This is the second in a series of interviews with regular Glasstire contributors. Not only does it seem right to show off the talent behind this magazine (because really, our writers keep us going), but this series provides an opportunity for you, our readers, to learn more about our writers and their other endeavors. Because our writers are all doing many, many great things.
Barbara Purcell is a rare individual that cares so much about words and writing — particularly arts writing — that she challenges me in ways that are welcome. Her attention to detail, professionalism, and the care through which she writes about the work of artists is truly something rare. Barbara has also been a support for me through the learning curve of becoming an editor, and managing my role at Glasstire over the course of the year. Working with Barbara has been fun, too. I enjoy spending time with her writing and learning about the shows she covers, and I love reading the details of her tongue-in-cheek humor that also seeps through our email exchanges, of which there are many!
I didn’t know, however, about the many lives that Barbara has lived: From 9-11 New York City, a past in the health and wellness scene, multiple books written, and a funny intersection we share with olive oil from Ronda, Spain, a place that’s not easy to get to! I can say that I am beyond thrilled her many lives have led to Glasstire, and the shared experiences we have as we continue to work together and learn with each other.
Leslie Moody Castro (LMC): Where do you live currently and where are you from?
Barbara Purcell (BP): I live in Austin, but I’m originally from the New York Tri-State Area. I grew up in North Jersey, and started sneaking into the city on the train by the time I was 15. I’d bring a book and a bagel and just sit on a bench in Washington Square Park — which seemed like the epitome of cool. I hated suburbia and graduated high school in three years because I wanted to inject myself into Manhattan as promptly as possible, which is what I did as soon as I graduated from college. I moved to Harlem a month before 9/11 and bounced around the city for almost 15 years before moving to Texas.
LMC: What is your favorite book?
BP: That’s a toughie, but I recently read the British writer Gwendoline Riley’s novel My Phantoms and was blown away by her bleak but honest portrait of a family. There was not one false note in the dialogue and many scenes were so emotionally uncomfortable that I found them to be quite freeing (as the reader, but also as a writer).
LMC: What are you reading currently? I am actually, selfishly, curious.
BP: I just pulled Wallace Stegner’s The Spectator Bird off the shelf after breaking the cardinal rule of judging a book by its cover (it features a photo of a desolate golden field). It won the National Book Award in 1977, and follows the solitary life of a retired literary agent in California who has no family or real ties to anything — so in other words, a Bodhisattva in training. Plus, as a childless adult, I love a genetic cul-de-sac kinda story.
LMC: Did you study journalism and/or writing? If so, where? If not, what did you study?
BP: I did not study journalism — or art, for that matter. I was a sociology major at a small liberal arts school in Upstate New York. But I always enjoyed language and word play and making observations about things that often go unsaid. Early on in New York, I worked in PR and wrote in that very specific capacity, but it was largely ungratifying. I did things to offset my boring office jobs, like pose for painting classes and take part in the downtown poetry scene.
Last year, I was invited to read in a poetry marathon at the 2022 Whitney Biennial because I had a book of poems, Black Ice (Fly by Night Press, 2006), published through one of its participating artists — A Gathering of the Tribes — a cultural organization based in New York that’s given a platform to underrepresented and emerging artists for more than 30 years. The 2022 Biennial honored the legacy of Tribes’ late founder Steve Cannon with an installation that reimagined his old Lower East Side living room, complete with a bright red wall that his friend, the artist David Hammons, had painted for him back in the 1990s. Steve’s townhouse was a poetry vortex, complete with an art gallery, magazine/press, and backyard for readings and happenings. I learned a thing or two about sharp imagery and precise language from all the writers who hung out there.
LMC: I would love to get my hands on that book of poems. Your critical writing is so graceful, I can’t imagine that your poems would be any less than that. Can you tell us where we can find it?
BP: First off, thank you for the compliment: I do try to write with a spoken-word lilt! Black Ice is out of print. Every once in a while, it pops up through a third-party bookseller on Amazon. I had this thought to read each of its 50 or so poems in a different spot of New York City and record it, then post it. Maybe I’ll do some version of that out in Far West Texas — Marfa and Manhattan are practically kissing cousins.
I shifted gears and started a fitness business (I have a dance background), teaching yoga and Pilates, and threw myself into the Wellness World for nearly a decade. When I moved to Texas in 2014, I banged out a book about post-9/11 New York and found an agent in said city. The manuscript didn’t land a publishing deal, so I started writing about the immediacy of my surroundings in Austin. Namely, art!
Austin is a treasure trove of artists and art spaces, and I saw an opportunity to cover it while dipping my pinky toe into the vast cultural ocean of Texas. I wrote a couple of reviews on spec and cold pitched them to local editors (thanks to my old PR instincts) and got my foot in the door. By 2019, I was writing regularly for several publications, including Glasstire. Looking back, my days as a live art model and being in that downtown avant-garde world had a kind of osmosis on my arts/culture writing trajectory — that and going to Chelsea art openings every Thursday for the free wine.
LMC: What makes for a great interview?
BP: Openness and spontaneity. A conversation, not a set of questions. (Except, of course, these questions.)
LMC: Funny and ironic since this is how our interview started, with a compilation of questions from our staff given to our writers to choose from! Though, in the process of choosing the questions you have all made each interview very unique, and it’s been nice to respond to that.
And speaking of uniqueness, have you got anything in the works that you’re excited about, or anything you want to brag about?
BP: I’m turning my newest collection of poems into a musical. Just kidding. Been working on a separate writing project, hoping something will come of it soon.
LMC: What makes bad art? What makes good art?
BP: Bad art doesn’t have a genuine bone in its body. Good art shows you the bones.