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Pearls from artists* # 54

Pier 40, NYC

Pier 40, 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.

In the cemetery all the vultures began to circle, and the sky filled with birds.  It was then that I began my series of birds – many of my bird photos came from that moment.  All this is to say that in life everything is connected:  your pain and your imagination, which perhaps can help you forget reality.  It’s a way of showing how you connect what you live with what you dream, and what you dream with what you do, and this is what remains on paper…

Graciela Iturbide in Eyes to Fly With

Comments are welcome! 

Pearls from artists* # 52

Boat hull

Boat hull

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

The modern way of seeing is to see in fragments.  It is felt that reality is essentially unlimited, and knowledge is open-ended.  It follows that all boundaries, all unifying ideas have to be misleading, demagogic; at best, provisional; almost always, in the long run, untrue.  To see reality in the light of certain unifying ideas has the undeniable advantage of giving shape and form to our experience.  But it also – so the modern way of seeing instructs us – denies the infinite variety and complexity of the real.  Thereby it represses our energy, indeed our right, to remake what we wish to remake – our society, ourselves.  What is liberating, we are told, is to notice more and more.

Paolo Dilonardo and Anne Jump, editors, Susan Sontag At the Same Time:  Essays and Speeches

Comments are welcome!

Q: Why do you need to use a photograph as a reference source to make a pastel painting?

One of Barbara's reference photos

One of Barbara’s reference photos

A:  When I was about 4 or 5 years old I discovered that I had a natural ability to draw anything that I could see.  It’s the way my brain is wired and it is a gift!  One of my earliest memories as an artist is of copying the Sunday comics.  Always it has been much more difficult to draw what I CANNOT see, i.e., to recall how things look solely from memory or to invent them outright.

The evolution of my pastel-on-sandpaper paintings has been the opposite of what one might expect.  I started out making extremely photo-realistic portraits.  I remember feeling highly unflattered when after months of hard work, someone would look at my completed painting and say, “It looks just like a photograph!”  I know this was meant as a compliment, but to me it meant that I had failed as an artist.   Art is so much more than copying physical appearances.

So I resolved to move away from photo-realism.  It has been slow going and part of me still feels like a slacker if I don’t put in all the details.  But after nearly three decades I have arrived at my present way of working, which although still highly representational, contains much that is made up, simplified, and/or stylized.  As I have always done, I continue to work from life and from photographs, but at a certain point I put everything aside and work solely from memory.

Comments are welcome!

Q: To be a professional visual artist is to have two full-time jobs because an artist must continually balance the creative and the business sides of things. How do you manage to be so productive?

No computer in sight

No computer in sight

A:  With social media and other new ways of doing business, managing it all is getting more difficult every day.  Bear in mind that I say this as someone who does not have the extra time commitment of a day job, nor do I have children or other family members to care for.  I have no idea how other visual artists, who may have these responsibilities and more, keep up with all the tasks that need to be done.  In The Artist’s Guide:  How to Make A Living Doing What You Love, Jackie Battenfield lists a few of them (believe me, there are others):

…being an artist isn’t just about making art.  You have many other responsibilities –  managing a studio, looking for opportunities, identifying an audience for your work, caring for and protecting what you have created, and securing money, time, and space – in addition to whatever is  happening in your personal life.

To begin with I try to maintain regular studio hours.  I generally work on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, and once I’m at the studio I stay there for a minimum of 7 hours.  To paint I need daylight so in the spring and summer my work day tends to be longer.  My pastel-on-sandpaper paintings are extremely labor-intensive.  I need to put in sufficient hours in order to accomplish anything.  When I was younger I used to work in my studio 6 days a week, 9 hours or more a day.  I have more commitments now, and can no longer work 60+ hours a  week, but I still try to stick to a schedule.  And once I’m at the studio I concentrate on doing the creative work, period.

I am productive when I keep the business and creative sides physically separate., ie., no computers, iPads, etc. are allowed into the studio.  Recently I tried an experiment.  I brought my iPad to the studio, thinking, “Surely I am disciplined enough to use it only during my lunch break.”  But no, I wasted so much time checking email, responding to messages on Facebook, etc., when I should have been focusing on solving problems with the painting that was on my easel.  I learned a good lesson that day and won’t bring my iPad to the studio again.

As has long  been my practice, I concentrate on business tasks when I get home in the evening and on my, so called, days off.  After a day spent working in the studio, I generally spend a minimum of two to three hours more to answer email, apply for exhibitions, work on my blog, email images to people who need them, etc.  At present I  have part-time help with social media – the talented Barbra Drizin, of Start from Scratch Social Media – although my time commitment there is growing, too, as more details need my attention.

