Barb Vogel: Visual Artist and Photographer
Elsie Sanchez, a local painter, talks with Barbara Vogel, visual artist and photographer, about her recent success with two bodies of work – an out-of-focus portrait series and a house series, which both combine photography with encaustic.
Barb has been very active in the Columbus art community with her own work as well as showcasing the works of others. She has an extensive history of juried exhibitions and gallery shows, and has received numerous awards and recognition for her work. The volume of her pictorial work is diverse and expansive. For more than a decade, she has documented her hometown of Columbus. She has also retraced, for a future project, the route of Ohio native Bernice Abbott. Barb has documented U.S. Rt. 1, a 2,209-mile highway stretching from Ft. Kent, Maine, to Key West, Florida.
Barb has been recognized recently for her out-of-focus portraits and her house series, collages anchored with her photography. Barb received a 2009 Ohio Arts Council Award in Photography for her out-of-focus portraits. In the summer of 2009, she was selected by Margo Crutchfield, Senior Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Cleveland, to exhibit her work at the Riffe Gallery, along with 16 other artists, in celebration of the 100th Anniversary of the Ohio Art League.
Elsie: Barb, you’ve had a lot of success with your work. In particular, out-of-focus and house series have been shown lately. Can you tell us a bit about this success?
Barb: I was very honored to have four of my house series appear in the Ohio Art League’s 100th Anniversary Show. This exhibition was curated by Margo Crutchfield, Senior Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Cleveland. Her studio visit was nerve racking, but the experience of the exhibition at the Riffe Gallery was very rewarding.
I have admired the work of all the artists in the show that the curator selected. I’m humbled to be shown with such strong artists like Sandra Aska, Carol-Boram-Hays, Denise Buckley, Mary Fahy, Sarah Fairchild, Matthew Friday, Curtis Goldstein, Nicholas Hill, Morris Jackson, Ardine Nelson, Brent Payne, Stephanie Sypsa, Alicia Vanderelli, Melissa Vogley-Woods, and Tom Ward.
A selection from my out-of-focus portrait series won the Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award for 2009. When I received e-mail notification of the award, I had to check to make sure it was my e-mail address. Then I had the thought that this may have been sent in error to everyone who applied. Finally, it sunk in that I had won and I was very honored.
Elsie: Looking at both bodies of work, a sense of loss and vulnerability seem to permeate the work. The subjects appear in the process of being forgotten or fading. Can you tell us your inspiration and your connection to these images?
Barb: About four years ago the generation before me — my parents, aunts, and uncles — all started to fail in health. I have navigated this generation in and out of hospitals, sold my parents house, and placed them in an assisted-living facility. It was and still is a bleak period where “elders” in my family, who were once strongly independent, are now dependent and trapped in their bodies.
My “house series” is collaged “stuff’ — family photos and memorabilia — that I kept rather than throwing away prior to the sale of their house. I constructed houses and placed family members with their younger happier bodies in them. The out-of-focus portrait series is darker and reflects my out-of control feelings, the murkiness of depression, and my own vulnerability, the spirit of life fading. I intentionally took images of people without focusing and had the people stare into the camera, which often creates a portrait that is more vulnerable for both the subject and the photographer. Both bodies of work reflect life’s fragile nature.
Due to their dark nature, I was shy about showing others the out-of-focus portraits, especially Margo Crutchfield, the curator for the 100th Anniversary Art League Show. I opted not to and was happy when she selected the “house series.” However, I guess I am now curious about what she would have said about the out-of-focus series.
Elsie: How important is your process to the content of the work? You begin with an existing photographic image, transfer it onto a surface, and then manipulate it. Why not just draw the image from the start?
Barb: Experimenting with processes, materials and techniques is as important to a visual artist as a writer perfecting their word choices and combinations. Just like the image of the writer crumpling up a bad draft and tossing it in the waste basket, in this experimentation, I often have more throw-aways than acceptable pieces.
In my collage work, the photographic image is used much the way someone who draws uses lines. I did drawing and was a painter before I became a photographer. But I think I am a better artist with the photographic image. Perhaps it is just a matter of confidence. Rauschenberg and Warhol both are huge influences in the photographic image. What really appeals to me, and hopefully those who view my work, is the way the realness and the memories a photograph pull you into the collaged pieces. These portraits wouldn’t have had the impact in the collages if they had been drawn. The impact lies in the realness, yet also in the diffusion.
The process in my house series is different than in the out-of-focus series. I make inter-negatives of my family photos and print them onto canvas and then collage them into the painted encaustic. My collages are a solitary process and this is different than the taking of photographs, which involves interacting with others and two-way communication.
Elsie: There appears to be quirkiness and playfulness in your house series, which makes the work very human and palatable despite a serious subject. The out-of-focus work appears more solemn and stark. What is the connection, if any, between the two approaches?
Barb: You’re right. There is quirkiness to my collages and I think that’s because these pieces truly are a collage of my thoughts, experiences and influences, which are extremely diverse. Many local artists I know have influenced me. For example, I love local artists Aminah Robinson and Mary Merrill and how they use fabric, buttons and pictures in their artwork. I remember reading an article once about memory — that it’s encoded in objects. I often feel an object possesses something. Like my mother’s hideous tablecloth that we used on family picnics. Hideous as it is, it holds memories for me, so I incorporated it in one of the house series pieces.
I think the house series is different, in part, because of the way I create these pieces. I tend to work on my house series alone in my studio. This is different from the portrait series, which deals with a two-way communication. My intention with the portraits may overwhelm the person being photographed. This is certainly different than when I was working for The Ohio State University and I took thousands of happy pictures. Then, my intent, and my employer’s intent, was for me to make people look happy no matter what was happening to them in their lives or to me in mine. My intent in this series was to capture what I was feeling and that was very fragile, fragmented, and vulnerable.
Elsie: Encaustic is used in both bodies of work, but in very different ways. Can you explain how and why?
Barb: I always work on different bodies of work simultaneously and usually involving two different processes. Maybe that’s part of my quirkiness, too. My studio is filled with stuff that allows me to work that way along with the work I do at home with my computer and darkroom there.
I should also give credit to Ellen Bazzolli, whom I call the “Encaustic Queen.” She moved into Spring Street Studios and gave me a few afternoon lessons on different encaustic techniques. One afternoon while experimenting with encaustics — and burning myself in the process, I was working on the house series. I had a photo lying next to my house panel, and I applied a thin layer of encaustic to that photo. I had previously taken pictures of my parents intentionally out- of- focus, and a light bulb came on. Why not use the encaustic technique with the photo? In the house series I was painting with encaustic and fusing family memorabilia into the wax, continually working with the image. That was the painter in me coming out more. In the out-of-focus series, the photographer was gradually emerging. This series is more traditional photography with less manipulation of materials.
Elsie: As you reflect on your work, do you have thoughts where this may lead you in the future?
Barb Vogel in front of her Spring Street Studio, Columbus Ohio
Barb: I have plans, but a great deal of the fun is not in the plans but in going where the art leads. So my plans are that I am going to finish up a few more house series pieces, organize a traditional documentary black-and-white project, take more portraits and explore places with my camera. Those are the plans. Where my art leads, I’m not really sure.
1. Aunt Irene
4. Thompson Homestead
5. The Chandler House