Interview: Mark Nesmith

Mark Nesmith

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Describe the time you first realized that creating was something you absolutely had to do? How old were you? Who or what inspired you at the beginning of your art life?  Who or what inspires your art life today?

I’ve drawn since I was a child. There wasn’t much art in our home but there were plenty of books. I’d take the encyclopedias off the bookshelves and copy the pictures. Growing up Catholic I saw lots of religious imagery too. I think of the stained glass windows and stations of the cross at St. Anne in Beaumont as my first art museum. I’ve never thought artists are necessarily different from anyone else. Drawing was just something I did. It satisfied my curiosity.

When I was young my older sister Marsie helped me create little costumes and things out of paper and took an interest in my drawings. She encouraged me. Drawing got me through many school book reports.

I took my first art class as a freshman in high school and hated it. I couldn’t stand the teacher. He’d take the brush or pencil out of your hand and make your work the way he wanted it. I dropped after one semester and spent the rest of high school in band.

It wasn’t until I’d bounced around majors for a couple of years in college that I enrolled in another art class. I took a drawing class with Larry Leach at Lamar University and loved it, but I wouldn’t let myself consider art as a major. I thought I needed a business degree or something for a career. Larry took me aside one day and asked me why I wasn’t studying art. When I told him that I needed a good degree for a job, he said I had it backwards. He said first get good at what you love, and then you’ll find a way to earn a living from it. Simple advice, but it made sense to me. I’d go by his studio sometimes. He had this great space in an old empty bar downtown. That was my first glimpse of a working artist. I took more classes from him and he introduced me to oil painting. He became very successful around that time which helped me believe I could do it too.

Why do you make art?  What are you trying to communicate with your art?  What element(s) of your inner spirit is reflected in your art?

I make art because I need to. There’s just too much rattling around inside my head to not let it out. Much of my work is inspired by the culture, wildlife, and landscapes of Texas and Louisiana near where I live. I happily spent my childhood roaming the woods, bayous, and beaches here. This emotional attachment to the terrain of my youth is my foundation. I want to make paintings like a good gumbo, rich in color with depth and layers of flavor and full of memories and imagination. Two themes reoccur, un-peopled landscapes that revel in the splendid beauty of nature, and narratives populated by wildlife personifying human traits. These somewhat whimsical tall tales reflect my unease with mankind’s relationship to nature and tackle subjects ranging from war and peace to consumerism and our society’s growing reliance on modern technology and media. I’ve always had an overactive funny bone. I spent some time as an editorial cartoonist in college. I think this side of my personality really comes out in these paintings.

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Is the atmosphere or design layout of your creative space/studio an important element in your creative process—why or why not?  Is there something—a keepsake, an inspirational quotation, a photograph—you keep in your studio for inspiration or motivation?

I’m more pragmatic than many artists I’ve met. I don’t need anything particular to create. I’ve worked in the living room, garage, or a spare bedroom. I don’t want any special requirements. That just seems like excuses not to paint. I’ve been very fortunate the last few years to have room available where I teach middle school art. I have an easel set up in the back of my classroom. It’s a very spacious environment with high ceilings and good natural light. I often paint before and after classes, at lunch, and whenever there’s a spare moment during my day. I’m still able to view my work when I’m not painting which has become a kind of critique process for me. My students often comment and ask questions about pieces I’m working on too. I think they learn from seeing my process and I certainly learn and gain inspiration from them.

Art and music are my anti-drugs. They keep me centered and balanced. If I go a while without creating I’m on edge. As far as inspiration, it’s all around me, the landscape, the people, news of the day, anything really. I find that work begets work. The more I paint the more ideas I have for new paintings. I often have several canvases drawn up and waiting for me to get around to finishing. I’m constantly taking photographs on my phone and have files of reference material and ideas on my computer. I tend to draw images when the initial idea comes together then come back to it again when I have time to really work through the painting end of things.

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What kind of routines or rituals do you incorporate into your creative time? If you have one element or principle of art you enjoy working with the most, please describe it? 

