A Conversation With Barbara Rachko
In Articles | Interviews15 December 2011
rtist Barbara Rachko shares her perspective on studio practice, photography, personal loss and the creative inspiration she found in Mexican folklore.
DR: What experiences with art led you to pursue your studio practice?
BR: That is such a long and complicated story! I grew up in a blue collar family in suburban New Jersey. My father was a television repairman for RCA. My mother worked in a factory for a while, but mostly she stayed home to raise my sisters and me. My parents were both first-generation Americans and in those days I don’t believe anyone in my extended family had ever gone to college. I was a pretty smart kid. I must have shown some artistic talent in kindergarten or first grade. I was able to draw anything, as long as I could see it, and I was unusually sensitive to minute variations in color and light. At the age of seven, my mother enrolled me in Saturday morning painting classes at the studio of an artist in a neighboring town. I continued the classes for about 8 years and became fairly adept at oil painting. Living in Clifton, just 12 miles from New York City, my mother took my sister and me to museums, particularly the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum, and the Museum of Natural History. As a kid I remember falling in love with Rousseau’s The Sleeping Gypsy and being astonished by the scale and violence of Picasso’s Guernica when it was on long-term loan to the MoMA. I have fond memories of seeing the dioramas at the Museum of Natural History. Indeed, they are still my favorite part of the museum. I suppose it goes without saying that there were not any artists in my family. At the age of 15 my father decided that art was not a serious pursuit – he said it was a hobby, not a profession – so he abruptly stopped paying for my lessons. With no financial and no moral support, I turned my attention to other pursuits and let my artistic abilities lie dormant.
I suppose things would have remained that way – an artist neglecting her talent – but fast forward ahead to when I was 33-years-old, a lieutenant on active duty in the Navy, working at a soul-crushing job as a computer analyst on the midnight shift in a sub-basement of the Pentagon. Literally, one could not go any lower! Indeed I was miserable, but you do not give the Navy two weeks notice and quit. Remembering the joyful Saturdays of my youth, I enrolled in a drawing class in a suburban Virginia art school. It was hard work and at first I wasn’t very good, but wow, I was having so much fun! Soon I was signed up for 5 classes each semester, basically turning myself into a full-time art student while working at the Pentagon full-time. As I studied and got better, I discovered my preferred medium – soft pastel on sandpaper – and began inventing new ways to use it. In 1989 I said goodbye to the active duty Navy, although I decided to remain in the Navy Reserve so that I would have a part-time income. For the next 14 years I worked two days each month for the Navy and finally on November 1, 2003, I retired as a Commander.
I’ve had a studio since the mid-eighties. My first one was in the spare bedroom of the Alexandria, Virginia, house that I shared with my husband Bryan. In 1997 an opportunity to move to New York arose and I didn’t look back. By then I was showing at a good 57th Street gallery, Brewster Arts (as they focused exclusively on Latin American artists, I was flattered that Leonora Carrington and I were their only non-Latin artists), and I had managed to find a New York agent with whom to do business. I looked at one other space before finding my West 29th Street studio, where I still work. It was and continues to be my oasis in a chaotic city, a place to read, to think, and to make art.
DR: Please speak about your background as an aviator and how that informed your sensibility as an artist.
BR: At the age of 25 I got my private pilot’s license before spending the next two years amassing thousands of hours of flight time as I earned every license and rating I could, ending with a Boeing-727 flight engineer certificate. I joined the Navy when I was 29. I used to think that the 7 years I spent on active duty were wasted – during those 7 years I should have been working on my art – but I see things differently now. The Navy taught me to be disciplined, to be goal-oriented and focused, to love challenges, and in everything I do, to pay attention to the details. Trying to make it as an artist in New York is nothing BUT challenges so these qualities serve me well, whether I’m creating paintings, shooting and printing photographs, or trying to understand the art business. I generally enjoy spending long solitary hours working to become a better artist. I am meticulous about craft and will not let a work out of my studio or out of the darkroom until it is as good as I can make it.
DR: You shared a passion with photography with your husband who died in the September 11 attacks. How did your husband and the tragedy of September 11 influence your creative direction?
BR: When Bryan was alive I barely picked up a camera, except to photograph things encountered during our travels. Through the 1990’s I worked on my first series of pastel-on-sandpaper paintings, called Domestic Threats. These were realistic depictions of elaborate scenes that I staged in my house, and later, in my New York 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 for me using his 4 x 5 view camera. Having been introduced to photography by his father at the age of 6 or 7, Bryan was a terrific amateur photographer. He would shoot two pieces of 4 x 5 film and I would select one to make into a 20 x 24 photograph. The photograph would be my starting point for making the pastel painting. I work from life, too, but I could not make a painting without mostly looking at a reference photo.
