Artist Barbara Rachko is best known for her large, vibrant works using her technique of pastel on sandpaper. Before becoming a full time artist, she graduated from the University of Vermont with a B.A. in psychology. She went on to earn a commercial pilot's license, a Boeing 727 flight engineer's certificate, and spent seven years on active duty as a commanding officer in the Navy.
In 1986, while working at the Pentagon as a computer analyst, she decided to study figure drawing and medical anatomy. She began developing her craft, and eventually resigned from active duty to devote her life to art.
In 2001, Barbara experienced the devastating loss of her husband on 9/11. He was a passenger on American Airlines Flight 77, the plane that hijackers crashed into the Pentagon killing 184 people. Her pain from this chapter in her life is expressed in some of her series work.
Her work is represented at national and international exhibits, and by six galleries throughout the United States. She currently divides her time between New York City and Alexandria, Virginia.
Joyce Brown: What would people be surprised to learn about you?
Barbara Rachko: People that I meet at art events in New York are shocked to find out that I'm a retired Navy commander. People that I've known for a while, they know that about me of course, but whenever I meet somebody new in the art world, they're flabbergasted to hear I was in the Navy, and that I was a pilot. I was a civilian pilot, not a Navy pilot, but the fact that I flew planes is fascinating to people. I've taken a very circuitous route to where I am now, to say the least. It's quite unusual.
New York artist advocate Brainard Carey helps artists market their work. He came to my studio a few years ago, and I told him about my background and he encouraged me to write a book about my life. That's one of the reasons I wrote my e-book, From Pilot to Painter.
Joyce: When you made the decision to dedicate your life to being an artist, what steps did you take to make it happen?
Barbara: I was about 33 years old and miserable in my Navy job as a computer analyst. I started thinking about what else I could do with my life. I was unhappy in the Navy, I was certainly not going to stay in much longer than I had to.
I was living in Alexandria, Virginia and I started taking classes at The Art League School which is part of The Torpedo Factory. It's a non-accredited school filled with wonderful teachers and motivated students who are there for the love of art. Initially, I wasn't very good because I hadn't done anything art related in a couple decades. But boy, did I have a good time!
In my Navy job at the Pentagon, I was surrounded by men — military officers with a lot of bravado. Even though they weren't infantry doing any combat, they had this off-putting macho attitude. In my drawing class at The Art League it was all women, and it was so refreshing for me to be around creative women my age. Over a couple of years, I got pretty good and I realized that I wanted to devote my life to being an artist.
Joyce: How did your technique of using pastels on sandpaper come about?
Barbara: I spent a couple of years taking classes in black and white media. I was working with graphite, strictly drawing. I didn't do any color work for about three years because I wanted to build up a good drawing foundation.
I studied water colors for a while. I also studied printmaking, etching in particular, which I found so tedious. I think it’s ironic now because I spend way longer making a painting than I ever did making a print. I’m glad I tried those techniques, but nothing clicked.
It was at The Art League School that I started using pastel with instructor Diane Tesler. I found myself enjoying pastel quite a bit, and then I took a workshop with Albert Handell who was a pretty well-known pastel artist from the Southwest. He introduced me to sandpaper — it’s the same paper that I've been using ever since. He really gave me a taste for what could be done with pastel and, I guess, what could be done with pastel on sandpaper in particular.
My technique has been evolving and continues to evolve. I find pastel fascinating. I love the contradiction between the common use of the word pastel to mean pale and washed out colors, and then the way I use pastel, which is big, bold, and vibrant colors.
Joyce: In your Domestic Threats series, you use Mexican folk art objects in modern settings to create a thought-provoking narrative; what would you say the figures in these pieces are trying to communicate?
Barbara: Maybe it's my love of theater and drama, but I think of those figures — especially in that series — like actors in a repertory company. I staged the scenes and photographed them. Then, I made a painting from each photograph. I think of the figures as actors in a drama and they’re each playing a role. I never like to explain my work all that much. I like people to make their own interpretations of my work.
In that regard, I always think about this one example: I was at a gallery talk, and an artist pointed out a painting and asked people what they saw in it. She asked me what I thought, and when I told her, she said I was wrong. She wasn’t open to different interpretations. I’ve always remembered that, and I don't ever want to say someone's interpretation is wrong. I leave meanings open. People are welcome to see whatever they want to see in art.
Joyce: Why are you drawn to cultural objects like masks, wooden carvings, and toys?
Barbara: I’m not sure exactly, but I feel like they call out to me when I'm in a store looking for something to add to my collection. I usually buy them when I'm traveling, especially in Mexico and Guatemala. I’ve branched out in the last few years and I’ve added pieces from my travels to Bali, Sri Lanka, and India. I feel like each piece has its own personality with a story to tell.
Later on, when I use them in a painting, I'll think, ‘Oh, so that's why I was so drawn to that piece, so that it could have this role in this painting.’
Joyce: What’s the inspiration behind your Black Paintings series?
Barbara: The Domestic Threats series ran its course and ended in 2007. I was blocked for a good six months. I was totally lost. At the time, I was taking a jazz history class and I remember the instructor talking about Miles Davis and how his playing evolved. With bebop, it was about musicians playing fast and showing off by putting in as many notes as they could — just cramming in everything they could into the music. I felt like that's what I had been doing with Domestic Threats. I was putting in all this detail and showing off by cramming everything in.
Miles Davis went from bebop to cool jazz, where a note would only be played if it was absolutely necessary to the piece. Something clicked while I was sitting in class. I knew that’s what I needed to do with my next series. I decided to focus on the figures and use a black background. I eliminated all the furniture and set details, and decided to make the figures the focal point.
Also, 9/11 plays into that. I'll never get over losing my husband, but around 2007 I was beginning to feel a little bit better. I was emerging from a black place. I consciously said, ‘Oh, I'm these figures’. These figures are emerging out of this blackness, this death, this mourning, and the blackness now is behind them — and hopefully behind me. That was the genesis of my Black Paintings, but I think they've moved beyond that now, this many years later, at least I hope so.
Joyce: What are you working on at the moment?
Barbara: I'm continuing on with my Black Paintings series. I have two large pieces that I'm pretty excited about. One is pretty far along and I hope it'll be finished soon. I've been working on it five months by now, which is a lot for me.
This summer I was at this little shop in Rhinebeck, New York and I saw this skinny dragon figure from Bali that was about four feet tall and pretty heavy. I had just come up on the train that day so I knew I wasn’t going to bring it back with me. I thought about it for a couple days and I decided I needed to get this figure. I ended up calling up the store and buying it, and then they had somebody deliver it a few weeks later.
I don't usually buy figures that way. I like to buy them in my travels, but I thought if I had seen the dragon in Bali, there's no way I could’ve gotten it back to New York with me, so, it was justified. It’s beautiful and I’m really excited to use it. I haven't even photographed the figures for that painting yet, but those are the next few things I have planned to work on.