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Pearls from artists* # 520

“Keeper of the Secret,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 47″ x 38″ image, 60″ x 50″ framed

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

Ondaatje: Do you think success and failure can distort the lessons an artist is able to learn?

Murch: There’s that wonderful line of Rilke’s, “The point of life is to fail at greater and greater things.” Recognizing that all of our achievements are doomed, in one sense – the earth will be consumed by the sun in a billion years or so – but in another sense the purpose of our journey is to go farther each time. So you’re trying things out in every film you make, with the potential of failure. I think we’re always failing, in Rilke’s sense – we know there’s more potential that we haven’t realized. But because we’re trying, we develop more and more talent, or muscles, or strategies to improve, each time.

In The Conversation: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film by Michael Ondaatje

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Pearls from artists* # 518

Barbara with a work in progress

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

“It’s more than beauty that I feel in music – that I think musicians feel in music. What we know we feel we’d like to convey to the listener. We hope that this can be shared by all. I think, basically, that’s what it is we are trying to do. We never talked about just what we were trying to do. If you ask me that question, I might say this today and tomorrow say something entirely different, because there are many things to do in music.

“But, overall, I think the main thing a musician would like to do is to give a picture to the listener of the many wonderful things he knows of and senses in the universe. That’s what music is to me – it’s just another way of saying this is a big, beautiful universe we live in, that’s been given to us, and here’s an example of just how magnificent and encompassing it is. That’s what I would like to do. I think that’s one of the greatest things you can do in life, and we all try to do it in some way. The musician’s is through his music.”

John Coltrane in Coltrane on Coltrane: The John Coltrane Interviews

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Pearls from artists* # 517

Bookshelf

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

You know. Don, I was reading a book on the life of Van Gogh today. and I had to pause and think of that wonderful and persistent force – the creative urge. The creative urge was in this man who found himself so at odds with the world he lived in, and in spite of all the adversity, frustrations, rejections, and so forth – beautiful and living art came forth abundantly… If only he could be here today. Truth is indestructible. It seems history shows (and it’s the same way today) that the innovator is more often than not met with some degree of condemnation; usually according to the degree of his departure from the prevailing modes of expression or what have you. Change is always so hard to accept. We also see that these innovators always seek to revitalize, extend and reconstruct the status quo in their given fields, wherever it is needed. Quite often they are the rejects, outcasts, sub-citizens, etc. of the very societies to which they bring so much sustenance. Often they are people who endure great personal tragedy in their lives. Whatever the case, whether accepted or rejected, rich or poor, they are forever guided by that great and eternal constant – the creative urge. Let us cherish it and give all praise to God.

John Coltrane in Coltrane on Coltrane: The John Coltrane Interviews

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Pearls from artists* # 495

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

Murch: …There’s a wonderful quotation from Goethe – he must have been frustrated at some point about the difficulty of communication. He said, “Utterly futile to try to change, by writing, someone’s fixed inclination. You will only succeed in confirming him in his opinion, or, if he has none, drenching him in yours.”

Ondaatje: There’s a poet in Vancouver who said, “I’ll see it when I believe it.”

M: Exactly. I’m sure Goethe didn’t think that way most of the time, otherwise he wouldn’t have kept on writing. He was talking in black-and-white terms: Agree with me or not! The richest zone of communication is the grey area… where the reader is somewhat receptive to what the author writes but also brings along his own images, and ideas, which in a creative way do violence to the author’s vision and ideas. A synergy results from what the writer presents and what the reader brings. That communication, initially present in neither the sender nor the receiver, is greater than the message of the writer alone or the thoughts of the reader alone.

It’s similar to what happens with human sight. Your left eye sees one thing and your right eye sees something else, a slightly different perspective. They’re so close and yet different enough that when the mind tries to see both simultaneously, to resolve their contradictions, the only way it can do so is to create a third concept, an arena in which both perspectives can exist: three-dimensional space. This “space” doesn’t exist in either of the images – each eye alone sees a flat, two-dimensional view of the world – but space, as we perceive it, is created in the mind’s attempt to resolve the different images it is receiving from the left and the right eye.

In The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film by Michael Ondaatje

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Pearls from artists* # 485

New York City

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

[Michael] Ondaatje: It’s an odd thing: I’ve heard you talk about the importance of ambiguity in film, and the need to save that ambiguous quality which exists in a book or painting, and which you think a film does not often have. And at the same time in a mix you are trying to “perfect” that ambiguity.

[Walter] Murch: I know. It’s a paradox. And one of the most fruitful paradoxes, I think, is that even when the film is finished, there should be unsolved problems. Because there’s another stage, beyond the finished film: when the audience views it. You want the audience to be co-conspirators in the creation of this work, just as much as the editor or the mixers or the cameraman or actors are. If by some chemistry you actually did remove all ambiguity in the final mix – even though it had been ambiguous up to that point – I think you would do the film a disservice. But the paradox is that you have to approach every problem as if it’s desperately important to solve it. You can’t say, I don’t want to solve this because it’s got to be ambiguous. If you do that, then there’s a sort of hemorrhaging of the organism.

O: And more of a confusion.

M: Yes. I keep thinking about it, and it’s a wonderful dilemma: you have to acknowledge that there must be unsolved problems at each stage. As hard as you work, you must have this secret, unspoken hope that one very significant problem will remain unsolved. But you never know what that will be until the film is done. You can almost define a film by the problem it poses, that it can’t answer itself, that it asks the audience to solve.

