Thursday, April 7, 2011


In the previous installment I started talking to renowned painter Marshall Arisman. In the second half of the interview, we dabble in Spiritualism, debate the merits of comic books, and keep our mothers worried about the creepy art we make.


Marshall: Illustrators hate it when I say this, but the experience never really taught me much about art. It did teach me about writing, and I met a lot of writers, got involved with a lot of 'real people', worked on articles about 'real people'. Those are healthy things, and energy you get out of those areas that I don't understand. That's a vague answer.

Jess: Well, I'm sure there's something that can be mined from it.

M: I learned a long time ago that painting- not illustration, necessarily- but work like that is an excuse to have a form of meditation. A way to get out of your brain and allow the energy of your body to work differently, come from different places. The secret is, I tell people I'm 'working' but what I'm really doing is meditating.

J: Do you practice meditation from some specific tradition or school?

M: You mean formal practice? Naaah. I've tried. I've found the best meditation happens in action and not when I'm sitting. I can still hypnotize myself by sitting in a yoga postion, but-

J: And then an hour passes.

M: Exactly. Somehow you become conscious of what's around you, in a different way. For me meditation happens better in life. But I have a weird history here. My grandmother was a noted Spiritualist minister. I grew up where it cost $2 to get a reading from her, in a town where everyone was a spiritualist. So I started treating it like a drive-in, I'd take dates up there on the weekends. Pretty much any house in town you could pay $2 to have some do a reading and go into a trance or do automatic writing.

J: Was that an engineered community of psychics- or spiritualists?

M: You had to be a psychic spiritualist to live there. It still exists, it's called Lily Dale. HBO did a documentary a couple months ago about it. It was boring. It's a pretty hard place to get into, but it's a pretty place and the people are very nice. But unless you have a reason to come there, an understanding of why you were there, everything you get is surface stuff. So the documentary ended up not being very good. So I'm in the middle of making a movie about my grandmother. I'm not sure whether it will get made, but that's what I'm working on .

J: Well you have an in.

M: Exactly. We'll see where it gets me.

J: I have a question- you wrote a book called Heaven Departed- I don't remember exactly when you wrote it....

M: It's basically about the atomic bomb.

J: It's an issue that carries through today, but I don't know that it has the same gripping power that it did even when I was a kid.

M: Well, the Japanese were confused when I did it. They kept saying “Why did you do this?” What it came to for me was that we dropped the bomb- it landed on you, but we did it. So we certainly had a role. It was the first time that mankind could kill everybody. Sure, before you could kill a couple hundred thousand in a war, but this started something in our capacity to wipe everyone out. We are all one tribe, whether we like it or not. I think that the suicide bombers are reminding us of that. But it was weird, doing that. I did a show in Japan and a lot of survivors of Nagasaki and Hiroshima showed up. It was weird- real life always is. They showed me their scars. People say pictures don't have power anymore, but I don't think that's true.

J: I think so. Think of “Execution in a Saigon Street”, and I remember the first time I saw that. Obviously I didn't have any real experience with Vietnam, other than my family members being over there, but seeing that, and reading the story behind it, you get to thinking... maybe this photograph, in some small way, helped end it. That's amazing to me.

M: That's true. I think everyone learned politically that there were too many photographs coming out of Vietnam, and it changed things. You think about how little we see, coming out Iraq and Afghanistan, how very little. I'm sure there's plenty out there on the internet, but in terms of the major press, you don't see much. Certainly not in the same way from back then.

J: Even what little comes out, like the guy who was beheaded, it doesn't stay long in the public consciousness.

M: I once did a cover for Time Magazine on the death penalty, and my intent on doing it was to scare the shit out of people. It is scary. So I got it in, and the editor came out of his office and said “We're not printing this.” I said “Why not?” He said, “Well, it's too violent.” Give me a break. I mean, killing people, hanging people, injecting people... it's pretty violent. So he said “Let me tell you something, kid. We as a society are willing to take the most horrendous image if it is a photograph. Because if we look at a photograph, we don't think about the photographer who was there. When we see a painting, we know it takes time, we think about the artist and what it takes to make the image.” I thought that was fascinating, and he was probably right. My mother, who could never get over why I do these things. “Why would spend your time,” was her question really, because it does take time to do this. “Why would you spend your time painting these horrible things, when you could paint a flower.” I've never been able to answer that question.

J: I don't think anyone can, really.

M: Nah. My answer to her was that I could paint flowers, but they'd be ugly as well.

J: The flowers would be killing people!

M: (laughs)

J: I feel that, though. I recently published a novel and even the title itself was a little ugly, and people still say “Well, why would you call it that, why would you write these things?”

M: Why dwell on these horrible parts, horrible elements. You know, I'm 72 now, and as I look back at all this stuff, I realize there's a running arc through all my work, that starts in a lot of darkness. I remember being 40 years old and thinking, I gotta get out of here! I've dug a hole that's so dark. I can't stay down here anymore. So there is an arc running from dark to light in my work. Not everyone thinks that's true, but I do. All I've concluded is the obvious, which is that light and dark are part of the same unit, and we're all capable of the most light and the most dark. It never occurred to me that these things, these events were something that we aren't all capable of.

J: That's an important lesson, to understand that.

M: Right. I've found that the people who collect my work fall into two groups: the people who want the dark stuff don't want the light stuff. “No no no, don't you have anything dark, and ugly, with killing?” And vice versa. There are very few who have followed this transition. I thought it was funny, breaking out into groups here.

J: Well, you'll have vying groups of collectors long after your gone, I'm sure, hating each other over the dogma of whether Light Arisman was better than Dark Arisman.

M: “I've got the darkness!” What was your novel about?

