BARBARA RACHKO HAS LED AN INCREDIBLE LIFE AND SUFFERED DEVASTATING LOSS BUT THROUGH ALL THIS CREATES WONDERFULLY SURREAL WORKS
“White Star” - Pastel, 2016
Your path into the arts was less than conventional, for many years you were an active naval officer and retired as a commander oh and not forgetting the pilots licenses you hold! But tell us more about yourself and why you decided to continue your journey into the arts.
When I was 25 I earned my private pilot’s license and spent the next two years amassing other licenses and ratings, culminating in a Boeing-727 flight engineer’s certificate. Two years later I joined the Navy. As an accomplished civilian pilot with thousands of flight hours, I expected to fly jets. However, there were few women Navy pilots at the time and they were restricted to training male pilots. There were no women pilots on aircraft carriers and there were no female Blue Angels (the latter is still true).
So in the mid-1980s I was in my early 30s, a lieutenant on active duty in the Navy, working a soul-crushing job as a computer analyst on the midnight shift in a Pentagon basement. It was literally and figuratively the lowest point of my life. Remembering the joyful Saturdays of my youth when I had taken art classes with a local New Jersey painter, I enrolled in a drawing class at the Art League School in Alexandria, Virginia. Initially I wasn’t very good, but it was wonderful to be around other women and a world away from the "warrior mentality" of the Pentagon. And, I was having fun! Soon I enrolled in more classes and became a very motivated full-time art student who worked nights at the Pentagon. As I studied and improved my skills, I discovered my preferred medium – soft pastel on sandpaper.
Although I knew I had found my calling, for more than a year I agonized over whether or not to leave the financial security of the Navy. Once I did decide, there was a long delay. The Navy was experiencing a manpower shortage so Congress had enacted a stop-loss order, which prevented officers from resigning. I could only do what was allowed under the order. I submitted my resignation effective exactly one year later: on September 30, 1989. With Bryan's (my late husband’s) support, I left the Navy.
I designate October 1, 1989 as the day I became a professional artist. Fortunately, I have never again needed a day job. However, I remained in the Navy Reserve for the next 14 years, working primarily at the Pentagon for two days every month and two weeks each year. I commuted to Washington, DC after I moved to Manhattan in 1997. Finally on November 1, 2003, I officially retired as a Navy Commander.
“Blind Faith” - Pastel, 2014
Your world was also dramatically shaped by the events of 9/11, how has this impacted on your work and your outlook on life in general?
Finding Fifteen, a new book by Tim Oliver, includes a beautifully written chapter about my life with Bryan. He 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 being a passenger on the airplane that left Dulles Airport, 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 remember how I narrowly escaped the same violent end. I had decided not to travel with Bryan to California, a place I love visiting, only because his planned trip was too short. The plane crashed directly into my Navy Reserve office on the fifth floor, e-ring of the Pentagon. To this day I believe that I was spared for a reason and strive to make every day count.
The six months after 9/11 passed by in a blur, with the exception of an October 2001 awards ceremony at the DAR Hall in Washington, DC. I was picked up by a big 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 George W. Bush (as a life-long Democrat, I didn’t particularly admire him).
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 came in. For example, 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 each year helps two deserving students attend Stanford Business School at no cost.
By the summer of 2002 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 have always worked from reference photographs and he had been my photographer. In July 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 having watched Bryan for many years. I was soon on my way to working again!
After the initial workshop, I decided to begin with the basics since I had never formally studied photography before. I threw myself into learning this new medium. Over the next few years I enrolled in a series of classes at ICP, starting with Photography I. Along the way I learned to use Bryan’s extensive film camera collection (old Leicas, Nikons, Mamiyas, and more) and to print 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. I remember being teary-eyed 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 an exhibiting photographer.
“The Ancestors” - Pastel, 2013
Painting and photography are the cornerstones of your practice, what attracted you to these mediums and how has your use of them evolved?
For starters soft pastel is the medium that I fell in love with many years ago. I am fond of this article, "What is Pastel?" by Mike Mahon, and quote it here because it neatly sums up what I love about working with pastel.
Pastel is the most permanent of all media when applied to conservation ground and properly framed. Pastel has no liquid binder that may cause it to oxidize with the passage of time as oftentimes happens with other media.
