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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: What’s on the easel today?

“Sentinels,” Soft Pastel on Sandpaper, 38” x 58”

“Sentinels,” Soft Pastel on Sandpaper, 38” x 58”

A:  At last, I have put finishing touches on “Sentinels,” 38” x 58,” and signed it!  The photographer will photograph it and then, on my next trip south, this painting goes to the framer in Virginia.

Comments are welcome!

Q: When did your love of indigenous artifacts begin? Where have you traveled to collect these focal points of your works and what have those experiences taught you?

Mexico City

Mexico City

A:  As a Christmas present in 1991 my future sister-in-law sent me two brightly painted wooden animal figures from Oaxaca, Mexico. One was a blue polka-dotted winged horse.  The other was a red, white, and black bear-like figure. 

I was enthralled with this gift and the timing was fortuitous because I had been searching for new subject matter to paint. I started asking artist-friends about Oaxaca and learned that it was an important art hub.  Two well-known Mexican painters, Rufino Tamayo and Francisco Toledo, had gotten their start there, as had master photographer Manuel Alvarez Bravo.  There was a “Oaxacan School of Painting” (‘school’ meaning a style) and Alvarez Bravo had established a photography school there (the building/institution kind). I began reading everything I could find.  At the time I had only been to Mexico very briefly, in 1975.  

The following autumn, Bryan and I planned a two-week trip to visit Mexico. We timed it to see Day of the Dead celebrations in Oaxaca.  (During my research I had become fascinated with this festival).  We spent one week in Oaxaca followed by one week in Mexico City.  My interest in collecting Mexican folk art was off and running!

Along with busloads of other tourists, we visited several cemeteries in small Oaxacan towns for the “Day of the Dead.” The indigenous people tending their ancestors’ graves were so dignified and so gracious, even with so many mostly-American tourists tromping around on a sacred night, that I couldn’t help being taken with these beautiful people and their beliefs. 

From Oaxaca we traveled to Mexico City, where again I was entranced, but this time by the rich and ancient history.  We visited the National Museum of Anthropology, where I was introduced to the fascinating story of ancient Mesoamerican civilizations; the ancient city of Teotihuacan, which the Aztecs discovered as an abandoned city and then occupied as their own; and the Templo Mayor, the historic center of the Aztec empire, infamous as a place of human sacrifice.  I was astounded!  Why had I never learned in school about Mexico, this highly developed cradle of Western civilization in our own hemisphere, when so much time had been devoted to the cultures of Egypt, Greece, and elsewhere? When I returned home to Virginia I began reading everything I could find about ancient Mexican civilizations, including the Olmec, Zapotec, Mixtec, Aztec, and Maya. The first trip to Mexico opened up a whole new world and was to profoundly influence my future work. I would return there many more times, most recently to study Olmec art and archeology. In subsequent years I have traveled to Guatemala, Peru, Bolivia and other countries in search of inspiration and subject matter to depict in my work.

Comments are welcome!

Q: As you reflect on your overall art career beginning with your art education, what major event stands out as an important sign that you were headed in the right direction?

"His Mortal Enemy Was Poised Ready to Strike," soft pastel on sandpaper

“His Mortal Enemy Was Poised Ready to Strike,” soft pastel on sandpaper

A:  In 1989 I left a career in the Navy to pursue life as a full-time professional artist.  In July 1996 Bryan and I were traveling in Mexico.  Something told me to check the phone messages at our Virginia house so I did.  

There was a message from Mia Kim, the director of Brewster Arts Ltd. on West 57th Street in Manhattan, requesting a dozen large pastel paintings for a two-person exhibition in October, just three months away!

At the time I was still living in Alexandria, Virginia so exhibiting in Manhattan – let alone securing prestigious gallery representation – seemed a far-off dream.   Yes, I had sent Mia slides, but she had not seen my work in person.   She first saw my “Domestic Threats” pastel paintings when I delivered them to the gallery for exhibition.  The show was called “Monkey Business.”

Brewster Arts was an elegant New York gallery that specialized in Latin American Art.  There was just one other non-Latina artist that Mia represented, Leonora Carrington, whom I met that October at my opening.   I remember Mia introducing me and declaring to the entire crowd, “Barbara has the SOUL of a Latina.”  I’ve always loved that.  It was the first time I realized I was really on my way!

Brewster Arts Ltd. continued to represent my work until the gallery closed some years later.

Comments are welcome!

Q: Was there a pivotal time in your life when you were forced to choose between two different paths? Do you have any regrets?

Barbara’s studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  In 1988 I was a Navy Lieutenant working at the Pentagon as a computer analyst. I hated my boring job! For about two years I had been taking drawing classes at the Art League School in Alexandria, VA and was rapidly improving. More importantly, I discovered that making art was endlessly fascinating and challenging.

After much soul searching, I made the scary decision to resign from active duty.  Sept. 30, 1989 was my last day. I have been a professional visual artist ever since and surprisingly (to me!), have never needed a day job.

However, for fourteen years I remained in the Naval Reserve, working in Virginia one weekend a month and for two weeks each year. After I moved to New York in 1997, I used to take Amtrak to Washington, DC. I would go from my full time New York artist’s life to my part time military life. It was extremely interesting to be around such different types of people, to say the least! On November 1, 2003 I retired as a Navy Commander.

I have never, ever regretted the path I chose. I love being an artist and would not want to spend my life doing anything else.

