Interview about Art with Barbara Coleman

Albuquerque artist Barbara Coleman’s painting, “Pond Up North,” was awarded Best of Show at PAPNM’s 10th National Juried Show, held November 2–30, 2018, at the Sorrel Sky Gallery in Santa Fe. Barbara, a full-time artist and former drawing professor at the University of New Mexico, has enjoyed a life-long love affair with art. This interview occurred November 12 in her studio. Her website is barbaracoleman.com.

 

 

Question: How and when did you become interested in art?

Answer: I’ve been drawn to art since I was a child. My formative years were spent living in France, when my father was stationed there in the Air Force. We had a home in Barbizon, in the Fontainebleau Forest, where Corot painted. We spent the weekends visiting all the major art museums. It was pure magic. Artists are well respected in French culture. Experiencing art and seeing the respect artists hold made me want to be an artist. I later went to art school in Aix en Provence.

 

Q: Why is art so important to your life and to who you are?

A: It’s integral to my life. It’s what brings me the most alive, the most present. If I’m not painting, some aspects of life can feel like drudgery and too ordinary. When I’m painting regularly, the world feels saturated with color and interest and I feel curious, and grateful for my life. I can’t live without painting.

 

Q: Who or what are the major influences in your art?

A: I really love Joaquin Sorolla for his portrayal of form, light and color; and John Singer Sargent for his use of paint, abstraction, and brush technique. The Impressionists have influenced my art the most. I’ve also been lucky enough to study with several major contemporary artists, including Kevin MacPherson, Scott Christensen, Ray Roberts, Jill Carver and Kathryn Stats. They have all been very generous teachers.

 

Q: What is art and how do you define it?

A: True art awakens the extraordinary. It quickens us to Life, to Beauty. You feel it when you’re creating, when you’re completely present. In Zen, there’s the notion of “emptiness is fullness.” When I paint, the “emptiness” is born from leaving my ego, and who I think I am, at the door. The “fullness” stems from showing up at the easel willing to learn, to be open, and be there. It takes so much awareness and skill to make something live on the canvas. When the piece becomes “alive,” that’s when I see art.

 

Q: How important is travel to your art, especially to stimulating ideas and discovering new subject matter for your paintings?

A: I don’t necessarily travel for my art, I travel for my life. That being said, travel allows me to explore outside of my comfort zone. I sketch and do small paintings on my trips, which both give me valuable information for studio paintings and help me more intimately experience the place I’m visiting.

 

Q: How important has teaching been to your development as an artist?

A: I taught drawing and introductory design at the University of New Mexico for twelve years, which was incredibly important to my artistic development. My class, “Architecture 104,” was a prerequisite for admission to the Architecture school. Teaching is a valuable way to learn. Showing my students how to translate real visual information into design benefitted me, as well.

 

Q: Tell me about your painting, “Pond Up North,” which was awarded Best of Show in the PAPNM show at Sorrel Sky Gallery.

A: I discovered the location for the painting while visiting my daughter in McCall, Idaho. I did several plein air studies and finished it in the studio, where I connected the shadow shapes more completely than I’d been able out in the field.

 

Q: What do you strive for when you paint, and how does this pertain to what you’re hoping the viewer will see and enjoy?

A: My style is more broadly impressionistic. I’m deeply inspired by nature. My process begins with whatever stops me in my tracks to paint it. Once I’ve identified what has inspired me, I design the painting to best express the motif. I make decisions on how to divide the canvas, what compositional elements can come into play, how I’d like to guide a viewer’s eye. I intentionally use a limited number of values to strengthen the cohesiveness of the work. I lay in my painting using a warm gray, use my shadow shapes to create form, and then go into color. I’ve learned that one of the last things to develop in an artist is beautiful, expressive brushwork. Brushwork is tricky, though, because thinking about it too much robs it of its magic.

A good friend once told me: “The more you paint, the harder it gets. What you know as an artist will always be ahead of what you’ll be able to execute, so get used to it. But your failures will get better.” That’s what I aim for—having better and better failures. It’s the nature of art to never truly achieve all you hoped for in a painting. Art is not the practice of perfection. But you never tire of it, and you never get bored, because there’s always more to learn.

 

Q: Do you participate in a critique group, and if so, what do you gain from it?

A: Constructive criticism is essential for continued artistic growth. I am in the process of building and being part of a critique group composed of local artists. I am lucky in that my husband and daughters have astute “artistic eyes,” and can offer me feedback on my work regularly.