My routine is simple. It pretty much involves scraping the previous days’ paint off of my glass palette, putting out fresh piles of paint, and picking a playlist on iTunes to listen to while I work. I often paint to blues or jazz, but some days find me rocking the Foo Fighters, Soundgarden, or the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I don’t know that I have any particular favorites in terms of the elements or principles of art. I don’t think of them in a precise manner when working. Color obviously plays a big part in my work, but I don’t work from any specific color theory other than playing cool hues against warm. I’m happily at a point where I feel like I’ve internalized the academic aspects of my craft and can let intuition guide my brush.

Currently, which creative medium do you work in? What, if any, other creative medium would you love to pursue?

I’m primarily an oil painter, although I love charcoal and pastels too. I spent time in the past working in watercolors too, but oils are really my passion. I love everything about oil paint: the smell, the vibrancy of color, the buttery feel on the brush, the texture. I favor stiff bristle brushes and usually use a simple mix of stand oil and turpentine as a medium. Much of my ideas of handling color and brushstrokes actually come from the years I spent working with pastels. I’ve experimented with numerous materials and styles over my lifetime as an artist. What comes out now is a natural synthesis of all of those explorations. I think working in other media can often shed new light on the materials you’re already using. In college I did a bit of sculpture, and I’ve been thinking lately that some of my current ideas would make interesting 3D works so that may be something I pursue in the future. I recently saw a wonderful exhibit of encaustic works by another local painter and am kind of fascinated by that medium. I’d love to have the chance to explore it in the future. 

What is your most important artist tool?  How does this tool factor into your art making?

Sketchbooks have always been important for me, and these days I think of the camera on my phone as an extension of my sketchbook. I snap pictures constantly. I’ll manipulate and edit them and have multiple viewpoints of the same subject. Sometimes I even take pictures when I’m drawing from life as a supplemental reference. All of these images just sort of simmer beneath my conscious mind until they begin to merge with the spark of an idea. When I start fleshing it out I might have 5-6 photos open at a time and combine them as I draw on the canvas. I tend to plan out my paintings with charcoal first. This gives me a kind of road map. Eventually memory and imagination take over, especially when paint and color get involved. It all feels very organic and

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How do you keep yourself motivated?

Artists often use the words motivation and inspiration interchangeably. Personally I think writers or artists block is kind of a myth. I don’t think you ever just lose your ability to create. I think it’s more about self-discipline. We’re all creatures of habit. If sitting around waiting for something to happen is your habit, then often nothing happens. My habit is to go to the easel 5-6 days a week. Some days are better than others, but each day builds towards something. I had a few years where art was on the backburner. I’d had a few surgeries and my marriage was ending. I wasn’t feeling inspired and rarely found time to paint. Life just seemed too busy. It was easy to make excuses and not go to the easel. I hadn’t disciplined myself to work. Finally I started doing small daily paintings. It didn’t matter if I had any great ideas. I painted anything and everything just to paint. Since the canvases were small I could finish one in an hour or two. I had no more excuses. Soon I had a stack of paintings that started to look like a unified body of work. Eventually the ideas started flowing and the paintings grew larger.

What one piece of advice would you give to an artist just getting started?

Go to your studio and make stuff. Don’t wait for inspiration. Get to work. The great masters spent more time with a brush or chisel in their hands than we realize. The more you create, the better you’ll get, and the more inspired you’ll feel. Study technique and learn your craft. Don’t worry too much about being shocking or different. Be yourself. If you’re true to yourself your art will be uniquely yours.

If you want to make a career of art, you also have to work on the business end of things. Study marketing. Learn about websites and social media. Learn how to take good digital pictures of your artwork. Technology is here to stay. Learn how to communicate effectively, how to write a cover letter, a resume, and how to approach galleries. Don’t think someone will just discover you. Promote yourself. You have to believe in your own art first. With the Internet there’s no reason for your work to go unseen. Look for every opportunity to show your work. Start now. Don’t wait until you think you’re ready. If you don’t know how, find resources to help. There are lots of great books and articles out there. “I’d Rather Be in the Studio” by Alyson Stanfield is a great book with practical advice about building a career as an artist.

For what one thing would you like to be remembered?

I’d like to be remembered for how I’ve loved.

Describe yourself in one word.

Resilient.

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