Blog Archives

Pearls from artists* # 303

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.

If the majority of aesthetic works fail to astonish us, then. it may have something to do with the ingrained insensitivity that is part and parcel of contemporary life.  It may also have something to do with the fact that art, as Solzhenitsyn said so eloquently, is constantly being put to uses that are at odds with its essence.  Indeed, the moment a work of art appears, all kinds of other factors come into play.  Cultural institutions, social pressures, laws, customs, fashions, and trends pull it in every direction.  Fame, money, conformism, attention-seeking, and knee-jerk rebellion can lure artists to abandon their own vision in order to emulate those of others, to adhere to formulas and paint by numbers, or to value external convention over vision.  The inevitable result is a lot of bad art that couldn’t astonish anyone.  It should come as no surprise, when looking over the glut of aesthetic objects that proliferate around us, if we feel the need to distinguish between authentic and inauthentic art – which is to say, art that astonishes us by attuning us to the radical mystery of being, and art that attempts to reinforce our shared illusions, comforting or intimidating us with the notion that there is nothing to wonder at since everything has been figured out.        

J.F. Martel in Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice:  A Treatise, Critique, and Call to Action 

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Pearls from artists* # 202

 

Soft pastels

Soft pastels

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

When you’re working on something, you always wonder, “Can I get away with this?  Is it working?”  It’s the space between that I’ve been interested in for a long time.  I think that when I started to make, say, a triptych that came from an observation of a little Picasso drawing, the spaces in between became as important as the three actual pieces.  It’s especially true of the Wallpaper piece.  But most of the changes in my own work really evolve from one piece to the next:  from looking at my own work, the works of others, and things in my studio.  It happens when you see something that you didn’t see previously, like those scraps of clay that became the wall pieces.  It’s similar to the space that I’ve explored for years and years between artist and craftsperson, which is both interesting and challenging, and I don’t think that one thing is inferior to the other.  Each has a different goal, a different function.  Its my responsibility how nd where my work is viewed in different contexts.

In Conversation:  Betty Woodman with Phong Bui, The Brooklyn Rail, April 2016

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Pearls from artists* # 201

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.

Matisse needs to find life difficult.  There has to be opposition and struggle:  “You come out by your own means,” he says:  “The essential thing is to come out, to express that sense of falling head over heals for a thing;  the artist’s job is not to transpose something he’s seen but to express the impact the object made on him, on his constitution, the shock of it and the original reaction.”

I sense that Matisse has little faith in the way his painting is feted nowadays.  A man of scrupulous integrity, he must wonder how much truth there is in all of that.  There is a vein of gutsy courage in him that is as unyielding now as it ever was.  Hard times have accustomed him to rely entirely on his own judgment and accept the solitude that this implies.

HM:  I’m already a little too official.  You need a bit of persecution.  When you’ve been controversial and they finally welcome you in, something goes wrong.  Very few people can see the picture itself; they just see the banknotes you could turn it into. You love your paintings less when they’re worth something.  When they’re not worth a cent, they’re like desolate children.

Chatting with Henri Matisse:  The Lost 1941 Interview, Henri Matisse with Pierre Courthion, edited by Serge Guilbaut, translated by Chris Miller

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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!      

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: What in your opinion marks a work of art as contemporary?

West 26th Street, NYC

West 26th Street, NYC

A:  “Contemporary art” is defined formally as art made since 1970 by living artists who are still making new work.  People often confuse the term “contemporary art” with “modern art,” but they are not the same.  “Modern art” refers to art made during the period between, roughly, the 1860’s to 1970. 

Nowadays there are so many different kinds of art – new forms are developing all the time – and almost anything can be considered contemporary art as long as someone, an artist, says it is art.  Ours is a fascinating, but bewildering, crazy, and often silly art world.  Since I am based in New York, I see a lot that makes me ask, “Is this really art?” and “Why would anyone make such a thing?” 

If there is one single element I look for in visual art it would have to be a high degree of craft.  I enjoy seeing work that is beautiful, well-crafted, and that makes me wonder how the artist made it.  With the exception of Ai Weiwei and Julie Mehretu (maybe others I can’t think of just now), I prefer art made by a single creator, as opposed to artists like Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst, who employ dozens of people to make their work.        

Comments are welcome!      

Q: What have you learned about the people of Mexico through your travels, reading, and research?

