“Special Agent Gordon Cole”
“Hag Harriet Milfoil”
“Mrs. Lanterman’s Daughter”
“Same as the Old Year”
“The Resurrection Machine”
If you’ve never touched the inside of a mental hospital, then you will never understand that the monsters aren’t inside. If you’ve never felt the sting of a needle as medication turns your veins into overpasses, then you’ll never understand that chemicals only make you easier to transport…like a casket. Chris Mars uses paint and film to show us the difference between a smile and lips cupped around intention. The eyes in his paintings ask us to take a tour of a place that we would never visit. It’s uncomfortable to walk around inside of Mars’ art and that is exactly what he wants us to feel. Discomfort in a society that sells greed and apathy like the American dream. But we enter his paintings because he tells the story on the most empathetic canvas — his own.
Ara: I think most artists have a catalyst. A moment that breaks the damn of thought and transforms it into something tangible. What was your catalyst?
Chris Mars: I have always carried around (to varying extents) my experiences of living with, knowing and loving my brother Joe who suffers from schizophrenia. If I can sight a point where a dam broke, so to speak, I would have to say 2000-2001. I was just beginning to feel successful painting with oils. Simultaneously, as a nation, we began our war machine and the brain washing that ensued to demonize a whole people from another land. This brought to the fore all my feelings about my brother, the ostracizing and xenophobia…and now I heard the hate and confusion on a national scale. It was an eye opener to say the least. Right then, I felt I had a new means to express myself through painting.
Ara: I was pulled inside by the emotion and sometimes lack of emotion in the eyes of the people that you portray. I saw victims and villains. Do you have memories of specific people…ones who left a deep enough impression to paint years later?
Chris Mars: There is a composite of individuals, known or unknown to me, but in a nutshell, it leaves a mark whenever I hear groups or individuals full of hate, deliberately or casually, express their bigotry, venom and blind, indoctrinated fear of whatever “other” they have been programmed to diminish. These inspire dead eyes, cold eyes, cruel eyes. Greater emotion is applied to their apparent victims, or if not victims, per se, their targets.
Ara: I read the statement on your website after watching one of your shorts. I was deeply moved by your transparency, and even though I could see a glimpse of the story, I couldn’t understand the absolute necessity of telling it until I read your statement. What is the story behind your art?
Chris Mars: I am very motivated and inspired visually. I think about the beauty that I see in areas that may not be considered beautiful, such as in the textures of decaying nature or the structure and design in all of nature, from the smallest to the largest things in existence. I ask why certain things are conditioned within us to read beautiful and others not. I then start to ask why, beyond visuals, our interpretations and givens are as they are; how we come into the world with somewhat blank slates, and from here we are programmed and pulled in different directions – religiously, socially, intellectually, aesthetically. These questions continue to fascinate me.
Ara: How has your art impacted you and those close to you–those who experienced the same thing?
Chris Mars: I can’t fully say what others experience in my work, though I have gotten some good feedback and commentary that lends a window into how others might feel about it and I am appreciative of this insight. For myself, I know that creating is very therapeutic and reflective exercise. It has allowed me to think and process many questions, and that leads to more questions. It is a constant source of inspiration, and catharsis -especially in painting, but also in making films.
Ara: What do you feel while you are painting or making a short film? Is it an emotional process or can you separate yourself for a brief moment?
Chris Mars: With painting, I feel that I am entering another world, be it one that is strongly anchored in the actual here and now. It keeps me present and the feeling is enjoyable – a mix of relaxation, emotional edge and energy. I begin to have an exciting conversation among the paint, the surface and what I want to express through it. One thing leads to another and I get wonderfully lost in it. Making films is a similar, but less immediate. I get the added pleasure of visuals moving and sliding about, but the downside is that at times the film making process – due to technical elements – can bog me down; I am much more conscious of the process itself, as opposed to painting, where the process is so natural to me. Also, the time it takes to assemble the film sequences and to finally see them all edited together is a drawn out affair, though quite rewarding in the end. I do all of the visuals, sound, animating, filming and post on my own so it ends up a robust endeavor that I can only do in chunks…chunks broken up by longer commitments to painting.
