilizations in the Middle East, Europe, and Asia, but very little about Mexico.  We learned about the Maya, when it was still believed that they were a peaceful people who devoted their lives to scientific and religious pursuits, but that story was debunked years ago.  And I am fairly sure that not many Americans even know that Maya still exist in the world … in Mexico and in Guatemala.   There are a few remote places that were not completely destroyed by Spanish Conquistadores in the 16th century and later.  I’ve been to Mayan villages in Guatemala and seen shamans performing ancient rituals.  For an artist from a place as rooted in the present moment as New York, it’s an astounding thing to witness!  

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 58

Cabo San Lucas, Mexico

Cabo San Lucas, 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.

I remember as a teenager having a group of friends at school and another group whom I spent the weekends with.  I functioned fine until on occasions when I was with friends from both groups at the same time.  Then it became really difficult, because I was used to acting very differently with the two groups.  With one I was the leader, very vocal and outspoken about my opinions.  With the other group I wanted desperately to belong and so I adapted to fit in, which meant not really being myself.

The lack of authenticity is painful.  It applies to all levels of life.  If our voice as a painter is inauthentic, we’re in trouble.  In the end there is nothing so compelling as to be yourself.  This is why being an artist can be so exhilarating.  If you want to uncover your truth, you have a daily technique to come to terms with your limitations and to overcome them.  You have an opportunity to look at the limiting stories you have written in your head and heart and rewrite them with boldness and vision.  The quality of your attention influences how you see things. 

What you put your attention on grows stronger in your life.  Life, if you look around you, whether inside or in nature, is one bubbling mass of creativity.  Recognize we have no shortage of it.  If you focus your attention on what you now decide is fundamental , that quality will grow in your life.  Not what our parents or teachers or friends or media or anybody says or said.  What we now put our attention on will grow in our life.  If you want to paint and put your focus there you will unleash a torrent of energy and enthusiasm.

Ian Roberts in Creative Authenticity:  16 Principles to Clarify and Deepen Your Artistic Vision

Comments are welcome!