A: Art helps me explore and understand other cultures by revealing our shared humanity across space and time. For me art and travel are intertwined; there is no better education! My art-making has led me to visit fascinating places in search of source material, ideas, and inspiration: to Mexico, Guatemala, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, France, England, Italy, Bali, Java, Sri Lanka, and India. I have seen firsthand that people all over the world are the same.
Art has led me to undertake in-depth studies of intriguing subjects: drawing, color, composition, art, art history, the art business, film, film history, photography, mythology, literature, music, jazz, jazz history, and archaeology, particularly that of ancient Mesoamerica (Olmec, Zapotec, Mixtec, Aztec, and Maya), and South America (the Inca and their ancestors).
This rich mixture of creative influences continually grows. For anyone wanting to spend their time on earth studying, learning, and meeting new challenges, there is hardly anything more fascinating than to be a well-travelled, perpetually curious artist!
Comments are welcome!
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A: In the late 1980s when I was studying at the Art League School in Alexandria, VA, I enrolled in a three-day pastel workshop with Albert Handel, an artist known for his southwest landscapes in pastel and oil paint. I had just begun working with soft pastel and was experimenting with paper. Handel suggested I try Ersta fine sandpaper. I did and nearly three decades later, I’ve never used anything else.
This paper is acid-free and accepts dry media, mainly pastel and charcoal. It allows me to build up layer upon layer of pigment and blend, without having to use a fixative. The tooth of the paper almost never gets filled up so it continues to hold pastel. (On the rare occasion when the tooth DOES fill up, which sometimes happens with problem areas that are difficult to resolve, I take a bristle paintbrush, dust off the unwanted pigment, and start again). My entire technique – slowly applying soft pastel, blending and creating new colors directly on the paper, making countless corrections and adjustments, rendering minute details, looking for the best and/or most vivid colors – evolved in conjunction with this paper.
I used to say that if Ersta ever went out of business and stopped making sandpaper, my artist days would be over. Thankfully, when that DID happen, UArt began making a very similar paper. I buy it in two sizes – 22″ x 28″ sheets and 56″ wide by 10-yard-long rolls. The newer version of the rolled paper is actually better than the old, because when I unroll it, it lays flat immediately. With Ersta I would lay the paper out on the floor for weeks before the curl would give way and it was flat enough to work on.
Comments are welcome!
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*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 learned about the Japanese word irimi while studying Aikido, a Japanese martial art. Simply translated, irimi means ,’to enter’ but it can also be translated ‘choose death.’ When attacked you always have two options: to enter, irimi, or to go around, ura. Both when accomplished in the right manner, are creative. To enter or to ‘choose death’ means to enter fully with the acceptance, if necessary, of death. The only way to win is to risk everything and be fully willing to die. If this is an extreme notion to Occidental sensibilities, it does make sense in creative practice. To achieve the violence of decisiveness, one has to ‘choose death’ in the moment by acting fully and intuitively without pausing for reflection about whether it is the right decision or if it is going to provide the winning solution.
It is also valuable to know when to use ura, or going around. There is a time for ura, going around, and there is a time for irimi, entering. And these times can never be known in advance. You must sense the situation and act immediately. In the heat of creation, there is no time for reflection; there is only connection to what is happening. The analysis, the reflection and the criticism belong before and after, never during, the creative act.
Anne Bogart in “A Director Prepares: Seven Essays on Art and Theater”
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A: On September 11, 2001, my husband Bryan, a high-ranking federal government employee, a brilliant economist (with an IQ of 180 he is the smartest man I have ever known) and a budget analyst at the Pentagon, was en route to Monterrey, CA to give his monthly guest lecture for an economics class at the Naval Postgraduate College. He had the horrible misfortune of flying out of Dulles Airport and boarding the plane that was high-jacked and crashed into the Pentagon, killing 189 people. Losing Bryan was the biggest shock of my life and devastating in every possible way.
The following summer I was ready to – I HAD to – get back to work. Learning about photography and pastel painting became avenues to my well-being. I use reference photos for my paintings, so my first challenge was to learn how to use Bryan’s 4 x 5 view camera (Bryan always took these reference photos for me).
In July 2002 I enrolled in a one-week view camera workshop at the International Center of Photography in New York. Much to my surprise, I had already acquired substantial technical knowledge from watching Bryan. Still, after the initial workshop, I threw myself into this new medium and continued studying photography at ICP for several years. I began with Photography I and enrolled in many more classes until I gradually learned how to use Bryan’s extensive camera collection, to properly light my setups, and to print large chromogenic photographs in a darkroom.
In October 2009 it was very gratifying to have my first solo photography exhibition with HP Garcia in New York. Please see http://barbararachko.art/images/PDFS/ BarbaraRachko-HPGargia.pdf. I vividly remember tearing up at the opening as I imagined Bryan looking down at me with his beautiful smile, beaming as he surely would have, so proud of me for having become a respected photographer.
Continuing to make art had seemed an impossibility after Bryan’s death. However, the first large pastel painting that I created using a self-made reference photograph proved my life’s work could continue. The title of that painting, “She Embraced It and Grew Stronger,” is certainly autobiographical. “She” is me, and “it” means continuing on without Bryan and living life for both of us.
