From Pilot to Pentagon to Painter:
The Remarkable Life of Artist, Barbara Rachko
As is often the case with an artist who’s lived an extraordinary life, much of Barbara Rachko’s artistic results are a heavenly cocktail of design-by-sentiment. Barbara’s breadth and sophistication is showcased using the ideals and bounties of the peoples of our planet.
Her travels have taken her far into the corners of the earth where the rest of us are dreaming of going (someday). It is her persistent trek to attain culturally symbolic artifacts that she’s given herself the runway to tackle historic societal anecdotes.
My interview with Barbara was highly anticipated. Honestly, I describe it as feeling “steeped in curiosity”. With its conclusion, it became apparent how the following chronicles of her life have shaped her body of work. Armed with a better understanding of her story, her background and her expertise, the lens with which you view her work becomes more keenly focused making it easier to see the nostalgic rapture and antiquated melancholy layered throughout each piece.
Barbara’s legacy of creative expression is truly a wide-ranging, holistic body of work including paintings, photographs, blog writings and her book, From Pilot to Painter.
So, grab some tea and sit back for this in depth interview with of one of today’s extraordinary American artists.
PAULA Barbara, your life has been quite a story up to this point. Can we start at the beginning? Where did you grow up and what were some early milestones or experiences that contributed to you becoming an artist later in life?
BARBARA I grew up in a blue collar family in Clifton, New Jersey, a suburb about fifteen miles west of Manhattan. My father was a television repairman for RCA. My mother stayed home to raise my sister and me (at the time I had only one sister, Denise; my sister Michele was born much later). My parents were both first-generation Americans and no one in my extended family had gone to college yet. I was a smart kid who showed some artistic talent in kindergarten and earlier. I remember copying the Sunday comics, which in those days appeared in all the newspapers, and drawing small still lifes I arranged for myself. I have always been able to draw anything, as long as I can see it.
Denise, a cousin, and I enrolled in Saturday morning “art classes” at the studio of a painter named Frances Hulmes in Rutherford, NJ. I was about 6 years old. I continued the classes for 8 years and became a fairly adept oil painter. Since we lived so close to New York City, my mother often took us to museums, particularly to the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Museum of Natural History. Like so many young girls, I fell in love with Rousseau’s “The Sleeping Gypsy” and was astonished by Picasso’s “Guernica” when it was on long-term loan to MoMA. I have fond memories of studying the dioramas at the Museum of Natural History (they are still my favorite part of the museum). As far as I know, there were no artists in my family so, unfortunately, I had no role models. At the age of 14 my father decided that art was not a serious pursuit – declaring, it 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, letting my artistic abilities go dormant.
PAULA I read that you earned a degree in psychology. From that, I’m sure you gained an in depth understanding of humans and their stories. How has that influenced your art form?
BARBARA I suppose there must be some deep connection, but I have never seen much of a correspondence between my psychology degree and the art I create. As an undergraduate psych major at the University of Vermont, my intent was to become a clinical psychologist. However, by the time I received my BA, I was no longer interested in making that my life’s work.
PAULA After graduating with a degree in psychology, you joined the military. What did you do for the military and how long was your career?
BARBARA 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. At the age of 29 I decided to join the Navy. As an accomplished civilian pilot with thousands of flight hours, I had expected to fly jets. However, there were few women Navy pilots at the time and those few were restricted to training male pilots. Women were not allowed in combat so there were no women pilots on aircraft carriers and there were no female members of the Blue Angels (the latter is still true, I believe).
I was not using my flying skills so I became extremely bored during my time in the Navy. 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. I was miserable and trapped since an officer cannot just quit the Navy.
Remembering the joyful Saturdays of my youth when I had taken art classes with Mrs. Hulmes, 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. Most importantly, I was having fun again! Soon I enrolled in more classes and found myself becoming a very motivated full-time art student who worked nights at the Pentagon. As I studied and improved my skills, I soon 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 Navy. Should I really give up a regular pay-check for the uncertainty of being an artist? After much soul-searching, I decided that I absolutely HAD TO resign. However, once I resolved to leave, there was a problem. The Navy was experiencing a manpower shortage so Congress had enacted a stop-loss order, which prevented officers from resigning. So I was bound by the Congressional order. I submitted my resignation, effective exactly one year later, on September 30, 1989. With Bryan’s (at the time, my boyfriend) support, I left the Navy.
