From the archives: Studio visit with visual artist Marsha Clark
(originally published in December, 2014)
“You can’t just sit back and wait for your dreams to happen, you have to make them happen.” - MC
Marsha Clark pulls together the beauty from the world around her and makes it collide into something more than the sum of its parts. She uses paint, collage and installation works to convey emotions through images and colours with striking results. Not your stereotypical hermit artist, Marsha is strongly based in her community and makes single motherhood dovetail with working as an artist, starting community-building projects and initiating events in the local art scene. When I talked to her she was in the midst of putting together a group exhibition with the Emerge Artist Collective, founding the Recovery Art Studio (see below) and producing a series of large works in collaboration with an artist friend. Marsha is the kind of person that you want to watch because you never know what they’ll come up with next, only that it will be good.
I visited Marsha in her walk-up studio in Fredericton on a rainy, grey day in the fall. She shares the studio space with three other artists and has marked her territory by painting the walls bright red. “I have to make it mine!” she says. Her studio certainly stands out, all 10 square feet of it. Real estate isn’t cheap and although hundreds of square feet of empty space sit next to their studios, these artists make it work with what they have. Marsha hadn’t occupied the space long, but I could already see how her space reflected who she was. The huge canvases and finished works on the walls described her as a working artist and the stickers and glow-paint showed that she is also a working mother who includes her nine-year-old daughter in every aspect of life.
Marsha was easy to talk to, very open about her journey and the struggles faced by every artist but at the same time optimistic about the future. As a mother I tip my hat to this determined woman who juggles so much on top of parenting (which is already a big job!) and takes every opportunity to bring beauty to the community around her.
How did you become an artist?
I’ve always been creative. I was looking through my school scrapbook once and right from second grade I said I wanted to be an artist, even though I didn’t really know what that meant. My parents were not university educated and their expectations of my future were a lot different than mine. When it came time to apply to programs after high school, I applied to only 2 places - Ryerson and Ontario College of Art and Design (which rejected me). My parents wanted me to stay close to home, but I needed to leave NB. I was 17 when I left and took a nanny job in Pickering, Ontario during the summer between high school and Ryerson. I studied Technical Theatre for two years then transferred to Sheridan College for a diploma in Craft and Design. It was an amazing 3 years. Then I came back to NB. I think a lot of us do. Family is important and it was one of the best things I could have done for my career really. Artists and craftspeople are like a dime a dozen out there, the competition is so fierce. It was really hard to break in anywhere, whereas Fredericton and the Maritimes have given me opportunities to make and show my work and associate with some really talented artists.
How would you describe your process? What materials do you use?
My process is very material driven. It starts with an idea in my head. If you see me sitting and starting off into space I’m not being idle, I’m creating a painting I my head! I work mostly on Mylar, it’s a plastic. It has a really velvety smooth texture to it, paint and ink just sit on top instead of absorbing into it. I really like that because you can move it around and work with it longer. A lot of the work that I do is putting pure pigment on the Mylar and then adding water to it creating big washes of colour. I also do collage, using pretty much anything that can be stuck on to the board I'm working on. Bits of scrap paper, tissue paper, old letters, or magazine pictures are examples of found things. I also work with photographs I've taken, or in the case of “Underdogs”, with an established photographer. Acrylic paint, various gel and pour mediums, pencil and charcoal can be used.
What is it like balancing your work as an artist and being a single parent?
Being an artist and a single parent is very challenging. Not impossible, but pretty tough. I have to make a lot of compromises. My daughter is now nine years old, which means she has longer days at school, more activities and some independence; when she was under school age a lot of my work got put on hold. Even now, I have to force myself to work during the hours she is at school or occupied, which can sometimes be very difficult because I like to work at night. I used to have a small set up in our apartment because I couldn't leave the house much (anyone with small children, especially single parents, knows that you're pretty much under house arrest for the first 5 years) but as she grew, and I spent more time creating, I outgrew the home studio (which was a closet and my kitchen table) and moved into a proper studio space downtown.
You co-founded the Recovery Art Studio. Can you tell me more about that?
The Recovery Art Studio is a very special project I started with my partner Nancy Morin, who is an Occupational Therapist, in September of 2014. It is still very much in its infant stages, or maybe toddler stage now. It is a weekly 2 hour art class offered free of charge to clients of Mental Health and Addictions Services. We receive some support from the Capital Regional Mental Health and Addictions Association, but we have plans to do some of our own fundraising to bolster the program, which is growing in numbers every week. The curriculum is based on Expressive Art Therapy practices. Nancy and I work together to develop lessons that focus on improving 3 main areas of healing: building community, building confidence and self worth, and developing or strengthening transferable skills to help people lead a full and meaningful life in the larger context of life, play and work. We do things like guided imagery meditation, mandalas, painting, drawing, some clay, some textile projects, and I try to get in a guest artist every couple of months. We had Cynthia Ryder come and do Zentangles and meditation drawing, and we've got Keri Ryan coming in March, who does book binding. It's incredibly exciting and gratifying to see people grow and gain confidence in themselves.
What are you working on right now?
Right now I'm working on a series of 9 large collages (36"x60") called “Underdogs” to fulfil a creation grant I received from ArtsNB in 2014. It is a combination of painting and photography. The photographer I'm working with is Wesley Gould, of Halifax NS, who constructs his own hand made pinhole cameras and develops the film himself. He is an amazing photographer who really understands black and white film photography, and it's a privilege working with him to create this body of work. We came up with an idea to document our roots and respective flight paths away from home. We've taken photos in and around Minto (our point of origin), Halifax and Fredericton, then I use them to build a collage painting that sort of addresses the distortion of time and memory… where there is clear and concrete infrastructure, like a bridge or building, there is also variation in how we place ourselves in our past landscapes. He sends me the photos and I spend hours cutting them out in minute detail and glueing them to colourfully painted canvases. We are hoping to have the project completed by the end of this year.
What do you do with your free time?
Honestly, I sleep as much as I can! Especially in the dead of a New Brunswick winter, I want to hibernate and snooze or cuddle up on the couch with my daughter and watch movies. Forget that shovelling nonsense, spring is almost here....right?
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
This question used to scare me to death. I couldn't place myself in my own future, be it five years or five months down the road. I was in such a survival mode that thinking beyond this month, this paycheck and this bill was impossible, to be honest. I've struggled to survive for a very long time, mostly because of my mental illness and economic disadvantage, and it's only in the past year or two that I've started to thrive again. I have applied to Dalhousie University to their Social Work program, and if all goes well I will be on that path this September. My goal is to become a certified Art Therapist and open my own practice, providing alternative therapy choices to the overworked, under resourced Mental Health system in this province. It sounds cheesy, but I really want to help people.