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Q: Why do you prefer not to explain your titles and imagery?

"Truth Betrayed by Innocence," soft pastel on sandpaper, 58" x 38"

“Truth Betrayed by Innocence,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 58″ x 38″

A:  It’s mainly because answers close down imagination and creativity.  I enjoy hearing alternative interpretations of my pastel paintings.  People are wildly imaginative and each person brings unique insights to their art viewing.  By leaving meanings open, conversation is generated.  Most artists want viewers to talk about their work.

Once at a public artist’s talk that I attended, I was told by an artist that my interpretation of her title was completely wrong.  First of all, how can an interpretation honestly expressed by your audience be “wrong?”  Art is as open to interpretation as a Rorschach test (art IS a kind of Rorshach test).  Then she explained the thinking behind her title and succeeded in cutting off all further conversation.  I felt belittled.  Later several people told me that my interpretation was much more compelling.  Still, the experience was mortifying and I hope to never do that to anyone.

Comments are welcome!  

Pearls from artists* # 125

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.

My own natural proclivity is to categorize the world around me, to remove unfamiliar objects from their dangerous  perches by defining, compartmentalizing and labeling them.  I want to know what things are and I want to know where they are and I want to control them.  I want to remove the danger and replace it with the known.  I want to feel safe.  I want to feel out of danger.

And yet, as an artist, I know that I must welcome the strange and the unintelligible into my awareness and into my working process.  Despite my propensity to own and control everything around me, my job is to “make the familiar strange and the strange familiar,” as Bertolt Brecht recommended:  to un-define and un-tame what has been delineated by belief systems and conventions, and to welcome the discomfort of doubt and the unknown, aiming to make visible what has become invisible by habit.

Because life is filled with habit, because our natural desire is to make countless assumptions and treat our surroundings as familiar and unthreatening, we need art to wake us up.  Art un-tames, reifies and wakes up the part of our lives that have been put to sleep and calcified by habit.  The artist, or indeed anyone who wants to turn daily life into an adventure, must allow people, objects and places to be dangerous and freed from the definitions that they have accumulated over time.            

Anne Bogart in What’s the Story:  Essays about 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: When you left the Navy you worked on commission as a portrait artist. Why don’t you accept commissions now?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  As I have often said, I left the active duty Navy in 1989, but stayed in the Reserves. The Reserves provided a small part-time income and the only requirement was that I work one weekend a month and two weeks each year.  Plus, I could retire after 13 more years and receive a pension.  (In 2003 I retired from the Navy Reserve as a Commander).  The rest of the time I was free to pursue my studio practice. 

For a short time I made a living making commissioned photo-realist portraits in soft pastel on sandpaper.  However, after a year I became very restless.  I remember thinking, “I did not leave a boring job just to make boring art!”  I lost interest in doing commissions because what I wanted to accomplish personally as an artist did not coincide with what portrait clients wanted.  I finished my final portrait commission in 1990 and never looked back. 

To this day I remain reluctant to accept a commission of any kind.  So I am completely free to paint whatever I want, which is the only way to evolve as a serious, deeply committed artist.      

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 111

Perkins Center for the Arts, Collingswood, NJ

Perkins Center for the Arts, Collingswood, NJ

It is very difficult to describe the creative experience in such a way that it would cover all cases. One of the essentials is the variety with which one approaches any kind of artistic creation. It doesn’t start in any one particular way and it is not always easy to say what gets you going.

I’ve sometimes made the analogy with eating. Why do you eat? You’re hungry. You are sort of in the mood to eat, and if you are in the mood to eat, the food tastes better; you’re more interested in what you’re eating. The whole experience is more “creative.” It’s the hunger that stimulates you to eat. It’s the same thing in art; except that, in art, the hunger is the need for self-expression.

How does it come about that you feel hungry? You don’t know, you just feel hungry. The juices are working, and suddenly you are aware of the fact that you want a piece of bread and butter. It’s about the same in art. If you pass your life in creating works of art in one field or another, you recognize the “hunger” signs and you are quick to take advantage of them, if they’re accompanied by ideas. Sometimes, you have the hunger and you don’t have any ideas; there’s no bread in the house. It’s as simple as that.

AAron Copland in The Creative Experience:  Why and How Do We Create?, Stanley Rosner and Lawrence E. Abt, editors

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 78

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.

To me, openings are never what you want them to be.  The excitement, relief, anxiety, and anticipation are too much to process.  There’s no apotheosis, no pinnacle, no turning point.  It’s not like theater, where at the end of a performance people get up and applaud.

