Barbara Vogel is a champion for others, so it is no surprise that the faces that fill her portraits are close friends and family. Her artistic evolution is firmly rooted in photography, but her willingness to experiment with photographic processes and incorporate other media result in entirely original works. Barb’s studio is filled with these visual tangents, as well as a solid coat of wax encaustic. Most recently she has been “scanning” faces and flora, with a document wand and then coating the prints with encaustic. The results are ghostly images that cast their subjects in a whole new light. She was recently awarded an Ohio Arts Council Award at the Ohio State Fair’s Fine Arts Exhibition for her portrait, Ursula Dazing, made with this process.
When I visited her studio, Barb had just sent off a large body of work for her solo exhibition, Preserved, at the Southern Ohio Museum & Cultural Center in Portsmouth, Ohio. The exhibition runs from September 26 to December 5, 2015 and the opening reception will be September 26, 3:00-5:00 pm.
You studied painting for your BFA, fine art photography for your MFA, as well as working as a photographer for OSU’s Medical Center. Can you describe your career and creative trajectory?
I had to earn a living. I went to commercial photography school after my BFA and got a job at OSU. Technique and technical tied it all together – and a certain confidence with material. I combine both painting and photography in my work now.
You are attracted to mediums (photography and encaustic) that are very process –oriented. What about the rhythm or cycle of the processes draws you to these mediums?
I miss the photo co-op that a group of us started when I taught at Columbus State. Nothing was better than to turn on music in the dark room and think you’re productive as you just go through the motions of printing. It is the same with a process of fusing the wax. And if you like the process, art evolves.
After focusing on photography and painting, how did you come to encaustic?
Ellen Bazzoli has a studio downstairs from me and she was working in encaustic. She offered to do a mini workshop for me. When you are working in photography people say, if you’re stuck you should change formats. I liked the wax and I liked what Ellen was doing. She said, “Come down. I’ll show you some basics.” She spent a day with me – how to use photographs and paper with the encaustic. I started experimenting and I was doing everything wrong, until a recent workshop at the Cultural Arts Center. I had a lot of waste since I was using the wrong tools. I would scorch prints, but my new little pink heat gun is great!
You worked closely with a team at OSU and have shared a studio for over two decades with the artist Marti Steffy. How did those communities shape your work?
The writers that I worked for at OSU gave me words or thoughts. If you don’t say something in your own language it isn’t as obvious. It helped to be with writers and talk about things. We still get together. I also worked closely with the photographer, Kojo Kamau. We shared a darkroom, as opposed to being behind a computer, so we could hide and talk. I learned so much from our darkroom conversations. Working closely in the studio with Marti, we both have had visual training and when we are stuck we both know where we’ve been. Rather than spending a week trying to solve a problem, she can see it for me and I can see it for her! It helps to be with other people for another eye. And it helps if you have a history with them. Studio mates and CAW members, Betsy DeFusco and Sandra Aska, have been helpful too. Our history is a bit newer, but they are wonderful sounding boards.
People familiar with your work might know you for your altered photographs on wood. Can you describe the process for your high school class series?
I take a picture of a picture on film. After processing the film, I expose the image with an enlarger in my darkroom onto an emulsion-covered piece of wood. I then carve and paint. When I have multiple wood images like my high school classes, then the compositional nightmare begins trying to arrange wooden squares.
You are comfortable with both film and digital cameras. Within the past few years you began utilizing a document scanner in your work. How did you come to use this office supply scanning wand as a tool for fine art?
I bought the document scanner for $69.95, to experiment with for a Vermont residency. I thought, oh I might try some flat things. Prior to Vermont, I stopped at my sister’s house in Maine and started scanning dogs and hair and other seemingly flat things, but kept getting error messages. I thought, I could put glass in front of this, it would be smooth. With the glass, I started scanning people.
What about faces seemed to be so striking?
I have done many portraits for and outside the hospital. What makes a portrait dynamic is a certain unmasking – when you capture that person. Using the wand is a slower process. They have this eerie lighting quality that shocked me at first. I printed them as wide as the scanner, so it is full frame so to speak. There’s a haunting quality about them.
When you printed the scans, what necessitated the encaustic coating?
Before the wand scanner, I did a series where everything was out of focus, using my Hasselblad camera. I took images of people out of focus, because everything in my life was out of focus. Everything didn’t sync. I was stressed, tired, and depressed. I then scanned the color negatives, printed them, and covered them with wax. Once again I was in the studio, working on multiple projects and I was waxing up a painting and I waxed the photograph and I liked it. They were strange to begin with, but the wax added that other worldly quality. My work now is a little more in focus perhaps because my life is a little more in focus.
Do you think of your work more as documentary or commentary? Or some combination thereof?
Perhaps they are one in the same. I do bodies of work. Right now I am studying botanicals and the way the hand-held wand lights the plant. Whether you focus on feet or abandoned buildings, you explore that subject. So maybe the word should be exploratory. Good question, sometimes I just do, but need to be more reflective and verbal as to why.
When I think of botanicals I think of small, scientific renderings. How are you approaching the subject?
I photograph or scan my own little garden plot – tomatoes, cosmos and long-stem zinnias. Each process is interesting. The lighting is so strange with the scanner – I have to wait until sunset otherwise the image is so overexposed. The shooting process is also interesting. With the plants you don’t have to meet with anybody at a certain time. The plants aren’t demanding. They don’t talk to you.
When you were at OSU you studied folk art and material culture and you have a great collection of folk and outsider art. What attracts you to this work?
When I went to graduate school in the 90’s there was this whole movement against the mainstream acceptance of different things in our material culture. I’d always had traditional training in my undergraduate years by male artists and I never had any female instructors. In the 70’s art was about painting and all about abstract expressionism. So folk art was the antithesis of what you were supposed to produce – of what was accepted. Traditional art school had certain formulas and you didn’t do personal work. When I quoted “The personal is political.” some guy laughed at me. Folk art opened up this different view of what we made and why we made it. Leslie Constable, a writer, and I were going to grad school at the same time. We collaborated – I did portraits and she wrote about folk artists around Ohio for a book project. This project taught me there was more art outside of academic art programs.
Visit www.barbvogel.net to view more of Barb’s portfolio.