Marshall Arisman Profile
posted: June 26, 2008
Ready to set off the alarm...
Marshall Arisman, 68, known best for his dark images of death and violence, finds that his art is in the process of moving into the light. He also talks of a struggle with his ego, and says his work is at its best when he leaves his ego behind and becomes one with his painting.

"I did nothing but play the saxophone until I was 18. I was brought up in a small town where art classes were full of what they called 'slow people', people who could only take metal shop, or motor shop. I had a little bit more than the slow people, in terms of talent, but I had no real interest in it. I took art classes, but it wasn’t anything I cared much about.

"When I was a senior in high school, I went to Buffalo and heard Charlie Parker play, and I thought I should apply to art school as a safety net. I didn’t care much about it, but it was the only other alternative I seemed to have. So I applied to Pratt, and got in, and then they said to me, pick a major, and I had no idea what they meant. But, like most people, I had worked on my high school year book, and I remember my teacher saying that what I was doing on the yearbook was graphic design. So I signed up as a graphic design major. I spent three or four years in the major, thought I liked it, had a portfolio, graduated from Pratt, and got hired by General Motors in one of their experimental design units. It was a great job, designing handmade books for the president and special projects; we had nothing to do with the cars.

"That's when it actually hit me that I didn’t like working with people. And that I didn’t love graphic design. And it also hit me that I was never going to get any better at this. I didn’t care about it. So what I came out of that job with was, the problem wasn’t graphic design, the problem wasn’t General Motors, the problem was me. And the only thing I could figure out was that I was the most happy when I was alone and drawing pictures. That’s all I knew. And so I went to Europe and floated around.

"I got drafted, and when I got out of the army, I didn’t know what to do. So I came back to New York and my ex-college roommate was freelancing in illustration. And he said, 'You don’t want a full-time job! Try freelance illustration; make a portfolio.' And so I did. It was 1963, and at that time you could live in New York, working two days a week at anything.

"So I lived in Brooklyn and put together a portfolio of sort of rip-offs of European poster artists, like Savignac and Andre Francois. I mean, I couldn’t draw, but I found this way of making images; they weren’t cartoons, but they were humorous illustrations. And I think I made $3,000 the first year and $3,000 the second year and $2,800 the third year. So I failed. And this was after truly doing everything you should do: sending out promo cards, seeing people, bringing around my portfolio, listening to people, changing things, whatever.

"It was just I had found a formula, and it wasn’t going anywhere–it wasn’t based on anything. I mean, it was based on a formula. And so when it collapsed, I thought, well, there are a couple of things you can do here. One is, you can learn how to draw; as a graphic design major at Pratt, drawing wasn’t really important, so I didn’t really know how to do it. And then the other thing I could do was figure out what my subject matter really is. So I spent a year teaching myself how to draw.

"I’d draw wherever I was. I'd draw people on the subway, and I'd go to the Museum of Natural History and draw animals. It was really fun, because for the first time, I think I actually looked at stuff. I learned how to look at photographs and translate them. I learned the basics.

"So I got enough skill together to be able to then say, okay, now that you can actually draw something, what are you actually going to draw? And I made a list of the things I felt I had real knowledge of. The first thing that came up on my list were cows. I was brought up on a dairy farm, and at 28 I had never drawn a cow. The second thing that came up on my list were deer. We hunted deer, we butchered deer, we ate deer, but I had never drawn one. The third thing that came up on my list were guns. My whole town had guns, everybody had a shotgun, my brother carries a gun. And I thought, that’s weird, I've never drew a gun. And the fourth thing that came up on my list was psychic phenomenon. My grandmother was a psychic. She lived in a town called Lillydale, where you have to be a psychic to buy a house–it's a town law, and there's a board, and you can't get in unless you're a psychic. You can go into any house at any time and get a reading. But I didn’t know what to do with the fourth category.

"So I picked guns and started doing a series of drawings about guns, and then the series turned into violence that we do to ourselves, and violence we do to each other and suddenly at the end of that year I had 45 drawings about guns. And it never occurred to me that what I had was a portfolio. And so I ran around and I finally found a little publisher who published it and I got 900 copies and because I had a mailing list of all those art directors that I had been haunting when I was freelancing, I sent them out copies. I sent one to JC Suarez, the art director at The New York Times, and the next day I started getting commercial work that would have fit in my book. And I thought, this is very strange. I mean, I would have actually done this for myself! So I think at that point I categorized myself as the gun guy, and I’ve stayed commercially in that category ever since. I’m the guy that people call for death. Death, violence, murder, prison, whatever. Which is fine, because becasue I get total freedom in that category. I have never had to deal with having to change this and change that; people are buying an emotional take from me.

"The addiction I have to painting, are those rare moments when I lose my ego. That’s why I paint. I mean, my ego gets me into the studio, it gets me in front of a canvas, but my ego can’t paint. And when I recognize that it can’t paint and it all collapses, then there are minutes where I actually am the act of painting itself. It’s the same thing a marathon runner does: at the beginning of a race, runners are thinking about running and by the time they hit what they call the zone, they become the act of running itself. So there are moments for me when I'm not judging the painting but being the painting.

"When I look back at my work over the years, I can see that it's been a curious process of going from dark to light. I spent a lot of time in the dark. There was a moment when I clearly understood that I had dug a hole too deep in terms of the darkness. I had begun to mix dirt into my paint and I suddenly thought, 'There is no light in here anymore.' I suddenly realized that I had closed the door and become enveloped in the darkness. Now the work has become about light. 

"About 20 years ago I started seeing auras. But I didn't really want to attract the 'New Age' audience that painting auras would bring. So I began to run little lines in my dark work, that were auras, and it was my secret. Not an aura, really, just a colored line, but I knew what it was. And that was fun for a while, because people thought it was a technique. And they would write to me, 'What tool you used to get that line?' And I'd lie. I’d say, 'Go buy a motorcycle strip which makes lines.' A motorcycle strip is a tool, but it doesn’t work. I actually got the line by rubbing oil paint on the edge of a piece of cardboard.

"Anyway, eventually I thought, maybe it’s time to  really paint auras, to actually paint what I am seeing. And so I started those paintings, and then I realized that  my focus had become light, and I think suddenly for the first time in my life, color made sense to me, in that it was in relationship to light and not to color. I mean, I only painted color for many years because people said, you should paint color.

"I suddenly realized that painting these auras was really a color issue, does that make sense? I mean, it doesn’t mean much to anybody but me, but that kind of started me out of the tunnel.

"I think anger is probably the most accessible emotion for me to get to. It's also dangerous because it’s the most high energy emotion and so I think most of my early stuff was probably therapeutic, to get the anger out, but sooner or later you start to realize that the anger is too accessible; eventually it will eat you. What I'm accessing now is just energy: a neutral, egoless sort of energy, not anger energy. And the energy you put into a painting stays with it–it doesn’t leave, it stays there. So 50 years from now, when somebody’s in front of it, that energy is still receivable. I like that idea."