In this instance, Pastel does not refer to pale colors, as the word is commonly used in cosmetic and fashion terminology. The pure, powdered pigment is ground into a paste with a minimum amount of gum binder, rolled into sticks and dried. The infinite variety of colors in the Pastel palette range from soft and subtle to hard and brilliant.
An artwork is created by stroking the stick of dry pigment across an abrasive ground, embedding the color in the “tooth” of the ground. If the ground is completely covered with Pastel, the work is considered a Pastel painting; whereas, leaving much of the ground exposed produces a Pastel sketch. Techniques vary with individual artists. The Pastel medium is favored by many artists because it allows a spontaneous approach. There is no drying time, therefore, no change in color occurs after drying as it does in other media.
Did you know that a particle of Pastel pigment seen under a microscope looks like a diamond with many facets? It does! Therefore, Pastel paintings reflect light like a prism. No other medium has the same power of color or stability.
Historically, Pastel can be traced back to the 16th century. Its invention is attributed to the German painter, Johann Thiele. A Venetian woman, Rosalba Camera, was the first to make consistent use of Pastel. Chardin did portraits with an open stroke, while La Tour preferred the blended finish. Thereafter, a galaxy of famous artists—Watteau, Copley, Delacroix, Millet, Manet, Renoir, Toulouse Lautrec, Vuillard, Bonnard, Glackens, Whistler, Hassam, William Merritt Chase—used Pastel for a finished work rather than for preliminary sketches.
Pastels from the 16th century exist today, as fresh as the day they were painted. Edgar Degas was the most prolific user of Pastel and its champion. His protégé, Mary Cassat, introduced Pastel to her friends in Philadelphia and Washington, and thus to the United States. In the Spring of 1983, Sotheby Parke Bernet sold at auction, two Degas Pastels for more than $3,000,000 each! Both Pastels were painted about 1880.
Note: Do not confuse Pastel with "colored chalk.” Chalk is a porous, limestone substance impregnated with dyes, whereas, Pastel is pure pigment—the same as is used in other permanent painting media. Today, Pastel paintings have the stature of oil and watercolor as a major fine art medium. Many of our most renowned, living artists have distinguished themselves in Pastel and have enriched the art world with this beautiful medium.
So knowing all this, I often wonder, why don't more artists use pastel? Is it because framing is a big expense?
Works on paper need to be framed and pastel paintings do have some unique problems. Third after the cost of maintaining a studio in New York City and marketing, frames are my single largest business expense. Sometimes I am grateful that pastel is a very slow medium. I typically finish 4 or 5 paintings in a year, which means I only have to pay for 4 or 5 frames.
Regarding photography, when my husband, Bryan, was alive I barely picked up a camera, except to photograph sights encountered during our travels. Throughout the 1990s and ending in 2007, I worked on my series of pastel-on-sandpaper paintings called, "Domestic Threats." These were realistic depictions of elaborate scenes that I staged first in our 1932 Sears house in Alexandria, Virginia, next in a New York sixth floor walk-up apartment, and finally in my current New York apartment. I use Mexican masks, carved wooden animals, and other folk art figures that I discovered on trips to Mexico. I staged and lit these setups, while Bryan photographed them using his Toyo-Omega 4 x 5 view camera. We had been collaborating this way almost from the beginning (circa 1991). Having been introduced to photography by his father at the age of 6, Bryan was a terrific amateur photographer. Bryan would shoot two pieces of 4 x 5 film at different exposures and I would select one, generally the one that showed the most detail in the shadows, to make into a 20 x 24 photograph. The photograph would be my starting point for making the pastel painting. Although I work from life, too, I could not make a painting without mostly looking at a reference photo. After Bryan was killed on 9/11, I had no choice but to study photography. Over time, I turned myself into a skilled photographer.
“Broken” - Pastel, 2013
One can’t help but make connections between your experience in the navy and the devastating effects of 9/11 and your series ‘Domestic Threats’, would they be right? What were the concepts you were exploring in the series?
Well, not exactly, since I began this work in 1991.
