Barbara Rachko is a New York City artist who is inspired by Mexican culture.  Her paintings and photographs are bold and elegant interpretations of Mexican figurines that she collects from her travels.  I had a great chat with her about her work and why art is important.

MICHAEL: Hi Barbara, First of all, your work is incredible. It's like a sophisticated folk party. How is it that an artist in New York is creating works inspired by Mexico?

BARBARA: Thank you very much, Michael. It’s a long story. As a Christmas present in 1991, my future sister-in-law sent two brightly painted wooden figures from Oaxaca. One was a large, winged, dark blue and white polka-dotted horse, the other a bear, painted with red, white, and black lines and dots and with a quizzical look on its face. At that time, I was living in Alexandria, Virginia studying at the Art League School and finally, working as a full-time professional artist, having recently resigned after seven years on active duty as a Naval officer (I was still working part-time, one weekend a month, at the Pentagon as a Naval Reservist). I was looking for something new to paint, since after about two years of painting portraits, I had decided that I was not cut out to be only a portrait artist – it was just so dull!

I had never seen anything like those painted Oaxacan objects and was enthralled! Oaxaca was new to me and except for a weekend road trip in 1975 from Berkeley, California to Ensenada, Mexico, I had never been to Mexico. I started asking my artist friends about Oaxaca and soon learned that the city had a unique style of painting, the self-titled Oaxacan school, and that Rufino Tamayo and Manuel and Lola Alvarez Bravo, well-known husband and wife photographers, were from Oaxaca. In fact Manuel Alvarez Bravo founded an important photography museum there. Of course, I had long been a fan of Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Leonora Carrington and other artists associated with Mexico and I had long been interested in Pre-Columbian civilizations. Further, I had some limited knowledge of Spanish, having studied it in high school. I began reading everything I could find about Oaxaca in particular and more generally about Mexico.

I soon became fascinated with the Mexican Day of the Dead. In 1992, my future husband, Bryan and I made our first trip to Mexico, spending a week in Oaxaca to watch the Day of the Dead observances in several local cemeteries and to study Mixtec and Zapotec ruins (Monte Alban, Yagul, Mitla, etc.); followed by a week in Mexico City to see Diego Rivera's murals at the Ministry of Education, Frida Kahlo's Casa Azul, and some ancient archeological sites (the Templo Mayor, Teotihuacan, etc.).

I began collecting Mexican folk art on that first trip. I still have fond memories of buying my first acquisition: a three foot by four foot, wooden, cob-web-covered part dragon, part Conquistador mask that Bryan and I found high on a wall in a dusty Oaxacan shop. The shop keeper looked somewhat surprised to sell it and I imagined him thinking, “Crazy Gringoes will buy anything.” I hand-carried the mask onto the plane - this was pre-9/11 when you could do such things – and put rolled up socks on its feet to protect its toes from being accidentally broken!

I have been back to Mexico many times since, mainly visiting central and southern Mexico. I love the light, the colors and the sights and sounds of the high desert plateau. When I say "Mexico" to most Americans, their first thoughts are of "beautiful beaches," but until earlier this year, I had never been to a Mexican beach. I travel there to study Pre-Columbian history, archeology, mythology, culture and the arts. In March, I am going for a couple of weeks to study Olmec art, visit some ancient sites that I’ve never seen before and reconnect with an important influence on my art. Mexico is an endlessly fascinating place!

MICHAEL: What have you learned about the people of Mexico through your studies and research in Mexico?

BARBARA: It didn’t take long to become smitten with these beautiful people. It happened on that first trip when Bryan and I, along with busloads of other tourists, were visiting the Oaxacan cemeteries on The Day of the Dead. The Oaxaquenos 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 them and with their beliefs. My studies since that time have given me a deeper appreciation for the art, architecture, history, mythology, etc. that comprise the extremely rich and complex story of Mexico as a cradle of civilization in the West. It is a wonderfully heady mix and hopefully some of it comes through in my work as a painter and photographer.

By the way, I often wonder why the narrative of Mexico’s fascinating history was not taught in American public schools, at least not where I went to public school in suburban New Jersey. Mexico is our neighbor, for goodness sake, but when I speak to many Americans about Mexico they have never learned anything about the place! It’s shocking, but many people think only “Spring Break” and/or “Drug Wars,” when they hear the word “Mexico.” As a kid, I remember learning about Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece and other early civilizations in the Middle East, Europe and Asia, but very little about Mexico. We learned about the Maya, when it was still believed that they were a peaceful people who devoted their lives to scientific and religious pursuits, but that story was debunked years ago. And I am fairly sure that not many Americans even know that Maya still exist in the world … in Mexico and in Guatemala. There are a few remote places that were not completely destroyed by Spanish Conquistadores in the 16thcentury and later. I’ve been to Mayan villages in Guatemala and seen shamans performing ancient rituals. For an artist from a place as rooted in the present moment as New York, it’s an astounding thing to witness!

MICHAEL: Given all of that, what do you make of the current immigration issue that the U.S. continues to grapple with?