Comments are welcome!

Q: Do you work with a particular audience in mind?

"Shamanic," 26" x 20," finished

“Shamanic,” 26″ x 20,” finished

A:  In general I would answer no, I have no ‘specific’ audience in mind.  But I DO consider the audience in this sense.  As I put finishing touches on a pastel painting, I pay attention to how all of my decisions up to that point lead  the viewer’s eyes around.  I fine tune – brightening some areas, heightening the contrast with what’s next to it, blurring, fading, and pushing back others – all to keep the viewer’s gaze moving around the painting.  Once I am satisfied that it’s as visually exciting as I can make it, I consider the pastel painting finished, ready to be photographed, and driven to Virginia for framing.

Comments are welcome!    

Q: Having worked as an artist for more than three decades, you and your work finally are becoming well known. Do you ever receive fan letters?

Letter from a fan

Letter from a fan

A:  Yes, I do hear from fans.  Recently I received the hand-written letter pictured above.  It’s from a well-read inmate in a Virginia prison.  I chuckled when I read it because Glen was taken with an old pastel painting of mine called, “He Lost His Chance to Flee”!  

It’s a lovely letter.  I’m touched to know that my work is inspiring people to think about and make art!

Comments are welcome!

Q: Would you talk about your first solo exhibition in a commercial gallery?

"Big Deal," soft pastel on sandpaper, 58" x 38"

“Big Deal,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 58″ x 38″

A:  Although I had exhibited in a number of non-profit galleries in Virginia, Washington, DC, Maryland, New Jersey, and New York, my first solo in a commercial gallery was at 479 Gallery, 520 Broadway, in July 1996.  The previous summer I had entered a juried exhibition there.  My work won first prize and I was awarded a solo show.  

This exhibition was soon followed by representation at an important New York gallery, Brewster Fine Arts, at 41 West 57th Street.  I had my first two-person exhibition at Brewster in October 1996.  The gallery specialized in art by Latin American artists.  Besides myself, the sole non-Latina represented by Brewster was Leonora Carrington.  I quickly began exhibiting alongside a group of illustrious artists:  Leonora, Rufino Tamayo, Francisco Toledo, Francisco Zuniga, and other Latin American masters.  I could hardly believe my good fortune!   

Comments are welcome!       

Q: How many studios have you had since you’ve been a professional artist?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A: I am on my third, and probably last, studio.  I say ‘probably’ because I love my space and have no desire to move.  Plus, it would be a tremendous amount of work to relocate, considering that I have been in my West 29th Street studio since 1997. 

My very first studio, in the late 1980s, was the spare bedroom of my house in Alexandria, Virginia.  I set up a studio there while I was on active duty in the Navy.  When I resigned my commission, I was required to give the President an entire year’s advance notice.  Towards the end of that year I remember calling in sick so I could stay home and make art.       

In the early 1990s I rented a studio on the third floor of the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria.  For a while I enjoyed working there, but the constant interruptions – in an art center that is open to the public – became tiresome.  

In 1997 I had the opportunity to move to New York.  I desperately craved solitary hours to work in peace, without interruption, so at first I didn’t have a telephone.  I still don’t have WiFi there because my studio is reserved strictly for creative work.

Moving from Virginia to New York in 1997 was relatively easy.  My aunt, who planned to be in California to continue her Buddhist studies, offered me her rent-controlled sixth-floor walkup on West 13th Street.  I looked at just one other studio before signing a sublease for my space at 208 West 29th Street.  I had heard about the vacancy through a college friend of my husband, Bryan.  Karen, the lease-holder, was relocating to northern California to work on “Star Wars” with George Lucas.  After several years, she decided not to return to New York and I have been the lease-holder ever since.  

Comments are welcome!

 

Q: Would you speak about your first trip to Mexico?

 

With an amate tree at Chalcatzingo

With an amate tree at Chalcatzingo

A:  In the early 90’s my late husband, Bryan, and I made our first trip to Oaxaca and to Mexico City.  At the time I had become fascinated with the Mexican “Day of the Dead” celebrations so our trip was timed to see them firsthand.  Along with busloads of other tourists, we visited several cemeteries in small Oaxacan towns.  The indigenous people tending their ancestor’s graves were so dignified and so gracious, even with so many mostly-American tourists tromping around on a sacred night, that I couldn’t help being taken with these beautiful people and their beliefs.  From Oaxaca we traveled to Mexico City, where again I was entranced, but this time by the rich and ancient history.  On that first trip to Mexico we visited the National Museum of Anthropology, where I was introduced to the fascinating story of ancient Mesoamerican civilizations  (it is still one of my favorite museums in the world); the ancient city of Teotihuacan, which the Aztecs discovered as an abandoned city and then occupied as their own; and the Templo Mayor, the historic center of the Aztec empire, infamous as a place of human sacrifice.  I was astounded!  Why had I never learned in school about Mexico, this highly developed cradle of Western civilization in our own hemisphere, when so much time had been devoted to the cultures of Egypt, Greece, and elsewhere? When I returned home to Virginia I began reading everything I could find about ancient Mexican civilizations, including the Olmec, Zapotec, Mixtec, Aztec, and Maya. This first trip to Mexico opened up a whole new world and was to profoundly influence my future work. I would return there many more times, most recently this past March to study Olmec art and culture.

Comments are welcome!

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