On October 1, 1989 I became a professional artist. Fortunately, I have never again needed a full-time day job. I remained in the Navy Reserve for the next 14 years, working mostly at the Pentagon for two days every month and two weeks each year. After moving to Manhattan in 1997, I commuted by train to Washington, DC. Finally on November 1, 2003, I officially retired from the Navy Reserve as a Commander.
PAULA Did your military experience become a building block on which you formed your artistic ideas?
BARBARA In my younger days boredom was a strong motivator. I left the active duty Navy out of boredom. I couldn’t bear not being intellectually challenged (most of my jobs consisted of paper-pushing), not using my flying skills and not developing my artistic talent. In what must be a first, by spending a lot of time and money training me for jobs I hated, the Navy turned me into a hard-working, devoted, and disciplined artist! Once I left the Navy there was no plan B. It was “full speed ahead” to become an accomplished artist.
PAULA During one of the most gripping times of your life, you were personally affected by the 9/11 attack on our country. Would you mind telling us about that and how it has shaped your work?
BARBARA On June 16, 2001, I married Dr. Bryan Jack, my longtime companion and soulmate, during a very private ceremony in the garden of a historic Alexandria, Virginia residence. In attendance were a justice of the peace, Bryan, and me. We were both 48 years old and this was the first marriage for both of us. Sadly, we never celebrated an anniversary. Exactly 87 days later my new husband was a victim of the 9/11 terrorist attack.
On September 11, 2001, Bryan, who was a high-ranking federal government employee, a brilliant economist, and a budget analyst at the Pentagon, was en route to Monterey, CA to give his monthly guest lecture for an economics class at the Naval Postgraduate College. He boarded the American Airlines plane out of Dulles Airport that was high-jacked and crashed into the Pentagon, killing 189 people.
To this day I consider how easily I, too, could have been killed on 9/11, if I had decided to travel with Bryan to California. The plane crashed directly into my Navy office on the fifth floor E-ring of the Pentagon. With a twist of fate, we both would have died: Bryan on the plane, me either beside Bryan or inside the building.
In September 2001 Bryan and I had been together for fifteen and a half years. Surprisingly, we were happier than we had ever been. At a time when other couples we knew were settling into a certain boredom and routine, our life together was growing richer and more exciting. So losing Bryan – especially then – was heart-breaking, cruel, and devastating beyond all comprehension. It was so unfair. I was numb and in shock.
The next six months passed by in a blur. However, I had made a decision and pledged that I would not let the 9/11 attackers claim me as one more victim. My life had been spared for a reason. Over time I began to work to make every day count. Even this many years later, wasting time still feels like a crime.
In the summer of 2002 I was ready to – I HAD to – get back to work in my studio. I knew exactly what I must do. More than ever before, learning and painting would become the avenues to my well-being.
Because I use reference photos for my pastel paintings, the first challenge was to learn how to use Bryan’s 4 x 5 view camera. At that time I was not a photographer. Bryan had always taken reference photos for me.
In July 2002 I enrolled in a view camera workshop at New York’s International Center of Photography. Much to my surprise I had already absorbed quite a lot from watching Bryan. After the initial workshop, I continued more formal studies of photography for several years. In 2009, I am proud to say, I was invited to present a solo photography exhibition at a New York gallery!
In 2003 I resumed making my Domestic Threats series of pastel paintings, something that had seemed impossible after Bryan’s death. The first large pastel painting that I created using a reference photograph taken by me confirmed that my life’s work could continue. The title of that painting, “She Embraced It and Grew Stronger,” was autobiographical. “She” is me, and “it” meant continuing on without Bryan and living life for both of us.
Having had a long successful run, the Domestic Threats series finally ended in early 2007. Around that time I was feeling happier and had come to better terms with losing Bryan. While this is a tragedy I will never truly be at peace with, dealing with the loss became easier with time.
Then in 2007 I suddenly became blocked and did not know where to take my work next. I had never experienced creative block and especially for a full-time professional artist, this was a painful time. Still, I continued to go to the studio every day and eventually, thanks to a confluence of favorable circumstances, the block ended.
My next pastel painting series was called Black Paintings. I viewed the black background as literally, the very dark place that I was emerging from, exactly like the figures emerging in these paintings. The figures themselves were wildly colorful and full of life, but that black background – one critic has dubbed it my “blackground” – is always there.
