Barbara Bash’s home and studio sit atop a grassy hill in New York’s Hudson Valley. To get there from my Bed and Breakfast in High Falls, I drove down several winding roads, past empty fields and organic farms. The house is built on three levels, one flowing into the next, like a river, like the water Bash refers to in her interview as a source of knowledge.
Bash’s work lies between nature and culture, between the human capacity to communicate through language and form, and the rhythms and pulse of the natural world. As a graphic designer, she’s penetrated the alphabet’s power to communicate beyond language, as form. Her workshops in nature allow students the opportunity to see their human experience reflected in the outer word. Finally, in bringing big brush painting into performance, she creates communal experience through ritual and presence.
Underneath Barbara’s work lies a life-long practice of meditation and study, the influence of a powerful teacher, the Tibetan Buddhist Chogyan Trungpa. Like meditation, Barbara’s work creates a strong structure to contain the vast territory of the mind.
Barbara used our time together as an opportunity to dig into the deeper meaning of her work and practice. It was as much discovery for her as it was description. In the weeks following, she continued to reflect on the topics we covered and sent additional thoughts on art, money, and her mentors, which I’ve incorporated into her interview answers.
Saundra: I usually begin by asking people about their various roles and go from there, so we can start to sort things out. But when I was looking at your website this morning, I noticed this line. You wrote, “I’m an artist interested in communication in all forms.” I thought that was interesting and wonder if you could elaborate. It’s a big statement, and I’m guessing there’s something driving it.
Barbara: I had an early fascination with handwriting and the alphabet, and the forms of letters, the different scripts that were in use in the Middle Ages, and that became a palate of “colors” that I worked from. But as I’ve gone along and worked more, something drew me to studying communication practices. I became interested in Nonviolent Communication work and Focusing practices. It’s helped my skill as a teacher to be able to listen and reflect back, and as I’ve gone on, it all feels connected.
Saundra: It seems like a container for something larger. It can hold a lot of what you do and what you’re about.
Barbara: Yes, and I think there’s also something about the brushwork that is some essential expression. You know that statement Chogyam Trungpa made, that it’s possible to make a brushstroke that expresses your whole life. That becomes another leap of expression.
Saundra: Your whole life in that moment.
Barbara: Yes, it comes through. And somehow the communication practices that I’ve gotten more involved in are body-oriented and the brush of course requires me to use my body. I started out with this close-in form – broad-edged pen calligraphy – and now the gesture has expanded.
Saundra: It was interesting to me as an art historian, thinking about someone like Franz Kline, who looked at dance and brought it into painting. This feels more embodied and coming out of something deeper.
Barbara: When I was in college, dance was big for me and since then, over the last twenty-five years, I’ve done a lot of African dance. My performances have a dance quality, moving out from what I call the precision-depression syndrome of working with those early precise pen alphabets. I’m interested in how we communicate, and how we can talk to each other. It’s gone beyond the visual into the verbal connector.
Saundra: You started out as a calligrapher and you’re also an illustrator. Can you talk about that work?
Barbara: For many years I focused on the pen forms. Then I saw an exhibit of botanical illustrations at the Morgan Library in New York City. I was interested in the beauty of the script, the labeling of that work in relation to the plants, but was shocked when I found the botanical images were not tame, not careful, but completely bold. The artists would draw tropical plants with long stalks, and bend them to fit the page. It was striking, outrageous really. It blew my mind about what botanical art could be.
Saundra: We have an idea about the 19th century and their fascination with cataloguing everything.
Barbara: I began to move back into drawing, which of course I had done when I was a child. But I had spent all this time hanging out with letter forms, so the drawing was already warmed up. I realized I’d been drawing all along. I’d been drawing letters, and so I brought the drawing and writing together.
Then I connected with Audrey Benedict, who was looking for someone to illustrate her book on the Colorado ecosystem. I began going out with her into the Colorado wilderness and drawing different creatures and plants, strengthening my connection between word and image, letting them interweave on the page.
Saundra: From there you moved into illustrating books for children. How did that come about?
