Seven Questions For . . . Rachel Farbiarz

One of my favorite things about running The Picture Book Club has been the people it has led me to. Some are old friends who have offered new mentorship and support, some are fellow book people or entrepreneurs whom I've met through my work, and others are visionaries who inspire me from afar. I'm thrilled to introduce a few of them here.

-YiLing Chen-Josephson, Founder, The Picture Book Club

Rachel in her studio.  Photo by Naiffer Romero.

Rachel in her studio.  Photo by Naiffer Romero.

Q: What do you do?

I'm an artist working in drawing and collage. I also sometimes make installations.  

Q: What’s your favorite thing about doing what you do?

My favorite thing about my work is how rigorously and granularly it challenges and provokes me. When I’m flowing in the studio—when I’m deeply and profoundly ensconced in a project—I feel like I’m constantly being met with choices about the work, each of which demands a reckoning with myself. Here’s a small snapshot of this chatter:

Do you have the gall to keep complicating this? 

Do you have the patience to make this beautiful? 

Are you confident enough to make this ugly? 

Are you humble enough to make this ugly? 

Are you willing to expose yourself here? 

Are you willing to expose yourself here—with the full knowledge that no one will ever notice

Are you smart enough to know when to stop? 

Do you have the discipline to stop? 

Do you have the restraint to not ruin everything? 

Are you tough enough to keep going?

Can you get over yourself already?

These are the questions that well up for me as I’m drawing, cutting, gluing, placing, looking and thinking. They feel like questions about my very self; and each tiny choice can become my accuser or champion. Walking the gauntlet of this soul chatter is my favorite thing about my work. It’s not always pretty and it’s not always fun. But it is my favorite thing.

Q: What's something challenging about it?

See above.

Rachel Farbiarz,  Ticker Tape , Graphite and Collage, 43 5/8 x 51 1/2, 2016.  Currently on display at the  G Fine Art Gallery .

Rachel Farbiarz, Ticker Tape, Graphite and Collage, 43 5/8 x 51 1/2, 2016.  Currently on display at the G Fine Art Gallery.

Q: What is something you’re proud of?

These are tough questions! In response to this one, I keep thinking of things that I’m not proud of, which must say a lot about me. But there is one story that I keep coming back to. 

When my grandfather was sick and in the process of dying, I flew home from where I was living in California to visit him in the hospital in New York. After spending the morning with him in his room, a nurse came to take my grandfather away for tests that had to be conducted in another part of the hospital. She told us that he’d be back in about an hour and that I could wait in his room for his return. The orderlies wheeled him away. 

It suddenly and forcefully occurred to me that I didn’t want my grandfather to be alone for an hour and that, likewise, I didn’t want to be without him for that hour. I inquired with the nurses and they directed me to where he would be during the testing. I was able to stay with him, chatting and holding his hand while his testing was completed. It was a very tender time, and I still have the piece of paper on which I scrawled the medical stats that were culled from that diagnostic hour.

I’m proud that I thought to ask if I could accompany my grandfather for that time. It was an unusual move for me to think outside the strictures of an institution like a hospital, and I’m proud that in that moment I had no thought for the discomfort of not complying with casual authority--that I truly showed up. It allowed for a precious time that I still feel lucky to have had. 

Q: Who is someone who inspires you that you know personally?

Ilyse Hogue, who is a close personal friend and the executive director of NARAL, is a big inspiration to me. Ilyse has had a long history and career in lefty activism. And while I support and (probably nearly always) agree with her politics, it's neither her political positions nor her activism per se that is what especially inspires me. 

Ilyse spoke at this year's Democratic National Convention about her own abortion. She has opened up publicly about about her struggles to have kids. Exposing and extending herself in these ways doesn't come easily for Ilyse; and in each instance took a tremendous amount of courage. That she did was profoundly affecting to me. I saw it as a call to action--to interrogate how the personal and political are entwined within each of us and how, in untangling those strands, we may each find something very powerful to grab onto. I am in awe of the bravery she has shown in connecting up her own personal and political lives. And I am grateful for it.