No one ever said it would be easy being a professional artist, but then again, I would not choose to spend my days any other way.  As I often say, “Being an artist is a calling.  Contrary to popular belief, it is NOT a life for wimps… or slackers.”

Comments are welcome!

Q: Your “Gods and Monsters” series consists of tableaux of Mexican and Guatemalan figures that are photographed in a way that blurs certain elements to abstraction while others are in clear focus. Can you please speak more about this work?

Untitled chromogenic print, 24" x 24", edition of 5

Untitled chromogenic print, 24″ x 24″, edition of 5

A:  When I depict the Mexican and, more recently, Guatemalan figures in my pastel-on-sandpaper paintings, they are hard-edged, vibrant, and in-your-face. That’s a result of the way I work in pastel. I slowly and meticulously build up layers of pigment, blend them with my fingers, continually refine and try to find the best, most eye-popping colors. It’s a very slow process that takes months of hard work.  An aside…  One frustration I have as an artist – I am hardly unique in this – is that my audience only sees the finished piece and they look at it for perhaps ten seconds.  They rarely think about how their ten-second experience took me months to create! 

In 2002 when I began photographing these figures, I wanted to take the same subject matter and give it an entirely different treatment.  So these images are deliberately soft focus, dreamy, and mysterious. I use a medium format camera and shoot film.  I choose a narrow depth of field.  I hold gels in front of the scene to blur it and to provide unexpected areas of color.  Even as a photographer I am a colorist.

I want this work to surprise me and it does, since I don’t usually know what images I will get.  Often I don’t even look through the viewfinder as I position the camera and the gels and click the shutter.  I only know what I’ve shot after I’ve seen a contact sheet, usually the next day. 

The “Gods and Monsters” series began entirely as a reaction to my pastel paintings.  The latter are extremely meticulous and labor intensive.  At a certain point in the process I know more or less what the finished painting will look like, but there are still weeks of slow, laborious detail work ahead.  So my photographic work is spontaneous, serendipitous, and provides me with much-needed instant gratification. I find it endlessly intriguing to have two diametrically opposed ways of working with the same subject.

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 30

East Hampton house

East Hampton house

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

And, just as the analysis of a film by a psychoanalyst can tell us about some implications and some sources of a labour that is all the less tightly under our control since the material problems we encounter during it make us insensible to tiredness and leave our unconscious quite free, so the interpretation of one of our works by the mind of an outsider can show it to us from a new, and revealing perspective.

How disturbed we should be, were there some machine that would allow us to follow the thousand brains in a cinema!  No doubt, we should stop writing.  We should be wrong to do so, but it would be a hard lesson.  What Jules de Noailles said (recounted by Liszt) is true:  ‘You will see one day that it is hard to speak about anything to anyone.’  Yet it is equally true that each person takes in or rejects the sustenance that we offer, and that the people who absorb it, do so in their own way; and this it is that determines the progress of a work through the centuries, because if a work were to send back only a perfect echo, the result would be a kind of pleonasm, an inert exchange, a dead perfection.

Andre Bernard and Claude Gauteur, editors, Jean Cocteau:  The Art of Cinema

Comments are welcome!

Q: Can you speak in more detail about how losing your husband, Dr. Bryan C. Jack, on 9/11 affected your artistic practice?

"She Embraced It and Grew Stronger," 2003, 58" x 38", first large pastel-on-sandpaper painting completed after Bryan was killed

“She Embraced It and Grew Stronger,” 2003, 58″ x 38″, first large pastel-on-sandpaper painting completed after Bryan was killed

A:  On September 11, 2001, Bryan, who was a high-ranking, career, federal government employee, a brilliant economist (with an IQ of 180 he is still the smartest man I’ve ever met) and a budget analyst at the Pentagon, was en route to Monterrey, CA to give his monthly guest lecture for an economics class at the Naval Postgraduate College there.  He had the horrible misfortune of flying out of Dulles airport and boarding the plane that was high-jacked and crashed into the Pentagon, killing 189 people.  

Losing him was the biggest shock of my life, devastating in every possible way.  I think about him every day and I continually think about how easily I, too, could have been killed on 9/11.  I had decided not to travel with Bryan to California, a place I absolutely love visiting, only because the planned trip was too short.  His plane crashed directly into my (Navy Reserve) office on the fifth floor, e-ring of the Pentagon.  I still imagine how close we came to Bryan having been killed on the plane and me perishing in the building.  To this  day I believe that I was spared for a reason and I strive to make every day count.