BARBARA:  Certainly it’s a complex problem to solve, but in the meantime, it is a tragedy and a national shame, especially the way some families are being torn apart. Don’t you agree?

MICHAEL: Yes. Tell me about your work itself. It looks very photographic. Do you photograph sculptural pieces that you make? Do you paint? How do you create? The colors are amazing.

BARBARA: I don’t make them. 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 paint and photograph. 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 my creative process.

Finding, buying and getting them 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. 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 them behind." However, thanks to my good friend, Donna, whose Spanish is much more fluent than mine, the three of us brainstormed 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, but during that time, Tomas and I 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 surprisingly, the package was waiting for me in New York when I returned home from Guatemala.

When I set up the figures to photograph for a painting, I work very intuitively, so how I actually cast them is difficult to say. Looks count a lot - I select an object and put it in a particular place, look at it, move it or let it stay and sometimes develop a storyline. I spend time arranging lights and looking for interesting cast shadows. With my first “Domestic Threats” series, all of this was done so that Bryan, my late husband, or I could shoot a couple of negatives with his Toyo Omega 4" x 5" view camera. For my “Black Paintings” series, begun in 2007, long after Bryan was killed, I shoot medium format negatives with a Mamiya 6 camera.

I always look at a 20" x 24" photograph for reference as I make a pastel-on-sandpaper painting, plus I also work from the ‘live’ objects. I once made six large (58” x 38”) pastel paintings in a single year, but more recently four or five per year is common. It takes approximately three months to make each one. During that time, I layer and blend together as many as 25 to 30 layers of pastel. Of course, the colors get more intense as the painting progresses and the pigment accumulates on the sandpaper.

MICHAEL: Very cool.  You know, what's the point of all of this?  Why art?  Shouldn't we be discussing how to end homelessness or world economic turmoil or something like that?  What can art do?

BARBARA: I happen to be reading an inspiring book by Anne Bogart, the theater director.  It's called, "and then you act:  making art in an unpredictable world" and she talks about such issues.  I'll quote her wise words below:
"Rather than the experience of life as a shard, art can unite and connect the strands of the universe.  When you are in touch with art, borders vanish and the world opens up.  Art can expand the definition of what it means to be human.  So if we agree to hold ourselves to higher standards and make more rigorous demands on ourselves, then we can say in our work, 'We have asked ourselves these questions and we are trying to answer them, and that effort earns us the right to ask you, the audience, to face these issues, too.'  Art demands action from the midst of the living and makes a space where growth can happen.
One day, particularly discouraged about the global environment, I asked my friend the playwright Charles L. Mee, Jr., 'How are we supposed to function in these difficult times?  How can we contribute anything useful in this climate?'  'Well,' he answered, 'You have a choice of two possible directions.  Either you convince yourself that these are terrible times and things will never get better and so you decide to give up, or, you choose to believe that there will be a better time in the future.  If that is the case, your job in these  dark political and social times is to gather together everything you value and become a transport bridge.  Pack up what you cherish and carry it on your back to the future.'"
"...  In the United States, we are the targets of mass distraction.  We are the objects of constant flattery and manufactured desire.  I believe that the only possible resistance to a culture of banality is quality.  To me, the world often feels unjust, vicious, and even unbearable.  And yet, I know that my development as a person is directly proportional to my capacity for discomfort.  I see pain, destructive behavior and blindness of the political sphere.  I watch wars declared, social injustices that inhabit the streets of my hometown, and a planet in danger of pollution and genocide.  I have to do something.  My chosen field of action is the theater."

MICHAEL: Finally Barbara, does your work have a message and where do you want to go with it?

BARBARA: Maybe there's an overarching message, but that’s something for viewers to judge. I generally don’t like to specify what my work is about because my thinking about meanings changes constantly and I don’t want to cut off people’s interpretations. Other people's insights and opinions are equally as valid as mine. 
Recently on my blog, I answered a question about why I create, but now that I think about it, the same answer applies to what I want to do as an artist in the future:
~ to create bold and vibrant pastel paintings and photographs that have never existed before
~ to continue to push my primary medium – soft pastel on sandpaper - as far as I can and to use it in more innovative ways
~ to create opportunities for artistic dialogue with people who understand and value the work to which I am devoting my life
The last has always been the toughest.  I sometimes think of myself as Sisyphus because expanding the audience for my art is an ongoing uphill battle.  Many artist friends tell me they feel the same way about building their audience.  It’s one of the most difficult tasks that we have to do as artists. 
I heard Annie Leibovitz interviewed on the radio once and remember her saying that after 40 years as a photographer, everything just gets richer. Notice that she didn’t say it gets any easier; she said, "it just gets richer." I have been a painter for nearly 28 years and a photographer for 11. I agree completely. All artists have to go wherever our work goes.  Creating art and watching the process evolve is an endlessly fascinating intellectual journey. I wouldn’t want to be spending my time on earth doing anything else!

MICHAEL: Fantastic.  Thanks Barbara.  Great chat.

BARBARA: Thanks Michael.  I enjoyed it.

Check out Barbara Rachko and her work at