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Q: How long did it take you to discover the properties of pastel? (Liliana Mileo via facebook.com/BarbaraRachko/)
A: After I moved to Alexandria, Virginia in the mid-1980s, I began taking classes at The Art League School. I was extremely unhappy with my career as a Navy Lieutenant. I worked as a computer analyst for the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon and was searching for something more meaningful to do with my life.
I began with a basic drawing class and liked it. I enrolled in more classes and decided to spend two years working exclusively in black and white media, such as charcoal and graphite, before advancing to color. Fortunately, early on I found an excellent teacher in Lisa Semerad. I remain deeply grateful for the strong foundational drawing skills she imparted to me during this period.
After two years I tried water color and soon discovered it was not for me, a perfectionist who needs to refine my work. Then I tried etching and found it extremely tedious, the antithesis of instant gratification.
Finally I began studying soft pastel with Diane Tesler, another gifted teacher, and fell in love with this medium! At The Art League School I also completed a one-week workshop with Albert Handell, who introduced me to the archival sandpaper that I have been using ever since.
While I fell in love with pastel three decades ago, I continue to learn about its unique properties. I am pushing pastel to new heights as my techniques continually evolve. This is a lifetime journey of learning. I hope to never know all there is to know.
Comments are welcome! Ask anything and I may answer in a future blog post, as you’ve seen here with Liliana’s question.
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Q: Where did you grow up and what were some early milestones or experiences that contributed to you becoming an artist later in life?
A: I grew up in a blue collar family in Clifton, New Jersey, a suburb about fifteen miles west of Manhattan. My father was a television repairman for RCA. My mother stayed home to raise my sister and me (at the time I had only one sister, Denise; my sister Michele was born much later). My parents were both first-generation Americans and no one in my extended family had gone to college yet. I was a smart kid who showed some artistic talent in kindergarten and earlier. I remember copying the Sunday comics, which in those days appeared in all the newspapers, and drawing small still lifes I arranged for myself. I have always been able to draw anything, as long as I can see it.
Denise, a cousin, and I enrolled in Saturday morning “art classes” at the studio of a painter named Frances Hulmes in Rutherford, NJ. I was about 6 years old. I continued the classes for 8 years and became a fairly adept oil painter. Since we lived so close to New York City, my mother often took us to museums, particularly to the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Museum of Natural History. Like so many young girls, I fell in love with Rousseau’s “The Sleeping Gypsy” and was astonished by Picasso’s “Guernica” when it was on long-term loan to MoMA. I have fond memories of studying the dioramas at the Museum of Natural History (they are still my favorite part of the museum). As far as I know, there were no artists in my family so, unfortunately, I had no role models. At the age of 14 my father decided that art was not a serious pursuit – declaring, it is “a hobby, not a profession” – and abruptly stopped paying for my Saturday morning lessons. With no financial or moral support to pursue art, I turned my attention to other interests, letting my artistic abilities go dormant.
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A: Yes, it was a small head-and-neck portrait of a live model in a figure drawing class at The Art League School in Alexandria, VA. I don’t know what became of it.
I also remember the first pastel painting that I ever framed because it is still hanging in my Alexandria house. It is dated 1988 (see photo) and was made in a one-week workshop with Diane Tesler at The Art League. The workshop was specifically to teach artists how to paint from photographs and it was my first time studying with Diane. I made the mistake of bringing, as reference material, a magazine photograph that was originally a perfume ad in the The Sunday Times Magazine. Diane tactfully explained that it was wrong to use someone else’s photograph instead of my own, but let me do it this one time.
So many years later walking by my painting I still think of Diane. She taught me a valuable lesson: do not use anyone else’s photographs, ever!
Comments are welcome!
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A: I’m working on a small 20″ x 26″ pastel painting called, “Troublemaker.” The reference photo is a favorite that I shot with Bryan’s old Nikon F1 in 2002, when I first began studying in earnest at the International Center of Photography. The painting is very similar to the photo because I think the photo is quite good.
Comments are welcome!
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A: In one way or another I suppose I do. Of course, I don’t go to the studio six days a week like I used to, but I generally work five days, about seven to eight hours per day. When I am not actually in the studio working at my easel, I try to make use of my time in ways that, hopefully, will make me a better artist. I am usually reading, studying, looking at art, talking to friends who are artists, thinking about my creative practice, etc. Art and everything related to it are naturally the focus of my life.
Comments are welcome!
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Q: You took classes at The Art League School in Alexandria, VA in the late eighties studying intensely with Lisa Semerad and Diane Tesler. How have these experiences impacted on the way you currently produce your artworks? By the way, I sometimes wonder if a certain kind of formal training in artistic disciplines could even stifle a young artist’s creativity. What do you think?
A: From studying with Lisa and Diane I gained an excellent technical foundation and developed my ability to draw and depict just about anything in soft pastel. They were both extremely effective teachers and I worked hard in their classes. I probably got my work ethic from them. Without Diane and Lisa I doubt I would have gained the necessary skills nor the confidence to move to New York to pursue my art career.
Needless to say, I believe developing excellent technical skills is paramount. Artists can, and should, go ahead and break the rules later, but they won’t be able to make strong work, expressing what they want, without a firm foundation. Once you have the skills, you can focus on the things that really make your work come alive and speak to an appreciative audience.
Comments are welcome!
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