“Illustrating a Novel that Doesn’t Exist,” An Interview with Marci Washington

Marci Washington 2If Edgar Allan Poe had traded in his typewriter for an artist’s easel, he might have painted the same subjects as Marci Washington: bloody apparitions, barren forests, haunted houses. Rendering Gothic ghost stories in watercolor and gouache, Marci conjures an eerie landscape where severed limbs are suspended from tree branches, limp bodies strewn artfully across marble floors. Stiff, emaciated female figures—deathly pale and drooling blood—bear an uncomfortable resemblance to the fashion spreads of Vogue; they also channel the Gothic novels Marci has devoured since girlhood, from Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights to The Turn of the Screw. In the tradition of the Brontë sisters and Henry James, a biting social critique is hidden beneath the Gothic veneer of Marci’s scary stories—and she says she hopes viewers will “read behind the scenes and think about what else might be happening in the story.” We sat down with Marci, the June artist-in-residence at AS220, to find out more about the stories lurking beneath and between her paintings. From mansion research in Newport to a “dorky” fascination with WaterFire, it seems as if the Oakland-born artist has already discovered much to be inspired by in Providence…

You often say that your artistic process is like “illustrating a novel that doesn’t exist.” Can you talk about that idea?

I hope people look at my paintings in the same way they would read a novel and flip through its pages. Like when you see any illustrated Dickens novels, there’s just one crucial moment that [the illustrator] would select to paint. So I think of each body of work as a story, and I’m telling that story through crucial moments that I choose to illustrate.

I wonder if this mentality played into your decision to make zines?

Well, when I have a show, all of my paintings are together in one room. But after that, they go other places. They disperse. Zines are a place where I can tell the story in a more complete way. I love trying to make people look at the paintings from one to another, at what they have to say in conversation with each other. I try to get them to read behind the scenes and think about what else might be happening in the story.

I definitely saw that flipping through some of your zines. It seemed to me as if the book were a way to preserve the arc of the story and the experience of that story even after the show was over.

Another thing is that zines have their own way of circulating in the world. They’re really cheap, so you can send them anywhere. You can give them away. People have discovered my work through finding my zine in a little shop and asking—What’s this mysterious little book?—which is super thrilling. And that’s good because fine art tends to attract a very specific kind of viewer, one who goes to galleries and museums to see shows. But I’m interested in talking to more than just that segment of the population. I feel like the people who I’m trying to attract as my viewers are the ones who don’t know that they’re into art yet.

In Providence, at least, it seems to me that people who are making zines are the ones who really do art for art’s sake, because they’re so cheap and under the radar.

It really is purely for the love of communicating with other people. You have these ideas that you just want to share with people, and you want to get those ideas out there and have a conversation about them with the other people who are around you. And there’s this feeling of community between people who make zines, because you are just these weirdos who spend all this time making these little books. You basically sell them for not much more than it costs you to make them. You factor in your time and labor, and it’s clear you don’t do it to make money. You do it because you want to share what you do with other people. I find them so pure and sweet and heartfelt, so you just want to hug the other people who make zines. I’ve been going to these zine conventions with my friends, and we just run around and it’s like this huge love fest. It’s so awesome.

“The Captive,” 30 x 44″, 2011, watercolor and gouache on paper

Marci’s Path to Artistic Expression

In your most recent paintings, words and titles seem to take on a life of their own, shaping the paintings and stories in ways that I don’t see in your earlier work. How did you begin to experiment with the relationship between language and image?

A lot of my work is inspired by what I’m reading at the time or music that I’m listening to, so sometimes my titles are direct quotes, like “For Forever, I’ll Be Here” [the title of my most recent zine] is from a song by Fever Ray. And in my earlier work, some titles were Nathaniel Hawthorne quotes, because a lot of that work was based on The House of the Seven Gables. With the titles, I try to hint towards the bigger story or what else might be going on that you don’t see or even an emotional quality for the scene. I think it’s just another tool to give the viewer a little bit more of the story. And I love words. I’m a huge reader, and I thought I wanted to be a writer in high school, so I try to sneak little hints of that into my paintings.

