An Interview with Mark Nesmith - Artists of Texas
How old were you when you realized you were an “artist”?
I’ve drawn since I was a kid, but I actually don’t ever call myself an artist. I paint, I draw, and I make things. I work. To this day I’m completely humbled and blown away when people relate to what I do and want to make one of my paintings part of their life.
Who or what inspired you as you to make art in the beginning?
My family’s home growing up didn’t have much artwork in the conventional sense. There were a few prints, but most of what was around us were religious images. A plaque of the Last Supper, plaster sculptures of Jesus and Mary. I always say my first art museum was the Catholic Church. I’d lose myself in the stained glass windows and the paintings of the Stations of the Cross.
Our home was full of books though, including a couple of sets of encyclopedias. I used to go through the encyclopedias and read and then draw the pictures I found. My older sister Marsie, who teaches art in the Beaumont ISD, used to help me with little art projects and just creative things like making astronaut suits out of paper and tape.
I took an art class my freshman year of high school but couldn’t stand it so I transferred out at the semester and stuck with band. I didn’t pursue it again until I’d been in college a few years. I’d started out majoring in music but had to work a job too much to keep up with the schedule. I bounced around in some business classes before finally enrolling in a drawing class taught by Larry Leach. Larry is an incredible painter and has been my mentor and friend ever since. People could see lots of similarities between some of our work, though we arrived at them through different paths. Larry was the first one to make me think I could actually pursue and make a career of art. I’d been torn between my creative impulses and the idea that I needed a degree that would earn a living. Larry told me first get good at what you love, and then you’ll find a way to make money at it.
What is your background in art?
I earned my B.F.A. in painting and drawing from Lamar University in Beaumont, TX in 1998. I’ve also taken some graduate level classes from UNT in Denton. I’ve taught everything from pre-k to high school art in private and public schools for more than a decade.
What role do you feel an artist has in society?
These days everyone seems to be traveling at warp speed. We’re constantly bombarded by information and images and rushing from one to-do list to the next. I think the greatest role of the artist is to get people to stop time, take a moment, breathe, and really notice the world around them. If someone comes away from one of my paintings and sees the world a little differently, maybe has their eyes opened to the beauty that surrounds us everywhere, then I feel like I’ve been successful.
Do you have a vision or a reason for the art you create?
These days I don’t have any grand art world schemes for what I create. Almost everything I paint or draw is connected to memories of time spent with my family and friends. My family didn’t have much money growing up. Most of our vacations were spent at state parks or at the beach. I spent my childhood wandering the woods behind our home or hiking through the Big Thicket with my father on a field trip with the YMCA summer camp he directed. I don’t feel much attachment to things. The places and the times I spent there with people I love are what remain with me over time. Seen collectively my paintings would be a visual diary of sorts, but I think I paint in a manner that gives my specific memories a more universal appeal.
My overriding vision of the world is one of beauty. Everywhere I turn I see something that could inspire a painting.
What part of you do you see in your artwork?
There’s a little part of me in every brush stroke. My paintings go through so many stages, and almost every canvas has a time when I think it’s junk and want to scrape it all off and forget about it, but I push through and seem to come out the other side with something worthwhile. That’s a metaphor for life I think. I’ve certainly had my share and more of problems in life, but I’m a survivor and just keep plugging away. My paintings are survivors too.
How do you know when your art if complete or finished?
I’m finished when no single part of the painting jumps out at me screaming to be fixed. My paintings are full of mistakes, but eventually the tensions balance each other out. I love it when a painting feels like it’s on the verge of tearing itself apart but somehow holds together. The beauty is in the imperfections.
Today, who has had the greatest influence on your work?
I’m a fan of Wolf Kahn’s work, and his openness in writing about his thought process and ideas behind his methods have been influential for me. I’ve always found Lucian Freud to be incredible and I loved his work ethic. My friend and former teacher Larry Leach is an incredible painter who explores similar themes and processes and is a constant source of inspiration.
Name three artists you would like to be compared to.
Limiting it to three is tough, but I’d say Vincent Van Gogh, Monet, and George Inness.
What is your artistic medium of choice? Why?
Oil paint is my main medium these days, although I still love working in charcoal and pastels too. I love everything about oils. I love the feel and consistency of the paint under the brush. Oils have a luminosity that’s hard to beat, and the finished surface of a cured oil painting has such presence. I love the range of colors and am partial to things like Flake White and Indian Yellow that are particular to oils. I even love the smell of oil paint.
