An Interview with Painter Chris Mars


by Kevin Titzer

From Chris’ Facebook Page: “Chris’s work is influenced and inspired by his brother Joe’s experiences with mental illness, for which Joe was periodically institutionalized during Chris’s childhood, and with which Joe continues to struggle. The sensitivity and empathy Chris developed relative to these experiences are evident in his visual art, which serves to raise awareness of the various issues associated with mental illness and its treatment, as well as confronting xenophobia in its various social and psychological incarnations.”




Painting by Chris Mars

You post a lot of in-progress photos of your paintings online. As a viewer, it’s really interesting to watch as a painting comes together. Although not every artist would grant so much access. How do you see it?

As I was first learning oil painting, trying to understand it, I was hungry to unlock the code (so to speak)…so if my progress postings can inspire others on this journey, then I am all for letting folks see my particular technique, message and expression as it happens.  I know I would like to see this kind of thing, so thought others might as well. But whether an artist or not, I post it for all, as art is a universal form of communication for everyone.

After being one of those viewers online, I’ve noticed that that it seems like you lay down a layer of texture and then use it as a jumping off point for the composition. Am I reading that right? As in, you’re improvising with the existing shapes and texture from the gesso or do you always have a direction in mind before you start? 

Yes, you are reading it right!  Sometimes I have a notion of what I will paint beforehand, but just as often I don’t.  I like to be open to any shifts that occur during the process. I like using the background texture to start a compositional dialog, and I try to listen to what the surface has to say. The underpainting color also sets a certain mood. These elements, plus what I want to say or how I feel, allow for the painting to happen more or less spontaneously.

Painting by Chris Mars

You’ve ventured into making short films over the years. As opposed to studio work, filmmaking is a very collaborative pursuit. I imagine you have to stretch different creative muscles in that situation.

While I generally enlist minimal help with my films, they are still more collaborative than making a painting, whether the collaborative aspect involves working with actors, as some of my films do, or seeking advice from the community regarding the finer technical aspects of gear or programs, as happens from time to time.  But the things one can do on his or her own is astounding these days, given some fairly accessible cameras and software.  So I approach filmmaking like painting, in that I sit down and go at it largely alone.  It makes for a more singular workload from start to finish and takes longer maybe, but there is also the freedom to pick it up and leave off as I choose without working around other peoples schedules, and more importantly my particular process allows for the final outcome to be of my own vision and voice.  And yes, it is a different medium and does require using different muscles!  It’s a much more technical endeavor for me than painting is, and I feel like much more of a novice technically than I do when I paint.  But I’m learning, and more and more of the process is becoming second nature.

Painting by Chris Mars

Halloween images and references often creep into your paintings. Did you enjoy Halloween when you were a kid?

Yes I did, and I still do!  As a kid there was something so playful and mysterious about Halloween, it was fun and creative and I liked the warm communal aspect of it as well, going door to door, catching a glimpse of the inside of houses I’d only seen from outside. I still love the smell of burning pumpkin and the time of year in general, how the shadows get longer, how the colors of the environment change. I remain inspired by Halloween!

Photograph from "Haunted Air" by Ossian Brown

Have you seen the photo book “Haunter Air” by Ossian Brown? It’s a collection of anonymous Halloween photos from 1875 – 1955. It’s an amazing book. It makes me nostalgic for when everyone created their own costumes. It’s so easy for people nowadays to buy everything and miss the opportunity to be creative. 

No, I had not seen “Haunted Air” but thanks for letting me know about it! I will order it, it looks great. I agree: I used to concoct my own costumes, as a child with old clothes and make-up, and as an adult with facial prosthetics that I would make from scratch. I still like to see all the Halloween displays.  I feel like doorstep pumpkins become more and more elaborate, and neighbours more and more inventive.  Commercially it seems each year it’s the same stuff with a quality drop further as it all started coming from China – and the terrible irony of child labor making disposable goods for more prosperous children overseas. Good for the kids and adults alike who still make their own costumes and props!

Photograph from "Haunted Air" by Ossian Brown

When do you decide to work on a film? I can see the potential for it being a riskier use of your time than painting.