All of the paintings in this series are set in places where I reside or used to live, either a Virginia house or two New York apartments, i.e., my personal domestic environments. Each painting typically contains a conflict of some sort, at least one figure who is being menaced or threatened by a group of figures. So I named the series "Domestic Threats." On a deeper level, my idea was that these images were psychological dramas: surrealistic, metaphoric depictions of our fears, anxieties, inner conflicts, demons, etc.
But depending on what was/is going on in the country at a particular moment, people did make many other associations. Since my husband was killed on 9/11, people thought the title, "Domestic Threats," was prescient. Viewers have ascribed all kinds of domestic terrorism associations to the work. For a time some thought I was hinting at scenes of domestic violence, but that also is not what I had intended. The title "Domestic Threats" seems to be fraught with associations that I never considered. I am fine with any interpretations that are elicited from viewers. At least I know my paintings are getting people to respond. By now I have been working, studying, and thinking about art for thirty years so it takes time for people to ponder all the nuances.
“Charade” - Pastel, 2015
The imagery used throughout your work evokes glimmers of childhood memories, specifically ‘Punch and Judy’ puppet shows, talk to us about your use of this kind of slightly sinister iconography.
I don’t really see my iconography as sinister, although I know some people do. I search the markets and bazaars of Mexico, Guatemala, and elsewhere for folk art objects – masks, carved wooden animals, papier mache figures, children’s toys - to bring back to New York to photograph and paint.
Color is very important - the brighter and the more eye-catching the patterns are on these objects the better - plus they must be unique and have lots of personality. I try not to buy anything mass-produced or obviously made for the tourist trade. The objects must have been used or otherwise look like they've had a life (i.e., been part of religious festivities) to draw my attention. How and where each one comes into my possession is an important part of the creative process. Making this work is a long complex process with many facets. Finished paintings are always a unique blend of reality, fantasy, and autobiography.
Finding, buying, and getting the objects back to the U.S. is always circuitous, but that, too, is part of the process, an adventure, and often a good story. Here’s an example.
In 2009 I was in a small town on the shores of Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, called Panajachel. After returning from a boat ride across the lake, my friends and I were walking back to our hotel when we discovered a wonderful mask store. How fortuitous! I spent some time looking around, made my selections, and was ready to buy five exquisitely-made standing wooden figures, when I learned that Tomas, the store owner, did not accept credit cards. I was heart-broken and thought, "Oh, no, I'll have to leave these Panajachelitos behind."
However, thanks to my good friend, Donna, whose Spanish was much more fluent than mine, the three of us brain-stormed until finally, Tomas had an idea. I could pay for the figures at the hotel up the block and in a few days when the hotel was paid by the credit card company, the hotel would pay Tomas. Fabulous! Tomas, Donna, and I walked to the hotel, where the transaction was made and the first hurdle was overcome. Working out the packing and shipping arrangements took another hour or two. This was a small village off the beaten track so boxes and packing materials were scarce. As we figured out the details, Tomas and I realized we liked and trusted each other, became friends, and exchanged telephone numbers. The store didn't even have a telephone so he gave me the phone number of the post office next door, saying that when I called, he could easily run next door! Most wonderfully, the package was waiting for me in New York when I returned home from Guatemala. All of the objects were unbroken and in excellent condition.
As I travel I am drawn to each of these figures because it possesses a powerful presence that resonates with me. It’s a mystery. I am not sure exactly how or why, but I know each piece has lessons to teach.
Who made this thing? How? Why? Where? When? I feel connected to each object's creator and curiosity leads me to become a detective and an archaeologist to find out more about it and to figure out how to most effectively use it in my work.
The best way I can describe this: after three decades of seeking out, collecting, and using these folk art figures as personal symbols in my work, the process has become an enriching personal journey towards greater knowledge and wisdom. Who doesn’t love to learn!
“Incognito” - Pastel, 2014
What pieces are you working on right now and what would you like to explore in the coming months?
I have two large 38”x 58” “Black Paintings” in progress just now. Most likely the series will evolve, slowly growing more evocative and perhaps more complex. At least for the moment it shows no sign of ending.
“Motley” - Pastel, 2014
CHECK OUT barbararachko.com TO SEE MORE OF BARBARAS WORK.
INTERVIEW by HANNAH SMITH