Oil paint also lends itself to my natural mode of expression. Whether I’m working in charcoal, pastel, or paint I tend to gravitate towards an addition/subtraction process. When drawing I’ll smudge, erase, scratch out, and re-draw building layers. I do the same thing in paint. I like to add color and scrape and scratch away at it, sometimes with a palette knife but often with the handle of my brush. Then I’ll add layers on top, whether thinner glazes or thick scumbles of paint. Through the continual painting, scraping away, re-painting, scumbling, scrubbing, and just playing with the brush, the canvas accrues a patina like surface rich with textures and layers of color.
I feel this process is the way that nature creates. Trees grow, flowers bloom, mountains are formed, and then erosion, storms, fires, and earthquakes take it away. Then it cycles around and there is re-growth. The world is constantly moving, changing, and there are layers upon layers of textures, colors, and forms before our eyes. I want my paintings to feel that way. I want people to come back to it day after day and find it new to them, to always find new textures and colors to lead them into the work. I’m not content to just mimic what I see. I want my paintings to have the feeling of being representational but to also be visual events in and of themselves.
Whose work do you relate to most? Who inspires you?
I admire things about lots of artists and find inspiration in almost everything. Some of the big ones would be Van Gogh, Monet, Cezanne, Freud, Inness, and Degas. Recently I’ve been looking at Vermeer and Wyeth a lot. In a more contemporary sense Jon Redmond really inspires me.
What food, drink or song inspires you or gets your creative juices flowing?
I’m almost always listening to music while I paint. I’m a musician as well and have played everything from classical to jazz to blues, rock, country and even metal and some point or another. I play guitar, bass, drums, and a bit of piano. My iTunes playlists are likely as varied as you’ll find. One day I’ll be listening to Miles Davis, another will find the Red Hot Chili Peppers or the Foo Fighters blaring. Recently I’ve really been into Alabama Shakes and Mumford and Sons.
What are your strengths and weakness?
I have gone through so many changes over the years it’s hard to account for them all. Early on I was predominantly interested in mixed media figurative drawings. After college I gravitated towards abstract landscapes inspired by satellite imagery, still mainly drawing or monochromatic paintings. On the side my guilty pleasure was pastel landscapes, but I had this idea that I needed to be doing more “serious” art. I hit a rough patch for a few years medically and wound up too busy making ends meet to paint. A few years later when I got back to work I wasn’t worried about what anyone thought I should paint anymore. The landscapes resurfaced naturally and form the bulk of my work now. I think there’s a little bit of all my past in my present. My process is a culmination of all the different skills I learned along the way. What comes out now is simply who I am and I’m comfortable with that.
Do you have a favorite piece of art? (Please include image for the article.)
Too many to name! I don’t really think of anything in terms of an absolute favorite.
Do you find the artistic Life lonely? How do you counteract the solitude?
When I lived in Dallas I did find it a bit lonely at times. There didn’t seem to be much camaraderie. Here in SE Texas I am friends with so many musicians and artists, and there’s a tremendous sense of community in the arts. The Art Studio, Inc. is a non-profit space that exhibits artists and also has studio spaces available. I’ve been fortunate to participate in several events there and have a lot of friends active with the studio. The Art Museum of Southeast Texas in Beaumont is great and very accessible. I rarely go out without running into people I know who are working in the creative end of life. My sweetheart Elizabeth is also a painter and has always been active in the arts in Beaumont. These days Facebook and other online sites and artists groups and organizations like the Artists of Texas also provide the chance to interact with other artists and get feedback.
For the most part I enjoy the solitude of the studio. I can spend days at the easel without feeling the need to be social.
If you could picture yourself 5 or 10 years from now, where would you be and what would you be doing?
I’d love to be able to paint and play music full-time. I hope to have some of my paintings in museums by then, and a cd or two of my music out. I also have a goal of having paintings in all 50 states in the US. Right now I have work in sixteen states and overseas in Singapore. It’s become a little hobby of mine to track where my artwork ends up on an app on my phone called “been.”
What is the best piece of advice you could give to an artist just getting started?
Go to your studio and make stuff. Work begets work. Most of the big names in history spent more time with the brush or chisel in their hand than we realize. It can be hard to do in our modern world with bills to pay and so many things tugging at us for attention. You’ve got to prioritize things and decide what you can live without. I don’t watch much television. I’ll enjoy a movie or show with Elizabeth or my kids, but rarely watch by myself. That’s time I use to paint or play music.
You’ve also got to learn about business and marketing. Take some classes or read a few books about the business of art. “I’d Rather be in the Studio!” by Alyson Stanfield is an easy read and has a wealth of common sense, nuts and bolts type things to do to further your career. Get your work out there and be seen. No one is going to knock on your door and ask if you’re an artist. Be your own champion. It’s a lot of work, but the rewards are immeasurable.