Barbara: It came out of that same period working in the Southern Rocky Mountains book. When I moved east, I brought my botanical drawings and met a publisher, who gave me the book project, “Tiger Lilies and Other Beastly Plants,” creating portraits of the tiger and the tiger lily, the fox and the foxglove. Someone else had written the text. After I completed that project, the publisher asked me to write and illustrate my own book. It was one of those lucky moments in life when the world is calling something out of you. But then I thought, “What am I interested in?” I didn’t know.
I talked to friends who said, “It’s obvious. Look around your studio. It’s all about trees.” And it was true. At that time I had imagery of trees everywhere. So I started to think about the tree as a central gathering place for all these relationships. The tree just stands there and all these insects and birds and humans interact.
I started to research and think about what tree to focus on. I read that the saguaro cactus was pollinated in the middle of the night by long-nosed bats, which was a hook for me. It caught my imagination, drew me into the world of children’s books over fifteen years, finding the biologists who could help me open up the topics, the indigenous people who could tell me their stories, combining my illustrations with my writing (like bringing two trains into the station at the same time!) and working with my wonderful editor, Helen Sweetland, at Sierra Club books.
I learned all about the saguaro cactus, then I learned all about the African Baobab Tree, then I learned all about bats. I went to Austin and met Merlin Tuttle and saw the bats roosting under the bridge–which has become a tourist attraction!
Saundra: It’s funny, before you said that I thought, “Oh yeah, kids love bats.”
Barbara: But particularly in Texas! Merlin shifted our whole view of bats by photographing them when they weren’t freaked out. That was a big thing, instead of holding them while they were screaming.
I tried to work very precisely and accurately with these different children’s books and had a great time going to schools and talking to kids about the topics, enlivening that love of the natural world. But then there was something in me that wanted to work looser. I started finding my sketchbooks more interesting me, what I captured before it became a finished piece. That’s how my book, True Nature grew, out of that interest in fresh, on-the-spot, work, which is of course a parallel development with how I was working with more brushes in graphic design and working looser with that.
Saundra: Was graphic design a source of income for you?
Barbara: Yes, in Berkeley and then again in Boulder.
Saundra: In Berkeley?
Barbara: Yes, that’s where it started. I had a little storefront studio, which was like working in a fishbowl because people wandered in from the street. I took in anything that came through the door and had some really interesting clients. It was a great experience of learning on the job, figuring out how to spec type and work with graphic designs. My studio was on Grove, now Martin Luther King Way, and the illustrator, David Goines, was down the street at St. Hieronymus Press.
Saundra: I’m curious about your teaching. Could you talk about your workshops?
Barbara: Over the years, two main rivers developed with my teaching. I had been teaching in the year-long programs at Naropa for a number of years. When I moved east, began I leading shorter, more intensive workshops. I moved out of doing the pen and alphabetic work and started developing a kind of form of ritual of brush practice using the principles of heaven, earth, and human the way Chogyam Trunpa has presented them.
The art of calligraphy follows a long, slow path of imitating the forms — of an alphabet or a set of characters — and finding one’s own unique style in the process. But when I moved to the Hudson Valley and had a child, my teaching rhythm changed and I began looking for a way to present the essence of calligraphy in a condensed time experience.
Chogyam Trungpa’s teachings gave me the structure to create the ritual. The form isn’t rigid, but has the settling quality of repetition. We bow together each time and then go into the individual expression — the brushstroke. That’s where nobody can replicate anybody else.
Saundra: Like practice, something to hold you.
Barbara: That’s right. And within that holding, the mind is doing everything it’s doing. I take people through a process of making a brushstroke based on heaven, earth, and human. It gives a structure to the experience, and then the aliveness shows up.
At the end of the sequence, you look at your stroke, then you fold it up, put it to the side, and put a new piece of paper down for the next person.
Saundra: I saw that in your video and thought, “Wait! You can’t be throwing that away.” You just let go of it?
Barbara: You just let go of it. It can feel sad or it can be a relief or just okay. There’s always more where that came from. It’s the process. Sometimes you think, “Oh, that was really a good one,” or whatever. It’s just simpler this way. What are we going to do with all these wet brushstrokes?