The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film by Michael Ondaatje

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Q: How do you work and approach your subject? (Question from “Arts Illustrated”)

At work
At work

A: Undoubtedly, I could not make my work without UART sandpaper since my entire pastel technique evolved around it.  I use 400 0r 500 grit.  My favorite thing about it is its ‘tooth’ (i.e. texture or roughness).  

Over the many months I spend creating a pastel painting, I build layer upon layer of soft pastel.  Because the paper I use is relatively “toothy,” it accepts all of the pastel the painting needs.  And as many people know, I own and use thousands of soft pastels!

Many layers of soft pastel and several months of studio time go into creating each painting.  My self-invented technique is analogous to the glazing techniques used by the Old Masters, who slowly built up layers of thin oil paint to achieve a high degree of finish.  Colors were not only mixed physically, but optically.  

Similarly, I gradually build up layers of soft pastel, as many as thirty, to create a pastel painting.  After applying a color, I blend it with my fingers and push it into the sandpaper’s tooth.  It mixes with the color beneath to create a new color, continually adding richness, saturation, and intensity to the piece.  By the time a pastel painting is finished, the colors are bold, vibrant, and exciting.

From the beginning in the 1980s I used photographs as reference material and my late husband, Bryan, would shoot 4” x 5” negatives of my elaborate setups with his Toyo-Omega view camera. In those days I rarely picked up a camera except when we were traveling. After Bryan was killed on 9/11, I inherited his extensive camera collection – old Nikons, Leicas, Graphlex cameras, etc. – and I wanted to learn how to use them. In 2002 I enrolled in a series of photography courses (about 10 over 4 years) at the International Center of Photography in New York. I learned how to use all of Bryan’s cameras and how to make my own big color prints in the darkroom.

Along the way I discovered that the sense of composition, form, and color I developed over many years as a painter translated well into photography. The camera was just another medium with which to express my ideas. Astonishingly, in 2009 I had my first solo photography exhibition in New York.

It’s wonderful to be both a painter and a photographer. Pastel painting will always be my first love, but photography lets me explore ideas much faster than I ever could as a painter. Paintings take months of work. To me, photographs – from the initial impulse to hanging a framed print on the wall – are instant gratification.

For several years I have been using my iPad Pro to capture thousands of travel photographs.  Most recently, I visited Gujarat and Rajasthan in India. I have never been inclined to use a sketchbook so composing photos on my iPad keeps my eye sharp while I’m halfway around the world, far from my studio practice.

My blog, “Barbara Rachko’s Colored Dust,” continues to be a crucial part of my overall art practice.  Blogging twice a week forces me to think deeply about my work and to explain it clearly to others.  The process has helped me develop a better understanding about why I make art and, I like to think, has helped me to become a better writer.

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 378

With “Poseur,” Soft Pastel on Sandpaper, 70” x 50,” 2019

With “Poseur,” Soft Pastel on Sandpaper, 70” x 50,” 2019

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

[John] Graham told Lee [Krasner] and Jackson [Pollock] they were at the most wonderful part of their artistic journey because they were unknown and therefore free, and that there was only one thing they had to dread:  fame.

 How many men of great talent on their way to remarkable achievement in the present day are ruthlessly destroyed by critics, dealers, and public while mediocre, insensitive hacks, who by intrigue and industrious commercial effort have gained recognition and success, will go down in history with their inane creations.  Success, fame, and greatness coincide very seldom.  The great are not recognized during their life-time… Poe, Van Gogh,Rembrandt, Cezanne, Gauguin, Modigliani, Pushkin, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, and others could not make even a miserable living out of their art.

 As Graham described it, true art could never be of the world because it was always steps, decades, light-years ahead of it.  Artists, therefore, had no need to be part of the world, either.  Their only duty was to persevere.  Humanity, he said, depended on it.

Mary Gabriel in Ninth Street Women

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Q: Do you have a mentor?

"Alone Together," soft pastel on sandpaper, 20" x 26"

“Alone Together,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 20″ x 26″

A:  No, but I often wish I did.  How wonderful it would be to consult someone who’s been there, a productive and successful artist who could provide advice on all the concerns, especially the problems and dangers, inherent in a professional artist’s life. 

But I have been at this for thirty years and found no such person!  I think it’s because each artist’s career is highly unique as we chart are own individual paths.  Unlike most professions, there are no firm rules or straight forward career milestones for making your way as an artist.

Besides the countless hours spent in the studio, I have always worked diligently to understand the art business.  Certainly getting work seen, exhibited, reviewed, sold, etc. is as important as making it in the first place.  It’s all part of being a professional artist. 

Early on I developed the habit of relying on my own best judgment, both in creating the work and in getting it seen and collected.  Certainly I have made plenty of mistakes.  As a result though, I know a tremendous amount about the art business.  And I enjoy sharing what I know in the hopes of steering other artists away from making similar missteps.

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Pearls from artists* # 144

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.

Art and design are rule-based.  This flies in the face of everything that most people have been taught before, namely, that art and design are about freedom.  I remember reading a wonderful analogy about this concept many years ago in an out-of-print, early twentieth-century book on design.  The author asked us to imagine a flying kite – the quintessential emblem of unrestricted, spontaneity, soaring in the wind.  Keeping taught the line between you and the kite, however, is the source of that freedom.  Here’s another way of putting it:  “Creativity arises out of the tension between the rules and imagination.”

Leslie Hirst in The Art of Critical Making:  Rhode Island School of Design on Creative Practice, Rosanne Somerson and Mara L. Hermano, editors

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