Barbara Rachko - USA

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Could you tell us a little about yourself?

My name is Barbara Rachko and I am an American contemporary artist and author residing in New York City and Alexandria, VA. I was born and raised in a New York suburb.

I am best known for my pastel-on-sandpaper paintings, my Amazon eBook, “From Pilot to Painter” and my blog, “Barbara Rachko’s Colored Dust”

My life has been called inspiring and extraordinary. I learned to fly at the age of 25 and became a commercial pilot and Boeing-727 flight engineer before joining the Navy. As a Naval officer I spent many years working at the Pentagon and retired as a Commander.

On 9/11 my husband, Dr. Bryan C. Jack, was tragically killed on the plane that hit the Pentagon.

What has brought you into the art world?

My journey to becoming an artist was circuitous. In the mid-1980s I was in my early 30s and a Navy lieutenant. I worked a soul-crushing job as a computer analyst on the midnight shift in a Pentagon basement. We were open 24/7 and supported the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Remembering joyful Saturdays of my youth spent studying with a local painter in New Jersey, I enrolled in a drawing class at the Art League School in Alexandria, Virginia.  I loved it! I took more classes and became a highly motivated, full-time art student while working nights at the Pentagon. After two years and as my skills improved, I discovered my preferred medium – soft pastel on sandpaper.  

Knowing I had found my calling, I submitted my resignation and left active duty. On October 1, 1989 I became a full-time professional artist and have been one ever since. However, I remained in the Navy Reserve for another fourteen years, working at the Pentagon one weekend a month. On November 1, 2003, I retired as a Navy Commander.

 Brave, acrylic, glitter on canvas, 40x60

Tell us about your works, we would like to know more about them. What materials do you use?

I love to travel, especially to Mexico and Central and South America. I use my large collection of Mexican and Guatemalan folk art – masks, carved wooden animals, papier mâché figures, and toys – to create one-of-a-kind pastel-on-sandpaper paintings.

I work in soft pastel on sandpaper. Soft pastel has been around for five hundred years.  I fell in love with it thirty years ago for several reasons. It’s the most permanent of media. There’s no liquid binder to cause oxidizing over time, as happens with oil paint.  Pastel colors are intense because they are close to pure pigment.  Pastel allows direct application (no brushes) with no drying time and no color changes.

I use UArt acid-free sandpaper, which is made for artists who work in pastel.  This paper allows me to build up layers of pigment without using a fixative.  My process - slowly applying and layering pastels, blending and mixing new colors directly on the paper, making countless adjustments, searching for the best and/or most vivid colors – continually evolves. Each pastel painting takes months to complete.

 Phoenix Rising, acrylic, glitter on canvas, 40x60
 Requiem, acrylic on canvas, 40x60"

 What inspires you most in your work?

For Christmas in 1991 my future sister-in-law sent me two painted wooden figures from Oaxaca, Mexico. One was a blue and white winged horse.  The other was a red, black, and white bear. 

Her timing was perfect because I had been searching for new subject matter to depict. I asked friends about Oaxaca, learned that it was an important art center, and began reading everything I could find.  Up until this time, I had visited Mexico only briefly. 

In 1992 Bryan, my future husband, and I planned a two-week trip to Mexico, timed to see Day of the Dead celebrations in Oaxaca. We spent a week in Oaxaca, where my interest in collecting Mexican folk art began. I discovered and purchased a wooden dragon/conquistador figure, with the intent of putting it in a painting when I got back to Virginia. During our week in Mexico City, I became enthralled with pre-Columbian history.

Many years later travel to Central and South America to study ancient civilizations is still an essential part of my creative process. Most recently I have been researching the Incas and their ancestors.

In 2017 my long-standing fascination with masks took a leap forward when I visited the National Museum of Ethnography and Folklore in La Paz, Bolivia. An exhibition with more than fifty festival masks was spell-binding and became the basis for a new series called, “Bolivianos.” I have completed six pastel paintings in this series so far


Do you plan your work in advance, or is it improvisation?

My process is somewhere in between those two. I work from my own set-up or on-site photographs and do a preliminary sketch in charcoal before I start a pastel painting. I make thousands of decisions about composition, color, etc. as I work meticulously to make a good painting. Although the piece starts out planned, I have no idea what it will look like when it’s finished. It takes about three months to make a pastel painting, not counting foreign travel, research, and a gestation period to determine what the next project will be.

Do you have any plans for the new year yet?

In March 2019 I will exhibit with four artists at Westbeth Gallery in New York. I plan to show twelve pastel paintings.