Saundra: I saw you make a perfect Enso and then let it go. Writing practice is similar. You don’t get attached.
Barbara: You’re opening up that channel and then you’re letting it stay open. It’s that ordinary, sacred space that can happen with the brushwork practice. I’ve done it in leadership conference settings, with teenagers, with bankers, with recovering mental health patients. I’ve worked with a lot of Buddhists, and with kids. I recently did a brush workshop with very young children. There’s something about being held by ritual that everyone responds to.
I’ve once offered this brush practice to high school students in Jersey City, where there was no context for heaven, earth, and human. But they got it because we’re working with a universal principle. How do you show up for your life? How do you follow through? And in the end, how do you complete it? It’s been a deep and broad form to share with the world.
Saundra: The structure of showing up, follow through, and end is clear. It makes me think I should use that when I write. Why don’t I do that?
Barbara: I think I teach this because I need to remember it, too!
Saundra: It’s a good reason to teach, maybe the only reason.
Barbara: Exactly. I was going to say that at the beginning when you asked me to talk about my teaching. I teach because I get nourished by it. It’s a community moment for me. There is this the solo place of my studio, and what happens here, and I also need that creative connection with others.
I feel a responsibility bringing this brush practice out into the world. I get nervous each time I do it, even though it’s so familiar to me. I say to people what Trungpa wrote about the emotional, shaky quality of heaven. There can be a kind of positive panic when you begin, and I encourage people to feel that if it comes up.
Each time I do the brush workshop, I think, “Something alive is going to happen.” I’m never thinking, “Oh yeah, just the old big brush workshop. I’m going into that alive space again, I tremble. I feel it even having this interview with you. It’s a good thing, even though it’s a little uncomfortable.
Saundra: You’re crossing into something.
Barbara: Yes, entering an alive space.
Saundra: Tell me what you mean when you say you feel a responsibility.
Barbara: I received a powerful teaching and I feel a responsibility to pass it along with integrity.
Teaching botanical drawing evolved out of my book, True Nature, An Illustrated Journal of Four Seasons in Solitude. I teach illustrated journaling using the book as a model, and the principles of heaven, earth, and human. As I said in the new edition of the book, I’m interested in what we choose to draw and what that tells us about ourselves.
I love how the natural world acts as a mirror. We step outside and ask, what’s the first thing you feel attracted to that you might draw? Let it be something big and maybe connected with the sky or something up there, and so something is chosen.
The second thing could be connected with the ground. You draw that on the page in some relation to the first object. And then the third thing is some little detail you’re interested in. It’s always based on interest and inquisitiveness.
You have the three drawings, and they’re talking to each other on the page. For me the real insight comes when you write something about that first thing, maybe a simple observation of the clouds drifting across the sky. Then something about the rocks piled on the ground, and then the detail. What you say about that detail is always something about you, some little nut that has a secret enclosed in it. It always comes to this point of self-connection.
That’s where I am right now, interested in self-connection. I think that’s where the communication work weaves in.
Visual practice becomes away to self-connect. It becomes a contemplative act because it gives you some insight about yourself.
Adding the words brings the insight forth. That’s where the word and image are such a potent mix. We connect with the space through the images, and then we connect with the heart through the words.
Saundra: You recently started making your own brushes.
Barbara: When I realized I wanted to work larger and do more performance work, I found a guy in New York who taught me how to put together a large brush. In a way it’s wild, kind of a novelty.
Saundra: You have to put your whole body into it.
Barbara: You really are grounded by the brush. You can feel the weight of it, combined with the ink.
Saundra: I had no idea. You have to be in good shape to do this. Is it the hair that makes it heavy?
Barbara: It’s the horsehair, yes. People ask me if I clip tails from horses. But no, I found this place in New York, Alfred Klugman International, and they are purveyors of horsehair. I don’t know what else they’re doing with the horsehair, though.
I put this brush together and started performing with it. And then I started to make ending these ending brushstrokes at the Authentic Leadership conferences, where it becomes the ending mark of the conference.
Saundra: That’s how you close out? That’s powerful.
