"I am an observer of my process. I set the conditions, can influence the results, yet the impulse to change form, to create new structures is far older and deeper—implicit in these materials."— Artist Mari Marks
Depicting natural phenomena of time & process in wax & graphite, the work of Berkeley encaustic painter Mari Marks has won the acclaim of private collectors and critics alike. This month, her work was recognized on a national scale in not one, but two shows: at the Haydon Art Center in Nebraska, cosponsored by the IEA, International Encaustic Association, and the A.I.R. Gallery 8th Biennial in Brooklyn. I asked Mari about her process and the significance of being included in these exhibits.
Q: Can you talk a bit about the recent work that's appearing in these shows?
MM: My most recent work, beginning in 2005 are the pieces, Sedimentary Series, Terra (below). These paintings are created using layers first of natural beeswax on paper mounted on panel, then approximately 6 layers of pigmented beeswax. This surface is engraved in a repeating pattern, graphite in solution, or other sediment, painted over and wiped off (similar to a print plate), the graphite is then "heated in" using a heat lamp. In the latest pieces, for example, Terra-Sienna Diptych and Terra-Aquamarine Diptych (both 2008), the initial paintings are accompanied by panels which have been engraved in the same pattern with wax built up in these rhythms.
The first pieces using these techniques were done just before 9/11. When I saw the dusts and sediments falling down on all the surfaces I connected my work, this process of sediment build up and erosion, with natural forces in the formation and reformation of our earth, as similar to the disaster.
The first large group of paintings using these methods was done during the spring of 2003 during the illness and following the death of my oldest daughter. In 2005 I felt able to return to this work and further explore its possibilities and meaning.
Both of the current exhibitions are meaningful to me. The juror for the Metamorphosis Encaustic show in Nebraska is George Neubert, who has been a curator at the Oakland Museum as well as other institutions. Additionally the theme of Metamorphosis connects profoundly with change or transformation—which is the process which occurs in my work. Showing in the larger Midwestern area is also significant to me. I grew up in Minnesota and Illinois and my work utilizes the patterns of grasses, furrows, and earth forms.
A.I.R gallery is "known for its more than three decades of showcasing exciting new work by women artists.' It's a great venue in the DUMBO section of Brooklyn that has a wide following. I'm excited to be one of 37 women chosen nationally and internationally.
Q: What has been your biggest challenge as a visual artist? What has kept you going?
MM: Well, when I graduated from the University of Illinois, Urbana/Champaign at the age of 21, with a BFA in painting with Highest Honors, I was married and we had a 6-month old daughter. Shortly after that my husband and I began farming on a cattle/corn etc. farm in Northern Illinois. With 3 children within 5 years and a gigantic garden, I found no time or energy to do my art work. Then my husband entered graduate school at the Univ. of Wisconsin and I worked full time as a Departmental Secretary in the department of Numerical Analysis and the computer lab.
Not until we moved to Washington, DC did I begin to paint again. Following several years when we also raised foster children, our 4th child was born and we moved to a house on the Chesapeake Bay near Annapolis, MD. For several years, I actively painted, exhibited and worked on the board of the local gallery. When my youngest turned 5, I returned to school to earn a master's degree in Art Therapy and began to work in residential treatment and hospitals—needless to say, my engagement with my art making was very limited, however I did take workshops and engage in ceramic hand building and printmaking. In 1987 following my move to Berkeley in 1984, while I taught Art Therapy at California State University, Sacramento and Notre Dame College in Belmont and worked in hospitals, I began taking courses and workshops, studying individually with artists, and exploring who I was as an artist. I worked in painting and fiber sculpture, and actively exhibited. I first used an encaustic process in 1992 and found this medium had the potential for expression and exploration of my concerns.
Perhaps this gives a picture of my life-long conflict between my need to make my own art and the demands I experience to provide care to others. Certainly, as a woman in the time in which I grew up, I was socialized to first be attentive to the needs of others.
I think I experience this now in questioning the value of my work, what contribution does it make? Especially when it isn't bringing in sufficient money to support me, and the time and focus takes me away from those I care about. I often have felt an internal need to justify my artmaking.
What keeps me going? Good question. Strangely I have always believed in my art and seen myself as an artist. Further, nothing else has ever really satisfied me like the pleasure and challenge I experience in art-making. I am continually striving to challenge myself, to do the next thing, to get my work out there. There's no end to it! Certainly, it is never boring.
Q: How does your work change (or not) based on who might see it?
MM: Actually, I both want the interest and positive response of others, and don't totally trust it. In my painting I am trying to meet my expectations and I primarily explore what I feel is still to be mastered.
But the work I show is influenced by others. When I compete for public art projects I consider which work I have done that meets the goals of the project or is in line with what I see in my work. When I submit work for competition again I consider the theme and often the interests of the juror and see if I have recent work that would relate to those concerns.
I no longer create work specifically for such projects. When I have one-person exhibitions, I am exploring an idea or a theme my work has presented.
Q Who or what/where do you look to or go to for inspiration?
MM: My work has always come profoundly from my experiences with nature and the natural world. Nature has healed and comforted me, providing me with experiences of continuation and meaning. In the past I was particularly concerned with the expression of loss and human suffering. Beginning in the midst '90s, as I developed my encaustic work, I found the physical experience of working in wax brought me closer to nature and to healing and beauty. I have been exploring in many ways the variations that occur as nature lays down a pattern or rhythm and then many small variations create ever increasing change.
And my husband is a classical pianist! His music is ever present: as I hear themes and rhythms, intervals and variations my sensitivity to subtle changes and large themes is increased.
People see the work of Rothko in my paintings, and certainly his work, which I first saw in Washington's Phillips Gallery, has been a profound influence. As were the color field painters who were exhibiting in Washington when I began to paint again in the 1960's.
Among women artists, the physicality and exploration of Eva Hesse and Louise Bourgeois have been inspiring and stimulating. Working in encaustics, Jasper John is a model for serious engagement. I feel close to the concerns of Anselm Kiefer, the depth of his caring and passion, and his relationship to the earth.
Q Are you back in the studio now? Is there anything 'new' you’re seeking to express?
MM: Last year I had the pleasure of participating in the IEA diptych project. My partner was Kim Bernard. Following the two agreed upon paintings which traveled during 2008, Kim and I created 4 additional diptychs. I have always been interested in the synchronistic effect of placing two or more of my pieces together, moving them into different configurations. In the last two years I have created groups of similar paintings which explore the same theme or different approaches to the same rhythmic patterns. In 2009 I painted the two large diptychs, Terra-Sienna and Aquamarine. At present I am continuing these large diptychs. But there’s always that question 'what if!' That invitation to the next discovery, the next aspect of my continuing investigation.
"Terra" Mari Marks 2008