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Q: Why do you make art?

“Why Do I Make Art” by Ursula von Rydingsvard

“Why Do I Make Art” by Ursula von Rydingsvard

A:  Last spring I viewed Ursula von Rydingsvard’s exhibition at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.  One thing that stayed with me is her wall text, “Why Do I Make Art by Ursula von Rydingsvard” in which she listed a few dozen benefits that art-making has brought to her life.  

I want to share some of my own personal reasons 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 or to Public Radio stations.

5.   Because when I am working in the studio, if I want, I can tune out the world and all of it’s 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!

Q: Your work is unlike anyone else’s. There is such power and boldness in your pastels. What processes are you using to create such poignant and robustly colored work?

Barbara working on an interview. Photo: Maria Cox

Barbara working on an interview. Photo: Maria Cox

A:  For thirty-three years I have worked exclusively in soft pastel on sandpaper.  Pastel, which is pigment and a binder to hold it together, is as close to unadulterated color as an artist can get.  It allows for very saturated color, especially using the self-invented techniques I have developed and mastered. I believe my “science of color” is unique, completely unlike how any other artist works.  I spend three to four months on each painting, applying pastel and blending the layers together to mix new colors on the paper.  

The acid-free sandpaper support allows the buildup of 25 to 30 layers of pastel as I slowly and meticulously work for hundreds of hours to complete a painting.  The paper is extremely forgiving.  I can change my mind, correct, refine, etc. as much as I want until a painting is the best I can create at that moment in time. 

My techniques for using soft pastel achieve rich velvety textures and exceptionally vibrant color.  Blending with my fingers, I painstakingly apply dozens of layers of pastel onto the sandpaper.  In addition to the thousands of pastels that I have to choose from, I make new colors directly on the paper.  Regardless of size, each pastel painting takes about four months and hundreds of hours to complete.  

I have been devoted to soft pastel from the beginning.  In my blog and in numerous interviews online and elsewhere, I continue to expound on its merits.  For me no other fine art medium comes close. 

My subject matter is singular.  I am drawn to Mexican, Guatemalan, and Bolivian cultural objects—masks, carved wooden animals, papier mâché figures, and toys.  On trips to these countries and elsewhere I frequent local mask shops, markets, and bazaars searching for the figures that will populate my pastel paintings.  How, why, when, and where these objects come into my life is an important part of the creative process.  Each pastel painting is a highly personal blend of reality, fantasy, and autobiography.

Comments are welcome!

Q: Do your materials have properties that allow you to maximize what you depict in your work?

Barbara’s studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  I work exclusively in soft pastel on sandpaper.  Pastel, which is pigment and a binder to hold it together, is as close to unadulterated pigment as an artist can get.  It allows for very saturated color, especially as I utilize the self-invented techniques developed and mastered over more than thirty years as an artist.  I believe my “science of color” to be unique, completely unlike how any other artist works.  I spend three or four months on each painting, applying pastel and blending the layers together to mix new colors directly on the paper.  

The sandpaper support allows the build up of 25 to 30 layers of pastel as I slowly and meticulously work for hundreds of hours to complete a painting.  The paper is extremely forgiving.  I can change my mind, correct, refine, etc. as much as I want until a painting is the best I can create at that moment in time.

Comments are welcome!

Q: Please speak a little about the history of pastel.

Some of Barbara's soft pastels

Some of Barbara’s soft pastels

A:  Pastel has been in use for five hundred years.  Its invention is attributed to the German painter, Johann Thiele, in the 16th century, followed by Venetian artist, Rosalba Carriera, who was the first to use it consistently.  Edgar Degas, the most prolific user of pastel and its great champion, was followed by many artists who used varying techniques.

Degas’ subject matter included ballet dancers, laundresses, milliners, and denizens of the Parisian demimonde.  The pure hues of pastel, plus its direct application, made it his preferred medium.  Rosalba Carriera, a much-admired portrait artist, revolutionized the world of pastel by developing a wider range of colors, expanding pastel’s availability and usefulness.  Mary Cassatt’s pastel portraits of children and family life provided her with a steady income while living in Paris.  American painter William Merritt Chase used pastel to explore plein air painting.  Pastel’s portability and rich colors made it ideal for outdoor landscapes and for capturing light.