J: I wrote a science fiction novel about autism, and bring dead rock stars back from the grave.

M: Really? Is autism an issue, something in your family?

J: It seems like the neighborhood I live in, every family has someone with autism.

M: Yes, yes.

J: I found a deep intolerance in myself as I writing- I wrote it in three days, for a contest. That was kind of a dark pit that I dug myself into.

M: Wow.

J: It was transformative for me, the process, to see that I had this intolerance I was looking at the subject with, and to come out the other side...

M: My guess is that it was saturating in you for a long time.

J: Yes.

M: When those things that burst out they tend to have been sitting there for a while. Nice, though. Did you self-publish it?

J: A little independent press out of Australia put it out, and it's been fun.

M: Congratulations. I did a novel once, and I illustrated it, but everyone said “We don't know what to do with this, what this is... it's not a fairy tale, or what.” So I self-published it, just to get it done.

J: Really?

M: It's called The Divine Elvis. I have a book site as well, you can scroll through as well. It's me being born with a twin brother who is a monkey. And our growing old together.

J: That's not a true story, though, right?

M: I'm sure we could make a case for my brother being a monkey, but no...

J: Did you ever think about going into graphic novels? That's a much more accepted art form these days.

M: I have a real problem, and always have, with comics, with reading and looking at the same time. I remember as a kid I had this problem, I'd get comics and just look at them. And then I got older and would just read them. So that's something with me, and it's kind of kept me off them, because I've never found a way to- I know graphic novels can be nonverbal- but I've never found a way to work the words in. You know, the bubbles, whatever conventions, drove me crazy.

J: I think that is the one piece of sequential art that takes you out of the narrative- see, it's still a comic book. There are the bubbles.

M: The nice thing for years was that with the cartoonists and the comics, nobody was looking. They all said “Ah shit, comics... bullshit.” Consequently, some really good stuff got done because nobody cared. They're a breed unto themselves. Art Spiegelman is a friend of mine, really a different breed. I knew this group, they all knew each other, but the outside world didn't much care. It's just funny now that there is so much influence in the fine art world from comics. It's been turned around. All of a sudden people are doing graphic novels on the walls.

J: Of course they're all illustrators...

M: (laughs)

J: Well, I wanted to talk about one more thing before I let you clean your studio. I'm kind of on a kick lately... when I was younger, when I was in high school, that's when I started writing. No one ever told me that I could just do it. Just put my stuff out there. I wish I had. I wish I'd gotten all the rejection letters out of the way when I was 16.

M: Gotcha.

J: So I've really only been seriously writing for a very little while. It's something I'm always telling people, you can do it. It doesn't matter if you're not good, or not ready, you can start now. Do you have anything you'd like to say towards that?

M: Yeah, I love to write. I'm not a good writer. That's not me being humble, I'm just really not a good writer. But I love the process of writing. I think I have learned about it, and this amuses me, that I don't think any painting I've ever done, I've portrayed a secret that someone told me. People tell you stuff, don't want you to tell anyone. The minute I started to write, I betrayed every secret everyone had ever told me. I'm not even sure why. Stuff just got worked in that happened to somebody when they were 14. I found that to be very interesting. So when I wrote this novel, I had no intention of illustrating it, because I wanted to illustrate the damn thing with words. Then somebody said to me “Shit, you've got to illustrate this.” I went back to it and immediately ran into this dilemma of how do I do it? Does that make sense? I didn't want to duplicate the words exactly, but I had to stay within a certain frame. So it was fun. No, fun's not the right word, it was work. In the graduate program I run, we have a writing class, and in that class we learn much more about the student than we do in their art. The art tends to veil their real concerns. Somebody starts writing about their grandmother, and her shoes, and eventually you ask if they've ever made a picture about grandma or her shoes, and the answer usually is no. I think that is because the ego of the artist is not directly connected tot he ego of the writer. It's like “Shit, I'm an artist, not a writer,” so you let down in those little moments and much more personal stuff comes out in the writing initially than in the paintings, which tend to be... obscured. Vague. Whatever it is. It's become an important part of the program, and even more so since it's required. I guess what I'm saying in essence is that it has become the other part of visualizing for me, so I write a lot. It's not an end itself, but it does inform other things.

J: So there may be a narrative in the work, but it's not explicit in the visual part.

M: Absolutely, absolutely. If you start it backwords, if you go back into childhood, where once you open those doors, more and more comes. Memories. It's a wonderful way to get to the well.

J: You know, you mentioned it and I think- at least, the way I'm picturing it now- visual artists seem to be going for some sort of universality, but those MFA students who say “Oh, I can't write!” have a shallow idea of what the universal is supposed to be. So maybe you're pushing them towards the specifics of how to write through that process, and towards a more mature universality.

M: Paul Theroux said something to me once and it just kind of stuck. It was back when I had just started to write, and he said “Never try to make a universal point. Try to make a personal point that can become universal.” That was great advice. Something I have never forgotten. Every time I start to write a 'letter to the world,' I stop. You could probably say this through... your grandma's shoes. But I think you're exactly right, because they are unguarded, but that's back to your advice. You can write. You can do it. Somebody can fix your spelling if that's your problem, or whatever. Writing, like everything else, has this weight to it. You're supposed to be prepared in terms of English …

J: It's the 'mark of our civilization', to have words of any kind come out.

M: I don't think that's true. I really don't. It's what your words mean. I'd rather read something written badly, so long as it's about something, than something written really well about nothing. There's a lot of that too. I think the graphic novel and that whole phenomenon has got a lot more artists writing, thinking about it, trying it, and that's good. We're going to get good stories. More interesting stories, more people trying to tell stories.

J: And we always need that.

M: (laughs)

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