Blog Archives

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!     

Q: What was the first painting you ever sold?

“Bryan’s Ph.D.”, 11″ x 13 1/2″, soft pastel on sandpaper

A:  I believe my first sale was “Bryan’s Ph.D.”  I made it in 1990 as one of several small paintings created to improve my skills at rendering human hands in pastel.  I had recently left the Navy and was building a career as a portrait artist.  Bryan, my late husband, was often my model for these studies, not only because it was convenient, but because he had such beautiful hands. 

In 1990 Bryan was working on his Ph.D. in economics at the University of Maryland.  In this painting he is drawing a diagram that illustrates a theoretical point about “international public goods,” the subject of his research.  He was sitting in an old wooden rocking chair in our backyard in Alexandria, VA.  I still own the chair and the house.  I photographed his hands close-up and then created the painting.  I don’t remember which of Bryan’s cameras I used, but it was one that took 35 mm film; perhaps his Nikon F-2.  Somewhere I must still have the negative and the original reference photo.

“Bryan’s Ph.D.” is 11″ x 13 1/2″ and it sold for $500 at a monthly juried exhibition at The Art League in Alexandria.  I have not seen it since 1990.  (Above is a photograph of “Bryan’s Ph.D.” from my portfolio book).

Not long ago the owner contacted me, explaining that she had received the painting as a gift from her now ex-husband.  She was selling it because it evoked bitter memories of her divorce.  Her phone call was prompted by uncertainty about the painting’s value now.  She had a likely buyer and needed to know what price to charge.

I was saddened because I have so many beautiful memories of this particular painting and of an idyllic time in my life with Bryan.  He was on a leave of absence from the Pentagon to work on his dissertation, while I was finished with active duty.  At last I was a full time artist, busily working in the spare bedroom that we had turned into my first studio.  

My conversation with the owner was a reminder that once paintings are let out into the world, they take on associations that have nothing to do with the personal circumstances surrounding their creation.  In short, what an artist creates solely out of love, stands a good chance of not being loved or appreciated by others.  This is one reason to only sell my work to people I select personally.  I ended the telephone conversation hoping that “Bryan’s Ph.D.” fares better in its new home.  

Comments are welcome!     

Q: Would you say there is a unifying quality to all of the work you have produced in the last thirty years?

Barbara's portfolio book

Barbara’s portfolio book

A:  Yes, I can think of several.  Whether making pastel paintings or printing photographs in the darkroom, I have always been concerned with quality and craftsmanship and never pronounce a work finished until it is the best thing I can make. 

Although I started out as a maker of photorealist portraits in pastel, for twenty-odd years I have worked with Mexican folk art as my primary subject matter, treating these objects very differently in three separate series:  “Black Paintings,” “Domestic Threats,” and “Gods and Monsters.”  The first two are pastel-on-sandpaper paintings while the last is comprised of chromogenic photographs (c-prints).  A few years ago I also started making “Teleidoscopes” using an iPad app to photograph my Mexican and Guatemalan folk art collection.  This last one is just for fun; I do not offer them for sale.

Soft pastel is my first love and the two series of pastel paintings are my best-known work.  My technique for using pastel continues to evolve in intriguing ways.  I doubt I can ever learn all there is to know not only about color, but also about this medium.  Pastel is endlessly fascinating, which is why I have never wanted to switch to anything else. 

Comments are welcome!      

Pearls from artists* # 164

Untitled chromogenic print, 24" x 24," edition of 5

Untitled chromogenic print, 24″ x 24,” edition of 5

* 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 Eastern and Western classics are full of gods, saints, and heroes, all striving against life’s odds and overcoming them with perseverance, courage, energy  and hope as well as help from some sort of divine energy.  Unlike the gods, the saints, gurus, and heroes are humanized in creative works.  Otherwise, we would find it difficult to accept them, relate to them or look up to them for inspiration and courage.  It is the humanization of the subject that makes the supernatural sometimes feel real.   And sometimes makes the impossible seem reachable and achievable.  The classic writings all contain humanized heroes, saints and gods.  The characters in these books are so humanized that the courage and inspiration we get from their endurance in overcoming life’s challenges will keep on inspiring readers forever.  Because of this we can aspire to their accomplishments.  If we too are able to create meaningful works providing timeless inspiration to help others, our work will live on.

Samuel Odoquei in Origin of Inspiration:  Seven Short Essays for Creative People  

Comments are welcome!          

Pearls from artists* # 156

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

Our vision is what makes us unique and special.  Literally, vision means an artist’s unique way of seeing the world, the special and specific choices the artist makes when observing the world around him.  It is also what the artist imagines and sees with his unique mind’s eye and brings out by way of his art.  Vision is like a lighthouse, it guides the artist to a specific area of nature or life or to a subject that is personal to the artist, one that others might have overlooked.  Vision also includes that which the artist’s conscience tells him the world ought to be – or what the world is lacking.  Vision is that unique and special contribution we bring and add to life; it is that which no one can provide but us.  Passion, inspiration, talent and skill all have to come together so that our vision can be achieved.

