It was like instant gratification
I was a Lieutenant in the navy. I was in the navy for 7 years. I joined the navy to fly because before I went in I was a licensed commercial pilot.
I thought I was going to be flying navy jets but I wasn’t picked up for the flight program. I went into the navy and I wasn’t very happy. I was doing admin work, paperwork galore. I was just so miserable. I was bored out of my mind.
I looked around and I found a local art school. I started taking drawing classes at this school. I gave myself a traditional sort of education where you just study form and drawing and no colour whatsoever for the first two years.
I was getting good because I was taking so many classes and I realized this is what I wanted to do with my life. I decided I was going to quit the navy, and devote my time to art. I resigned from active duty on September 30th, 1989, and from that time on I've been a professional artist.
The black paintings were a direct reaction to my earlier series called the Domestic Threats. I would set up a scene in my apartment or in my house, photograph it and make almost a photo realistic rendering with all kind of textures and just very fine detail. I put many hours and months and months of work into the Domestic Threats.
That series sort of ran its course and at the end I was looking for another direction for my work and I had this idea of really drastically simplifying my imagery. In the Domestic Threats, there was all kind of furniture and rugs. Basically, all the surroundings of my daily living situation were included in the painting. Then I had the idea to get rid of all the background material and just focus on the figures. That’s how I began my Black Painting series.
I took a series of classes at the International Centre of Photography in New York. These are analogue pictures; they were shot with film. What I decided to do was to just set up the figures, like on a table with a black cloth around them and I would shoot the figures; I wouldn't even look through the viewfinder of the camera.
I would put some colour gels in front of the lens and not even look through to see what I was shooting and then I would click the shutter. I’d take it to the film lab and then a few days later, I get the roll back, and if I was lucky I'd get one or two shots. Then those I would print.
I did a series, a photography series called Gods and Monsters, again using the same Mexican and Guatemalan folk art figures, and those are very dreamy looking. They are out of focus. Each one, I thought of each one as unrepeatable and that was a direct contrast to my pastel painting series.
What I loved was I could work in my studio all day long making a pastel painting, where you would hardly see any progress because the work I was doing was so minute. Then I could come home and take a bunch of those figures and set them up and photograph them, and then within a couple of days, when I got the film back, I'd have new images.
It was like instant gratification. Not as instant as digital but compared to the work I was doing in my studio, it was a much quicker process.
Barbara Rachko is a visual artist and photographer who works out of New York. You’ll never guess what she did before she became a full-time artist.
In 2003, I retired as a commander from the Navy reserve. So I am a retired navy commander in addition to being an artist and I get a retirement cheque every month, which is kind of unusual for an artist. I just fell in love with art. I haven’t had a day job since 1989, I've been a full-time artist basically all that time. So, I feel really lucky.
For Barbara the business side of art is crucial.
I've always been interested in the business side of art because I feel like that's just another part of being a professional. You can't just make the work and expect it magically to get out of your studio, or seen or written about. The business side is just as important as the creative side in my view. I have always had this attitude on the business side, “oh let me try this and see what happens”.
Does that make Barbara some sort of art business guru?
I have made lots and lots of mistake about marketing my work but it’s all a learning process you know every time you make a mistake you learn. I’ve forgotten a lot of them now, but when I look back I think, “what a dope”, you know, but that’s how we learn.
Barbara has an enviable following online…
My blog is up to fourteen thousand. I have a personal Facebook page which years ago I maxed out at five thousand friends, so I started a fan page. My fan page, I forget what that’s up to, thirteen thousand, fourteen thousand, something like that. What I love about the fan page is there is no limit, you can get as many followers as you want. I have made a lot of connections on LinkedIn. I think I have over twelve thousand connections. Practically everyday people are contacting me about interesting business opportunities, it’s a whole new world. I'm on Twitter and Instagram, Pinterest but Facebook and LinkedIn have been good for me, as far as marketing my work.
What was it that sent Barbara to social media for her networking?
I looked around about five years ago and I saw all of these galleries closing in Chelsea, in New York, galleries closing left and right. Over the years I've probably worked with at least a couple of dozen galleries and to be totally honest most of them have been very disappointing; they didn’t sell my work. I have had one or two that were fabulous but then they ended up going out of business themselves for some reason or the other. So, I looked around and I said, “well this galleries thing is just not working for me and I have to find another way to be more in charge of my own career, to do my own marketing”. I don’t think like the old days where an artist would have a gallery and that gallery would be their sole representative and they would nurture their career. It’s just not like that anymore in the art. I don’t want to behold to a gallerist, who, for whatever reason, can't pay the bills anymore. That’s not my fault. I just wanted to be independent of other people’s problems basically.
The million dollar question – is she now totally independent and problem free?
Now I have my own problems but at least they are all my own. So, I started, I guess I started with Facebook, you know gradually learning what works and what doesn’t. It's an ongoing learning process.
How has Barbara built such a strong social media following?
It's been four or five years now, that I've had a pretty serious heavy-duty social media program, with the help of Barbra Drizin, my assistant.
Hold the boat! Barbara has an assistant? And her name is Barbra too? How does that partnership work?
There was a big learning curve. She had to learn all about my work. She is like my sergeant now, as far as knowing about what I do. It will be four years in September or October that she and I have been working together. Initially, I would send her images and content and she would decide, or she would research, which post gets the most hits and likes. At this point, now we've been working together so well, she’s fairly autonomous. I let her post whatever, she comes up with new content. I post twice a week on my blog. She'll take content from my blog and re-purpose it or change it around a little bit and put it on Facebook and LinkedIn and Twitter and Instagram. If you look at some of my social media you will see I have a pretty active program. It's a lot of work but I am getting traction from it finally. I'm going to keep doing it and hopefully get smarter as time goes on.
What does Barbara mean by traction? What is the payoff for investing so much time and money in social media?
Last fall, October or November, I had my first sale from the Facebook connection and I sold a ten thousand dollar painting on Facebook. I was shocked. This came about after several years of working with Facebook, so I'm sure I spend more money than I made on that sale but still I thought wow this gives me hope that people will actually buy more expensive art online. You can use social media to market higher price work. That was really a motivator when that happened.
As well as the odd sale, what are the other dividends of being digitally connected?
I’m constantly getting invitations to exhibit. It's hard to tell exactly where the opportunities are coming from these days. I'm really out there now but a lot of people see my work and then they start following me and they see that what I do is intriguing and nobody else is really doing what I'm doing, so they start following. Nobody knows very much about Pastel as a medium unless you are an artist, so I educate people about pastel. All this stuff I'm doing is basically trying to educate people to help them appreciate what I am doing. Along the way people say, “gee I would like to exhibit this work or I want to collect this work”. So, eventually, good things come of it.
Any closing remarks?
I still love it, I still love every day getting up and going to my studio. I feel so fortunate, I still remember how miserable I was in the navy. I feel like as artists we are so fortunate that we get to do what we love and especially in my case since I don’t have a day job I can spend as many hours working as I can stand basically. I'm always excited by the possibilities of what other artist are doing. I have a good network of artist friends.
Is that what sustains Barbara’s practice?
I guess love, love, and curiosity.
Barbara’s art practice is based in New York. You can find her online at barbararachko.com or on
and even on Amazon
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