Blog Archives

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!

Q: The handmade frames on your large pastel-on-sandpaper paintings are quite elaborate. Can you speak more about them?

"Quartet" (left) and "Epiphany," soft pastel on sandpaper

“Quartet” (left) and “Epiphany,” soft pastel on sandpaper

A:  I have been working in soft pastel since 1986, I believe, and within six years the sizes of my paintings increased from 11″ x 14″ to 58″ x 38.”  (I’d like to work even bigger, but the limiting factors continue to be first, the size of mat board that is available and second, the size of my pick-up truck).  My earliest work is framed with pre-cut mats, do-it-yourself Nielsen frames, and glass that was cut-to-order at the local hardware store.  With larger-sized paintings DIY framing became impractical.  In 1989 an artist told me about Underground Industries, a custom framing business in Fairfax, Virginia, run by Rob Plati, his mother, Del, and until last year, Rob’s late brother, Skip.  So Rob and Del have been my framers for 24 years.  When I finish a painting in my New York studio, I drive it to Virginia to be framed.

Pastel paintings have unique problems – for example, a smudge from a finger, a stray drop of water, or a sneeze will ruin months of hard work.  Once a New York pigeon even pooped on a finished painting!  Framing my work is an ongoing learning experience.  Currently, my frames are deep, with five layers of acid-free foam core inserted between the painting and the mat to separate them.  Plexiglas has a static charge so it needs to be kept as far away from the pastel as possible, especially since I do not spray finished pastel paintings with fixative.

Once they are framed, my paintings cannot be laid face down.  There’s a danger that stray pastel could flake off.  If that happens, the whole frame needs to be taken apart and the pastel dust removed.  It’s a time-consuming, labor-intensive process and an inconvenience, since Rob and Del, the only people I trust with my work, are five hours away from New York by truck. 

Comments are welcome!

Q: What first intrigued you about Mexico?

"Myth Meets Dream," 1993, soft pastel on sandpaper, first painting that includes Oaxacan figures

“Myth Meets Dream,” 1993, soft pastel on sandpaper, first painting that includes Oaxacan figures

A:  In the early 90’s my 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 our first trip we visited the National Museum of Anthropology, where I was introduced to the fascinating story of ancient Meso-American 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.

Comments are welcome!

Q: Do you name your characters?

Lola in "He Urged Her to Abdicate," soft pastel on sandpaper

Lola in “He Urged Her to Abdicate,” soft pastel on sandpaper

A:  No, normally I don’t, but there is one notable exception.  Lola – I could hardly call her any other name – is a red-dressed, cigarette-smoking, black-stocking cloth doll made by an artist in Mexico City.  I never met her creator, but years ago a man came into my Alexandria, Virginia studio (where I had a studio at the Torpedo Factory, an art center that is open to the public), and announced that he knew Lola’s maker and he, the maker, would be extremely pleased with what I’d done with her – made her the star of several of my pastel-on-sandpaper paintings.  Many years later Lola continues to be one of my favorite characters and “He Urged Her to Abdicate,” set in the bathroom of a six floor walk-up I rented when I first moved to New York, is my favorite Lola painting. 

To learn more about this painting, please read the essay by Britta Konau on page 10 at:

http://www.barbararachko.com/PDF/DomesticThreats.pdf

Comments are welcome!

Q: What are you working on now?

“The Epiphany,” soft pastel on sandpaper

A:  I finally put finishing touches on “The Epiphany” and will drop it off at Underground, my framer in Virginia, next week.

Comments are welcome!

Q: Can you elaborate on the series title, “Domestic Threats?”

"He Urged Her To Abdicate," soft pastel on sandpaper

“He Urged Her To Abdicate,” soft pastel on sandpaper

A: All of the paintings in this series are set in places where I reside or used to live, either a Virginia house or New York apartments, i.e., domestic environments. Each painting typically contains a conflict of some sort, at least one figure who is being menaced or threatened by a group of figures. So I named the series “Domestic Threats.” Depending on what is going on in the country at a particular moment in time, however, people have seen political associations in my work. Since my husband was killed on 9/11, many people thought the title, “Domestic Threats,” was prescient. They have ascribed all kinds of domestic terrorism associations to it, but that is not really what I had in mind. For a time some thought I was hinting at scenes of domestic violence, but that also is not what I had intended. “Domestic Threats” seems to be fraught with associations that I never considered, but it’s an apt title for this work.

Q: In your earlier “Domestic Threats” series, you liken your paintings to scenes in a movie. Is there an audition process? What qualities must a figure possess to be cast in one of your paintings?

Negotiating with Tomas in Panajachel, Guatemala; photo by Donna Tang

Negotiating with Tomas in Panajachel, Guatemala; photo by Donna Tang

A: There’s not an audition process, but I do feel like the masks and figures call out to me when I’m searching the markets of Mexico and Guatemala. Color is very important – the brighter and the more eye-catching the better – plus they must have lots of “personality.” I try not to buy anything mass-produced or obviously made for tourists. How and where these objects come into my life is an important part of the process. Getting them back to the U.S. is always an adventure. For example, in 2010 I was in Panajachel on the shores of Lake Atitlan in Guatemala. After returning from a boat ride across the lake, my friends and I were walking back to our hotel when we noticed a mask store. This store contained many beautiful things so I spent a long time looking around. Finally, I made my selections and was ready to buy five standing wooden figures, when I learned that Tomas, the store owner, did not accept credit cards. Not having enough cash, I was heart-broken and thought, “Oh, no. I can’t bring these home.” However, thanks to my friend, Donna, whose Spanish was much more fluent than mine, Tomas and she came up with a plan. I would pay for the figures at a nearby hotel and once the owner was paid by the credit card company, he would pay Tomas. Fabulous! Tomas, Donna, and I walked to the hotel, where the transaction was completed. Packing materials are not so easy to find in remote parts of Guatemala so the packing and shipping arrangements took another hour. During the negotiations Tomas and I became friends. We exchanged telephone numbers (he didn’t have a telephone so he gave me the phone number of the post office next door, saying that when I called, he could easily run next door). When I returned to New York ten days later, the package was waiting for me.
While setting up a scene for a painting, I work very intuitively so how the objects are actually “cast” is difficult to say. Looks count a lot – I select an object and put it in a particular place, move it around, and develop a storyline. I spend time arranging lights and looking for interesting cast shadows. I shoot two exposures with a 4 x 5 view camera and order a 20″ x 24″ photograph to use for reference. I also work from the “live” objects. My series, “Domestic Threats,” was initially set in my Virginia house, but in 1997, I moved to a six floor walk-up in New York. For the next few years the paintings were set there, until 2001 when I moved to my current apartment. In a sense the series is a visual autobiography that hints at what my domestic surroundings were like.

Q: How large is your collection of Mexican folk art objects?

Part of the collection

Part of the collection

A: I haven’t counted them, but my guess is 200 pieces of various sizes. This includes the Guatemalan figures. I went to Guatemala in 2009 and 2010. Since I divide my time between a house in Alexandria, VA, an apartment in Manhattan, and a studio in Chelsea, part of my folk art collection is in each of these places.