Blog Archives

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: How do you think living in New York affects your work?

Lower Manhattan

Lower Manhattan

A:  Arguably, life in New York provides an artist with direct access to some of the best international art of the past, the present, and probably the future.  It is possible to see more art here – both good and bad – than in any other American city.  

Just pick up any local magazine and scan the art listings!  Our problem is never that there isn’t anything interesting to see or do.  It’s “how do we zero in on the most significant local cultural activities, ones that might contribute to making us better artists?”   

Certainly a visual artist’s work is consciously and unconsciously influenced not only by what she sees in museums and galleries, but by walking around the city.  That’s partly why I am an inveterate walker.  I never know what amazing things I am going to see when I leave my apartment.

Although living in New York City is a rich and heady mix for anyone, it is more so for sensitive artists.  Artists are virtual sponges, soaking up experiences, processing them, and mysteriously expressing them in our work. 

New York lets an artist ponder excellence as we see and experience firsthand what is possible.  The best of the best manages to make its way here.    

Undoubtedly, my own work is richer for having spent the last eighteen years in this fascinating, wild, and crazy city.  For a visual artist New York is an infinitely fascinating place to live.

Comments are welcome! 

Q: Were there any other artists in your family?

“The Ancestors,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 58″ x 38,” 2013

A:  Unfortunately, I have not been able to reconstruct my family tree further back than two generations.  So as far as I can tell, I am the first artist of any sort, whether musician, actor, dancer, writer, etc. in my  family.  

Both sets of grandparents emigrated to the United States from Europe.  On my mother’s side my Polish grandparents died by the time my mother was 16, years before I was born.  

My paternal grandparents both lived into their 90s.  My father’s mother spoke Czech, but since I did not, it was difficult to communicate.  I never heard any stories about the family she left behind.  My grandfather spoke English, but I don’t remember him ever talking about his childhood or telling stories about his former life.  My most vivid memories of my grandfather are seeing him in the living room watching Westerns on an old-fashioned television.

Sometimes I am envious of artists who had parents, siblings, or extended family who were artists.  How I would have loved to grow up with a family member who was an artist and a role model! 

Comments are welcome!  

Q: Would you talk about your use of Mexican and Guatemalan folk art as a convenient way to study formal properties such as color, shape, pattern, composition, etc. in your pastel paintings?

Models, reference photograph, and pastel painting in progress

Models, reference photograph, and pastel painting in progress

A:  For me an interesting visual property of these objects is that they readily present themselves as a vehicle for exploring formal artistic properties, like color, pattern, shape, etc. especially compared to my earlier subject matter:  hyper-realistic portraits and still-lifes.  Intent as I was on creating verisimilitude in the earlier work, there was little room for experimentation.  

Many Mexican and Guatemalan folk art objects are wildly painted and being a lover of color, their brilliant colors and patterns are  what initially attracted me.  As a painter I am free to use their actual appearance as my starting point.  I photograph them out-of-focus and through colored gels in order to change their appearance and make them strange, enacting my own particular version of “rendering the familiar strange.”  Admittedly these objects are not so familiar to begin with. 

When I make a pastel painting I look at my reference photograph and I also look at the objects, positioning them within eye-shot of my easel.  There is no need whatsoever to be faithful to their actual appearance so my imagination takes over.  As I experiment with thousands of soft pastels, with shape, with pattern, with composition, and all the rest, I have one goal in mind – to create the best pastel-on-sandpaper painting I am capable of making. 

Comments are welcome!         

Pearls from artists* # 139

"Broken," soft pastel on sandpaper, 38" x 58"

“Broken,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 38″ x 58″

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

Leaving a show of Pat Steir’s work called Winter Paintings at Cheim & Read Gallery, I thought back some years to when the Walker Art Center’s then curator Richard Flood was walking us through the Center’s collection and we came upon an abstract expressionist painting by Joan Mitchell that was so striking I asked him why it had taken so long for her to be recognized.  He answered with a wry expression:  “It’s the problem of beauty!”

A few days earlier our friends Kol and Dash came to lunch at our home, and Dash said at this time most visual art is conceptual.  “It’s a way of thinking,” she said.

Story/Time:  The Life of an Idea/Bill T. Jones

Comments are welcome! 

Q: All artists go through periods when they wonder what it’s all for. What do you do during times like that?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  Fortunately, that doesn’t happen very often.  I love and enjoy all the varied facets involved in being an artist, even (usually) the business aspects, which are just another puzzle to be solved.  I have vivid memories of being stuck in a job that I hated, one I couldn’t immediately leave because I was an officer in the US Navy.  Life is so much better as a visual artist!

I appreciate the freedom that comes with being a self-employed artist.  The words of Louise Bourgeois often come to mind:  “It is a PRIVILEGE to be an artist.” 