Finally, technology isn’t going away. Learn to use the internet, photo editing software, and how to take good digital pictures of your work. The majority of my sales have come from contacts made through the internet. My biggest commissions were handled through email, jpeg files, a few phone calls, and shipping companies.
Getting to know you Q&A
How long have you lived in Texas?
I’ve lived in Texas my whole life. I was born and grew up in Beaumont. I moved to Dallas after college, but moved back to SE Texas after my divorce a few years ago. I think Texas has everything a landscape artist could want: beaches, mountains, desert, hill country, swamps, lakes, plains. Why would I need to live anywhere else?
Where in Texas do you live now?
I live in Port Arthur. My sweetheart Elizabeth and I bought an extreme home makeover and are slowly gutting it and fixing it up one room at a time.
What is your favorite restaurant in Texas?
Too many to name just one! Elizabeth is a tremendous cook and has really opened my taste buds the last few years. Locally we love Floyd’s seafood and a little middle-eastern place called Al Basha. The Wheelhouse in Port Neches has great food and a cool, riverfront atmosphere close to home. Niko Niko’s and Yia Yia Mary’s in Houston are great. I love the Blue Mesa Grill in Dallas. Enoteca Vespaio and the Magnolia Café in Austin are favorites, and a stop at Gordough’s for a donut is a must.
What color is your bedroom?
Right now we live in the sunroom of the house we’re gutting. It’s mostly windows, but the walls that are there are white. We’re planning to paint the whole interior a warm grey with white trim. The whole house will be filled with artwork so we want a neutral space to let the art speak.
What book are you reading this week?
I just started reading Revival by Stephen King. I’m a big fan of his.
Do you have a favorite television show or movie?
We don’t really have TV in the usual sense. I’ve never had cable, and now we don’t even have an antenna for local stations. We broke down and subscribed to Netflix though so we’ll watch a movie or a series sometimes. Lately we’ve been through Heroes, Leverage, and NCIS. I’m a big Dexter fan and have the season DVDs, and we love Game of Thrones.
What is your favorite color? What color do you avoid?
Don’t really have any one color I could say is my favorite, although there’s a certain little mint green that always seems to crop up in my paintings somewhere. That was the color the rooms in our home growing up were painted. As a kid I thought it was awful but it seems to have left an impression on me. I think every color is beautiful in the right context.
What are you most proud of in your life?
I’m most proud of my family. My children are the most beautiful, amazing works of art I’ll ever be a part of, and my brother and my sisters are incredible. I’m blessed to have a wonderful woman by my side. She inspires me and challenges me and just makes me more than I thought I could be, and having her son in my life has been fantastic. At the end of the day I may not have much money but I’m rich in so many other ways.
What has been your most embarrassing moment?
I had a freak accident at school one year where I fell running and hit a brick wall in front of a gym full of elementary school kids. I wound up having surgery on my left arm and have a couple of titanium plates and some screws in there helping hold it together. I had to have months of physical therapy and wasn’t supposed to ever be able to play an instrument again. I had to answer so many questions about that accident when I returned to school. I wish I had a better story to tell!
What jobs have you done other than being an artist?
I’ve been a teacher for fifteen years or so and have taught art, music, and special education. In my past lives I ran inventory crews around the country, and also spent a few years early in college working in retail.
Do you have a passion or hobby other than painting? What is it?
Music is my other passion. I also love to read, and these days home improvement occupies a lot of my time.
Who would you love to portray in Mixed Media or in paint?
Most people know my landscape work, but I love painting portraits and figurative work. It’d be incredible to be able to paint a portrait of the Pope someday or maybe the President of the United States. I would have loved to have been able to do something with B.B. King or Stevie Ray Vaughan before they died too.
If you were stranded on the Texas Prairie and could only take three things, what would they be?
Aside from the usual things for survival like food and shelter, I’d want my pochade box which has my paints and brushes, some canvas, and a guitar.
If you could live anywhere in Texas, where would you live?
Someday I’d love to live by the coast, a beach house on the Bolivar Peninsula or Galveston Island would be great.
Share something with us that few people know about you.
I want to learn how to dance. I was always too busy playing in bands to be on the dance floor. A few years back we played some big events for Arthur Murray Dance Studios and I got to see some top world ranked dancers and I was enthralled.
Name something you love and why.
I love our dogs. We have four, three boxers and a pit bull. They are always happy to see you and full of nothing but love.
Describe yourself in one word.
What is the one thing you would like to be remembered for?
Being a good man.