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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: Can you tell us about the different series of work you have created and what they embody?

Barbara’s studio with work in progress

Barbara’s studio with work in progress

A:  The Black Paintings series of pastel-on-sandpaper paintings grew directly from an earlier series, Domestic Threats.  While both use cultural objects as surrogates for human beings acting in mysterious, highly-charged narratives, in the Black Paintings I replaced all background details of my actual setup (furniture, rugs, etc.) with lush black pastel.  In this work the ‘actors’ are front and center.

While traveling in Bolivia two years ago, I visited a mask exhibition at the National Museum of Ethnography and Folklore in La Paz.  The masks were presented against black walls, spot-lit, and looked eerily like 3D versions of my Black Paintings.  I immediately knew I had stumbled upon a gift.  So  far I have completed nine pastel paintings in the Bolivianos series.  One is awaiting finishing touches, one is in progress now, and I am planning the next one.

All of my pastel paintings are an example of a style called “contemporary conceptual realism” in which things are not quite as innocent as they seem.  In this sense each painting is a kind of Trojan horse.  There is plenty of backstory to my images, although I usually prefer not to over-explain them.  Some mystery must always remain in art.

The world I depict is that of the imagination and this realm owes little debt to the natural world.  I recently gave an art talk where I was reminded how fascinating it is to learn how others respond to my work.  As New York art critic Gerrit Henry once remarked, “What we bring to a Rachko… we get back, bountifully.” 

Comments are welcome!

 

Q: When did your love of indigenous artifacts begin? Where have you traveled to collect these focal points of your works and what have those experiences taught you?

Mexico City

Mexico City

A:  As a Christmas present in 1991 my future sister-in-law sent me two brightly painted wooden animal figures from Oaxaca, Mexico. One was a blue polka-dotted winged horse.  The other was a red, white, and black bear-like figure. 

I was enthralled with this gift and the timing was fortuitous because I had been searching for new subject matter to paint. I started asking artist-friends about Oaxaca and learned that it was an important art hub.  Two well-known Mexican painters, Rufino Tamayo and Francisco Toledo, had gotten their start there, as had master photographer Manuel Alvarez Bravo.  There was a “Oaxacan School of Painting” (‘school’ meaning a style) and Alvarez Bravo had established a photography school there (the building/institution kind). I began reading everything I could find.  At the time I had only been to Mexico very briefly, in 1975.  

The following autumn, Bryan and I planned a two-week trip to visit Mexico. We timed it to see Day of the Dead celebrations in Oaxaca.  (During my research I had become fascinated with this festival).  We spent one week in Oaxaca followed by one week in Mexico City.  My interest in collecting Mexican folk art was off and running!

Along with busloads of other tourists, we visited several cemeteries in small Oaxacan towns for the “Day of the Dead.” The indigenous people tending their ancestors’ 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 these beautiful people and their beliefs. 

From Oaxaca we traveled to Mexico City, where again I was entranced, but this time by the rich and ancient history.  We visited the National Museum of Anthropology, where I was introduced to the fascinating story of ancient Mesoamerican civilizations; the ancient city of Teotihuacan, which the Aztecs discovered as an abandoned city and then occupied as their own; and the Templo Mayor, the historic center of the Aztec empire, infamous as a place of human sacrifice.  I was astounded!  Why had I never learned in school about Mexico, this highly developed cradle of Western civilization in our own hemisphere, when so much time had been devoted to the cultures of Egypt, Greece, and elsewhere? When I returned home to Virginia I began reading everything I could find about ancient Mexican civilizations, including the Olmec, Zapotec, Mixtec, Aztec, and Maya. The first trip to Mexico opened up a whole new world and was to profoundly influence my future work. I would return there many more times, most recently to study Olmec art and archeology. In subsequent years I have traveled to Guatemala, Peru, Bolivia and other countries in search of inspiration and subject matter to depict in my work.

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 344

Untitled, c-print, 24 x 24," edition of 5

Untitled, c-print, 24 x 24,” edition of 5

*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 live in a most remarkable world, thick with mysteries.  It all called to mind the British physicist Sir Arthur Eddington’s memorable explanation of how the universe works:  “Something unknown is doing we don’t know what.”

But the best part is:  I don’t need to know what.

All I know for certain is that this is how I want to spend my life – collaborating to the best of my ability with forces of inspiration that I can neither see, nor prove, nor command, nor understand.

It’s a strange line of work, admittedly.

I cannot think of a better way to pass my days.

Elizabeth Gilbert in Big Magic:  Creative Living Beyond Fear

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Pearls from artists* # 162

"The Sovereign," soft pastel on sandpaper, 58" x 38"

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

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

Particle after particle of the living self is transferred into the creation, until at last it is an external world that corresponds to the inner world and has the power of outlasting the author’s life.  

I suspect that some such dream is shared by many authors, but among those interviewed it is Faulkner who has come closest to achieving it, and he is also the author who reveals it most candidly.  “Beginning with Sartoris,” he says, I discovered that my own little postage stamp of native soil was worth writing about and that I would never live long enough to exhaust it, and that by sublimating the actual into the apocryphal I would have complete liberty to use whatever talent I might have to its absolute top.  It opened up a mine of other people, so I created a cosmos of my own.  I can move these people around like God, not only in space but in time.”  And then he says, looking back on his work as if on the seventh day,  “I like to think of the world I created as being a kind of keystone in the universe; that, small as that keystone is, if it were ever taken away the universe itself would collapse.  My last book will be the Doomsday Book, the Golden Book, of Yoknapatawpha County.  Then I shall break the pencil and I’ll have to stop.”

Malcolm Cowley in Writers  at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, First Series

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Pearls from artists* # 156

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

Our vision is what makes us unique and special.  Literally, vision means an artist’s unique way of seeing the world, the special and specific choices the artist makes when observing the world around him.  It is also what the artist imagines and sees with his unique mind’s eye and brings out by way of his art.  Vision is like a lighthouse, it guides the artist to a specific area of nature or life or to a subject that is personal to the artist, one that others might have overlooked.  Vision also includes that which the artist’s conscience tells him the world ought to be – or what the world is lacking.  Vision is that unique and special contribution we bring and add to life; it is that which no one can provide but us.  Passion, inspiration, talent and skill all have to come together so that our vision can be achieved.

Samuel Adoquei in Origin of Inspiration:  Seven Short Essays for Creative People

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Pearls from artists* # 137

 

"She Embraced It and Grew Stronger,"  soft pastel on sandpaper, 58" x 38"

“She Embraced It and Grew Stronger,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 58″ x 38″

* 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 was a determined young woman.  I was driven.  My problem was not in being an artist.  I didn’t realize how much my being a woman would get in the way of being an artist in the world.  I wasn’t aware of it.  I was just doing my thing.  My pain came from being treated like I was a bad woman, in my personal life.  That being driven and assertive and doing my vision was really bad because I was not a supporter and a nurturer of men.  The men were the ones who made me feel bad.  It could just be that they were not strong men.  It was very painful and the way that I took it was as if there was something the matter with me.  Yet, there was no way I was not going to pursue my vision.  It was not negotiable.

Conversations with Meredith Monk by Bonnie Marranca

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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 

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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

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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!

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