Art, Writing, // February 8, 2021
Barbara Rachko — ARTIST/WRITER
Interview with artist & writer Barbara Rachko —
1. Who are you and what do you do?
I am an American contemporary artist and author who divides my time between residences in New York City and Alexandria, VA. I am best known for my pastel-on-sandpaper paintings, my eBook on Amazon.com: From Pilot to Painter: An Interview With Barbara Rachko and Ann Landi, and my popular blog, barbararachkoscoloreddust.com, with over 70,000 subscribers! Friends say that I have led an extraordinary, inspiring life. I learned to fly at the age of 25 and became a commercial pilot and Boeing-727 flight engineer before joining the Navy. As a Naval officer I spent many years working at the Pentagon and retired as a Commander.
I use my large collection of Mexican and Guatemalan folk art – masks, carved wooden animals, papier mâché figures, and toys – to create one-of-a-kind pastel-on-sandpaper paintings that combine reality and fantasy and depict personal narratives. In 2017 I traveled to Bolivia where I became inspired to paint Bolivian Carnival masks. My pastel paintings are bold, vibrant, and extremely unusual. Perhaps my business card says it all: “Revolutionizing Pastel as Fine Art!” I exhibit nationally and internationally and have won many accolades during my 30+ years as a professional artist.
2. Why art?
I love this question! I remember being impressed by Ursula von Rydingsvard’s exhibition at the National Museum of Women in the Arts a few years ago. What stayed with me most was her wall text, “Why Do I Make Art by Ursula von Rydingsvard.” There she listed a few dozen benefits that art-making has brought to her life.
I want to share some of my own personal reasons for art-making here, in no particular order. My list keeps changing, but these are true at least for today:
1. Because I love the entire years-long creative process – from foreign travel whereby I discover new source material, to deciding what I will make, to the months spent in the studio realizing my ideas, to packing up my newest pastel painting and bringing it to my Virginia framer’s shop, to seeing the framed piece hanging on a collector’s wall, to staying in touch with collectors over the years and learning how their relationship to the work changes.
2. Because I love walking into my studio in the morning and seeing all of that color! No matter what mood I am in, my spirit is immediately uplifted.
3. Because my studio is my favorite place to be… in the entire world. I’d say that it is my most precious creation. It’s taken more than twenty-two years to get it this way. I hope I never have to move!
4. Because I get to listen to my favorite music all day.
5. Because when I am working in the studio, if I want, I can tune out the world and all of its urgent problems. The same goes for whatever personal problems I am experiencing.
6. Because I am devoted to my medium. How I use pastel continually evolves. It’s exciting to keep learning about its properties and to see what new techniques will develop.
7. Because I have been given certain gifts and abilities and that entails a sacred obligation to USE them. I could not live with myself were I to do otherwise.
8. Because art-making gives meaning and purpose to my life. I never wake up in the morning wondering, how should I spend the day? I have important work to do and a place to do it. I know this is how I am supposed to be spending my time on earth.
9. Because I have an enviable commute. To get to my studio it’s a thirty-minute walk, often on the High Line early in the morning before throngs of tourists have arrived.
10. Because life as an artist is never easy. It’s a continual challenge to keep forging ahead, but the effort is also never boring.
11. Because each day in the studio is different from all the rest.
12. Because I love the physicality of it. I stand all day. I’m always moving and staying fit.
13. Because I have always been a thinker more than a talker. I enjoy and crave solitude. I am often reminded of the expression, “She who travels the farthest, travels alone.” In my work I travel anywhere.
14. Because spending so much solitary time helps me understand what I think and feel and to reflect on the twists and turns of my unexpected and fascinating life.
15. Because I learn about the world. I read and do research that gets incorporated into the work.
16. Because I get to make all the rules. I set the challenges and the goals, then decide what is succeeding and what isn’t. It is working life at its most free.
17. Because I enjoy figuring things out for myself instead of being told what to do or how to think.
18. Because despite enormous obstacles, I am still able to do it. Art-making has been the focus of my life for thirty-three years – I was a late bloomer – and I intend to continue as long as possible.
