Blog Archives

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 significance do the folk art figures that you collect during your travels have for you?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  I am drawn to each figure because it possesses a powerful presence that resonates with me.  I am not sure exactly how or why, but I know each piece I collect has lessons to teach. 

Who made this thing?  How?  Why?  Where?  When?  I feel connected to each object’s creator and curiosity leads me to become a detective and an archaeologist to find out more about them and to figure out how to best use them in my work. 

The best way I can describe it:  after nearly three decades of seeking out, collecting, and using these folk art figures as symbols in my work, the entire process has become a rich personal journey towards gaining greater knowledge and wisdom.

Comments are welcome!      

Q: Do you use a sketchbook?

Hudson Yards, NYC

Hudson Yards, NYC

A:  I used to use a sketchbook early on, when I was just beginning to find my way as an artist.   Sketching on location helped to crystalize my ideas about art, about technique, and about what I hoped to accomplish in the near term.  These days I spend so many hours in the studio – it’s my day job – that I often need a mental and physical break from using my eyes and from looking at and composing images. 

What I do instead is to walk around New York (and elsewhere) with a camera.  Photography for me sometimes serves as an alternative to sketching.  It’s a way to continue to think about art, to experiment, and to contemplate what makes an arresting image without actually having to be working in the studio. 

Comments are welcome!   

Pearls from artists* # 124

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

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

You give yourself a creative life – pursuing those questions and aesthetic conditions that mean the most to you.  What are you interested in?  Landscape and gender and nuclear power are each worthy subjects and there are plenty more.  Do you aspire to exhibit in museums or public spaces or virtual realms?  Your job is to figure out how to best engage these distinct contexts.  Your studio may be a large industrial space or a second bedroom or the kitchen table, where you can work days or nights while wearing your favorite sweatpants and drinking tea as music blasts or silence is maintained.  You might produce five or fifty objects a year, using bronze or oil paint or folded paper, and these can be large or tiny, made to last for centuries or a few weeks.  Maybe you’ve been a printmaker for several years and all of a sudden you decide to make videos.  OK.  You might be influenced by Pop Art or Minimalism or Feminism or Fluxus.  How are you using these various histories to your advantage?  Does Edward Hopper or Gordon Matta-Clark or Agnes Martin or David Hammons inspire you?  If not, who does?  Try to understand the reasons for your choices, and if you feel the need to shift gears, indulge that impulse.  Grant yourself the permission to acquire new skills, travel to biennials, buy a new computer, start a reading group.  Risk not knowing what will happen when you do.

Stephen Horodner in THE ART LIFE:  On Creativity and Career

Comments are welcome!    

Q: Last week you spoke about what happens before you begin a pastel painting. Would you talk about how you actually make the work?

Beginning a new pastel painting

Beginning a new pastel painting

A:  I work on each pastel-on-sandpaper painting for approximately three months.  I try to be in my studio 7 to 8 hours a day, five days a week. 

I make thousands of creative decisions as I apply and layer soft pastels (I have thousands to choose from), blend them with my fingers, and mix new colors directly on the sandpaper.   A finished piece consists of up to 30 layers of soft pastel. 

My self-invented technique accounts for the vivid, intense color that often leads viewers of my originals to look very closely and ask, “What medium is this?”  I believe I am pushing soft pastel to its limits, using it in ways that no other artist has done before.

Comments are welcome!

Q: How long does it take you to complete a pastel-on-sandpaper painting?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  Mine is a slow and labor-intensive process.  First, there is foreign travel to find the cultural objects – masks, carved wooden animals, paper mâché figures, and toys – that are my subject matter.  If they are heavy I ship them home.  

Next comes planning exactly how to photograph them, lighting and setting everything up, and shooting a roll of 220 film with my Mamiya 6 camera.  I still like to use an analog camera for my fine art work, although I am rethinking this.  I have the film developed, decide which image to use, and order a 20” x 24” reference photograph from Manhattan Photo on West 20th Street.  

Then I am ready to start.  I work on each pastel-on-sandpaper painting for approximately three months.  I am in my studio 7 to 8 hours a day, five days a week.  During that time I make thousands of creative decisions as I apply and layer soft pastels (I have 8 tables-worth to choose from!), blend them with my fingers, and mix new colors directly on the sandpaper.  A finished piece consists of up to 30 layers of soft pastel.  My self-invented technique accounts for the vivid, intense color that often leads viewers of my originals to look very closely and ask, “What medium is this?”  I believe I am pushing soft pastel to its limits, using it in ways that no other artist has done.

Comments are welcome!

Q: What impact do you hope to have on viewers of your work?

"Us and Them," soft pastel on sandpaper, 47" x 38", 1993

“Us and Them,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 47″ x 38″, 1993

A: I am pushing soft pastel to its limits, using it in ways that no artist has done before.  I want people to see what is possible to accomplish with this medium.  Because I have experienced unspeakable heartache – the loss of my husband on 9/11, onboard the high-jacked airplane that crashed into the Pentagon –  when viewers learn about my life story, I hope to serve as an inspiration to keep forging ahead regardless of what tragedies life may bring.  These are the main reasons that I wrote my eBook.

Comments are welcome!

Q: How do you define success as an artist?

Self-portrait at an architect's estate in Sri Lanka

Self-portrait at an architect’s estate in Sri Lanka

A:  This is another question that has many answers depending more or less on how things are progressing in the studio.  I’d say that you are a successful artist if you are able to keep working and evolving, and are mostly living by your own rules, using your time as you see fit to become a better artist.  This means navigating through all the ups and downs, the obstacles – and we know there are many – to art-making and finding joy and on-going discovery in your own particular creative process.  The work is everything, as we always say, but hopefully, you have found an appreciative audience and do sell a piece of art now and then.  

I know that I am more fortunate than many.  Over time I’ve realized that money, i.e., sales, is one of the less important aspects of being an artist.  The richness that being a professional artist brings to my life goes far beyond anything that can be acquired with cash!  

Comments are welcome!    

Q: You have sometimes spoken about your early work as a portrait artist. When and why did you start making portraits? Do you still do them?

"Bryan," soft pastel on sandpaper, 22" x 28", 1988

“Bryan,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 22″ x 28″, 1988

A:  In 1989 I was a Naval officer working at the Pentagon and I hated my job as a computer analyst.  Although it was terrifying to leave the security of a paycheck for the uncertainty of an artist’s existence, I made the leap.  In retrospect it was one of the best decisions of my life.  When I resigned from active duty (I remained in the Navy Reserve, which provided a part-time job and a small income; in 2003 I retired as a Navy Commander), I needed a way to make a living.  

Prior to this career change, I worked hard to develop my portrait skills.  I volunteered to run a life drawing class at The Art League School in Alexandria, VA, where I made hundreds of figure drawings using charcoal and pastel.  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.  So I was well prepared to devote myself to making portraits.

For a time I made a living making commissioned photo-realist portraits in soft pastel on sandpaper.  However, after about two years I became bored.  I remember thinking, “I did not leave a boring job just to make boring art!”  Furthermore, I had no interest in doing commissions because what I wanted to accomplish as an artist did not coincide with what portrait clients wanted.   I completed my final portrait commission in 1990 and never looked back.  To this day I remain loathe to do a commission of any kind.  

Comments are welcome!