Interview with Visual Artist Marty Coleman – Part 1
He MAKEs Absorbent Art:
An Interview with
Visual Artist Marty Coleman
Marty Coleman is a visual artist who has been working in multiple mediums throughout his career. Based in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Marty works in his own photography, design and art studio, MAKE Studio. In 2008, Marty’s “napkin art” piece “America The Beautiful” was included in Time Magazine’s Person Of The Year 2008 edition on Barak Obama. Recently, Marty published his first book, ‘The Napkin Dad’s Book of Absorbent Ideas’.
I knew Marty from my college days in San Jose, California at SJSU. Marty was earning his Master of Fine Arts degree, and I was an undergrad music major. During those student years, we became friends at a successful downtown dining establishment and art gallery, Eulipia Restaurant, where we were fellow waiters. Eulipia was well known for its California Cuisine, and it was a major gathering place for artists, art aficionados, opera enthusiasts, serious art collectors and diners. Indeed, it was a deeply creative (and truly gastronomic) atmosphere in which to work.
Almost twenty years went by where Marty and I completely lost touch, and through the Facebook revolution, we recently reconnected. Back in the day, Marty was the wise-cracking sage who presided over the less experienced wait staff (I was in that group for a time). Today, it is fascinating and fun to catch up with Marty on his progress and evolution as a full-time independent artist.
Here’s our interview/conversation:
JW: Tell me a little about your background — where you grew up, what interested you as a kid, what kind of influences affected you as a child that contributed to your becoming an artist.
MC: I grew up on the beach in Southern California, moving to Connecticut in the summer of love, 1967. Talk about a culture shock. I moved back to California at my first opportunity. Landed in Hollywood!
My Grandfather was my main influence in me becoming an artist. He was a very good amateur painter. On the one hand, he let me play in his studio, work at his drawing table, learn about his wood working equipment, etc.
Just as importantly though was his influence through being a collector of fine art. He had a great collection of mid-century regionalist prints and drawings, as well as a number of larger paintings and sculptures. He had a silver plated figurative sculpture by the Russian artist Archipenko that us grandkids would touch and stare at for hours because of it’s very cool cubist style.
Later, my mother inherited many of my grandfather’s art pieces and they surrounded me in my home as I was growing up. It is no mystery why I ended up going into printmaking and drawing with my focus being on portraits and figures when I went off to college.
My interests as a kid were typical in many ways. I loved to swim in the ocean and the pool. I loved to make plastic models, mostly of monsters from movies like the Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Mummy, Frankenstein, the Werewolf, etc.
JW: Why am I not surprised at this monster revelation?!
MC: My father was an aviator and paid for me to be in a boy’s flying club from the age of 13 on. I got my solo license on my 16th birthday and my private pilots license when I was 17. He had hopes at some level that I would go into aviation but, to his credit, he never pushed me. He saw early on that I was an artist and wanted to be an artist. He encouraged that, as did my mother.
JW: Was there one defining moment that made you choose art as a profession and life style, or did it happen over time as the sum of many smaller moments – or in a completely different way?
MC: The defining moment came when I was born. I never wasn’t going to be an artist. I never had any doubts nor entertained any other profession seriously.
JW: After childhood, who or what were some of the influences that helped to shape your course as an artist?
MC: I went to Brandeis University for a year or so and the print and drawing professor, Michael Mazur, was influential. I was just an undergraduate, taking beginning courses, but he taught me individually a number of times, and we talked often about creating art.
The #1 lesson I remember was that art was a physical activity. That my hand and arm and shoulder should move in the way the subject moves. That if it is a straight and hard fence I am depicting, then my hand should have that hard gesture. If it is grass, with it’s sharp staccato rhythm then I need to move my hand to emulate it. What is the thing doing? How can you move yourself to reflect that thing?
JW: That is so akin to an actor’s process! You are finding the character — knowing your subject, understanding how the character physically moves and discovering how she feels – and then literally becoming that character through the physical “reality of doing.” I love to discover the universal elements or qualities that underlie all creative expression, regardless of the medium or genre.