Still the work continues to evolve. In 2017 I began my third pastel painting series called Bolivianos, based on a mask exhibition encountered in La Paz at the Museum of Ethnography and Folklore. Many people have proclaimed this to be my most bold, daring, and exciting pastel painting series yet. And I think they may be right! Continuing on the journey I began 30+ years ago, I am looking forward to creating many new, striking pastel paintings!
PAULA When did your love of indigenous artifacts begin? Where have you traveled to collect these focal points of your works and what has that experience taught you?
BARBARA As a Christmas present in 1991 my future sister-in-law sent me two brightly painted wooden animal figures from Oaxaca, Mexico. One was a blue polka-dotted winged horse. The other was a red, white, and black bear-like figure.
I was enthralled with this gift and the timing was fortuitous because I had been searching for new subject matter to paint. I started asking artist-friends about Oaxaca and learned that it was an important art hub. Two well-known Mexican painters, Rufino Tamayo and Francisco Toledo, had gotten their start there, as had master photographer Manual Alvarez Bravo. There was a “Oaxacan School of Painting” (‘school’ meaning a style) and Alvarez Bravo had established a photography school there (the building/institution kind). I began reading everything I could find. At the time I had only been to Mexico very briefly, in 1975.
The following autumn, Bryan and I planned a two-week trip to visit Mexico. We timed it to see Day of the Dead celebrations in Oaxaca. (During my research I had become fascinated with this festival). We spent one week in Oaxaca followed by one week in Mexico City. My interest in collecting Mexican folk art was off and running!
Along with busloads of other tourists, we visited several cemeteries in small Oaxacan towns for the “Day of the Dead.” The indigenous people 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 these beautiful people and their beliefs.
From Oaxaca we traveled to Mexico City, where again I was entranced, but this time by the rich and ancient history. We visited the National Museum of Anthropology, where I was introduced to the fascinating story of ancient Mesoamerican civilizations; the ancient city of Teotihuacan, which the Aztecs discovered as an abandoned city and then occupied as their own; and the Templo Mayor, the historic center of the Aztec empire, infamous as a place of human sacrifice. I was astounded! Why had I never learned in school about Mexico, this highly developed cradle of Western civilization in our own hemisphere, when so much time had been devoted to the cultures of Egypt, Greece, and elsewhere? When I returned home to Virginia I began reading everything I could find about ancient Mexican civilizations, including the Olmec, Zapotec, Mixtec, Aztec, and Maya. The first trip to Mexico opened up a whole new world and was to profoundly influence my future work. I would return there many more times, most recently to study Olmec art and archeology. In subsequent years I have traveled to Guatemala, Peru, Bolivia and other countries in search of inspiration and subject matter to depict in my work.
PAULA Can you tell us about the different series of works you’ve created and what they embody?
BARBARA The Black Paintings series of pastel-on-sandpaper paintings grew directly from an earlier series, Domestic Threats. While both use cultural objects as surrogates for human beings acting in mysterious, highly-charged narratives, in the Black Paintings I replaced all background details of my actual setup (furniture, rugs, etc.) with lush black pastel. In this work the ‘actors’ are front and center.
While traveling in Bolivia last spring, 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. I immediately knew I had stumbled upon a gift. So far I have completed eight pastel paintings in the Bolivianos series. Two more are in progress now.
All of my pastel paintings are an example of a style called “contemporary conceptual realism” in which things are not quite as innocent as they seem. In this sense each painting is a kind of Trojan horse. There is plenty of backstory to my images, although I usually prefer not to over-explain them. Some mystery must always remain in art.
The world I depict is that of the imagination and this realm owes little debt to the natural world. I recently gave an art talk where I was reminded how fascinating it is to learn how others respond to my work. As New York art critic Gerrit Henry once remarked, “What we bring to a Rachko… we get back, bountifully.”
PAULA Your work is unlike most. There’s such power and boldness in your pastels. What processes are you using to create such poignant and robustly colored pieces of work?
BARBARA For thirty-three 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 pigment as an artist can get. It allows for very saturated color, especially using the self-invented techniques I have developed and mastered. I believe my “science of color” is unique, completely unlike how any other artist works. I spend four months on each painting, applying pastel and blending the layers together to mix new colors on the paper.
The acid-free sandpaper 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 about 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.
