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Barbara Rachko: Flying Colours

Barbara Rachko is an American contemporary artist and author who divides her time between residences in New York City and Alexandria, Virginia. She is best known for her pastel-on-sandpaper paintings, her eBook, From Pilot to Painter, and her popular blog which continues to gain 1000–2,000 new subscribers each month.

1. When did you decide and what prompted you to become an artist? Please give a brief account of your challenges and struggles in your journey as an artist. Any role models?

BR: In the mid-1980s I was a thirty-three-year-old Navy lieutenant, working a soul-crushing job as a computer analyst on the midnight shift in a Pentagon basement. We were open 24 x 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 the active duty with the Navy. On

1 October 1989 I became a professional artist. However, I remained in the Navy Reserve for another fourteen years, working at the Pentagon one weekend a month. On 1 November 2003, I retired as a Navy Commander.

My biggest challenge so far? Losing my husband on 9/11. On 11 September 2001, Bryan, who was a high-ranking, career, federal government employee, a brilliant economist (with an IQ of 180 he is still the smartest man I’ve ever met) and a budget analyst at the Pentagon, was en route to Monterrey, CA, to give his monthly guest lecture for an economics class at the Naval Postgraduate College. He had the misfortune of flying out of Dulles airport and boarding the plane that was high-jacked and crashed into the Pentagon, killing 189 people.

Losing Bryan was the biggest shock of my life, devastating in every possible way. I think about him every day and I continually remember how easily I too could have been killed on 9/11. I had decided not to travel with Bryan to California only because his planned trip was too short. His plane crashed directly into my Navy Reserve office on the fifth floor, e-ring of the Pentagon. I know how close we came to Bryan having been killed on the plane and me perishing in the building. To this day I believe that I was spared for a reason and I strive to make every day count. Read about my beautiful life with Bryan at SAMPLE CHAPTER — FINDING FIFTEEN: A NEW BOOK ABOUT 9/11

The six months after 9/11 passed by in a blur, except that I vividly remember an October 2001 awards ceremony at the Daughters of the American Revolution Hall in Washington, DC. I was picked up by a black limousine, sent by the Department of Defense. At the ceremony, I sat with members of the President’s cabinet. I accepted the Defense Exceptional Civilian Service Medal for Bryan, an award he would have accepted himself had he been alive, and was addressed face-to-face by President George Bush, Jr. Later Bryan was given more awards – a Presidential Rank Award, a Defense Distinguished Civilian Service Medal, and the Defense of Freedom Medal.

Many other honors were forthcoming including: Bryan’s hometown of Tyler, Texas, named a magnet school after him – Dr Bryan C. Jack Elementary School (the principal and I cut the ribbon at the opening ceremony) – and Stanford University set up the “Bryan Jack Memorial Scholarship,” which annually helps two deserving students to attend Stanford Business School.

The following summer 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. As my partner and collaborator, Bryan had created the reference photos that were crucial to my creative process. In July 2002 I enrolled for 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 view camera workshop, I decided to begin a longer course of study since I had never formally studied photography. Starting with Photography I, I enrolled in a series of progressively more challenging classes at ICP. 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 the darkroom.

In October 2009 it was extremely gratifying to have my first solo photography exhibition with HP Garcia in New York (exhibition catalogue BarbaraRachko-HPGargia.pdf). I remember tearing up at the opening as I imagined Bryan looking down at me with his beautiful smile, so proud of me for having become a good photographer.

As far as I know there were no artists in my family, so, unfortunately, I'd no immediate role models. When I was 14 my father pronounced that art was not a serious pursuit – declaring, “Art is a hobby, not a profession” – and abruptly stopped paying for my Saturday morning lessons. With no financial or moral support to pursue art, I turned my attention to other interests and let my artistic abilities lie dormant.