A corner of the studio

A corner of the studio

A:  It didn’t take long to become smitten with these beautiful people.  It happened on my first trip there in 1992 when Bryan and I, along with busloads of other tourists, were visiting the Oaxacan cemeteries on The Day of the Dead.  The Oaxaquenos 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 them and with their beliefs.  My studies since that time have given me a deeper appreciation for the art, architecture, history, mythology, etc. that comprise the extremely rich and complex story of Mexico as a cradle of civilization in the West.  It is a wonderfully heady mix and hopefully some of it comes through in my work as a painter and a photographer.

By the way I often wonder why the narrative of Mexico’s fascinating history was not taught in American public schools, at least not where I went to public school in suburban New Jersey.  Mexico is our neighbor, for goodness sake, but when I speak to many Americans about Mexico they have never learned anything about the place!  It’s shocking, but many people think only “Spring Break” and/or “Drug Wars,” when they hear the word “Mexico.”  As a kid I remember learning about Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, and other early civilizations in the Middle East, Europe, and Asia, but very little about Mexico.  We learned about the Maya, when it was still believed that they were a peaceful people who devoted their lives to scientific and religious pursuits, but that story was debunked years ago.  And I am fairly sure that not many Americans even know that Maya still exist in the world … in Mexico and in Guatemala.   There are a few remote places that were not completely destroyed by Spanish Conquistadores in the 16th century and later.  I’ve been to Mayan villages in Guatemala and seen shamans performing ancient rituals.  For an artist from a place as rooted in the present moment as New York, it’s an astounding thing to witness!  

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 66

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.

I craved honesty, yet found dishonesty in myself.  Why commit to art?  For self-realization, or for itself?  It seemed indulgent to add to the glut unless one offered illumination.

Often I’d sit and try to draw, but all the manic activity in the streets, coupled with the Vietnam War, made my efforts seem meaningless.  I could not identify with political movements.  In trying to join them I felt overwhelmed by yet another form of bureaucracy.  I wondered if anything I did mattered.

Robert [Mapplethorpe] had little patience with these introspective bouts of mine.  He never seemed to question his artistic drives, and by his example, I understood that what matters is the work:  the string of words propelled by God becoming a poem, the weave of color and graphite scrawled upon the sheet that magnifies His motion.  To achieve within the work a perfect balance of faith and execution.  From this state of mind comes a light, life-charged.

Patti Smith in Just Kids

Comments are welcome! 

Q: How do you select a photograph to use as reference material to make a pastel painting?

Photograph, left, and work in progress

Photograph, left, and work in progress

A:  Like everything else associated with my studio practice, my use of photographs from which to work has changed considerably. Beginning in the early 1990s all of the paintings in my first series, “Domestic Threats,” started out as elaborately staged, well-lit scenes that either my husband, Bryan, or I photographed with Bryan’s Toyo Omega 4 x 5 view camera using a wide-angle lens.   Depending on where I was living at the time, I set up the scenes in one of three places:  our house in Alexandria, VA, a six-floor walkup apartment on West 13th Street in New York, or my current Bank Street condominium.  Then one of us shot two pieces of 4 x 5 film at different exposures and I’d usually select the more detailed one to be made into a 20″ x 24″ photo to use as a reference.  

Just as the imagery in my paintings has simplified and emptied out over the years, my creative process has simplified, too.  I often wonder if this is a natural progression that happens as an artist gets older.  More recently I have been shooting photos independently of how exactly I will use them in my work.  Only later do I decide which ones to make into paintings; sometimes it’s YEARS later.  For example, the pastel painting that is on my easel now is based on a relatively old (2002) photograph that I have always liked, but only now felt ready to tackle in pastel.

Comments are welcome!  

Pearls from artists* # 45

iPad photo

iPad photo

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

Why do you write plays?  I am asked by the novelist.  Why do you write novels?  I am asked by the dramatist.  Why do you make films?  I am asked by the poet.  Why do you draw?  I am asked by the critic.  Why do you write?  I am asked by the draughtsman.  Yes, why?  I wonder.  Doubtless so that my seed may be blown all over the place.  I know little about this breath within me, but it is not gentle.  It does not care for the sick.  It is unmoved by fatigue.  It takes advantage of my gifts.  It wants to do its part.  It is not inspiration, it’s expiration one should say.  For this breath comes from a zone in man into which man cannot descend, even if Virgil were to lead him there, for Virgil himself did not descend into it.

Jean Cocteau in The Difficulty of Being

Comments are welcome!