Samuel Adoquei in Origin of Inspiration:  Seven Short Essays for Creative People

Comments are welcome!   

Pearls from artists* # 151

“The Storyteller,” 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.

I am a storyteller, for better and for worse.  I suspect that a feeling for stories, for narrative, is a universal human disposition, going with our powers of language, consciousness of self, and autobiographical memory.

The act of writing, when it goes well, gives me a pleasure, a joy, unlike any other.  It takes me to another place – irrespective of my subject – where I am totally absorbed and oblivious to distracting thoughts, worries, preoccupations, or indeed the passage of time.  In those rare, heavenly states of mind, I may write nonstop until I can no longer see the paper.  Only then do I realize that evening has come and that I have been writing all day.

Over a lifetime, I have written millions of words, but the act of writing seems as fresh, and as much fun, as when I started it nearly seventy years ago. 

On the Move:  A Life by Oliver Sacks

Comments are welcome!

Q: Would you talk about your use of Mexican and Guatemalan folk art as a convenient way to study formal properties such as color, shape, pattern, composition, etc. in your pastel paintings?

Models, reference photograph, and pastel painting in progress

Models, reference photograph, and pastel painting in progress

A:  For me an interesting visual property of these objects is that they readily present themselves as a vehicle for exploring formal artistic properties, like color, pattern, shape, etc. especially compared to my earlier subject matter:  hyper-realistic portraits and still-lifes.  Intent as I was on creating verisimilitude in the earlier work, there was little room for experimentation.  

Many Mexican and Guatemalan folk art objects are wildly painted and being a lover of color, their brilliant colors and patterns are  what initially attracted me.  As a painter I am free to use their actual appearance as my starting point.  I photograph them out-of-focus and through colored gels in order to change their appearance and make them strange, enacting my own particular version of “rendering the familiar strange.”  Admittedly these objects are not so familiar to begin with. 

When I make a pastel painting I look at my reference photograph and I also look at the objects, positioning them within eye-shot of my easel.  There is no need whatsoever to be faithful to their actual appearance so my imagination takes over.  As I experiment with thousands of soft pastels, with shape, with pattern, with composition, and all the rest, I have one goal in mind – to create the best pastel-on-sandpaper painting I am capable of making. 

Comments are welcome!         

Pearls from artists* # 141

Painting, subject, reference photo

Painting, subject, reference photo

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

It would be very interesting to record photographically not the stages of a painting, but its metamorphoses.  One would see perhaps by what course a mind finds its way towards the crystallization of its dream.  But what is really very curious is to see that the picture does not change basically, that the initial vision remains almost intact in spite of appearances.  I see often a light and dark, when I have put them in my picture, I do everything I can to ‘break them up,’ in adding a color that creates a counter effect.  I perceive, when this work is photographed, that which I have introduced to correct my first vision has disappeared, and that after all the photographic image corresponds to my first vision, before the occurrence of the transformation brought about by my will.

The picture is not thought out and determined beforehand, rather while it is being made it follows the mobility of thought.  Finished, it changes further, according to the condition of him who looks at it.  A picture lives its life like a living creature, undergoing the changes that daily life imposes on us.  That is natural, since a picture lives only through him who looks at it.

Christian Zervos:  Conversation with Picasso in The Creative Process, edited by Brewster Ghiselin

Comments are welcome!    

Q: You have written about how you came to your current subject matter, but what led you away from photorealism to work that while not exactly abstract, leans more in that direction?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  Once I had achieved a high degree of technical facility with soft pastel, there was not much more to be gained from copying reality.  Cameras do an excellent job of that so what would be the point? 

Ultimately, all art lies in following an experience through to the end.  Art is in the choices one makes.  A visual artist’s private decisions about what to include and what to leave out become her unique inimitable style.  Years ago I made a conscious decision to abandon photorealism.  Since then I have been on a journey to work more from imagination and direct experience and less from physical reality. 

It’s funny.  I have always worked from photographs.  Because I have a strong work ethic and substantial technical skill, I often feel like a slacker if I do not put in all the details that I see in the reference photo.  That’s why the journey has been so slow, I think, as I convince myself it’s really ok to omit more and more details.  

Comments are welcome!       

Pearls from artists* # 126

Self-portrait with "Blue Misterioso"

Self-portrait with “Blue Misterioso”

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

Photography is an elegiac art, a twilight art.  There is no subject the photographer might attempt that could not be touched with pathos.  All photogrpahs are memento mori.  To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability.  precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.

Photography by Susan Sontag in Anthology:  Selected Essays from Thirty Years of The New York Review of Books, edited by Robert S. Silvers and Barbara Epstein

Comments are welcome!