MC: It is the same with me as a visual artist. I love to truly ‘see’ who and what a person is. What they really look like. Part of the joy of doing photographic collage work is in finding the disparate elements of a person, their jewelry, clothing, feet, hair, surroundings, and combining those things with the face to create a portrait that says more about who that person is than just the face by itself.
Among artists I found myself most attracted to people who used narrative imagery to tell stories. Edward Hopper, Rembrandt and Matisse are the most influential 2 dimensional artists for me. Roger Brown from Chicago is one of my favorite 2D artists. Roy Lichtenstein is as well.
One of my art heroes is Vera Lehndorff (formerly known as Veruschka the 60s super model). She spent 16 years doing a project called ‘trans-figurations’ where she painted herself to match her surroundings. Many have emulated that idea since, but she took it deeper and farther than anyone else.
Robert Irwin, the west coast environmental artist, is someone whose work I love. It is all about the transformation of a space with the use of translucent material so the space remains intact but is perceived differently.
One of the most important lessons I learned from him is in the simple title of his biography, ‘Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees’. I taught this again and again to my art students over the years.If you really want to see something, forget the name and all its associations, all its symbols. An eye has a very obvious visual symbol attached to the name (think Egyptian illustrations of the perfectly formed symbolic eye). But if you really want to see a person’s eye, you have to forget that and look at how the lines, colors, shapes, and contrasts really are in that particular eye. When you do that, you will really see ‘it’ instead of keeping the symbol in the forefront and never understanding that eye.
Finally, the best artist working today in my mind is Andy Goldsworthy. He is also an environmental artist, using only natural materials on his forays around his native british countryside. His work is the grand and elegant artistic expression of that unexpected moment of joy when you walk around a corner on a hike and see a little pile of stones that someone has piled together in a fun way, or a bright red piece of tape on a tree in the middle of nowhere.
I know that many of these artists I am most enamored with aren’t working in the same arena I am right now. But I hope to move into a broader landscape for my work in the same way that these artists have. They inspire me.
Funny enough, though most of my work now is in photography (photo-collage) I have much more of an affinity for those who have been defined as artists throughout history and presently than those who have been seen as photographers.
What I mean is that there has historically been a separation between the photography world and the art world. I came out of that art world and now happen to use photography as my media but I still see myself as an artist and look for others who are artists, no matter what the media.
JW: Marty, I have seen you work in a lot of mediums – painting, drawing, photography, photo collage, etc., — what does it mean to you as an artist to work in multiple “genres”? What impels you to do that?
I just never have thought of art as being within one genre or realm. I understand it makes it harder for those judging my work to make decisions about where I am going to go or what they can rely on, but if they know me and my work they actually do know they can rely on it to always be recognizable as my work.
JW: What does creativity mean to you? How is it expressed in your life as well as your art?
MC: Creativity is creation. Creation can’t take place without an open minded approach to possibilities. Creativity is about fun. I like to make people think and smile, those two things are my goal.
Here are the projects I have done in the past few years that weren’t primarily ‘art’ but combined creative thinking and creative fun.
Painted my picket fence to match my Dalmatian, Oreo. The kids walking home from school would hear a barking fence:
I tore down a dropped ceiling in my kitchen and replaced it with recessed lighting. The remaining holes in the ceiling I covered with ceramics my daughters had made in elementary school. I had a ready place to show off all their stuff and it didn’t take up any shelf space. And they didn’t get dusty:
I tore apart a 1915 upright piano (after getting it appraised and trying to sell it) and used the wood to make a 2008 bookshelf. I am using more pieces from the piano as a frame for a 3Dimensional figurative piece that will be sold in a breast cancer charity auction later this year.
I remodeled my living room/dining room/entry way/staircase/upstairs hall (all seen at the same time in the open floor plan of the house). I used dark and light striped wood for the flooring along with an orange carpet. The walls were a deep gold, pale yellow and a deep red. Nobody would think in advance they would go well together, but I knew they would and they did. The house sold in 8 days and when it was up for sale a year later we went to the open house incognito. The realtor talked about how the house was the result of a very good artist a couple of owners before and that it had gotten a great response as a result.
