Saturday, February 02, 2008

Interview With Mark Sweeney

Artist Mark Sweeney and I chat about his paintings, life, and influences.

He introduces himself and his work, saying:

"Represented here are examples of where I've been and where I'm going with my art. I'm self-taught, and I've always had a thing for drawing. When I was a kid, my hero was Charles Schulz. I identified strongly with Charlie Brown, muttering "good grief" from time to time (even though I wasn't quite sure what it meant). I spent lots of time reproducing the Peanuts characters, and could draw a pretty mean Lucy. I also had a thing for Popeye.

I've always been drawn to bright colors (even though I like to wear black), so you'll find lots of primary acrylics in my stuff. Lately, I've been experimenting with layered items as the canvas--creepy religious cartoons, playing cards, postcards, subway passes, Mexican bingo cards. They all make for great themes in the overall piece."

And the interview begins!

A year ago you became active in the San Francisco art community. Can you tell us about what prompted you at this phase in your life? How has that experienced evolved over the past year?

I moved back to San Francisco after a 2-year stint in NYC. The experience was incredible, but it was all about "life as work," which I vowed never to get caught up in again. Moving back to San Francisco was going to be all about balance. When in NYC, I was encouraged by friends to do something with my drawings. I decided to take the drawings to the next level and start painting. So, I went out, bought some supplies, and did just that. I immediately fell in love with the process, from beginning to end. It sounds corny but I'd been looking for my passion all of my life and I knew that I had finally found it.

I'd say that my pieces have evolved in the thematic sense. I love working with layered pieces as the canvas, to add more depth to the overall theme of the piece. I've also explored the idea of using found pieces as the canvas--I love the idea, of taking something that somebody else threw away and making it into something new. More than anything, I've learned that if I'm going to grow as an artist, I have to continually work. The best advice that I got from a successful local artist is: "Just keep working. Keep working. Work!" And that's what I keep doing.

The titles of your pieces direct my attention toward mortality and the worlds of heaven and hell. What is your intention with the titles?

Short answer: I'm a recovering Catholic. More in-depth answer: I think that a lot of this was inspired by reading an updated version of Dante's "Divine Comedy". The incredible drawings, featured throughout the books, were particularly inspiring . Anyway, I became fascinated with the seven deadly sins, which play prominently in "Inferno" and "Purgatorio." So, I did a little series based on the "seven deadly." I'm still not quite done with the them--the "characters" just beg for more attention! Also, in my explorations, I came across a collection of these creepy religious propaganda comics that I remember finding from time to time when I was a kid. They are very extreme on what is right and wrong and let the reader know if they are going to heaven or hell. I thought they'd be the perfect layering canvas for future pieces, and they've come in handy a couple of times so far. I have to say, though, the comics give me the creeps if I'm around them too long!

Do you listen to music when creating new pieces? Who do you like to listen to? And reading, are there any authors or publications you keep up with?

I do like to listen to music when I am working on a piece. I also like to have something to munch on or drink, and have some incense burning. The whole experience becomes very sensory for me. Back to the music--I usually put my iPod on shuffle. Even though I know the music, I like the aspect of randomness in the selection. I'd have to say that I've always enjoyed the music of strong women vocalists, including: Aimee Mann, Tori Amos, Marianne Faithful, Deborah Harry, Annie Lennox, Dusty Springfield, Suzanne Vega, PJ Harvey, and most recently, Ingrid Michaelson and Regina Spektor. Classics, like the Rolling Stones, The Ramones and The New York Dolls are also some favorites. Throw in some Phillip Glass, Peter Gabriel, Joe Jackson and Peter Murphy and I'm giddy with listening pleasure.

As far as reading goes, I've never gone wrong with the classics: Dickens, Hardy and Shakespeare are
among my favorites. I love keeping up on the latest illustrators and can pour over the latest edition
of "Illustration Now" for hours and hours--such incredible talent. Also, a fan of graphic novels, with "Persepolis" being at the very top of my list.

When we were in the studio the other day you showed me a new piece you were working on that involved layering of found papers to create texture. In other pieces, you use this technique as well. Where did this idea come from? What importance does that hold for you?

The basis for the layering comes from my background in advertising, in that to have a successful campaign, there needs to be a strong theme involved. I started experimenting with the layering to add some depth to the overall theme of my pieces. I like the idea of deconstructing images from found items to use as layers (i.e.: comic books, bingo cards, theater programs, newspapers), or even using discarded items. For example, on a recent trip to NYC, I collected discarded subway passes that people had tossed. I looked kind of crazy picking them up off the dirty ground but since I was in NYC, nobody gave me a second look. I used these passes for some of my New York themed pieces. Using the layers, also, can add a familiarity to a piece that people are able to connect with.

You are part of Big Umbrella Studios, an art collective in San Francisco. What is it like sharing a studio space with over 20 other artists and collaborating together on show ideas?

I feel really fortunate being part of such a group of talented people. Being kind of new to the group, I haven't met all of the members but the ones I have met have been very genuine and accepting. I do a lot of my work at home but the times I've been in to use the studio, the atmosphere has been very positive. Everybody is interested in what everybody else is doing. In a recent meeting, we discussed some themes for future shows and I got very excited about the directions they are going. Some shows will be very collaborative in nature, which I'm both nervous and excited about. The best part about being involved with Big Umbrella is that they will push me to keep working. Just keep working. WORK!!!

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