19. Because I have been through tremendous tragedy and deserve to spend the rest of my life doing exactly what I love. The art world has not caught up yet, but so be it. This is my passion and my life’s work and nothing will change that.
20. Because thanks to the internet and via social media, my work can be seen in places I have never been to and probably will never go.
21. Because I would like to be remembered. The idea of leaving art behind for future generations to appreciate and enjoy is appealing.
3. What is your earliest memory of wanting to be an artist?
I don’t believe I have any such ‘early memories.’ I came to art late and my journey to becoming an artist was circuitous, to say the least. In the mid-1980s I was a thirty-something Navy lieutenant. I worked a soul-crushing job as a computer analyst on the midnight shift in a Pentagon basement. We were open 24/7 and supported the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Remembering the joyful Saturdays of my youth in New Jersey, when I had studied with a local painter, I enrolled in a drawing class at the Art League School in Alexandria, Virginia. I loved it! I took more classes and became a highly motivated, full-time art student who worked nights at the Pentagon. After two years and as my skills improved, I discovered my preferred medium – soft pastel on sandpaper. I knew I had found my calling, submitted my resignation, and left active duty. On October 1, 1989 I became a professional artist.
4. What are your favorite subject(s) and media(s)?
I work exclusively in soft pastel on paper, using self-invented pastel techniques that I have been refining over thirty-plus years. Since 2017, I have depicted old Bolivian Carnival masks that I encountered and photographed at the Museum of Ethnography and Folklore In La Paz.
5. How do you work and approach your subject?
Undoubtedly, I could not make my work without UART sandpaper since my entire pastel technique evolved around it. I use 400 and 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 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.
6. What are your favorite art work(s), artist(s)?
I admire the work of many artists, but if I have to choose only one then I’d say Henri Matisse. Whenever there is a Matisse exhibition in New York, I try to see it at least once. Many years ago I read Hilary Spurling’s definitive two-volume biography (The Unknown Matisse, published 1998, and Matisse the Master, 2005) and became fascinated with how his life unfolded, how Matisse struggled and overcame daunting obstacles in order to make art, and how his work continued to grow and evolve throughout his long life.
I believe that Matisse and I are kindred souls in three respects: we both came from unpromising beginnings (he from a textile family in northern France, me from a blue collar family in New Jersey), our fathers did not support our interest in becoming artists, and he famously worked in series (I am well into my third series).
7. What are the best responses you have had to your work?
Here are two favorite quotes I have received. New York critic Peter Dellolio remarks, “It is undeniable that, like de Chirico, Barbara Rachko has created a unique, original, and very private landscape.”
Arts writer Ann Landi writes, “Barbara Rachko’s antecedents are not in the folkart traditions of the cultures she studies and embraces, but rather in the sophisticated strategies of Henry Matisse (who was a master at mixing patterns) and Edgar Degas (who exploited the power of oblique angles and cropped figures).”
8. What do you like about your work?
I love the fact that my pastel paintings are like no one else’s. People see my work and if they enjoy it, it seems to stay with them for a long time.
9. What advice would you give to other artists?
I have several pieces of advice. Build a support network among your fellow artists, teachers, and friends. It is tough to be an artist, period. Be sure to read plenty of books by and about artists. You will learn that all have experienced similar challenges. Do whatever you must to keep working – no matter what! Being an artist never gets easier. There are always new obstacles and you will discover solutions over time.
When I left the active duty Navy in 1989, my co-workers threw a farewell party. One of the parting gifts I received was a small plaque from a young enlisted woman whom I had supervised. The words on the plaque deeply resonated with me, since I was about to make a significant and risky career change. It was the perfect gift for someone facing the uncertainty of an art career. Many years later the plaque is still a proud possession of mine. It hangs on the wall behind my easel, to be read every day as I work. It says:
“Excellence can be attained if you…
Care more than others think is wise…
Risk more than others think is safe…
Dream more than others think is practical…
Expect more than others think is possible.”
I continue to live by these wise words.
10. Where do you see yourself in 5-10 years?
Hopefully, with a good home gallery. I am currently represented by galleries in Sweden, London, and Naples, FL, but I have been without a good local New York City gallery for too many years.