JW: Marty, you have a keen sense of humor – a wry wit and an often “warped” or “left of center” way of looking at the world. Do you think of that as a part of your art or does that inform your art?
MC: I think it informs my art. It is as if I speak two languages (or more). The first language is the one inside me. It is me. Then I ‘speak’ in my other language, the language of art, and I translate me, the first language, into the art language. The humor is changed slightly, maybe milder, maybe funnier, maybe a bit more obscure and referential instead of straight out obvious. The wit and warped me finds it’s way into my art somehow!
JW: You mentioned in a past conversation that “how Inspiration is accepted, allowed and nurtured” is of great interest and concern to you. Would you share what you mean?
MC: Here is the crux of my belief about being an artist. Courage, perseverance and love are the three main criteria to being an artist.
You must be courageous. That means you must admit what you love and admit it to the world. So, you are inspired by God. You must have the courage to tell the world that, knowing that some will say ‘God, what a dopey idea’. Or, ‘she’s in a cult’, or ‘how schmaltzy can you get.’ I am primarily inspired by women. I love them. I love how they look, how they make themselves up, how they look nude, clothed, sexy, plain. I love getting up close to see pores and freckles and scars and tan lines and wrinkles. I admit that, knowing some will say I am just a dirty old man (or used to be a dirty young man).
I have this inspiration. I have to accept that. I have to allow it in my life. I have to nurture it. That means I have to find a way to turn that inspiration, obsession, passion, whatever you call it, into something positive and valuable for myself and others.
Many are inspired but don’t have the courage to admit it. They don’t want the world to know they love leaves, or bugs or roadkill or 7 headed monsters or naked men. They are worried what people will think. They are worried about judgment and their reputation. So they pursue some other path they have less passion about. As a result their art is mediocre and forgettable.
Inspiration comes to your door but it doesn’t mean you are going to let it in.
This concludes Part 1 of my interview with Marty Coleman.
About Marty Coleman
When I asked Marty to supply me with his bio, he jauntily referred me to his site.
I’m glad he did! Here’s what Marty tells us (abridged) in his own words:
- I have 2 degrees in art, a BA and a MFA. I emphasized printmaking, drawing, and photography.
- I taught Beginning & Figure Drawing, Design & Color, and Art Appreciation for 9 years at the college level.
- My work started out in grad school as photo-realist drawings. I liked the photos better by themselves so I started doing photography and photo-collage on its own.
- I continued to draw and paint, but from live models not photos, with imagined narrative imagery behind the portrait.
- I also started doing some commissioned photo-shoots; black and white portraits and figures.
- I left teaching and went into computer art. I moved, along with my family, to Oklahoma to get my first job in that industry. I created Educational CDroms for kids, and that led to Internet Design.
- I stopped creating large scale works or exhibiting my work during an 11 year period in which I worked and helped raised my 3 daughters. I did, however, continue to create a large amount of artwork on a small scale, including the napkins.
- When my youngest graduated from high school, my plan was to re-enter the art world as a practicing, exhibiting artist, which is what I am now doing. I am currently a full time independent artist, photographer and web designer. MAKE Studio is my business.
- In 2006 I fell in love with and married a wonderful woman, Linda. With the support of her and my 4 daughters (added an exceptional step-daughter in the marriage) I am continuing on my chosen path.
- That is what this is ‘about’.” Read the whole story!
Entry filed under: Art, Inspiratus Interviews, Inspiring Sites. Tags: 60s super model, America The Beautiful, Andy Goldsworthy, Archipenko, Barak Obama, California Cuisine, Edward Hopper, environmental art, Eulipia Restaurant, Inspiration, Inspirational art, MAKE Studio, Marty Coleman, Matisse, Michael Mazur, photo collage, Rembrandt, Robert Irwin, Roger Brown, Roy Lichtenstein, Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, SJSU, The Napkin Dad, The Napkin Dad’s Book of Absorbent Ideas’, Vera Lehndorff, Veruschka, Watchfire Music.