Cause & Effect +
Art & Environment
A Meditative Approach
to Creative Process
Mental Contagion: In your Botanical
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
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
"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
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.
"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.
"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
Mark Van Wagner: I have been finding
the prints in resale shops, at liquidation warehouses or from private
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.
"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
"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
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
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.