Adekunle Adewunmi, Contributing Editor
Interview: Featured Artist Andrew Marshall
Andrew Marshall is a painter, writer, and photographer living and working in the eastern Sierras. His paintings, photographs, essays, and poetry have appeared or are forthcoming in Open: The Journal of Arts and Letters, The Offbeat Magazine, Gravel Magazine, Trampset Magazine, The Raven’s Perch, Junto Magazine, the West Texas Literary Review, Upventur.com, and Backpackinglight.com. His work across all mediums is concerned with texture, light, atmosphere, moment, and man’s interaction with nature. Marshall is a backpacker, mountain biker, and paddler. He’s trying to learn to boulder but he’s better at walking in a straight line than he is climbing up a rock. Andrew Marshall has a full time creator since the summer of 2017.
Adewunmi for O:JA&L: Please, Andrew, tell us a little about yourself by way of introduction.
Marshall: I grew up in the southeast, living in Alabama, Tennessee, Texas, and Georgia, more than once in a few of those states. My Dad is a biologist and animal behaviorist who got involved in zoos very early in his career. There’s only so many zoo jobs in the world so that’s why we moved around so much. My dad’s father was an engineer and my mom’s father was a chemist. I’ve absorbed a lot of that scientific way of thinking even though I’ve pursued a career in the arts.
Currently I live in the Eastern Sierras on the north shore of Lake Tahoe. I’ve also spent a few years in the Southwest, which I love, but most of my life has been spent in the southeast. I have an interesting love / hate relationship with the south and its culture. I can say, however, that slow cooked pulled pork with North Carolina mustard sauce is the greatest culinary experience that anyone could ever have.
I grew up camping, backpacking, hiking, mountain biking, and paddling. These activities are still a central part of my life and inform my subject matter and the nature of my work across all my mediums: painting, photography, creative non-fiction, and poetry. In 2012 I thru-hiked all 2,187 miles of the Appalachian Trail, and in 2015 I thru-hiked the Colorado Trail. In 2017 my wife and I walked across Scotland. Currently I’m planning my next hike—either The Pacific Crest Trail or the Arizona Trail.
Marshall: My formal training was as a documentary filmmaker. I attended the Savannah College of Art and Design. The nice thing about going there was that bulk of my classes were a solid grounding in formal art: principles of design, color, form, and so forth. Art History. The philosophy of art. I was exposed to all of that even though I was studying filmmaking, and later in my career as I transitioned to painting and photography it all came back around. And of course you can make the argument that all those elements are useful for a filmmaker as well.
Adewunmi for O:JA&L: Can you share with us some of your formative experiences and influences?
Marshall: I had a few influential courses and teachers. I want to spend some time talking about them because I’m a great believer in the power of teachers and mentors. It really makes a difference and it can be an extremely thankless task. I had a brief side career as an educator, only a few years. But it was long enough to know that having a former student sing your praises is a great feeling, and there are few good feelings for teachers, even the outstanding ones. And mine were pretty outstanding.
My first real art teacher, Kevin Pullen, was extremely kind to me at a time in my life when I needed some kindness. I took my first class from him my sophomore year of high school. I was having a rough go of it, I had super bad acne even by normal teenager standards. I was short and shy and nerdy and got picked on. (I’m still short and nerdy but some things never change.) Kevin came alongside me and really went out of his way to lift me up in addition to giving me my first real grounding in art training. We are still in touch so hopefully he’s reading or listening to this. Thanks Kevin. You made a difference.
My color theory professor in college, who’s name I can’t remember unfortunately, was extremely demanding. I was randomly assigned to her class and she had a reputation for giving low grades. But I really took to the subject. Learning the science behind how colors works was very appealing to me. She only let us paint with primary colors, and I spent months and months making huge color wheels and charts with minute variations in saturation, hue, tint, and shade with nothing but red, blue, yellow, white, and black. In my life as a painter, this training has really come in handy. My paintings are very focused on color and color interaction.
Adewunmi for O:JA&L: You’ve also demonstrated no small degree of creative talent as a writer, isn’t that true?
Marshall: Since I’m finding some success in my writing career as well, I should give a shout-out to Francis Bilon and Adrienne Elder, two of my high school English teachers. I’ve always been a voracious reader but I think I did the minimum amount of work possible in their classes. I was too busy reading fantasy novels I guess. But hopefully they read this as well and they should know that I’ve gone back and read everything they tried to expose me to. Thanks Francis and Adrienne!
Adewunmi for O:JA&L: You have a broad artist’s resume which, as you say, includes filmmaking. Whom do you credit for shaping your early sensitivities in that regard?