Painting is my passion but there are times when my eyes or mind or wrist needs a break.  That’s when I decide to work on a film!  I’ll dedicate as much as two weeks at a time to a film, or sometimes just a day or two.  Then inevitably it’s time to give technology a rest and get back to the direct and organic nature of painting.  Painting has a much more pleasing workflow to it, and I can work on a single piece continually for weeks or even months at a time.  Since I do the films in shorter bursts, I finish maybe one per year.  I don’t think about whether it’s a “risky” use of time or not; I just follow my muse and dive in.  At any point if I’m compelled to keep on a film for longer stretches, or even start to finish, I’ll do so. But at this point, that hasn’t happened yet.

What do you like to do outside of the studio? 

I like museums, movies, baseball, basketball and hockey games and riding my motorcycle (weather permitting).  But most of all I enjoy hanging out with my wife Sally and our four dogs – doing any of the above, or just spending good time together.

Painting by Chris Mars

What kind of dogs do you have and what are their names?

“Lambchop” is a Italian greyhound/poodle mix (we think) from the local pound, “Goo” is a small black messy haired mutt from the Humane Society, “Little” is a very small long haired Chihuahua we fostered but (like Lambchop) wound up keeping, and “Larson” is our elder statesman, also a long-haired Chihuahua – he’s pushing 15.  Dogs are wonderful.

Chris Mars Interview
Lambchop
Chris Mars Interview
Larson
Chris Mars Interview
Little

Your paintings have evolved over the last ten or more years. Technically the compositions appear to be getting tighter. It seems as if your burrowing deeper and deeper into individual figures. On one level you’re achieving this with more minute detail. Although, do you feel there continues to be more psychological aspects to the figures you paint than there was in the past? 

Yes, I think that my attention – and time spent with a expressive pose or facial expression – has increased. Even digging in to what a single eye can express has changed for me.  And getting more adventurous with color adds a new dimension.  I think that age, experience and patience are coming into play a bit more.  I too can see the evolution in the work and find it interesting to see that I likely couldn’t paint just how I did say 10 years ago if I tried. Certain times of life and the stimulus received tend to change, while universal themes stay the same.

 

Painting by Chris Mars

I see your work as having lot’s of humor. How do most people react to your art? Have you ever heard any interpretations that surprised you?

Thanks, I’m glad that you see some of the humor.  Upon first discovering my work, some think that it is dark and grotesque and are put off by it, but then after digging a bit deeper into my overall message, they aren’t.  People viewing the work come from diverse parts of the world.  Accordingly, I hear diverse comments as well, with most connecting with it in an open, positive way.   I really do appreciate anyone who takes the time to view it, or comment on it.  To me, it is more evidence that we can all connect over most things no matter what our individual backgrounds are.  I am very thankful for the support and great feedback from everywhere in the world.  It’s inspiring!

Painting by Chris Mars

Back in the day, Juxtapoz wasn’t an easy magazine to find. At least for a kid in southern Indiana in the mid 90’s. There was one sketchy newsstand downtown that carried it. Along with biker magazines, High Times, and porn. Now, it and many other magazine like it can be found in any bookstore you walk into. 

Just like so many other things, underground art eventually surfaced into the main stream. Times change and for better or worse, that’s usually the natural evolution of things .

You were on the ground floor when that branch of underground art started to come together in the 90’s. Is it bizarre for you to see how everything has shaken out since then?

I think generationally speaking, there was a need that Juxtapoz – and other magazines to follow (HEY!, Hi-Fructose, Inside Artzine, etc.) – filled, and continue to fill, for the art and artists existing in real time. Juxtapoz was a breath of fresh air that started a shift in awareness – I am grateful for all their support – along with Hi-Fructose and Hey! and so many others! Since then, as we know, the internet keeps advancing, putting us in a new age with an instant ability to connect and discover like no other time. I wonder how this era of immediacy alone will shape this movement historically?

To see more Chris’ work be sure to stop by his site.

Painting by Chris Mars

An Interview with Painter Chris Mars


by Kevin Titzer

From Chris’ Facebook Page: “Chris’s work is influenced and inspired by his brother Joe’s experiences with mental illness, for which Joe was periodically institutionalized during Chris’s childhood, and with which Joe continues to struggle. The sensitivity and empathy Chris developed relative to these experiences are evident in his visual art, which serves to raise awareness of the various issues associated with mental illness and its treatment, as well as confronting xenophobia in its various social and psychological incarnations.”