The six months after 9/11 passed by in a blur, except that I vividly remember an October 2001 awards  ceremony at the DAR Hall in Washington, DC.  I was picked up by a big black limousine, sent by the Department of  Defense.  At the ceremony I sat with members of the president’s cabinet.  I accepted the Defense Exceptional Civilian Service Medal for Bryan, an award he would have accepted himself had he been alive, and was addressed face-to-face by George Bush, Jr., not someone I particularly liked (to put it nicely).  Later Bryan was given more awards –  a Presidential Rank Award, a Defense Distinguished Civilian Service Medal, and the Defense of Freedom Medal.  Many other honors came in and I’ll mention two.  Bryan’s hometown of Tyler, Texas named a magnet school after him – Dr. Bryan C. Jack Elementary School (the principal and I cut the ribbon at the opening ceremony) – and Stanford University set up the “Bryan Jack Memorial Scholarship,” which annually helps two deserving students attend Stanford Business School.     

The following summer I was ready to – I HAD to – get back to work so my first challenge was to learn how to use Bryan’s 4 x 5 view camera. In July 2002 I enrolled in a one-week view camera workshop at the International Center of Photography in New York.  Much to my surprise I already knew quite a lot from watching Bryan.  Thankfully, I was soon on my way to working again.  After the initial workshop, I decided to begin with the basics since I had never formally studied photography before. I threw myself into learning this new (to me) medium.  Over the next few years I enrolled in a series of classes at ICP, starting with Photography I.  Along the way I learned to use Bryan’s extensive camera collection (old Leicas, Nikons, Mamiyas, and more) and to make my own large chromogenic prints in the darkroom.  In October 2009 it was extremely gratifying to have my first solo photography exhibition with HP Garcia in New York (please see the exhibition catalogue on the sidebar).  I remember tearing up at the opening as I imagined Bryan looking down at me with his beautiful smile, beaming as he surely would have, so proud of me for having become a photographer.

Comments are welcome!

Q: Your relationship with photography has changed considerably over the years. How did you make use of photography in your first series of pastel-on-sandpaper paintings, “Domestic Threats”?

"Truth Betrayed by Innocence," 2001, 58" x 38", the last pastel painting for which Bryan photographed my setup

“Truth Betrayed by Innocence,” 2001, 58″ x 38″,  the last pastel painting for which Bryan photographed the setup

A:  When my husband, Bryan, was alive I barely picked up a camera, except to photograph sights encountered during our travels. Throughout the 1990s and beyond (ending in 2007), I worked on my series of pastel-on-sandpaper paintings called, “Domestic Threats.”  These were realistic depictions of elaborate scenes that I staged in our 1932 Sears house in Alexandria, Virginia, and later, in a New York sixth floor walk-up apartment, using the Mexican masks, carved wooden animals, and other folk art figures that I found on our trips to Mexico. I staged and lit these setups, while Bryan photographed them using his Toyo-Omega 4 x 5 view camera.  We had been collaborating this way almost from the beginning (we met on February 21, 1986).  Having been introduced to photography by his father at the age of 6, Bryan was a terrific amateur photographer. He would shoot two pieces of 4 x 5 film at different exposures and I would select one, generally the one that showed the most detail in the shadows, to make into a 20 x 24 photograph. The photograph would be my starting point for making the pastel painting. Although I work from life, too, I could not make a painting without mostly looking at a reference photo.  After Bryan was killed on 9/11, I had no choice but to study photography.  Over time, I turned myself into a skilled photographer.

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 26

Borobudur, Java

Borobudur, Java

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

Beauty is made up of relationships.  It derives its prestige from a specific metaphysical truth, expressed through a host of balances, imbalances, waverings, surges, halts, meanderings, and straight lines, the peculiar quality of which, as a whole, add up to a marvelous number, apparently born without pain.  Its distinguishing mark is that it judges those who judge it, or imagine that they possess power to do so.  Critics have no hold over it.  They would have to know the minutest details of how it works, and this they cannot do, because the mechanics of beauty are secret.  Hence the soil of an age is strewn with a litter of cogs that criticism dismantles in the same way as Charlie Chaplin dismantles an alarm clock after opening it like a tin can.  Criticism dismantles the cogs.  Unable to put them back together or understand the relationships that give them life, it discards them and goes on to something else.  And beauty ticks on.  Critics cannot hear it because the roar of current events clogs the ears of their souls.

Jean Cocteau in Andre Bernard and Claude Gauteur, editors, Jean Cocteau:  The Art of Cinema

Comments are welcome!

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