 

A: How important is plein air painting to your art and your continued development as an artist?

Q: Plein air is one of the most important things!

I have a broader definition of plein air painting than some artists. For me, plein air simply means “painting from life.” Direct observation is critical for accuracy. No photograph can provide the richness in color and value I need to paint what’s real. Cameras don’t see how we see. Painting plein air also trains your eye, because not everything in a scene is of equal importance. Parts of a painting need to be quiet, others need to hold more weight. You cannot learn what to subordinate and accentuate by looking at a photograph. For me, plein air painting is better than meditation. Nothing else allows me to settle so deeply into the present.

 

Q: When painting plein air, how do you choose what to paint?

A: Over the years, my approach to plein air painting has changed. Now, I walk for long periods of time and allow space for something to draw me in. I do not “hunt” for a painting, I let the painting choose me.

 

Q: Do you have favorite areas where you like to paint?

A: I’ve always enjoyed painting New Mexico, especially the northern part of the state. I really love to paint water, for its movement and reflectivity. But really, whatever I’m painting at the moment is my favorite thing to paint. I don’t pine for the ocean when I’m painting chamisa. There is no shortage of beauty in the world, so having “favorites” is not terribly important to me. 

 

 

Q: Do you generally view your plein air paintings as studies or are you striving to get framable paintings that can sell?

A: For me, plein air is a highly useful tool. I use them as studies and concentrate on various elements for each painting. Sometimes my focus is predominately on shapes, or shadows. Sometimes design or color are my top priority. I then use what I’ve learned in the field for a studio piece.

 

 

Q: What were your worst and best day painting plein air, and why?

A: There are some funny stories I could tell, but it’s actually a bit more philosophical for me. My worst day painting is when I’m self-conscious and I can’t get out of my own head, or when that critical voice just comes and takes over. My best day painting plein air is when I’m not self-conscious. I’m completely there and just painting.

 

Q: What are your future goals as an artist?

A: To keep growing and getting better.

 

Q: Any other thoughts before we conclude this interview?

A: A poem by the Persian poet Hafiz comes to mind:

 

The difference between a good artist and a great one is:

The novice will often lay down his tool or brush,

then pick up an invisible club on the mind's table

 and helplessly smash the easels and jade.

 Whereas the vintage man no longer hurts himself or anyone

 and keeps on sculpting Light.

 

To me this poem says, “Find the power to say no to any actions that might harm yourself or another”. Think about that a moment. For me, this poem means that my ability to develop artistically and experience joy is directly related to my willingness to surrender the knife of self-criticism. Art is a soulful practice, and as such I choose to not harm myself or others physically, mentally, emotionally, or spiritually. And as for sculpting light, that’s where the wonder and gratitude for painting come into play.

Freeing the Soul Through Art

Great art has a curious life of its own. I read a marvelous story once, based on the documentary From Mao to Mozart, about a visit to China made by the conductor and violinist Isaac Stern. At the time of his visit, Chinese musicians had been forbidden to listen to or to play Western music for many years. They had requested Stern’s help in interpreting Western music. A Chinese orchestra played a Mozart composition with masterful technical skill and energy. While well played, the composition came across as rather mechanical and lifeless. It was not music yet because the orchestra members did not feel it or really hear it. They could not create music until they could hear it inwardly and intuitively.

            Music is not created just by people playing musical instruments, but by music playing through people—playing through the individual consciousness of each musician. The individual consciousness becomes the true instrument. Isaac Stern listened closely to the musicians, some of whom were extremely self-conscious about rehearsing for him. At times, Stern would replay sections of the score, thus enabling them to have a first-hand experience of the music. The Chinese played the notes correctly but Stern made the music come alive. Having thus experienced the difference, the musicians were able to let the music itself direct all of their professional skill in such a way as to let music happen.

            Great art, like great music, needs technical expertise as well as unchecked creativity, passion, and expression. Great art seems to be created through a person. Somehow one’s ego, self-consciousness, and expectations must be released before the piece is completed. The visual arts are full of examples of compositions being imbued with a life of their own, similar to the musical composition just described. A portrait by Rembrandt and a vase of sunflowers painted by Van Gogh burst with vitality and passion. Art is so subtle, so spiritual, that only a direct experience with it can guide the painter to animate blobs of paint into something that can live and breathe on its own.