Marshall: I had a documentary professor named Kevin McCarry who was very influential to me. He’d been a writer and director at National Geographic, which at the time was my dream job. He pushed me a little in his class: dropped me into a difficult teamwork situation with another student because he knew I could handle it. It was frustrating at the time but I quickly came to appreciate that kind of teaching strategy, especially once I became a teacher myself. Kevin also recommended me to an internship with NatGeo in DC. I spent the summer there in DC learning how to navigate a real city, going to museums, and working with cool folks at Nat Geo. That set me up for the first few years of career number one, and I’ve never forgotten it. Kevin and I have recently re-connected, so thanks Kevin!
Adewunmi for O:JA&L: Your career as a full-time creator can’t have been all roses. What have been some of the challenges?
Marshall: I’ve mentioned a few times that I’ve had three careers, art being the third. I was a few years into my first career as a filmmaker when I started suffering from some severe mental health issues. Depression and anxiety snuck up on my very quickly in my early twenties, and by the time I was twenty seven my life was falling apart. I didn’t really understand what was going on. This was only six or seven years ago but you have to realize how much more open and talkative everybody is about mental health now-a-days. I eventually got it managed through a combination of professional help, meds, meditation, exercise, good eating habits, better sleep…I mean in the last few years I’ve changed virtually every aspect of my life. Still I stay “managed” because all you can ever do is manage. There really isn’t a cure. I still have bad days, bad weeks, bad months. But it’s workable.
In any case, by the time I got it under control I’d lost my job and burned some bridges or lost contact with a lot of the people who could help me move my filmmaking career forward. My wife was working in education so I spent four years doing that. I found that career to be both extremely rewarding and extremely draining, particularly to the part of me that was also trying to create. After getting my mental health back on track I was feeling the urge to be creative again, and eventually we decided that I should give being a full time artistic professional a shot.
Adewunmi for O:JA&L: Full-time creators are a pretty rare breed. The muses are often fickle mistresses and the free marketplace is not a very dependable paymaster. How do you cope with those emotional and economic irregularities?
Marshall: These days I make my money through freelance photography, selling paintings in a variety of places, writing, and the occasional freelance video project. When you combine all that together it’s ALMOST a full salary. But it’s taken me a year and a half and an extremely supportive spouse to get there. My current formula for success is
Luck + support system + networking + mental / emotional space (or bandwidth) + hard work + talent = success…and in that order of importance.
People don’t like this formula because they don’t like to be confronted with how much luck, support, and who you know contributes to success. In America especially we have internalized the myth that hard work and talent gets you ahead in life no matter what. It is certainly a factor, but the other stuff is more important.
There are mutants out there that are so talented that they will succeed no matter what…but for most of us it comes down to these other factors. So having someone willing to support you financially / emotionally is incredibly important for the success of an artist. My wife encouraged me to seek help for my mental illness and stuck by me through the worst of it. She saw me for who I had the potential to be, not who I was when she met me. It’s not an exaggeration to say I probably wouldn’t be alive if not for her. And I certainly wouldn’t be creating, much less making a living at it, if not for her support and patience in every aspect of our life together. Artists can be difficult to live with.
Marshall: Currently I don’t have a mentor. I’m looking for one if anyone is interested. There are definitely some people I’ve reached out to who are slightly farther along the path than I am. I have a few friends who are painters that I talk to about process, marketing, the nuts and bolts of this life: Margalina Lepore and B.J. Parker. A guy in El Paso named Terrence Flores. He’s not even a mentor, just someone I met at an artists’ market. He was living as a carpenter and one day decided to decided to be a painter and is succeeding at it. I’m very inspired by that. I have a friend named Carolyn Crist who is a freelance writer and she helps me figure out things like markets and how to promote myself. So I have a pretty good community even if I don’t have a mentor per say. I’ve been very intentional about it. Networking, networking, networking!
There are a few people people farther back on the path than I am. I don’t know if I’m mentoring them, but I help when I can. They ask me questions, and I’m able to help them out with problems that maybe I’ve only solved for myself a few months ago. For all its perks this is an incredibly difficult life in which to be successful. We have to help each other.
Adewunmi for O:JA&L: What was your process of self-discovery? How did you make the decision to seek critical acceptance and commercial success?