Barbara: There’s a video on the website you can see. The first time I used the huge one, I hadn’t had a chance to try it out before the performance. I lifted it out of the bucket and the dripping ink sounded like rain! I stopped traveling with that one and have a large-sized one that I use for conferences and that I can pack in the suitcase.
Saundra: That’s a lot to control and to—
Barbara: Well you know what’s interesting? You’re not really able to control it. You’re following it, and it’s following you, and it broke through my whole problem with precision. You’re guiding it, but you’re following its energy, too. So there’s some way that you’re in conversation with the world through this brush.
Saundra: I watched a video of you performing with a dancer and it’s similar in that you have to be very tuned in to and in relationship with it.
Barbara: When I’m working with a dancer, I’m facing the wall and she’s moving behind me. It’s almost like I have eyes in the back of my head. I can sense what she’s doing.
Of course I go around and look for brushes. I found this at an Indian grocery store in New Jersey.
Saundra: Is it a broom?
Barbara: For dusting! I thought I could use this for a performance up in Halifax. When I went through Canadian customs, I had it in a mailing tube and the guard asked what it was, and I said guilelessly, “It’s a brush.” “Well, we’re going to have to take a look at it,” he said. I protested that the brush came from India, but I’d bought it in New Jersey. He walked away with it anyway. About ten minutes passed, and I saw him walking back down the hallway with the brush held high in his hand, calling out, “Paint away!”
So brushes are made of all sorts of things.
Saundra: It opens up the whole notion of—
Barbara: Endless mark-making.
Saundra: Yes, the mark-making possibilities.
Barbara: I picked up this one at Pearl Paint in New York City. It’s made out of yak hair. It has a beautifully carved handle, but actually doesn’t work very well. The hairs don’t hold ink, but it’s such a great object. When I said, “I think I’d like to take this brush,” everybody in the paint department applauded, because they’d been waiting for the right person to choose it.
Saundra: You have a grown child, but when he was growing up you were doing all of these things. How did you manage that?
Barbara: I had started doing the children’s books before he was born. I can’t say that I’m one of these writers who started telling a story to him when he was going to sleep and it became a book. That didn’t happen. But it was a wonderful mix of things and he grew up in an environment where his father was a musician and his mother was an artist and was making books and working with kids. Now he’s into theater and forging his own path.
Saundra: He has the creative temperament.
Barbara: Yes, he does. He didn’t become an accountant.
Saundra: Even now, how do you move among these things? How do you keep it going? How do you keep yourself organized and focused?
Barbara: I have no idea. I wish I knew, because sometimes I feel that I’m moving in so many different directions. But I sense they all are unified. I couldn’t do it if there wasn’t some kind of core connection. When I was at Naropa this past fall, there was of a retrospective of my art from the last forty years. Then I moved right into teaching a big brush workshop, and then did a performance. I moved from there, the next day, to being the graphic harvester for a Radical Compassion conference.
Saundra: Is that piece up also on your website?
Barbara: Yes, that’s another kind of illustrated journaling that I’m interested in doing. When I was working with Jeffrey Davis, we talked about handwriting and how we can bring it back into the world. But I’m not sure that I need to try to make people handwrite anymore. I’m moving in a different direction now, offering handwriting as an expressive art. That’s what I want to share it with the world. I want to bring it alive in performance. That’s what the graphic harvesting felt like to me, sharing my handwriting. It wakes people up, makes them happy.
Saundra: It’s so direct. No one has that kind of direct experience anymore. It’s a more mediated experience, electronics and cyber space.
Barbara: I also love email and type away merrily and don’t write as many handwritten letters. But I do hold this skill in my hand and in my body, coming from that alphabetic training and it’s good and alive.
Saundra: I was looking at your calendar and notice you travel a lot.
Barbara: Not as much as some of my friends or my husband, but I do travel once a month to teach. Then I have two or three weeks to regroup. I need that balance, not moving around too much, because travel is hard on the psyche and the body.