            Many of the young children I have taught in the elementary schools recognize and respond joyfully to the art experience. They unselfconsciously dive in and become consumed with their feelings, their sensations, the tactile expression of the paint and are rarely, if ever, concerned with proper technique. The creative lively and genuinely unique works of art. Frustration occurs, yes, but it is the frustration akin to a child’s learning to walk. Each fall is not taken as a personal failure to a child highly motivated to walk: it is rather that the child is experimenting and learning the physical laws of nature. A child expressing himself artistically is experiencing the great freedom of learning that is guided by art itself.

            Why is it that some children cannot joyfully dive in? There area myriad of reasons, I’m sure, but the most common one I’ve seen, in children and adults alike, is that they have become limited by being self-conscious of their ability. This self-consciousness begins early in life and seems to come about when either praise or criticism gets too personal. An example from my own life might best illustrate what I mean by becoming “too personal.”

            When my oldest daughter was three, she would sit and paint for long periods of time in my studio as I painted. I was thrilled with her work (and thrilled that she could sit for so long a time!), and I told her so. I praised her extravagantly, hoping to encourage her. I would say, “Oh, you really are a great artist!” and things of that sort. As soon as I would begin this person praise, her interest in her work would wane and within minutes her work would become sloppy or careless or she’d just get up and leave. Clearly my praise was having an unintended and very undesirable effect on her. I was making her self-conscious and distracting her from her discoveries. She began to turn to me for praise and approval, and the possibility of self-doubt was introduced (“Would Mommy like this one?”). It didn’t take long to redirect her focus back to her work, once I stopped praising her and addressed my comments to what was on the page. Understanding and discovery are their own rewards. Her receptivity to art was a result of her lack of self-consciousness, and this allowed her to see what is and thus draw and paint it.

            When I am painting in the studio, there are a lot of people in there with me. I refer to them as my “studio ghosts.” Their presence is as real as if they were physically standing there. They include my teachers, critics, friends, husband, gallery owners, my favorite artists of history…and one by one, if I’m really painting, they walk out. If I am really painting, I walk out too. Those paintings are invariably the best and I am so grateful for the experience of painting and for the changes in my seeing, that the painting itself is pure gift. Then the noun “painting” becomes inseparable from the verb or action of “painting.” Being unselfconscious and being willing to lose oneself in the world is vital for a child and an artist.

            So how can we respond to a child’s artwork? With genuine appreciation and enthusiasm, I think, such as “What marvelous colors you chose,” or “Tell me abut your painting.” A child can also become self-conscious if her view of the world is invalidated, such as “That doesn't look like a tree.” There is no way that art can reach and guide a child if he is too locked up to enjoy himself. How can we free him up to learn and have the experience of creating art? As a parent and art teacher, I find that the more that the child and I can focus on the immediate artwork at hand, the more satisfying the experience becomes. By not emphasizing the product, and by focusing on process instead, the work becomes more successful as well. The more that the child is able to reach a state of awareness in which her self-consciousness disappears into the desire to participate and see what she is trying to express, the more the art can reach her. I am inspired by the story of Isaac Stern and the Chinese musicians. As a conductor, all (!) he had to do was to hear, feel, and lose himself in the music, and thereby open opportunities for others to experience and create it as well.

Can I tell you a story?

           Can I tell you a story? This story is important to me because it illustrates my passion for creating and teaching art and and how the artistic process can awaken us. I designed several drawing sessions to fit into a rehabilitative program for male prisoners in a New Mexico Correctional Facility. The goal of the program was to teach anger management and cultivating mindfulness. My role was to present a simple method of becoming present to themselves through drawing. After teaching, I received thank you cards from my students, one of whom wrote:

           “Thank you. The time you were here teaching us how to see and draw was the most freedom I’ve felt in my whole life.”

           I was teaching them that we default to our learned preconceptions instead of being open minded and getting a fresh take on our experiences and perceptions. Our ability to "know" about something can often interfere with our ability to "see" something. For example, we typically don’t notice the nuances of the quality of light or the colors of shadows, the shapes, patterns, lost and found edges of objects or landscapes. Art is about learning to see beyond the obvious. A shift in perception causes the mundane and familiar to suddenly transform into a discovery of something dazzlingly new.

            When I paint, I search for compelling qualities in a scene that will make a strong visual statement that evoke an emotional response in me. I look for rhythm, shape, effects of light, patterns, textures and relationships—any of which can be the basis for a strong design and composition. I love contrast and luscious relationships of color.

            Learning to see and to perceive the wealth of visual information in reality is key. Responding intuitively to what I see and expressing my vision in a language composed of design, line, shape, color and value is my passion.  Art is about learning how to see and it frees the soul.