Ara: As a child was it music, art, or both?
Chris Mars: Visual art from the start was the inspiration that came most naturally to me, and still does. Music and sound do inspire as well but are less immediate and available, less drawn from the subconscious, or unconscious. With visual art, the fruit is more readily ripe for the picking. This remains my artistic disposition from childhood to today.
Ara: When did you create your first significant piece of art?
Chris Mars: I can’t say I can site a particular piece. Significantly, I think it was a progression over time and perhaps more of an internal realization of how and why my vision was presenting itself. I think it is more of what has taken place organically over time than a specific point or piece, though the time frame and events that I sited above made me come alive and open my eyes wider. So if there is a first one, perhaps something during this period? It’s a good question!
Ara: When I watch your shorts, I see this delay of movement or a feeling that the characters are floating inches from the ground. Sort of like a dream. What creates this effect and is it intentional?
Chris Mars: In “Flowers for Jupiter”, the floating is there so as to feel more dreamlike, as it is a dreamy account of events told by the girl in the film. But in general, the films – as well as the paintings – carry with them a healthy dose of surrealism. This, I think, accounts for the dream-like feel that comes into play.
Ara: You work with clay, paint, pastels. Which do you believe is more complete… as in tells the story most clearly?
Chris Mars: I would have to say without a doubt, painting is the most direct and versatile means of expression for me.
Ara: The first short I saw was “Flowers for Jupiter”. What is the story behind that story?
Chris Mars: Beyond the reflection of asking where body parts go when we lose them, I feel there is also the element of the little girl entering a dream world to temporarily escape from a neglectful, drunken mom. My wife Sally wrote the story and may have a different take herself, but the beauty of art is that we all as individuals can apply differing interpretations or back-story to any given work.
Ara: Your work is a tribute to your brother. Where does he appear in your art?
Chris Mars: He is everywhere in them. He is a constant reminder to me to examine society, and myself, and to try to point out shallowness and lack of understanding whenever they arise.
Ara: You tell stories through your work. Stories about society, the way it dismisses and even punishes the mentally ill or anyone who can’t live a fully independent life. I have familiarity with this. How do we begin to change, to teach humility and empathy to a society that seems to know so little of it?
Chris Mars: To be aware of it and expressive about it as individuals, and to keep doing it even when it seems to have no impact – I think is one good approach. I like thinking that if enough seeds get planted, consciousness about these subjects and others can grow – I have faith in this. Time and progression have their own pace, one that cannot always be sensed at a micro level, or in real-time. Though ultimately I try to create from the heart and stay true to this first and foremost; however others may interpret my work is in their hands.
Ara: What role does art play in the awareness of social cruelty and injustice?
Chris Mars: I think in all forms art play a big role – writing, painting, film, music…all art forms. Whether it speaks directly or indirectly to the ills of society or on any other subject, art communicates and offers all these perspectives from a personal, honest and individual point of view that ultimately can widen and inspire other hearts and minds. I can’t imagine a world without art.
Ara: Out of all of your paintings which is the most personal?
Chris Mars: I don’t think I can pick a single one.
Ara: What is the first thing that you want people to see when they look at your art?
Chris Mars: Firstly my primary goal is to make something interesting to look at, and that fulfills my own vision – aesthetically, socially, personally – which in turn might be of interest to someone else. So at first, it is my hope that one might be drawn into the colors, objects and textures they see, in hopes of subsequently provoking real thought about a work’s conceptual content.
Ara: What is the last thing that you want them to remember?
Chris Mars: Lastly, whether it is realism, distortion or any other visual element within the paintings, hopefully one may be drawn closer to a point where, upon examination, a conversation might begin and hopefully end with an understanding of the broader message within that painting, one they can take with them. So it is my ultimate hope that one walks away from the work thinking about what beauty really is, where ugliness really lives, and the value of compassion.
Ara: If you could paint a perfect world, what would it look like?
Chris Mars: I would seek to paint a world where people cooperate more, are kind, and less predatory and bigoted by various indoctrinations; one where creativity and science trump religion, myth, fear and insecurity.