Comments are welcome!

Q: What qualities do you think mark the highest artistic achievement?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  If I may speak in the most general terms, several qualities come to mind that, for me, mark real artistic achievement: 

  • firm artistic control that allows the artist to create works that simultaneously demonstrate formal coherence while responding to inner necessity
  • the creation of new forms and techniques that are adapted to expressing the artist’s highly personal vision
  • an authentic and balanced fusion of form, method, and idea
  • using material from one’s own idiosyncratic experiences and subtly transforming it in a personal inimitable way during the creative process
  • the meaning of the thing created is rigorously subordinated to its design, which once established, generates its own internal principles of harmony and coherence  

Comments are welcome! 

Q: What historical art movement do you most identify with?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  I’d have to say that I identify most with surrealism, although my work does not exactly fit into any particular art historical movement.  When I was first finding my way as an artist, I read everything I could find about surrealism in art and in literature.  This research still res0nates deeply and is a tremendous influence on my studio practice.  Elements of surrealism DO fit my work.  Here’s an excerpt from Wikipedia:

Surrealism is a cultural movement that began in the early 20s and is best known for its visual artworks and writings.  The aim was to “resolve the previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality.”  Artists painted unnerving, illogical scenes with photographic precision, created strange creatures from everyday objects and developed painting techniques that allowed the unconscious to express itself.  

Surrealist works feature the element of surprise, unexpected juxtapositions and non sequitur; however, many Surrealist artists and writers regard their work as an expression of the philosophical movement first and foremost, with the works being an artifact.  Leader Andre Breton was explicit in his assertion that Surrealism was, above all, a revolutionary movement.

I hope to expand on this in a future post.

Comments are welcome!            

Q: Your pastel paintings are immediately recognizable as yours alone. Did you consciously try to develop a signature style in your work?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A: I don’t believe that is even possible.  An artist’s style is something that evolves with plain hard work and experience, over many years of trial and error, as one finds what techniques work best and discards those that don’t.  It is a process of continually experimenting, refining, and clarifying.  In other words, style is something that emerges naturally as you gradually strive to improve your art-making. 

Style develops in close connection to what an artist is saying as she undergoes a very personal and idiosyncratic journey.  Again, it would seem improbable for an artist to strive for any particular style, since style is not something over which an artist can exert much conscious control. 

I would even say that each artist’s unique style is inevitable.  It would be nearly impossible now to make a pastel painting or photograph that does NOT look like a Rachko. 

Comments are welcome!

Q: Would you talk about how the Judas figures you depict in your pastel paintings function in Mexico?

Some Judases

Some Judases

A:  Here’s a good explanation from a website called “Mexican Folk Art Guide”:

“La quema de Judas or the Judas burning in Mexico is a celebration held on Sabado de Gloria (Holy Saturday).  Papier mache figures symbolizing Judas Iscariot stuffed with fireworks are exploded in local plazas in front of cheerful spectators. 

The Judases exploded in public spaces can measure up to 5 meters, while 30 cm ones can be found with a firework in their back to explode at home.

In Mexico la quema de Judas dates from the beginning of the Spanish colony when the Judas effigies were made with hay and rags and burned.  Later as paper became available and the fireworks techniques arrived, thanks to the Spanish commerce route from the Philippines, the Judases were made out of cardboard, stuffed with fireworks, and exploded.

After the Independence War the celebration lost its religious character and became a secular activity.  The Judas effigies were stuffed with candies, bread, and cigarettes to attract the crowds into the business [establishment] that sponsored the Judas. 

Judas was then depicted as a devil and identified with a corrupt official, or any character that would harm people.  In 1849 a new law stipulated that it was forbidden to relate a Judas effigy with any person by putting a name on it or dressing it in a certain way to be identified with a particular person.”                                     

This is why whenever I bring home a Judas figure from Mexico, I feel like I have rescued it from a fire-y death!

Comments are welcome!

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