An interview by Jason Jenkins
There are many conversations in life that elevate our understanding of everything we hold true. One of these conversations occurred for me on July 6th, 2020, when I had the pleasure of meeting portrait artist Barbara Pascal for an interview through which we discussed how family, work and education set the foundation of Barbara’s artistic development – this being a foundation built by experience. Getting to experience Barbara’s life story through our conversation truly elevated my understanding of how important experience is for anyone committed to life and self-actualization.
“I’m really sorry to tell you, but she’s an artist.”
Barbara comes from a highly artistic family of painters and art directors. We began by discussing her grandfather, Paul Pascal, who was a French painter who moved the family to Washington DC after winning a competition to work on the refurbishing of the Library of Congress’s mural. Next, we discussed Barbara’s aunt, Jeanne Pascal, who was acclaimed in New York and France for her Algerian desert paintings. Early in our conversation, Barbara remarked on an integral childhood moment when she was brought to her aunt Jeanne, who in confirmation of the life Barbara would lead said, “I’m sorry to tell you, but she’s an artist.” After my inquiry, Barbara explained that from the youngest age she always knew herself to be an artist, so her aunt’s confirmation was an experience that would propel and guide her through life.
Every day is a learning process for an artist.
Even though she would focus on practical experience, Barbara never shied away from the value of artistic education. She would emerge from the Fashion Institute of Technology with an Associates Degree in design, and later receive a license for design in Florida. While attending FIT Barbara worked as a photo colorist, which is a process that uses transparent oils to transform black and white photos into color. Once color photography was made commercial, photo coloring evolved into retouching, and this new process would introduce Barbara to the use of colored pencils. She explained:
“I was introduced to colored pencils when I was searching for a quick retouching medium for colored prints new to the market. I tried and was successful at spraying each print with a tacky surface then using colored pencil to retouch directly on the print with a final fixative spray. Unhealthy for sure, but quick and easy! Thus, the medium became my go to for many uses.”
“…those were life classes in Charlie’s school”
A truly formative part of Barbara’s training came from her experience learning under Charles “Charlie” Pasqualina at the Roslyn School for painters, where she would develop her skills in classical oil painting. Barbara emerged from this rigorous experience with the verbal equivalent of a master’s degree in painting from Charles, and the instruction to go forth and create. Barbara explained: “I learned how I could correct the things I was doing,” continuing with, “Painting is learning by experience – you can’t teach people how to paint, you can [only] teach them how to use the medium – you can’t teach them how to really do it.” Both statements are valuable life lessons for anyone, let alone an artist who would benefit from jumping into an experience, as opposed to overanalyzing and never stepping forward into an opportunity.
In addition to this training, Barbara received her certification in interior design from Hofstra’s two-year CRASH program and holds a New York license to teach retouching and photo coloring. Every skill that Barbara developed, whether from design, photographic processes, or any style of painting, is clearly on display in her master sense of balance, color, composition and subject.
At the age of 65, taking care of grandchildren while managing a household came with the price of not being able to work in artistic mediums like oil paints, which are very demanding of space, time and cleanliness. Barbara would overcome this obstacle by diving headfirst into colored pencils as a fine art medium. Colored pencils, which demand little to set up or break down, would let Barbara turn any room into a studio for whatever amount of time she had while her grandchildren would sleep, and focus all the skills she developed in photo coloring and design into the her new medium.
“I paint with a heartbeat.”
Now Barbara primarily works in oil-based colored pencil, which she describes as not simply a dry medium, as some would consider it to be. Through consistent practice and education Barbara has adapted and mastered a technique of breaking down pencil material just enough that it can be used to flow with the ease and style of oil paints. Using this technique in her Imaginative Realism style, Barbara has been able to create a tonal balance between her subjects and backgrounds that are filled with as much motion and energetic life as the original inspiration.
Barbara’s color pencil paintings and portraits are impactful far beyond any art that is simply decorative. In response to my inquiring about her inspiration and drive, she said, “I paint with a heartbeat,” letting me know that everything life has to offer is embodied in her work. Visually, her work is filled with people and nature, which are sometimes surrealistically and imaginatively intertwined. Barbara’s work invokes the strongest sense of experience because it is embedded with life, and also doubles as a tool for self-investigation or contemplation.
This point in our conversation led us to examine art’s incredible power to transfer and communicate experiences and ideas. Barbara recalled one of her earliest encounters with this power through Rosa Bonheur’s The Horse Fair at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Explaining how The Horse Fair was brought alive to her, Barbara said, “you can smell the horses, hear them, see them stomping…” The passion with which Barbara communicated this was enough to impress me with an image of a painting I had never before seen in my life. The Horse Fair also presented Barbara with a therapeutic confrontation that helped heal her from a traumatic accident in her youth, when she and her mother were run over by a wild horse in New York City. With the help of Bonheur’s painting, Barbara would go far beyond simply conquering a fear – she mastered it and even went on to become an experienced horseback rider.
“Joining hands is what holds people together.”
One of Barbara’s most recent collections is the Author Series, which was featured in BACCA’s first Virtual Rotating Arts gallery. This multimedia portrait collection comes from her drive to share her love of specific authors and their influence in her life. The various authors Barbara chose for this collection are the ones who she feels have contributed to or challenged society by bringing something new to the table and fully standing by their reason to do so. Through all the admiration for her chosen authors, Barbara made it clear that working on this collection during the confinement was the experience that taught her that she is truly a portrait artist. Barbara’s passion for stories and design doesn’t stop at being an active reader; from our conversation alone, I have come to understand that she is not just an undoubtedly talented artist, but a brilliant and gripping storyteller as well. Every aspect of her work and life story demands that you lose yourself in them.
Most people say that with retirement came the freedom to do everything they once desired yet put off; Barbara continues to commit to this tirelessly and without recess, except for a short time during the summer, which she dedicates to master gardening. I find myself amazed at how Barbara has remained so steadfast and focused on her own artistic development and never once looked to join in or be swayed by any of the art movements modernity had to offer. With a love of all artistic expressions and life, Barbara continues to follow her heart into creating works irreducible from her personal style. This is the exact type of commitment to one’s life that creates potent, lasting and ever unfolding results.