I’ve had a lot of wonderful experiences traveling out there. Over the past fifteen years, the Authentic Leadership conferences brought together a group of artist friends from the Naropa years. We came in as the Arts team and offered creative process is a complete portal of self-awareness and spiritual connection in a completely grounded, ordinary, and fun way.
Saundra: Who are the students in something like that?
Barbara: Mostly non-artists, and I like that. I like breaking down the barrier between artists and non-artists. Everybody shows up to make a brushstroke. Everyone enters the artistic mind, and it opens and levels the playing field. A lot of consultants attend, coaches, people from academic settings, community organizers.
Saundra: It sounds fun.
Barbara: It was fun, a very lively time. It felt like a lot of interesting people, fighting their good battles out there in the world, coming around the collective fire to tell their stories, getting warmed up, and then heading back out again, restored. It was a good gathering place.
Saundra: What obstacles have you faced and how have you overcome them?
Barbara: I visited a class at a local college recently to talk about my children’s books. I was showing them my books, feeling very excited and having fun. When I asked for questions, a young woman at the back raised her hand and asked, “What do you do when you get discouraged? Do you ever struggle with that?” That question completely grounded me. “Okay, let’s talk about discouragement,” I said.
We love to talk about what’s wonderful, but losing heart, losing trust, wondering why you’re doing something, those the demons do come in.
We learn to sit with that. Maybe we sit through it, or we get up and take a walk, or a nap, go talk to a friend. There’s no a formula for how you bring yourself out of it.
Saundra: But those are good suggestions. Go take a walk for heaven’s sake.
Barbara: There was a moment when I was stuck on this handwriting book idea. Nothing was moving. It was in the middle of winter, and I put on my coat and walked down to the bottom of the driveway and I saw the icy stream that runs under the driveway. There was all this snow, but I saw the water still moving, and it was not moving uphill. It was going where it was easy to go, and I thought, “Oh, that’s how it works, its about seeing where seeing where it wants to move and following that.”
It was such a relief. I actually let go of the whole project at that point. “It’s not moving,” I told myself. “I’m leaving it.” And within a month or so, all these performance opportunities started coming. When this exhibit came, I thought, “I want to show these performance paintings.”
Performance work for me is creating something that is happening so fast, that I don’t even have time to look back at it. No time to ask, “How am I doing? How does this look?” It’s like wind across a pond, rippling the water, and that’s the way that I need to be working. I don’t know how to critique it. It isn’t even about that. I’m responding. That’s where the communication piece comes in again. I’m responding to something that’s happening in the space.
Saundra: There’s no time for that blah, blah, blah.
Barbara: That’s what I need to be doing now, where the thinking, critical mind doesn’t have time to get started.
I want to tell you about a performance that happened last September, a quirky situation. The publicity for the event wasn’t good, and I didn’t know the people I was collaborating with, but I wanted to do the show because I’m interested in this kind of work.
I showed up and there were about fifteen people in the audience, which was fine. I had the paper up on the wall and we got started, everything completely improvised. There were musicians, a belly dancer, a guy with a gorilla mask. It was really out there, and I had so much fu. When we were done, I felt so grounded. It was that experience of being on the page, getting connected, and responding.
Then it’s over and I ad look around, and there are four people left in the audience. And amazingly that it was completely okay. Of course you want an audience, you want people to like it, but the lack of acknowledgement didn’t really bother me. I’d had a good time. Later people told me that the musicians were driving them crazy, and they couldn’t stay. But the big epiphany for me was that I was doing the work for some other reason besides, “Do you like it?”
Saundra: When I teach writing practice, it’s hard for my students to read and have no comment. When no one tells you you’re good or bad, you have to stay in there with it. It’s uncomfortable, very naked. But what you said is important. There’s something bigger than, “Do you like it?”
Barbara: I always say that on the deepest level, the human experience is having no regrets. That’s Chogyam Trungpa’s voice coming through. It’s human. There it is, that’s what happened, that was me joining with the stroke of that moment, and then letting it go.
I want to strengthen that capacity to manifest in the world, be curious about how it turns out, and then move on.
Saundra: Who were your mentors and role models?