Still, with very valid reasons, no one ever said that an artist’s life is easy.  It is difficult at every phase.  

Books offer sustenance, especially ones written by artists who have endured all sorts of terrible hardships beyond anything artists today are likely to experience.  I just pick up a favorite book.  My Wednesday blog posts, “Pearls from artists,” give some idea of the sorts of inspiration I find.  I read the wise words of a fellow artist, then I get back to work.  As I quickly become intrigued with the problems at hand in a painting, all doubt usually dissolves. 

I  try to remember:  Artists are extremely fortunate to be doing what we love and what we are meant to do with our short time on earth.  What more could a person ask?  

Comments are welcome!      

Pearls from artists* # 129

 

Chalcatzingo, Mexico

Chalcatzingo, Mexico

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

A painter friend of mine once told me that he thought of sound as an usher for the here and now.  When he was a small child, Adam suffered an illness that left him profoundly deaf for several months.  His memories of that time are vivid and not, he insists, at all negative.  Indeed, they opened a world in which the images he saw could be woven together with much greater freedom and originality than he’d ever known.  The experience was powerful enough that it helped steer him toward his lifelong immersion in the visual arts.  “Sound imposes a narrative on you,” he said, “and it’s always someone else’s narrative.  My experience of silence was like being awake inside a dream I could direct.”

George Prochnik in In Pursuit of Silence:  Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise 

Comments are welcome! 

Pearls from artists* # 127

eBook cover

eBook cover

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

Two facts differentiate Daybook from my work in visual art.

The first is the simple safety of numbers.  There are 6500 Daybooks in the world.  My contribution to them was entirely mental, emotional.  I never put my hand on a single copy of these objects until I picked up a printed book.  I made no physical effort; no blood, no bone marrow moved from me to them.  I do not mean that I made no effort.  On the contrary, the effort was excruciating because it was so without physical involvement, so entirely hard-wrought out of nothing physical at all; no matter how little of the material world goes into visual art, something of it always does, and that something keeps you company as you work.  There seems to me no essential difference in psychic cost between visual and literary effort,  The difference is in what emerges as result.  A work of visual art is painfully liable to accident; months of concentration and can be destroyed by a careless shove.  Not so 6500 objects.  This fact gives me a feeling of security like that of living in a large, flourishing, and prosperous family.

Ancillary to this aspect is the commonplaceness of a book.  People do not have to go much out of their way to get hold of it, and they can carry it around with them and mark it up, and even drop it in a tub while reading in a bath.  It is a relief to have my work an ordinary part of life, released from the sacrosanct precincts of galleries and museums.  A book is also cheap.  Its cost is roughly equivalent to its material value as an object, per se.  This seems to me more healthy than the price of art, which bears no relation to its quality and fluctuates in the marketplace in ways that leave it open to exploitation.  An artist who sells widely has only to mark a piece of paper for it to become worth an amount way out of proportion to its original cost.  This aspect of art has always bothered me, and is one reason why I like teaching;  an artist can exchange knowledge and experience for money in an economy as honest as that of a bricklayer.   

Anne Truitt in Turn:  The Journal of an Artist

Comments are welcome!

Q: You have written about how you came to your current subject matter, but what led you away from photorealism to work that while not exactly abstract, leans more in that direction?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  Once I had achieved a high degree of technical facility with soft pastel, there was not much more to be gained from copying reality.  Cameras do an excellent job of that so what would be the point? 

Ultimately, all art lies in following an experience through to the end.  Art is in the choices one makes.  A visual artist’s private decisions about what to include and what to leave out become her unique inimitable style.  Years ago I made a conscious decision to abandon photorealism.  Since then I have been on a journey to work more from imagination and direct experience and less from physical reality. 

It’s funny.  I have always worked from photographs.  Because I have a strong work ethic and substantial technical skill, I often feel like a slacker if I do not put in all the details that I see in the reference photo.  That’s why the journey has been so slow, I think, as I convince myself it’s really ok to omit more and more details.  

Comments are welcome!       

Pearls from artists* # 120

In the studio, Photo: Britta Konau

In the studio, Photo: Britta Konau

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

In solitude artists can experiment, make a mess, sustain notes for the joy of it, imagine themselves on any stage in any play.  In the studio or practice room, they are not on display and need not wear their public face.  They can be their silent selves, their worst selves. If there is unfreedom on the stage or in the gallery, there is freedom in the studio.  As the visual artist Allen Kaprow put it, “Artists’ studios do not look like galleries, and when an artist’s studio does, everyone is suspicious.”  Galleries are for show; studios are where messes are made and where the real work happens.

Eric Maisel in A Life in the Arts

Comments are welcome!