Nothing gets created at an opening.  Nothing of artistic merit takes place.  All of that important stuff happens in the studio, long before the exhibition, when you’re alone.  For me, anyway, openings are something to get through, an ordeal to be endured.  The bigger the event, the less I remember it.  I pretty much walk in, and wherever I stop is where I stay.  I paint a grin on my face so fixed that by the end of the evening my jaw is sore.  I remember none of the conversations.  I stand there shaking hands, blindly mouthing, “Thank you.  Thank you very much.”  Then eventually April [Gornick, Fischl’s wife] collects me and we leave.

If, on the other hand, you were to ask me what I remember about making the paintings in a show, that’s a different story.  Imagine touching something, stroking it, jostling it, caressing it, and as you’re doing this, you are creating it.  How you touched it is how it came into existence.  Unlike other pleasures, where the feelings fade quickly as details become blurred, with paintings you remember everything.  Within the details are all the bumps and the friction, the memory of when the creative instinct flowed, when you were distracted or lazy or working too hard.  It’s all there on the canvas.  When I look at my paintings again, years later, even, I remember it all – the victory laps and the scars.

Eric Fischl and Michael Stone in Bad Boy:  My Life On and Off the Canvas  

Comments  are welcome! 

Pearls from artists* # 68

Hudson Rail Yards, NYC

Hudson Rail Yards, NYC

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

Get to know what you really want.  Hold on and treasure your vision.  Acknowledge that your life is a work in progress and that your goals will change and develop over time. Knowing deeply what you want to accomplish shores up doubt, builds fortitude, and pushes you to take more action.  This awareness changes how you hear and use information.  Your senses will be sharpened.  You begin to listen to everything differently; you interpret what you read, what you do, and whom you meet with your goals in mind.  You will ask better questions of those around you and seek more meaningful help.  All of this will produce a subtle yet profound shift in how you proceed and the actions you take.  It will reshape your life and have major consequences for your career.

Jackie Battenfield in The Artist’s Guide:  How to Make a Living Doing What You Love 

Comments are welcome! 

Pearls from artists* # 58

Cabo San Lucas, Mexico

Cabo San Lucas, 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.

I remember as a teenager having a group of friends at school and another group whom I spent the weekends with.  I functioned fine until on occasions when I was with friends from both groups at the same time.  Then it became really difficult, because I was used to acting very differently with the two groups.  With one I was the leader, very vocal and outspoken about my opinions.  With the other group I wanted desperately to belong and so I adapted to fit in, which meant not really being myself.

The lack of authenticity is painful.  It applies to all levels of life.  If our voice as a painter is inauthentic, we’re in trouble.  In the end there is nothing so compelling as to be yourself.  This is why being an artist can be so exhilarating.  If you want to uncover your truth, you have a daily technique to come to terms with your limitations and to overcome them.  You have an opportunity to look at the limiting stories you have written in your head and heart and rewrite them with boldness and vision.  The quality of your attention influences how you see things. 

What you put your attention on grows stronger in your life.  Life, if you look around you, whether inside or in nature, is one bubbling mass of creativity.  Recognize we have no shortage of it.  If you focus your attention on what you now decide is fundamental , that quality will grow in your life.  Not what our parents or teachers or friends or media or anybody says or said.  What we now put our attention on will grow in our life.  If you want to paint and put your focus there you will unleash a torrent of energy and enthusiasm.

Ian Roberts in Creative Authenticity:  16 Principles to Clarify and Deepen Your Artistic Vision

Comments are welcome!   

Q: Would you please share a few more of your pastel portraits?

"Sam and Bobo," soft pastel on sandpaper, 36" x 31", 1989

“Sam and Bobo,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 36″ x 31″, 1989

"Jules," soft pastel on sandpaper, 28" x 22", 1989

“Jules,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 28″ x 22″, 1989

"The Post Oak Jacks," soft pastel on sandpaper, 31" x 39", 1990

“The Post Oak Jacks,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 31″ x 39″, 1990

"Reunion," soft pastel on sandpaper, 38" x 58", 1990

“Reunion,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 38″ x 58″, 1990

A:   See the four above.  As in my previous post, I reshot photographs from my portfolio book so the colors above have faded.  Many years later, however, my originals are as vibrant as ever. 

“Reunion” (bottom) is the last commissioned portrait I ever made.  Early on I knew that portraiture was too restrictive and that I wanted my work to  evolve in a completely different direction.  However, I didn’t know yet what that direction would be.     

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!   

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