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.
Comments are welcome!
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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.
Comments are welcome!
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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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A: At the age of 33 I was a Lieutenant in the Navy, working as computer analyst at the Pentagon. I was very unhappy with my job. I began looking for something else to do and discovered The Art League School in Alexandria, VA. I enrolled in classes with Lisa Semerad, then spent the next two years developing my drawing skills using black and white media (charcoal, pencils, conte crayon, etc.).
After that I moved on to color media and began studying soft pastel with Diane Tesler. During this time I was still in the Navy, working the midnight shift at the Pentagon and taking art classes during the day. I was a very motivated student.
After three years or so I was getting quite proficient as an artist, entering local juried shows, winning prizes, garnering press coverage, etc. Prior to my career change, I worked hard to develop my portrait skills. I really didn’t know how I could make a living other than by making commissioned portraits. I volunteered to run a weekly life drawing class at The Art League School in Alexandria, VA, where I made hundreds of figure drawings using charcoal.
I spent a semester commuting between Washington, DC and New York to study artistic anatomy at the New York Academy of Art. I spent another semester studying gross anatomy with medical students at Georgetown University Medical School. Over time I became skilled at making photo-realistic portraits. In 1989 I resigned from the Navy and have worked full-time as a visual artist ever since.
Comments are welcome!
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