Marshall: So I’ve only been doing this for nearly two years. I don’t think I’ve ever made a decision to seek out “critical acceptance.” I pay my bills with this stuff, I can’t afford to be snobby about it. So I have three goals as an artist. The first is to get my work in front of people. I’m sure there are some people who get fulfilled with the simple act of creation, but that isn’t me. I need people to see it. So I do artist markets, try to get my stuff in galleries, and submit to journals and publications. I also intentionally cultivate my social media networks, as much as I think social media is creative poison. I sell a lot of stuff through facebook and instagram.
That leads me into my second goal, which is for people to buy my work or pay me for my work. As I said, this is how I contribute to my family’s finances. This is my job. So I am thinking as I paint, or write…how will this speak to someone? Will it create an emotion or a feeling or a connection? Because if it does…they might buy it. And then if they do buy it, the question is…well WHAT was it in that piece that spoke to that person, and why? Because I’m trying to replicate that. A part of what I do is experimentation. But I’m also pretty intentional about what I’m creating. You only have so much time.
The third goal of course is happiness, or fulfillment, or whatever you want to call it. I have conflicting thoughts about this. In the last few years I’ve been subscribing to Stoic philosophy, which says essentially that you don’t have to let outside circumstances affect your mood or happiness. So taken to its logical extreme, I should be able to be happy if I had a bullshit middle management job somewhere that I wasn’t actually…doing…anything. But I’m not that good of a Stoic. As much as I believe the philosophy, I’m terrible at it, actually. So I need to be creating. Getting into the flow of a painting or a poem or an essay, or taking a picture that speaks to people…it scratches my itch in the deepest possible way. I would say this is the most important of the three goals, but honestly, paying my rent and buying groceries is pretty important to me. I realize that’s not very romantic, but neither is your power getting turned off cause you can’t pay the bill.
Of course creating is also extremely difficult when it isn’t going well. Discouraging. If I’m not careful, I can let a lack of creating output get me depressed (clinically) and that of course leads to a further lack of output. It’s a cycle that I’ve been able to break only by being okay with focusing on process over result. The idea is to paint or write even if it’s shitty. Maybe especially when it’s shitty. See Annie Lammot, et al.
Adewunmi for O:JA&L: What forces shaped your present focus? What pushed you from filmmaking into writing and painting?
Marshall: I guess the most influential thing that has happened to me was struggling with depression and anxiety and eventually learning to how to cope with it. I’m not saying that because having mental health issues makes me a better artist. I don’t believe that. But it did change the course of my life, my career, my relationships. Some things would have been better if I’d never had those struggles. But a lot of good has come out of it. I don’t believe in fate, or karma, or a plan for my life laid down by a higher power. I’d probably be happier if I did. But I do believe that you can make the best of your life as it currently is, and I believe that you can always improve yourself. There’s a pretty good book called The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday. The title sounds like self-help nonsense, but it’s based on Stoic philosophy, the central ideas of which also show up in Buddhism, the Tao Te Ching, and other ancient modes of thought. Anyway, the idea is that sometimes problems force you into different modes of thinking, different experiences you might not have had.
Had I not struggled with mental illness, I’d probably still be making documentaries. It wouldn’t be better or worse. Just different. By the way my mom hates it when I call it mental illness. Sorry, Mom. But I try to be as open about this stuff as possible. I think we have to stop couching this stuff in terms that don’t speak to the truth of it. Being open and plain-speaking about it is the only way to remove the stigma and encourage others to get help.
Adewunmi for O:JA&L: To which artists or movements do you look for models? To which individual works for examples of perfection?
Marshall: The work of J.M.W. Turner has always spoken to me, even before I was a painter. Especially his late work. That stuff kind of exists in its own category. His landscapes have this texture and light, like the canvas is on fire. Spectacular. I’m trying to achieve that texture and glow and atmosphere with watercolors. My oil painting friend B.J. says that I’ve automatically set myself up for frustration because oils have the glow, you know? I’m going to keep trying anyway.
I love all of Turner’s late stuff, but particularly Snow Storm – Steam Boat off a Harbor’s Mouth, and Light and Colour, – The Morning After the Deluge. But really…any of his stuff. Snow Storm is the desktop background to my computer. I look at it every single day.
Any time I can sit in front of a Monet water lily painting I do. Not because I consider myself an impressionist, but because I really admire the idea of choosing a subject and mastering it. How long did Monet paint water lilies? I don’t know off the top of my head but it was a long time. I’ve been painting for two years. It awes me. Plus those big water lily paintings…you can just fall into them. You have to see them in person.
Adewunmi for O:JA&L: What’s your studio work schedule?
