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Barbara Rachko: A Contemporary Visual Artist, Author, and Expert in Mexican and Guatemalan Folk Art Making Industry Waves

A member of the International Association of Visual Artists, Barbara Rachko is Revolutionizing the World of Fine Art

Barbara Rachko is a modern-day Renaissance woman, seamlessly blending her talents as a visual artist, author, and expert in Mexican and Guatemalan folk art. Her work serves as a captivating intersection where creativity and culture collide, creating a vibrant tapestry of artistic expression, which she discussed with Journalist John Wisniewski for Cultured Focus Magazine.


1.  When did you begin drawing and painting?


This is a long story because my path to becoming a professional artist has been unusually circuitous.  


I grew up in a blue-collar family in suburban New Jersey. My parents were both first-generation Americans and no one in my family had gone to college. I was a smart kid, who showed some artistic talent in kindergarten and earlier. At the age of 6, my sister, my cousin, and I enrolled in Saturday morning painting classes at the studio of a local artist. I continued the classes for about 8 years and became an adept oil painter.


At the age of 15 my father decided that art was not a serious pursuit – he called it a hobby, not a profession – and abruptly stopped paying for my Saturday morning lessons. Unfortunately, there were no artists or suitable role models in my family. So, with neither financial nor moral support to pursue art, I turned my attention to very different interests.

Cut to ten years later. When I was 25, I earned my private pilot’s license and spent the next two years amassing other flying licenses and ratings, culminating in a Boeing-727 flight engineer’s certificate. 

At 29, I joined the Navy. By then I was an accomplished civilian pilot with thousands of flight hours so I expected to fly jets. However, in the early 1980s women were not allowed in combat.  There were very few women Navy pilots and those few were restricted to training male pilots. There were no women pilots landing on aircraft carriers.

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 completely bored and miserable. 

Remembering the joyful Saturdays of my youth when I had taken art classes with a local New Jersey painter, 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 mentality of the Pentagon. I was having fun again! I enrolled in more classes and became a very motivated full-time art student who worked nights at the Pentagon. As I studied and improved my skills, I quickly 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 to leave the financial security of a Navy paycheck.  Finally, I did make up my mind and resigned my commission, effective on September 30, 1989. With Bryan's (my then boyfriend’s) support, I left the Navy to devote my time to making art.

I’m probably one of the few people who can name THE day I became a professional artist! That day was October 1, 1989. Fortunately, I have never needed another job. I remained in the Navy Reserve for the next 14 years, working primarily at the Pentagon for two days each month and two weeks each year. I commuted by train to Washington, DC after I moved to Manhattan in 1997.  Finally on November 1, 2003, I officially retired as a Navy Commander.

Life as a self-employed professional artist is endlessly varied, fulfilling, and interesting. I have never regretted my decision to pursue art full time.

2.  When was your first art exhibition?  

My very first group exhibition was in a juried show in the late 1980s at the Art League Gallery in Alexandria, VA. This was a nonprofit gallery that offered monthly juried shows. I applied regularly, had work accepted many times, and frequently even won first prize for my pastel paintings. 

These early exhibitions at the Art League were followed by other group and solo exhibitions at nonprofit spaces in Virginia, Washington, D.C., Maryland, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York; more or less up and down the mid-Atlantic states and the northeast, which were all places I could drive my truck to hand-deliver pastel paintings. I was building a résumé so I wanted to exhibit every chance I could.

My very first solo exhibition at a commercial gallery was at 479 Gallery in SoHo, NYC in July 1996. The previous summer I had entered a juried group show there and won first prize, which was a solo exhibition.

My exhibition with 479 Gallery was immediately followed by representation at a prestigious New York gallery, Brewster Fine Arts, which specialized in Latin American masters like Frida Kahlo, Leonora Carrington, Diego Rivera, Rufino Tamayo, and others. I presented my first two-person exhibition there in October 1996 and got to meet Leonora Carrington when she came to the opening. I could hardly believe my good fortune at gaining representation with such a revered and elegant gallery!

3.  What was it like having a documentary made about you?

I loved the whole experience!  Before this happened, I had wanted to make a film for ten years or so, ever since Brainard Carey, an artists’ coach, suggested the idea when I told him about my unusual background. Often, I hear from artist friends and others that my life story is truly inspiring. Finally, being able to make “Barbara Rachko: True Grit” and now to share it with a wider audience is a dream come true! Jennifer Cox, our director, and Annette Apitz, our co-producer, were ideal collaborators over the fifteen months it took to make the film.  

