December 2, 2013 | 11 Comments »
If you’ve read either of my books, you probably picked up on my extreme love for fine artists.
In Glass Girl, Meg Kavanagh’s mother, Adele, is an artist whose sensitive nature makes life feel overwhelming at times. In Perfect Glass, Meg befriends Jo Russell, a cantankerous older woman who is considered one of the nation’s finest western artists. Both of these women have loads to teach Meg, who wants to be a writer. See, I believe with all my writer’s heart that fine artists and writers were meant to be friends — the soul-deep sort of friends. My painter friends teach me how to see the world more clearly and sometimes they rely on me to help them talk about the world.
My friends tend to be writers. I think writers and painters are really all the same—we just sit in our rooms. ~Howard Hodgkin
Often, when people ask me for advice about their writing, I tell them to get to an art gallery as quickly as possible. Or an art museum. Somewhere that allows them to be quiet with beautiful creations that came from brilliant artistic minds. For me, there is no clearer way to understand the world than by peeking into the mystery of art.
I am blessed beyond belief to call fine artist Mara Schasteen my friend. In fact, I call her more than friend … I call her mine. Emphasis on the possessive! We’ve been friends for years, through some beautiful days and some dark days. We’ve lost each other and found each other. We are separated now by many miles, but that doesn’t seem to matter. She’s oxygen to my soul.
We’re making lists of things we plan to talk about when we’re together for eternity.
I hatched a plan last week and got Mara on board. I was thinking about all of you dear Playlist Fiction readers who might love to get inside the head of an artist. Maybe you are artists. Maybe you’re writers who get the connection between the two acts of creation. Maybe you’re just curious about why artists are so odd. Whatever … here’s your chance.
I asked Mara to open up about the specific things I thought would interest you. You know, the “if you could ask an artist anything” kinds of questions.
So, here’s Mara the way she appears to me, all shimmer and shadow and translucence:
Laura: How old were you when you realized art would be your life? Did you tell your friends in high school what you thought you’d end up doing?
Mara: On the first day of first grade, I painted a watercolor meadowlark. I remember my own little hand sweeping a wet brush across beige construction paper. It felt right to me. I knew then. My parents say they freaked out when they discovered the painting hanging out of my backpack, bent and tattered all the way around. I was an artist from the first purple crayon I had in my hand at age two. I don’t remember considering myself to be anything else. And yes, all my friends in high school knew I was an artist to the core. I know I am incredibly blessed to have had this vision for my life from such a young age, but I promise — it doesn’t have to happen that way.
Laura: What were you like in high school? Total non-conformist? Shy? Nerd?
Mara: Nailed it! I was a total non-conformist, shy nerd! Seriously. I purposefully shopped for the most hilarious thrift store clothes I could find. And wore them. To school. I spent like five cents on my high school wardrobe. It was my way of sharing my sense of humor and coping with being from a low income family. One of my greatest finds we called “the llama sweater.” It was multiple shades of orange and it looked like it was made out of long, shaggy llama hair. It was so ugly! I laugh just thinking about myself wearing it. I was also a quiet person most of the time and a serious student. I was an accomplished violinist and National Honor Society member. I never once thought of myself as interesting. Not at all.
Laura: How many colors has your hair been?
Mara: My natural hair color went from red as a baby to blonde as a child, to very dark brown as a teen and then settled on reddish-brown as an adult. Nowadays, you can add silver to that. From a box, I’ve gone with everything from eggplant to platinum. So I guess you could say my hair has been about 40 colors.
Laura: For a fine artist, what’s the balance needed between classroom training and real life experience? Do you need to go to college?
Mara: I needed to go to college. Even though I was a self-disciplined and motivated teenager, college was an important part of my journey as an artist. I didn’t go to art school, though! I went to a Christian university where I found myself pursuing a liberal arts degree in advertising design. I never took one painting class. This may seem totally out of line with my very clear vision as a fine artist, but looking back, I understand why God led me down that road. As a professional artist, I am now relying on my design skills more and more and they have proven to be an incredible resource for my work as a painter.
In life, doors open and doors close. Walk through the open ones with an awareness of your own potential to become great. Pursue the Light beyond those open doors. God will lead you through rooms of experience and meadows of inspiration. That is real life. If college is available to you, walk through that open door. Study what interests you most. Never cease learning your craft. The language of your art will shift and sway according to your teachers and influences, but your voice was given to you by God. The knowledge of your own voice is vital. That knowledge is slowly learned in solitude and the drawing inward of your thoughts — accomplished through long hours alone with your art.
Laura: Are there painting prodigies like there are musical prodigies?
Mara: More than we know.
“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
Laura: Are we losing kids who would have gone into the arts but are discouraged from that because of the job market/economy? What happens to a world with fewer artists?
Mara: I’m not sure I have any answers to these sensitive questions. I do know that this world steers us constantly in ways related to our culture, our time in history, our demographics, our religious and family backgrounds and the kinds of encouragement we get from others. So many factors seem out of our control. What is in our control is how we Love – and that is also art. When an otherwise talented painter finds herself a mother of four with a full time desk job, her art may be the cookies she makes for her family on Sunday afternoons. When a young man devotes his body and mind to the service of our country, his art may be in the poetic letters he mails home. Looking at it from this perspective, I know art will never go away. Neither will artists. We are reflections of an eternally creative being.
Laura: What’s the weirdest place you’ve ever painted?
Mara: I’m kind of obsessed with cemeteries. I’ve painted in a few and imagined myself painting in a few more. They are emotional, quiet places and I am drawn to them often.
Laura: What’s your favorite oil color to paint with?
Mara: Titanium White. Sometimes, I am amazed at how boring I can be.
Laura: Do you enjoy the business part of your career?
Mara: I did at first. I may enjoy it again in the future. Right now, I am going through a very introverted phase where I can hardly will myself to take a commission or send a painting to a show. Lucky for me, I have a very supportive husband who encourages me always in this regard. I would prefer to be a working artist with no business sense, but that is a luxury only strangely exceptional artists get to have.
Laura: What does it feel like to stand back and observe someone looking at your painting? Do you feel exposed and vulnerable or proud and powerful?
Mara: I have felt proud and powerful in the past. The more mature and skilled I become, the more exposed and vulnerable I feel. My heart is in the paint.
Laura: What would you do differently in your life if you had it to do over?
Mara: I would have started practicing Yoga as a teenager. I would have taken more music lessons. I would have read more books. If I could do it all over, I’d go into it with deep knowledge of my own inner and outer beauty. I think if I had loved myself more, I’d have loved those around me better, too.
Laura: Have you ever painted a piece on a wall where it might have been the tiniest bit illegal? Just a bit of Mara-grafitti?
Mara: I painted a landscape in oil paint on the side of a rock in the Big Horn Mountains. I wonder if it is still there and what people must think when they see it. Maybe that sounds romantic, but truthfully, I had forgotten my canvas.
Laura: Why do I love John Singer Sargent so much?
Mara: Ha! John Singer Sargent approached his work with incredible skill, but at the same time he was willing to look deeply into a subject and explore themes not only from an aesthetic perspective, but from a very soulful one. His portraits are more than likenesses, they are commentaries of the sitter from his observation. Some of his most famous works were criticized as being an inaccurate likeness or of poor taste. Sargent seemed to be after something other than exact renderings in his pursuits. I think he felt deep passion and had to express this in color. I think you like Sargent because you sense struggle – even pain – expressed in glorious, rich strokes of perfectly placed paint. To his pursuit of excellence fueled by intense passion, you can deeply relate.
Laura: Who is your favorite contemporary fine artist?
Mara: Nancy Guzik.
Thank you, Mara!