An artist’s life is never easy. There have been long periods of serious study, hard work, self-doubt, self-nurturing, disappointments, setbacks, risk-taking, intense focus, drive, discipline, joy, detours, fallow periods, creative block, rejections, perseverance, and more that have gone into sustaining my art career for thirty-five years. There are no blueprints and few role models for a successful artist’s life. Even the meaning of “success” as an artist is difficult to define.

2. What art project(s) are you working on currently? What is your inspiration or motivation for this?

BR: While traveling in Bolivia four 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, the series I was working on at the time. I immediately knew I had stumbled upon a gift. To date I have completed sixteen pastel paintings in the Bolivianos series. One awaits finishing touches, another is in progress, and I’m planning the next two, one large and one small pastel painting.

The following text is from my artist’s statement.

My long-standing fascination with traditional masks took a leap forward in the spring of 2017 when I visited the National Museum of Ethnography and Folklore in La Paz, Bolivia. One particular exhibition on view, with more than fifty festival masks, was completely spell-binding.

The masks were old and had been crafted in Oruro, a former tin-mining center about 140 miles south of La Paz on the cold Altiplano (elevation 12,000’). Depicting important figures from Bolivian folklore traditions, the masks were created for use in Carnival celebrations that happen each year in late February or early March.

Carnival in Oruro revolves around three great dances. The dance of “The Incas” records the conquest and death of Atahualpa, the Inca emperor when the Spanish arrived in 1532. “The Morenada” dance was once assumed to represent black slaves who worked in the mines, but the truth is more complicated (and uncertain) since only Mitayo Indians were permitted to do this work. The dance of “The Diablada” depicts Saint Michael fighting against Lucifer and the seven deadly sins. The latter were originally disguised in seven different masks derived from medieval Christian symbols and mostly devoid of pre-Columbian elements (except for totemic animals that became attached to Christianity after the Conquest). Typically, in these dances the cock represents Pride, the dog Envy, the pig Greed, the female devil Lust, etc.

The exhibition in La Paz was stunning and dramatic. Each mask was meticulously installed against a dark black wall and strategically spotlighted so that it became alive. The whole effect was uncanny. The masks looked like 3D versions of my “Black Paintings,” a pastel paintings series I have been creating for ten years. This experience was a gift . . . I could hardly believe my good fortune!

Knowing I was looking at the birth of a new series – I said as much to my companions as I remained behind while they explored other parts of the museum – I spent considerable time composing photographs. Consequently, I have enough reference material to create new pastel paintings in the studio for several years. The series, entitled “Bolivianos,” is arguably my strongest and most striking work to date.

The Enigma









3. Contemporary art has become very diverse and multidisciplinary in the last few decades. Do you welcome this trend? Is this trend part of your art practice?

BR: By definition trends come and go. I continue to do my own original work, refining my soft pastel techniques, following wherever the work leads, while all the while striving to become a better artist.

4. Does art have a social purpose or is it more about self-expression?

BR: It’s both and more. Art has brought so much joy into my life!

I remember being impressed by Ursula von Rydingsvard’s exhibition at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC a few years ago. What stayed with me most was her wall text, “Why Do I Make Art.” She listed a few dozen benefits that art-making has brought to her life.

Von Rydingsvard inspired me to reflect on my own list of “Why I make art.” Here are some excerpts from my ever-changing list.

  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-four 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 New York’s popular 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 wherever I want.

  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. This 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-five years – I was a late bloomer – and I intend to continue as long as possible.

  19. Because I’ve 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.

5. Where do you create your art (workplace / studio)? What is your process?

BR: In April 1997 an opportunity to move to New York City arose and I didn’t look back. By then I was showing in a good 57th Street gallery, Brewster Arts Ltd (the gallery focused exclusively on Latin American Masters, so I was in the company of Leonora Carrington, Rufino Tamayo, Diego Rivera, etc.). Also, I'd managed to find an excellent New York agent, Leah Poller, to collaborate with.