It is truly gratifying to hear so many positive responses from viewers of our film. Surprisingly, it has even gone on to have a life in film festivals.  “Barbara Rachko:  True Grit” made its world premiere at the prestigious 2023 Newport Beach Film Festival in Orange County, California, where it received both the Audience Award and the Best in category Award for Art, Architecture, and Design.  In addition, we earned Honorable Mention at the 2023 International Fine Arts Film Festival Santa Barbara and were recognized as an Award Nominee at the 2023 Montreal Women Film Festival. “Barbara Rachko:  True Grit” certainly has exceeded all of our expectations!

4.  What inspires you to create?

You remember the expression, to whom much is given, much is expected? Having discovered around the age of 5 or so that I could draw anything I could see, I was given a tremendous gift. I remember being completely surprised as a kid to realize that not everyone can do this.

Anyone who is given a talent has a sacred obligation to develop it, to share it, to show people what’s possible, and to use their gift to bring as much beauty into the world as one can. This is what drives me to keep learning and becoming a better artist. It’s what gets me out of bed every morning and into the studio to make art. 

5.  Any artists whose work you like?

Among historical painters, I adore Henri Matisse and André Derain, for their striking compositions and bold use of colors.  Among living photographers, I am most fascinated by the Pictures Generation, namely, Cindy Sherman, Laurie Simmons, Sandy Skoglund, and Gregory Crewdson.  I am drawn to these photographers, I think, because my earliest pastel painting series involved staged photography. 

6.  What kind of reactions do you get from spectators at your exhibitions?

Reactions to my work run the gamut - from dopey comments like, “I’m scared!” to “How in the world is such beauty and profundity possible to achieve using only soft pastel on a piece of sandpaper!” I’m sure most artists can say the same.  We can only hope that our work finds its way to an audience that has the eyes, heart, and mind to understand, to appreciate on a deep level the decades of devotion, sacrifice, and hard work that go into creating works of art.

7. What was your early life like?  Did you formally study art?

I spoke about my early life in my first answer. My bachelor’s degree in psychology is from the University of Vermont.  I did not formally study art, unless you want to count the several years-worth of drawing and painting classes I took at the Art League School in Alexandria, VA. I never went to art school so do not have a bachelor’s or master’s degree in art.   Much later, in the early 2000s, I was compelled to study photography at the International Center of Photography in New York.  This is another rather long story.

On September 11, 2001, my husband Bryan Jack, a high-ranking federal government employee, a brilliant economist and a budget analyst at the Pentagon, was on his way to present his monthly guest lecture in economics at the Naval Postgraduate College in Monterey, CA. He was a passenger on the plane that departed from Dulles Airport and was high-jacked and crashed into the Pentagon.  

Losing Bryan on 9/11 was the biggest shock of my life, devastating in every way imaginable. We were soulmates and newly married. I have lived with his loss every single day for more than twenty years now.  Life has never been the same.

In the summer of 2002, I was beginning to feel ready to get back to work. Learning about photography and cameras became essential avenues to my well-being.  

My first challenge was learning how to use Bryan’s 4 x 5 view camera. Bryan had always taken the 4 x 5 negatives from which I derived the reference photos that were essential tools for making pastel paintings. I enrolled in a one-week view camera workshop at the International Center of Photography in New York.  Surprisingly, it was very easy. I had derived substantial technical knowledge just from watching Bryan for many years.

After the view camera workshop, I decided to throw myself into learning this new medium, beginning with Photography I. I spent the next few years taking many classes at ICP and learning as much as I could. Eventually, I learned how to use Bryan’s extensive collection of film cameras, to properly light the setups that served as subject material for my “Domestic Threats” pastel paintings, and to make my own large chromogenic prints in a darkroom. 

Then in October 2009 I was invited to present a solo photography exhibition at a gallery in New York. Continuing to make art after Bryan’s death had seemed like such an impossibility. I remember thinking how proud he would have been to know I became a good photographer.

8.  What lies in the future for you?

I still have so much to say and share through my work! First, I want to continue creating and adding to the “Boliviano” series of pastel paintings that I began in 2017.

Second, Jennifer, Annette, and I are considering making part II of our film, which will require a return trip to Bolivia - to the Museum of Ethnography and Folklore in La Paz, where I first encountered the masks that are my current subject matter, and to Oruro to see similar masks in action during Carnival celebrations. This will be a complex undertaking and the issue of financing will first need to be resolved. Stay tuned!

For more, follow Barbara Rachko’s Blog:

Contact Details:

Barbara Rachko

Master Pastel Artist/Blogger/ Author 

Studio: 208 West 29th Street, # 605, NYC  10001



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