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Q; What was the spark that got you started? (Question from Barbara Smith via Facebook)

Ensign Barbara Rachko, circa 1983
Ensign Barbara Rachko, circa 1983

A: If I had to select one factor, I would say, profound unhappiness with my professional life. In 1986 I was a 33-year-old Navy Lieutenant working as a computer analyst at the Pentagon. I hated my job, was utterly miserable, and moreover, I was trapped because unlike many jobs, it’s not possible to resign a Naval commission with two weeks notice.

My bachelor’s degree had been in psychology. When I was in my 20s and before I joined the Navy, I had spent two years and my own money training to become a licensed commercial pilot and Boeing-727 Flight Engineer. I had planned to become an airline pilot, but due to bad timing (airlines were not hiring pilots when I was looking for a job), that did not come to pass.

So there I was with absolutely no interest, nor any training in computers, working for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and completely bored. I knew I must have taken a wrong turn somewhere and resolved to make a significant change. Searching around, I discovered a local art school, the Art League School in Alexandria, VA, and began taking drawing classes.

One drawing class lead to more. Within a couple of years, due to being highly motivated to change my life, my technical skills rapidly improved. Even then, I believe, it was obvious to anyone who knew me that I had found my calling. I resigned my active duty Naval commission and have been a fulltime professional artist since October 1989. (Note: For fourteen more years I remained in the Naval Reserve working, mostly at the Pentagon, one weekend a month and two weeks each year, and retired as a Navy Commander in 2003).

Life as a self-employed professional artist is endlessly varied, fulfilling, and interesting. I have never once regretted my decision to pursue art fulltime!

Comments are welcome!

Q: Did your military experience become a building block on which you formed your artistic ideas?

"Answering the Call," 58" x 38," soft pastel on sandpaper, 2000

“Answering the Call,” 58″ x 38,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 2000

A:  In my younger days boredom was a strong motivator. I left the active duty Navy out of boredom. I couldn’t bear not being intellectually challenged (most of my jobs consisted of paper-pushing), not using my flying skills, and not developing my artistic talent. In what must be a first, by spending a lot of time and money training me for jobs I hated, the Navy turned me into a hard-working, devoted, and disciplined artist! Once I left the Navy there was no plan B. It was “full speed ahead” to become an accomplished artist.

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 116

Preliminary sketch

Preliminary sketch

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

What is the point of all the discipline, hard work, and training?  What does the training and preparation have to do with rehearsing a play and with performance?  The training and the discipline and the sweating and the study and the memorizing are not the end point, but rather the entry.  The preparation is what gives one the permission to take up space and make wild, surprising, and untamed choices.  In the quest for artistic freedom and agency it is impossible to walk into a rehearsal room uninhibited, unburdened.  We are generally chained down by habits and assumptions and by fear of the new.  Permission is what we earn by the sweat, training, preparatory work and dedication.

Anne Bogart in What’s the Story:  Essays in art, theater, and storytelling

Comments are welcome! 

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?

 

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

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!    

Q: You have spoken about learning to fly at the age of 25. What airplanes did you fly?

Cessna 150

Cessna 150

A:  I learned to fly at a small airport in Caldwell, NJ.  Flying is expensive and since I didn’t have much money, I sought a job at Liberty Aviation, the local flight school, in exchange for flying lessons.  For every three hours I worked, I earned a flying lesson.  At the time it cost $25/hour to rent a plane, plus $10/hour for an instructor, and I was fortunate to find an excellent flight instructor who offered to teach me for free. 

After I completed ground school at Clifton High School, I took my first flying lesson.  It was on April 1, 1978 in a (two-seat) Cessna 150.  During the following months I flew every chance I could, in Cessna 150s and newer Cessna 152s, and also occasionally in Piper Cherokees.  On September 24, 1978 I received my private pilot’s license. 

Then I got checked-out in a larger (four-seat) Cessna 172.  For my instrument training I flew Cessna 150s and 172s.  I received my instrument rating in April 1979. 

Next I trained for a commercial pilot’s license and a multi-engine rating.  I flew Cessna 172s and a twin-engine Piper Seminole and obtained my license and rating in May 1980. 

In December 1980 I began Boeing 727 flight engineer training at Flight International in Atlanta, GA.  Most of this was in Boeing-727 flight simulators with Delta airline pilots as instructors.  My check-ride was in a Boeing-727 owned by FedEx.  I received my flight engineer’s certificate in February 1981.  At the time I was the only woman in the entire school!

Comments are welcome!

Q: Would you speak about the practical realities – time and expenses – involved in making your pastel-on-sandpaper paintings? What might people be surprised to learn about this aspect of art-making?

Studio

Studio

A:  I have often said that this work is labor-intensive.  In a good year I can complete five or six large (38″ x 58″) pastel paintings.  In 2013 I am on track to make four, or, on average, one completed painting every three months.  I try to spend between thirty-five and forty hours a week in the studio.  Of course, I don’t work continuously all day long.  I work for awhile, step back, look, make changes and additions, think, make more changes, step back, etc.  Still, hundreds of hours go into making each piece in the “Black Paintings” series, if we count only the actual execution.  There is also much thinking and preparation – there is no way to measure this – that happen before I ever get to stand before an empty piece of sandpaper and begin.

As far as current expenses, they are upwards of $12,000 per painting.  Here is a partial breakdown:

$4500    New York studio, rent and utilities ($1350/month) for three months                                         

$2500    Supplies, including frames (between $1500 – $1700), photographs, pastels (pro-rated), paper                  

$2000    Foreign travel to find the cultural objects, masks, etc. depicted in my work (approximate, pro-rated)                                                   

$3000    Business expenses, such as computer-related expenses, website, marketing, advertising, etc.                                                                      

This list leaves out many items, most notably compensation for my time, shipping and exhibition expenses, costs of training (i.e. ongoing photography classes), photography equipment, etc.  Given my overhead, the paintings are always priced at the bare minimum that will allow me to continue making art. 

I wonder:  ARE people surprised by these numbers?  Anyone who has ever tried it knows that art is a tough road.  Long ago I stopped thinking about the cost and began doing whatever is necessary to make the best paintings.  The quality of the work and my evolution as an artist are paramount now.  This is my life’s work, after all.  

Comments are welcome!

    

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