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Not A Cornfield Mark Van Wagner
Mark Van Wagner is an artist living in Kilauea, Kauai, Hawaii Mark Van Wagner


Cause & Effect + Art & Environment
A Meditative Approach to Creative Process

May-June, 2008

Mental Contagion:
In your Botanical Abstractions series, you apply a technique in which you paint on glass, over a botanical image, and scrape the paint away to reveal parts of the original work. Many of the scrapings, "Blue Bird" for example, seem to follow the shape of the art beneath, and you describe the process as being executed in a "meditative state." Can you elaborate on this?

Mark Van Wagner: In a state of meditation, one will likely touch upon an ultimate moment of purity or pure perception, a moment devoid of any grasping or preconception—a moment full of potential. It’s also referred to as emptiness: empty of discursive  thoughts, empty of BS. But this state is not some kind of empty zombie state. It will also contain a clear awareness. Contrary to these statements, most of my work begins with an idea or concept (oddly enough).

I am working with my mind and within a framework literally and figuratively. In the Abstract Botanicals series, I am starting with a recycled piece of artwork. Of course, this has many implications. The botanical is also a scientific illustration and that has implications, especially because I am intentionally painting a completely referenceless abstraction above it. These aren’t random choices. There are reasons I have selected this type of recycled artwork to paint over. So in a sense these are some of the conceptual aspects of the piece.

Mark Van Wagner
"Blue Bird" from the Botanical Abstrction Series | Detail, Diptych, Mixed Media; 27" x 22"

When it’s time to paint over the selected works, I study them. I look at their features, their compositions, and their beauty. I then leave the conceptual aspect of the work and enter into a peaceful state as I begin masking off the glass area on which I will be painting. I slowly enter the meditative state (letting go of the mind) and begin to mix the colors selected for the piece. When the moment is authentic I begin applying the color. This is done quickly and is important to execute with complete freedom. The paint begins to dry in 5 minutes.

In the moments that follow, I must have the clarity and awareness (which also contain memory) to make the scraping away gestures, while not getting caught up in trying to remember everything. Accidents and surprise are always wonderful.

After it’s all over, I am always amazed that often the scrapings are in sync with the images below. So I appreciate your comment on how the scrapings follow the shape of the art below. I have to admit, sometimes it takes me a few times before I enter an open enough state to achieve a good result. I often have to wipe off the paint and start all over.

Mental Contagion: What attracted you to the alternation of concealment and revelation, which you explored in this series?

Mark Van Wagner: Perceptual confusion, discovery and surprise. Executing the artwork might be compared to a really fast archeological dig. It’s wonderful when a piece is finished. I love to check out what has been spontaneously scraped away and what hasn’t.

Mark Van Wagner
"Blue Bird" from the Botanical Abstrction Series | Detail, Diptych, Mixed Media; 27" x 22"

Mental Contagion: Why did you choose to present much of your work in multiples?

Mark Van Wagner: Presenting diptyches and triptychs creates a narrative quality and hopefully encourages us to study and compare each piece within the whole. What is being revealed or concealed from one frame to the other? Are the images under the paint similar, altered or completely different? The multiples are used to promote investigation as well as reveal the artistic decision making process. It’s also a useful tool to challenge ones memory and perception.

Mark Van Wagner
"Green Orange" from the Botanical Abstrction Series | Diptych, Mixed Media; 24" x 18"

Mental Contagion:
Where do you find the original drawings for the Botanical Abstractions series?

Mark Van Wagner: I have been finding the prints in resale shops, at liquidation warehouses or from private individuals.

Mental Contagion: What's your selection process like?

Mark Van Wagner: Presently, I look for botanical prints or Audubon-like prints that are available in multiples. I love the search process. I have acquired multiple prints that are the same image, but vary quite a bit in their quality. For instance, one print may be more faded than the other. This actually appeals to me for diptychs or other multiples because they appear to be different prints at first glance.

Mark Van Wagner
"Hole" from the Ontological Investigations Series | Mixed media; 16 " x 16 " x 42"

Mental Contagion: I understand you have been living between Kauai, HI and Boulder, Colorado for the past few years, and before that spent many years in Chicago. How much does place impact your art?

Mark Van Wagner: I think it definitely affects my attitude as well as the choice of materials. Living on Kauai has propelled me into creating work that I personally feel is as fresh and unique as any work I have previously completed. I feel less inhibited in my application of material living on Kauai. I feel more playful and childlike. I don’t know, maybe it’s all the sand? I also enjoy living in the middle of nowhere, without too many distractions and art world BS. I don’t have TV or high-speed Internet so the pace of life is really slow and enjoyable for me.

I was just in Chicago and happened to go to the Art Chicago art fair. It was just too overwhelming. I love Chicago and the spirit of the city, but the whole art scene meat market is a bit much for me. I showed there for years and graduated from the Art Institute of Chicago in 1982, so I have a lot of roots there, but I actually stopped doing art in Chicago in 1994. There were many reasons for this. I moved to Boulder in 1995 and didn’t get back into the swing of things until I lived on Kauai in 2005. So you could most definitely say place has had an impact on my art.

Boulder and Denver are a happy medium between the big urban scene of Chicago and the seclusion of Kauai. When I am in Colorado I love to head out into the mountains, view the big sky, observe Mother Nature and then be able to check out a quaint urban scene. I have created a few pieces in Colorado that I am pleased with.

Mark Van Wagner
"Hole" from the Ontological Investigations Series | Mixed media; 16 " x 16 " x 42"

Mental Contagion:
Do you notice a difference in your finished work or artistic process depending on where you are?

Mark Van Wagner: Yes and no. For now, Kauai is my creative retreat. The work is flowing out of me, so I have to attribute that to the place. The finished work (the inner work), as I mentioned before, has opened up and is freer. I am able to be much more expressive in a more minimal way. However, the finished “outer work,” I have to admit, might still be influenced by craft or folk art playfulness that I admired while living in Chicago.

I also have to say that on Kauai, right now, there is a small progressive artistic community on the island. These artists aren’t the typical Island Art artists that paint palm trees and oceans. They come from New York, San Francisco, LA, Santa Fe or Chicago. They have all showed their art in those cities or are still showing in them, and moved to Kauai to be in a remote place removed from “the scene.” Not only are they exceptional artists, but also good human beings who are genuinely supportive. I would also have to attribute their support in nurturing my artistic process. Here you are in the middle of nowhere and can have insightful informed feedback on the artistic process.

Mental Contagion: What are you working on right now?

Mark Van Wagner: I am developing more of the same: abstract botanicals, the sand box painting/drawings and the assemblage construction pieces I refer to as ontological investigations.

About the Artist

Mark Van Wagner is an artist living and working in Kilauea, Kauai, Hawaii and Boulder, Colorado. He has a BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in Chicago and also attended Colorado College, Colorado Springs, CO. Mark is a recipient of the REVCO Group, Ltd. Grant and the Community Arts Assistant Grant from the Chicago Office of Fine Arts and The Illinois Arts Council.

Mark's work will be on exhibit at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, May 16th through August 3rd, 2008.

For more information, visit Mark Van Wagner's Web site.

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