PAULA I especially enjoy your Black Paintings series. You mention being influenced by the story of how Miles Davis developed cool jazz making this series uniquely American all around. How do you use history to channel the direction of each of your series?
BARBARA In 2007 I finished the Domestic Threats series and was blocked, certain that a strong body of work was behind me. But what would come next?
The idea for the Black Paintings began when I attended a jazz history course at Lincoln Center and learned how Miles Davis developed cool jazz from bebop. In bebop the notes were played hard and fast as musicians showcased their musical virtuosity. Cool jazz was a much more relaxed style with fewer notes being played. In other words, the music was pared down to its essentials. Similarly, the Black Paintings evolved from dense, intricate compositions into paintings that depicted only the essential elements. As the series evolved, what was left out became more important, resulting in more demands being made on the viewer.
Eventually, after much reflection, I had an epiphany and my painful creative block ended. “Between,” with drastically simplified imagery, was the first in a new series called Black Paintings. I like to think this series includes work that is richer and more profound than the previous Domestic Threats.
PAULA You are a multi-talented woman, Barbara! Tell us about your book. From Pilot to Painter, and how writing, for you, compares to painting and photography. Which do you prefer?
BARBARA I am pleased that my eBook FROM PILOT TO PAINTER is available on Amazon and iTunes. It is based on my blog and is part memoir, including my personal loss on 9/11, insights into my creative practice, and intimate reflections on what it’s like to be an artist living in New York City now. The eBook includes new material not found on the blog, plus 25+ reproductions of my vibrant pastel-on-sandpaper paintings, a Foreword by Ann Landi (who writes for ARTnews and The Wall Street Journal), and more.
“Barbara Rachko’s Colored Dust” (the title of my blog) continues to be a crucial part of my overall art practice. Blogging twice a week forces me to think deeply about my work and to explain it clearly to others. The process has helped me develop a better understanding about why I make art and has encouraged me to become a better writer.
From the beginning in the 1980s I used photographs as reference material and Bryan would shoot 4” x 5” negatives of my elaborate setups with his Toyo-Omega view camera. In those days I rarely picked up a camera except when we were traveling. After Bryan was killed on 9/11, I inherited his extensive camera collection – old Nikons, Leicas, Graphlex cameras, etc. – and I wanted to learn how to use them. In 2002 I enrolled in a series of photography courses (about 10 over 4 years) at the International Center of Photography in New York. I learned how to use all of Bryan’s cameras and how to make my own big color prints in the darkroom. Along the way I discovered that the sense of composition, form, and color I developed over many years as a painter translated well into photography. The camera was just another medium with which to express my ideas. Astonishingly, in 2009 I had my first solo photography exhibition in New York.
It’s wonderful to be both a painter and a photographer. Pastel painting will always be my first love, but photography lets me explore ideas much faster than I ever could as a painter. Paintings take months of work. To me, photographs – from the initial impulse to hanging a framed print on the wall – are instant gratification.
For two years I have been using my iPad Pro to capture thousands of travel photographs. Most recently, I visited Gujarat and Rajasthan in India. I have never been inclined to use a sketchbook so composing photos on my iPad keeps my eye sharp while I’m halfway around the world, far from my studio practice.
PAULA Thank you for taking the time to sit down and answer my questions. What advice would you give to up-and-coming artists, as well as experienced artists, who want to reach the level of publicity and notoriety that you’ve reached?
BARBARA I have two pieces of advice:
Build a support network among your fellow artists, teachers, and friends. It is tough to be an artist, period. Also, be sure to read plenty of books by and about artists. All have experienced similar challenges. Do whatever you must to keep working – no matter what! Being an artist never really gets easier. There are always new obstacles and you will discover solutions over time.
When I left the active duty Navy in 1989, my co-workers threw a farewell party. One of the parting gifts I received was a small plaque from a young enlisted woman whom I had supervised. The words on the plaque deeply resonated with me, since I was about to make a significant and risky career change. It was the perfect gift for someone facing the uncertainty of an art career.
Many years later the plaque is still a proud possession of mine. It hangs on the wall behind my easel, to be read every day as I work. It says:
Excellence can be attained if you…
Care more than others think is wise…
Risk more than others think is safe…
Dream more than others think is practical…
Expect more than others think is possible.”
Thank you very much for the opportunity to share my journey with your audience!
To see more of Barbara’s work, visit her website, barbararachko.art.