On September 11, 2001, Bryan, who was a high-ranking federal government employee, a brilliant economist and a budget analyst at the Pentagon, was en route to Monterey, CA to give his monthly guest lecture for a class at the Naval Postgraduate College. His plane was the one that was hijacked and crashed into the Pentagon. It was the biggest shock of my life, devastating in every possible way! I suppose I will forever think about how easily I could have been killed that day. First, I had declined to travel with Bryan to California, a place I absolutely love, because the planned visit was too short. Second, his plane crashed directly into my (Navy Reserve job) office on the fifth floor, E-ring of the Pentagon. I imagine the terrible irony of Bryan being killed on the plane and me perishing in the building.
The six months after 9/11 passed by in a blur, except that I vividly remember a ceremony at the DAR Hall in Washington, DC, in which I was picked up by a black Department of Defense limousine, sat with members of the president’s cabinet, accepted a posthumous award for Bryan, and was addressed face-to-face by George Bush, Jr. The following spring 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. 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. I was soon on my way to working again. After the initial workshop, which I had enjoyed tremendously, I decided to start over with the basics since I had never formally studied photography. I threw myself into learning this new medium. 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 October 2009 it was extremely gratifying to have my first solo photography show with HP Garcia Gallery in New York. 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.
DR: What first intrigued you about Mexico and its pantheon of Aztec gods and goddesses?
BR: In the early nineties, Bryan and I made our first trip to Oaxaca and Mexico City. At the time I had become fascinated with the Mexican Day of the Dead celebrations so our trip was timed to see these firsthand. Along with busloads of other tourists, we visited several cemeteries in small Oaxacan towns. The Mexicans 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 these beautiful people and their beliefs, or I should say, the little that I understood about their beliefs at the time. From Oaxaca we traveled to Mexico City, where again I was entranced, but this time by the rich and ancient history. On that first trip we visited the Anthropology Museum, where I was introduced to the fascinating story of ancient Meso-American civilizations and it is still one of my favorite museums in the world. I was astounded by 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! Why had I never learned about Mexico in school, this highly-developed cradle of western civilization in our own hemisphere when so much class time had been devoted to the cultures of Egypt, Greece, and elsewhere? When I returned home I began reading everything I could find about ancient Mexican civilizations, including the Olmec, Zapotec, Mixtec, Aztec, and Maya. This first trip to Mexico opened up a whole new world and was to profoundly influence my future work. I would return many more times.
DR: Your “Gods and Monsters” exhibition at HP Garcia Gallery consisted of tableaux of Mexican figures that were photographed in a way that blurred certain elements to abstraction while privileging others in clear focus. Please speak about your process and goals for this work.
BR: When I depict the Mexican (and more recently, Guatemalan) figures in my pastel 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 it with my fingers, continually refine and try to find the best, most eye-popping colors. It’s a process that takes months of work. 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 range of focus. 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 when I press the shutter. I only know what I’ve shot after I see a contact sheet. My Gods and Monsters series began entirely as a reaction to my pastel work. The latter is so meticulous and labor-intensive. At a certain point in the process I know what the finished painting will look like, but there are still weeks of slow work ahead. My photographic work is spontaneous, serendipitous, and provides me with much-needed instant gratification. I love having two diametrically opposed ways of working with the same subject.
DR: Is there an overarching narrative in your photographs with Mexican and Guatemalan figures?
BR: Maybe, but that’s something for the viewer to judge. I never specify what my work is about. My thinking about its meanings constantly changes and I wouldn’t want to cut off other people’s interpretations. I heard Annie Leibovitz interviewed a few days ago on the radio. She said that after 40 years as a photographer, everything just gets richer. It doesn’t get easier, it just gets richer. I’ve been a painter for 26 years, a photographer for 9, and I agree completely. Creating this work is an endlessly fascinating intellectual journey.
DR What are you working on currently in the studio?
BR: I am putting finishing touches on a large pastel painting and am far along on a smaller one. I am printing new photographs in the darkroom. A few months ago I bought my first digital SLR camera and am experimenting with it. What a powerful and exciting new tool! The most recent work depicts figures that I found in Chichicastenango and Panajachel. I took my first trip to Guatemala in 2009 and returned to see other parts of the country in 2010. At the moment I am intrigued by the Maya. Many people don’t realize that there are present-day Maya living in the more remote villages of Guatemala. Unlike the Aztec, their ancestors brilliantly managed to resist conquest so they not only survived, they were never stripped of their belief systems. On my second trip to Guatemala I got to watch healers performing shamanistic rituals of ancient origin. In 2011 for an artist living in New York it is quite extraordinary to think that there are still places in the world where such practices are part of daily life. Thank you for your thoughtful questions. It has been a pleasure.
Writing Credits: Daniel Rothbart is an artist and writer. A former Fulbright Scholar, Rothbart is the author of Jewish Metaphysics As Generative Principle in American Art (Ulisse e Calipso) and The Phoenix (Ulisse e Calipso). His work can be found in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Orsini Foundation in Milan and numerous public and private collections.
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