Marshall: I have a pretty locked in schedule in some ways, but it stays pretty relaxed in others. My wife is a teacher and she rides her bike to work, so she gets up early. I get up fifteen minutes before she does, at five-fifteen. I make her coffee, and we sit and drink our coffee and read for forty-five minutes or so, then we do yoga. It’s a great start to the day. I think it’s important to put good inputs into your head at all times, but especially first thing in the morning. So I read poetry, philosophy, and thoughtful essays first thing in the morning. Fiction at night. I try not to look at my phone during this morning time. I’m getting better at it, but I’m still not a hundred percent successful.
After she goes to work I’ll go on a run or lift weights. I don’t eat breakfast. After a workout I get to work, usually by seven thirty or eight. That can be painting or writing or making a video. This is where the fluidity comes in. Sometimes I bounce around between projects all day long, sometimes I work on one thing for the entire day. I set an alarm and move around every thirty minutes or so, do some pull ups, whatever. If I get stuck on something I’ll take a walk or take a cold shower. Anything to take my mind out of the equation.
I take a break at noon to eat lunch. Back to work at twelve thirty and then, if I have some space in my day, I’ll go on a mountain bike ride around two thirty or so. When I get back from that I’ll work till my wife gets home at five. Then I cook dinner for her. I love cooking. It’s like painting, I think.
I have a diner right down the street from me that I walk to every Monday. I’m trying to become a local. It’s a nice way to start the week. That’s the ideal schedule, it doesn’t always work out that way.
Adewunmi for O:JA&L: Do you have dependable sources of inspiration?
Marshall: I don’t really believe in inspiration. I mean, not in the sense of inspiration as this mystical place from which ideas and the will to be creative flow. So in that sense I don’t really have a “source of inspiration.” My work does tend to center on outdoor spaces, textures, and light because I enjoy being in those places and observing those things. As I said earlier, I try to maximize useful input, minimize negative input, and leave empty space in my life to do good work. Sometimes what those things are changes, but that is pretty much how I “inspire” myself. By surrounding myself with inputs, situations, and activities that make me happy.
Adewunmi for O:JA&L: Do you have a preferred artistic medium?
Marshall: I’ve only ever painted with watercolor, outside of some early experiments with oils and acrylic in high school. I took up watercolor seriously about two years ago. Before that my primary medium was photography. I still take a lot of pictures but mostly my medium these days is a keyboard and journal and a pen for writing, and watercolor for painting. I use masking fluid in some of my paintings.
I started painting because everything that I was creating just existed on a computer. I wanted something tangible. So at first it was 100% about process. Just putting paint on paper, watching how it blended, feeling the texture of the paper. That was the initial reason I chose watercolor–because I didn’t care what the end product looked like. After a while people started asking to buy my paintings, and here we are.
I like watercolor for a few reasons. One, it’s quick. That means I can power through a painting if I don’t like where it is going. Most of the time I get over the “hate it” phase in a few minutes and then by the time I’m done I’m okay with it…or occasionally love it. My friends who paint in oils tell me that sometimes that phase can last for weeks for them.
It’s cliche to say, but I also love fluidity and messiness of watercolor. It’s such a contradictory medium. It requires careful planning, control, understanding. It also requires that you be okay with what happens and just let things be. Both things appeal to me.
I like that you really have to be cautious not to overwork it. The medium itself forces me to be done and accept what I’ve accomplished. I need that because otherwise I’d have to exert self control to be finished, and I have enough things taking up my energy in that department!
Adewunmi for O:JA&L: Do you have particular techniques that you use for invention? Particular ways to visualize then come to what you want the end-product to be?
Marshall: Watercolor is great for experimentation. Another cliche, but many times the accidents that happen with watercolor are the things that I set about trying to replicate in later paintings.
Another way that I innovate is by careful observation of how my work is impacting people. This is best done in person. I started selling work at a weekly artists market nearly a year ago, and it really gave me a way to focus on making impactful work. You can watch hundreds of people walk by your tent and observe what catches their eye, what draws them in, and what they spend time looking at once they are engaged with your work. It’s a great way to experiment. Sometimes stuff that you hate when you are working on it ends up being your most popular piece. You never know.
Getting your work directly in front of people (as opposed to online) is really important. I don’t think you can judge what impact your work is having based on facebook or instagram likes. People like everything. With some exceptions, you never know if the person giving you a “like” is doing so because they are genuinely engaged with your work or if they are just getting a “feel good” from hitting a “like” button.
Adewunmi for O:JA&L: I know we talked about “subject matter” earlier in a broad sense, but on the other end of that do you consciously pursue particular themes or some other core of artistic values?
