Barbara Cushman is an artist to the very tips of her fingers. The form of her artistry has varied widely and wildly, ranging from cuisine and salad dressing to pottery, jewelry and collage. The key to her successes, however, has always been inventiveness. Having envisioned what she wants to do, she finds a way to achieve it. “Experience has always been my teacher,” she says. As much could be said of her life.
After a year at Barnard College, Barbara, eager to live as an adult, dropped into the turmoil of the 1960s and Manhattan’s vie de bohème. She had jobs with publishing companies, including as an executive secretary, lived in her own apartment and studied pottery at the Brooklyn Museum Art School. Feeling that she would never be a success as a potter, however, she moved in May 1972 to San Francisco, where “always learning from experience” she engaged in a variety of enterprises, such as restaurants south of Market (using her own recipes), a cheese shop, a crafts shop (where she worked with beads) and then returned to food work.
To meet Barbara, who was born in Brooklyn, is to encounter a New York presence—a perceptiveness, a strength of character, a generosity, and, yes, a graciousness that are the better qualities of that city as a bastion of traditional liberalism. To visit her loft in West Oakland is quasi-magically to enter a New York environment, such as you would find in Chelsea and Greenwich Village: a very large, regular space in what was formerly an industrial building where working and living areas meld into one another to create an organic entity. Daylight illuminates the far end of the space from the entrance where most of her living is done. Her possessions include numerous works of art acquired from friends such as the renowned painter Ray Saunders and the neurologically challenged clients of Oakland’s famed studio, Creative Growth.
“I will not throw anything away,” Barbara boasts. Anything may be just what she needs to finish a work-in-progress or the stimulus for a new series of works. Works-in-progress, works finished but not yet sold, and works that are not for sale seem to cover all surfaces and fill all drawers.
Like most artists in America, Barbara has had to work part-time at a non-art activity to sustain life so that she might sustain her creativity. Thousands of Bay Areans recognize her as the attractive, mature cheese consultant at the Rockridge Market Hall Pasta Shop, where she has worked since 1992. A streak of tint in her hair, often red, an immaculate apron and necklaces of her own making identify her visually immediately. Her connoisseurship identifies her as an authentic fromagère.
At present, Cushman is working with collage, artists’ stamps, mail art, and custom-made cards. Her materials are borrowed images, glue, thread, photo-sensitive and fine papers, found objects, used postage stamps, textiles, etc., etc., etc. Her tools are, most importantly, her imagination, her eyes and her hands—then photo-copying machines, a sewing machine, scissors, an antique perforation press, and whatever else will obtain the results that she desires. Her most proximate antecedents are artists who use appropriation, assemblage, collage, or are practitioners of Dada, Funk, Kitsch, naïve art, Pop, Surrealism and especially Fluxus for the pioneering of mail- and rubber-stamp art. People who acquire Cushman’s works often frame them, despite their ostensible informality, to protect them as objects that contribute beauty and meaning to their lives.
Cushman’s production, which she labels a “cottage industry,” is valiantly labor intensive. She makes works in a series by hand, often individualizing them by a small component such as a used postage stamp or the impression of an inked rubber stamp. For example, the collage “Faces of Love: Angie & Xavier” (2006; 5 x 7 inches overall), although specifically a tribute to personal friends, is, more generally, an homage in diptych form to love in bloom. Through successive layerings and printings, Cushman, using a photocopier, has on the left created a heart-shaped image of a woman’s blue eyes and red lips on top of flowers in a glass vase, while on the right she has printed the image in profile of a 1920s swain within a heart, on which are printed the much reduced images of a French postage stamp, distinguished by a Gallic cock, and a calendar for the month of February having the 14th, marked in red.
An authentic, used 10-centime postage stamp with the traditional, striding figure of the République française completes the inner composition. Red pinked edges enclose the images, which are framed by grids of red dots; decorative piercing one-fourth-inch from the edge of the picture plane finishes the surface. Inside, above the message space, is the rubber-stamped image of a woman’s hands embracing the back of a man’s neck. On the very back of the work another rubber-stamped image appears: a man and a woman embracing in a heart-shaped profile. (Cushman provides appropriate first-class postage on the envelopes of some works, if their designs are compatible.)
More often than not, the messages that the artist conveys relate to the pleasures of love, both physical and spiritual. Gridded formats include images: in “Royalty,” of multicultural expressions of love; in “Baby I’m Yours,” of mothers and their children; in “Kiss & Tell,” of lips and couples kissing; and in “Dance With Me,” of couples dancing “from Brueghel’s peasants to courtly aristocrats to aficionados of tango to athletic modernists, among others. Cushman’s “Happy Hanukkah” card includes images of the tablets, men blowing shofars, menorahs, and so forth.
Many images from Barbara Cushman’s cards are also available in a 17 x 11-inch format suitable for framing. Her works are available at the Barbara Anderson Gallery, 2243 5th Street in Berkeley, and the Creative Growth Art Center, 355 24th Street in Oakland.
Photograph: Barbara Cushman’s “Faces of Love: Amgie & Xavier” (2006), a tribute to friends, is, more generally, an homage in diptych form to love in bloom.