I'm also inspired by Ilyse because she is a deeply kind, warm and generous person. Ilyse has long worked in the muck of American politics. She doesn't get cynical. She doesn't get jaded. And she doesn't get mean. The tagline, for years, on her email has been a quote from Vaclav Havel: "Hope is a feeling that life and work have meaning. You either have it or you don't, regardless of the state of the world that surrounds you." When I have felt despondent about the state of the world I have, several times, actually gone into my inbox to find this quote from Ilyse. It's a marvelous quote, made only more marvelous because it comes from her. I'm not always able to maintain my hope, but the fact that I know Ilyse maintains hers makes me feel like we human beings are probably going to be ok in the end. 

Photo by Naiffer Romero.

Photo by Naiffer Romero.

Q: Who is someone who inspires you that you've never met?

I’m going to give a grab-bag, never-complete litany-of-people answer here. It just feels so limiting to only name one person and it’s very fun to make a list of inspiring people. I'll leave it to readers to look up those names they may not recognize because I think they'll enjoy doing so. Oh, and one caveat: Some of these people I've met in a "I've-shaken-their-hand-after-a-reading-or class" kind of way. But I don't think that counts. So here’s the list of inspiring people I’ve never met: 

Harriet Tubman, Andy Goldsworthy, John Muir, Bill Cunningham, Leymah Gbowee, Masha Gessen, Kerry James Marshall, Martina Navratilova, Lucy McBath, Reverend Rob Schenck, Aviva Zornberg, Vincent and Theo Van Gogh, Rukmini Callimachi, Yehuda Amichai, Pope Francis, and Syria's White Helmets. 

Q: What’s a picture book you remember as a favorite from your childhood?

There were so many good ones, but I'll single out two: "Oh Were They Ever Happy!" by Peter Spier; and "Sunday Morning" by Judith Viorst with pictures by Hilary Knight.

"Oh Were They Ever Happy" was my hands-down favorite book as a child. Taking it out from the library, which I did probably upwards of 30 times, was like striking the motherlode each and every time. I am sure I made my parents experience a level of deep, soul-fatigue by my obsessive need to have it read to me. It's a delightful story of children left alone for the day. (The babysitter never shows up! The 1970s parents leave before the sitter arrives! There are no cell phones!) The three kids, one dog and one cat decide to paint the outside of the house. It's marvelous. It's wild. It's beautiful. The story is simple and the pictures are riotously joyful. I still love this book so very much.

"Sunday Morning" is more of a dark horse. It was not at the top of my favorites list as a child, but it was in the canon. Another story of kids left alone--this time they are instructed not to wake up their parents until late Sunday morning. Havoc ensues as the brothers cavort and try to keep quiet. 

The pictures in this book gnawed themselves deep into my aesthetic sub-conscious. They are nearly all in black silhouette with some splashes of blue. Wide white eyes peer out from bodies contorted in hyperbolic expressions of childhood--and sibling-hood. I thought about these pictures for years and years-- well into adulthood, despite the fact that I could not remember which book they were from. They haunted me and mesmerized me. I looked and looked for them and wanted them back.

Then I saw the artist Kara Walker's work in 1998 for the first time in a solo show at Harvard University's Carpenter Center, whose title I have re-learned from the internet: "Presenting Negro Scenes Drawn Upon My Passage Through the South and Reconfigured for the Benefit of Enlightened Audiences Wherever Such May Be Found, By Myself, Missus K.E.B. Walker, Colored." Her work punched me in the stomach. It was revelatory. I felt like I was seeing a miracle unfold before me. And it is not a stretch to see a direct line between Hilary Knight's illustrations and Kara Walker's brilliant work. I knew then and now that having the DNA of those illustrations stamped into me in childhood made me open to Walker's work, which has been very important to me artistically. 

Picture books are important for so many reasons, not least of which because they contain pictures.

[Post-script: I solved the mystery of "Sunday Morning" while looking for "Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day" at the local library for my own daughter. The books share an author in Judith Viorst. You can imagine the elation in the children's stacks when I discovered this.]


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The Picture Book Club will make a donation to The International Rescue Committee, the charity chosen by Rachel, for every purchaser who mentions this Q+A.

Rachel's solo show, "A Different Country" will be up at G Fine Art Gallery in Washington, D.C. from October 29 - December 10, 2016.