I looked at only one other space before finding my West 29th Street studio and knew instantly it was the one! An old friend of Bryan’s from Cal Tech rented the space next door and he had told us it was available. Initially the studio was a sublet. The lease-holder was a painter headed to northern California to work temporarily for George Lucas at the Lucas Ranch. After several years she decided to stay, so I was able to take over the lease. I feel extremely fortunate to have been in my West 29th Street, New York City space now for twenty-four years. In a city where old buildings are perpetually knocked down to make way for new ones, this is rare.

My studio is an oasis in a chaotic city, a place to make art, to read, and to think. I love to walk into the door every morning and I feel calmer the moment I arrive. It’s absolutely my favorite place in New York! Sometimes I think of it as my best creation. For more about this please see, Artists and their relationship to their studio

For thirty-five years, I have worked exclusively in soft pastel on sandpaper. Pastel, which is pigment and a binder to hold it together, is as close to unadulterated color as an artist can get. It allows for very saturated color, especially employing the self-invented techniques I’ve developed and mastered. I believe my “science of color” is unique, completely unlike how any other artist works. I spend three to four months on each painting, applying pastel and blending the layers together to mix new colors on the paper.

The acid-free sandpaper support allows the buildup of 25 to 30 layers of pastel as I slowly and meticulously work for hundreds of hours to complete a painting. The paper is extremely forgiving. I can change my mind, correct, refine, etc. as much as I want until a painting is the best I can create at that moment in time.

My techniques for using soft pastel achieve rich velvety textures and exceptionally vibrant color. Blending with my fingers, I painstakingly apply dozens of layers of pastel onto the sandpaper. In addition to the thousands of pastels that I have to choose from, I make new colors directly on the paper. Regardless of size, each pastel painting takes three to four months and hundreds of hours to complete.

I have been devoted to soft pastel from the beginning. In my blog and in numerous interviews online and elsewhere, I continue to expound on its merits. For me no other fine art medium comes close.

My subject matter is singular. I am drawn to Mexican, Guatemalan, and Bolivian cultural objects — masks, carved wooden animals, papier mâché figures, and toys. On trips to these countries and elsewhere I frequent local mask shops, markets, and bazaars searching for the figures that will populate my pastel paintings. How, why, when, and where these objects come into my life is an important part of the creative process. Each pastel painting is a highly personal blend of reality, fantasy, and autobiography.

6. To what extent will the world of art change in the post-Covid period – both in terms of what is created as also the business of art?

BR: We all wonder how the art world will change post-Covid. I know that I will continue refining and developing my art practice and seeking out new business opportunities. Largely due to an extensive social media program carried out by my two able assistants, the Covid period has been a personal boon. I gained representation with three new international galleries, my blog is attracting 1000-2000 new subscribers every month, and I continue receiving requests for interviews, such as this one, from around the world.

7. Tell us about any other interest you may have besides your art practice. Does it get reflected

in your art?

BR: Travel is arguably the best education there is. My travels around the world, supplemented with lots of research once I return home, are an important part of my creative process. This is how I develop ideas to forge a way ahead. It is difficult and solitary work.

Even though I became an artist later in life, travel as a source of inspiration found ME. And it has been a blessing! People around the world have become fans. Many send messages of thanks saying they are proud that some aspect of their country’s culture has inspired my work. I am always grateful and touched to know this.

I love old movies, especially early silent films, classic noir and horror films from the 1930s and 1940s, and anything by Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Wells. Probably this interest is most evident in the way I composed and designed pastel paintings in my early “Domestic Threats” series. I doubt it’s discernible in subsequent work.

Another passion is swimming. Four times a week I swim at a local pool. I love it! In my view swimming laps is the best exercise to help maintain fitness and to prepare for the focus I need in the studio.

More info at Barbara Rachko.

(All images are courtesy of the artist, Barbara Rachko.)


The artamour questionnaire is a regular series of interviews with visual artists across disciplines, who share their views about art, their practice and their worldview on a common questionnaire template. Like, comment, share and subscribe to stay updated.

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