Chogyam Trungpa, my Tibetan Buddhist teacher, showed me how to live a dharma-based artistic life. People often say, “Oh, that must have been so wonderful being around him.” And I’ll say, “What do you mean wonderful? It was totally uncomfortable!” You didn’t get affirmation, which meant the ego was cringing. You felt naked and exposed. But it was also a good, karmic imprint on my life.
Then there is Ed Young, the wonderful artist who introduced me to Chinese pictograms and modeled how children’s books could be a deep, creative path. Georgianna Greenwood was my first calligraphy teacher in the Bay Area and became a good friend and collaborator in those Book Arts revival years of the 1970’s.
When I think further of female mentors, something more complex arises. I have turned to a number of older woman for advice over the years, but often sensed that they didn’t want to hold that position, that they didn’t want anyone relying on them. In my own mentoring of younger women, I sometimes feel uncomfortable with the role, hemmed in by having to fulfill something. This is interesting to note!
I wonder if women navigate a more complex path around mentoring because of our early caretaker training. Am I more hesitant to take on this role with other women because there is this expectation of being a good listener, something I’ve been acknowledged for my whole life? I’m guessing that the benefits of this role (being thanked profusely) no longer outweigh the lack of reciprocity or exchange. When you begin to live your own life, just being a “good listener” doesn’t feel whole. I’ve recently begun setting up more formal situations that involve payment for mentoring. The introduction of money has brought a lot of clarity and full heartedness to my involvement in these conversations. As I continue to navigate this mentoring role, I feel more confident choosing what is appropriate for each situation.
Saundra: Your life is so integrated, especially your creative work and your spiritual practice. How does earning a living come into that and supporting yourself?
Barbara: My father was in advertising, in the creative department, so I grew up with the idea that art could have a commercial aspect. It gave me a way in. Working as a graphic designer gave me footing to do what was important to me, because these letter forms are potent images. But there was also a quality of being bound to trying to please. What does the client want? What are my skills and how can I give them what they are looking for?
The alphabet led me into so many different avenues—graphic design, books, leadership, teaching, conference, and performance. The commercial aspect grounded it. It supported me.
Saundra: That makes sense. You’re putting your skills and your talent at the service of something. And you had a model that happened to be a “business model.”
Barbara: But here’s where it’s evolved. I saw an exhibit of Winslow Homer’s paintings. One of the painting labels described a place where he scrubbed out a certain area and painted over. Homer had exhibited this painting and the critics had not liked something about it. I can’t remember what it was. And Homer had been a commercial artist, so he went back in and changed it.
When I read that, I thought, “That’s great. There’s flexibility there.” Not all artists would do that. But now I am moving into a time where I’m no longer asking what does the publisher want or what does the client want. Now I’m asking, “What do I want to do?”
It’s an important evolution for me, to be self-generative. What do I want to focus on now? I’m building that self-generative muscle after many years of asking, “What does the client want?” It’s a good shift for me, a good counterbalance.
But I also want to say that art needs space. It does not thrive within the pressure of financial stress. Through the centuries artists have been supported by patrons. Art deserves support, yet we are living in a culture where that support is often missing.
When I was working as a graphic designer in the 1970’s, my commercial art skill gave me a living and later in the eighties and nineties, as I wrote and illustrated books, the publisher and I were in an alive dialogue. What was I interested in exploring that the publisher believed they could sell?
Now my creative work is more about listening to what is calling to me and following that aliveness.
While I am paid for teaching, graphic work, and school residencies, I am not working solely in order to make money. I am following a winding creative path that feeds me emotionally, at times stirring up inadequacy, at other times strengthening my confidence.
Sometimes I make money from my art. Sometimes I give it away. (My visual blog is a giving away that nourishes me with the response that comes back.) The impetus to create comes from a deeper need than financial, which is how it must be, because doing art makes us whole. Artists need a financial base so that there is room to dream – to listen – to let the alive path emerge.
I want to hold in the forefront that one’s worth as an artist is not based on how much income you bring in. Even though we are surrounded by messages that equate success with money, there is a deeper measure of artistic value. Is the creative work enlivening for the artist and nourishing for the world? This is the powerful question for me.