Marshall: My work is focused almost entirely on texture and color and composition. I’m not interested in trying to show depth. Maybe that’s because I’m just bad at it as a painter. But my photography is increasingly focused on flatness as well.
I guess this could also be a reaction to how I spent the first ten years of my creative life, as a filmmaker. Filmmaking is very concerned with depth, as a rule, unless you are Wes Anderson or somebody like that. So maybe my photography and painting is a pendulum swing in the other direction.
For the most part I’m painting abstract landscapes or plants and animals. I have no reason for this other than it makes me happy to do so
Adewunmi for O:JA&L: Who is the ideal audience for your paintings?
Marshall: My experience selling at markets tells me that my ideal audience seems to be college-aged women and children under the age of twelve. I have no idea why this is. These are just the people who engage most often and most positively with my paintings. These are not demographics known for having lots of disposable income, so that’s unfortunate.
Women over the age of fifty also seem to really like my work, though not as much as the first groups I mentioned. They tend to have more money than college aged women, as a general rule.
People who love the outdoors also dig my stuff, especially the more recent stuff that focuses specifically on mountain skylines.
Adewunmi for O:JA&L: What is your latest project?
Marshall: I just created two pieces that are themed around wildfires. Wildfires are a big deal here in my neck of the woods.
Adewunmi for O:JA&L: Among your many pieces, which is your personal favorite?
Marshall: I really like the pieces I just mentioned. My work is heavily influenced by my environment. For a while I was living in the Chihuahuan Desert in far West Texas. I was painting cactus native to that area, and I did a few paintings, both of which are sold, that I really really like. One was a prickly pear and one was an ocotillo. I’m happy I sold that work because that money went to buying groceries, but I kinda wish I still had those pieces hanging up in my own house.
Adewunmi for O:JA&L: Do you have other points you’d like to make for art as a unifying energy?
Marshall: I think there really is a role for the artist as a critique or commentary on our society. That doesn’t happen to be what I do as an artist, but I think that’s okay. Not every artist has to do that. I try to put beauty into the world through my art, and I’m intentional about speaking out for the things I believe in in other ways. As a straight white man I think the best thing I can do is be vocal against injustice. But I don’t do it through my art. I think that it is also the job of some artists to just create relief. Something beautiful. Something that draws you in and allows you to be in a different place for a little while. So that’s what I do.
I think artists can also help society by donating time and energy as teachers of art, particularly to communities in need of beauty. There’s an organization in my hometown in Georgia called Backstreet Community Arts started by an artist there named Kim Ramey. Backstreet is a place that anyone can just walk into and be creative. Backstreet does work with homeless communities, the recovery community, everybody. They do lessons and have open studio time, and it’s funded by donations. Kim says that “Art Saves Lives.” She’s right. If you want to donate, it’s worth it.
Adewunmi for O:JA&L: On behalf of O:JA&L and our audience on all our platforms, I’d like to thank you for your participation in our interview program. For readers who want more experience with your watercolors, do you have any upcoming events or exhibitions where readers can view your work?
Marshall: My work is appearing in a show in Mammoth California as part of the Fall High Ball put on by the American Alpine Club. That show is November 2nd – 4th. The best way, however, to see and purchase my newest work is to follow me on instagram. You can also find me on facebook where I have a professional page. I have a twitter feed that I mostly use to look at news. I talk politics on my twitter feed so be aware of that. My website is a good place to find links to my poetry and essays and to see my body of photographic work. But for the paintings you probably want to use instagram. I don’t update my website as often as I should because time spent on updating my website is time that I’m not painting or writing.
About the interviewer:
An O:JA&L Contributing Editor for Interviews, Adekunle Adewunmi earned a Higher National Diploma (HND) with a concentration in Mass Communication from Moshood Abiola Polytechnic (MAPOLY) in Abeokuta, Nigeria. He is a blogger at Pulse NG, an award-winning, youth-focused online media outlet. While at MAPOLY, Adekunle Adewunmi was the Sub Editor for MAPECHO (newspaper) and Omega Magazine, yearly publications of the school’s Mass Communication Department. Immediately after his graduation, he began work as a correspondent with Church Times, a specialized newspaper company. During Adekunle’s one year National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) programme at Kogi State Broadcasting Corporation, he worked as a Corps On-Air Personality (OAP) while submitting his poems and articles to the State’s newspaper for publication. He was recognized in 2018 by former President Olusegun Obasanjo as an Outstanding State Youth Ambassador for his efforts towards Curbing Youth Irregular Migration in Nigeria. Adekunle is also a poet. He has been published on Pulse NG, YNaija, The Novita, Akewiartshouse,and many other platforms.