I had actually read that you used to want to be a writer, and I was curious why you settled on the visual format. Why use paintings to express these emotional resonances, instead of words or another art form?

I was writing a lot of stories and poems, and I thought that was what I was going to do. But then I just got to this weird point. A lot of things had happened in my life that I couldn’t pin down in language, and I started to feel really limited with it. Something about language—or the way I was using it, or the way I felt comfortable using it—made me feel like I had to make a decision about an experience or a feeling. I didn’t want to define everything so clearly. But when I started painting and drawing, I felt like I could embody a feeling without defining it, and that felt really comfortable to me. It made me feel like I could talk about a lot of things that I wasn’t comfortable talking about in my writing.

With language you’re always gesturing at something, but people tend to assume their interpretation is exactly “what it means”…  

I have a huge fear of being misunderstood, and with language that’s such a huge risk that you take. Like I won’t make a Twitter. It seems horrifying to me to put things you think down in such a concrete and limited way.

With Twitter especially, people are always getting in trouble. The word limit is dangerous!

Yeah! (Shudders) And I love language. I love talking to people, and I feel like when you’re talking there’s so much more room for the intangible. There’s body language and cadence, all these subtle things. But when you’re writing, it can be very restricting.

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“Automatic Writing,” 18 x 24″, 2011, watercolor and gouache on paper

Trading Coasts for Oakland’s “Sister City”

You grew up in Oakland, and you’ve lived in Berkeley for several years now. What’s it like to be making art in Providence? How would you compare the Bay Area and Providence arts scenes?

They’re weirdly similar in a lot of ways. Both have a lot going on—bands, zines, music, art—and they’re really accessible and friendly. The main difference I would say is that right now the Bay Area is being kind of squeezed, and people are leaving. I have a lot of friends who struggle to pay their rent and have to have multiple jobs so they don’t have a lot of time to work on their art. But then I come here and everybody’s so chill, and they have a lot more space to work in and more time to work. There’s something really relaxing and awesome about Providence in that way.

You’ve visited Providence before—what drew you here initially?

I came here to visit a friend, and then I loved it so much that I would come back and visit her probably once a year. I would come here, and it would be so warm—like, I’m wearing shorts at night; I’m making pizza. Everything is so close together, and I’m walking everywhere.  We’re always in people’s backyards, barbecuing and drinking beer…It felt a lot like Oakland to me, almost like Oakland’s sister city, and I wanted to spend more time here. I almost moved here, a few years ago, so the residency seemed like a good way to see what it’s like to really live here.

What are some of your favorite things to do in Providence?

I love the dorky stuff, like when they have the bonfire on the water.

You mean WaterFire?

Yeah! The first time I went, I was like this is so cute. Because it’s really epically dorky, right? There’s like opera music, and it’s so silly. But it’s so charming. It’s really fun!

I haven’t been yet! I guess I’ll have to go.

You should! I really loved it, but my friend who’s from here… She was like, “I can’t believe you like this.” And I was like, “ What are you talking about? This is SO WEIRD! It’s great!”

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“In the Garden,” 18 x 15″, 2007, watercolor and gouache on paper

From “Trash” to “Treasures”: Discovering Gothic Literature

In an interview with BeautifulDecay.com, you said that as a child you “spent a lot of time lost in books.” What books from your childhood have informed your artistic work?

Well it started with The Wizard of Oz—that’s the first novel I ever read—and then I went to The Chronicles of Narnia. I was big into Nancy Drew. Anything that had magic and mystery in it, I was there. Then, at a young age, I got really into V.C. Andrews, who wrote the Flowers in the Attic series. They’re like super trashy, gothic-y novels for young women that are full of rape and incest and terrible things. Really terrible things happen to the women in these books; they’re like soap operas. And my mom didn’t know what was in them. She was just stoked I was reading, so she would buy them for me at the supermarket. And I would lie in bed all day reading those trashy books. After that, I read all of Stephen King, all of Dean Koontz. All of the trashy thrillers. That’s before I got into, you know, “literature,” in quotation marks. Like, “real books,” you know?

What did you start reading then?

Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, The Turn of the Screw…I got really into Dickens. Basically, if you’re into the trashy thrillers, then this is the logical conclusion. V.C. Andrews wouldn’t be around if the Brontës hadn’t come first. It’s funny how you can follow the “trash” thread and end up with the “classics.”

Well, if some of those things were written now, they would probably be considered commercial fiction. And when they were originally published, people thought they were pretty trashy—back then, they were like those books your mom bought for you at the supermarket!

Totally, when Wuthering Heights came out it was just a trashy sensation. Now it’s a classic.

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“Drowned,” 22 x 30″, 2007, watercolor and gouache on paper

Story and Imagination: the Power of Inhabiting a Fictive Space

In addition to reading, you’ve said that you spent much of your childhood “in the hills behind our apartment complex running wild.” When we’re kids, I think the distinction between what we read about in books and what we imagine as we play is kind of tenuous. I see that tension a lot in your work, and I was wondering if you sense some kind of permeability between fiction and imagination and reality?

As a kid, I just wanted to live in my head. I just wanted to read books and live in my own imaginary world that I made for myself based on those books. I think that’s a really powerful place. It was a way for me to deal with a lot of the things that were going on around me, but in a way that I didn’t even know I was dealing with them. And there’s such a benefit to having a rich imaginary life that you can come back to always. It’s a place of comfort and safety that’s always there for you.

How would you say that comes across in your paintings?

I think in my work I try to convince people that, “This is fiction; this is fantasy; you can relax; you can let your guard down. But we can still talk about these big topics.” It’s helpful because if I brought those topics up in a more realistic or concrete way, people would shut down and wouldn’t want to talk about them. In this fictional space, we can talk about those things that seem too daunting to discuss in real life.

So you’re kind of tricking people into talking about the big stuff, or giving them a different way to access it and think about it?

In the real world, things can seem overpowering—but in an imaginary place, it feels safe to work out those things.

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“In the Dark Mirror,” 34 x 23″, 2007, watercolor and gouache on paper

The Gothic Social Critique

What kinds of social commentary do you see in the Gothic elements of your paintings, and how are they similar to or different from the social critiques that the Gothic writers who inspired you were performing?

I think we’re all talking about a society that is restrictive in some way. The Gothic novels of the past were talking about a time that was more restrictive in a certain sense. I feel that our time is just as restrictive, but in other ways. The things we’re taught to want or need, the way we’re taught to see ourselves in the world and what our possibilities are… Those are just as limiting as they were a hundred years ago, if not more limiting. Modern technology—all of these things we thought were going to set us free—have just enslaved us in a new way. I don’t think a lot has changed in terms of being able to live in the world the way that you want to.

If you had to summarize the social message of your paintings, what would it be?

Well, the Gothic novel has always talked about being held back from your true potential. There are many different specific social issues you could draw out of my work, but they can all be boiled down to this: being held back from living authentically in the world; by authentically, I mean in a way that you feel like you can fulfill your potential and be who you want to be. Whether the restrictive element is gender roles or class or something else, I hope my work speaks to all of those things that can hold you back.

And it’s really hard to have an isolated discussion about any one kind of repression—gender roles and class, for example, are connected. It’s hard to discuss one without at least mentioning the other.

They’re all interwoven. I can’t talk about women’s issues without talking about class, without talking about capitalism… It really frustrates me when people will just pull one thread out of my work and say THIS is what it’s about. Like, “it’s about capitalism.” Or, “it’s about women’s issues.” That’s reductive, because I don’t want to talk about just women’s issues. I want to talk about gender issues and gender roles and how restrictive they can be. Any time I paint a man, I ask myself what are his restrictions? Am I painting effeminate men, versus men who take that privilege they are given—and then what do they do with it? I want to explore all of that in my work.

Bringing this back to your ideas about the visual format embodying instead of defining something, I think it’s really hard to have a concrete conversation about these different kinds of restrictions, whether you’re talking about them separately or together.

And you run into so many people who think they’re not educated enough to have that conversation. It’s alienating to people when we try to have this really academic conversation about how capitalism affects their life, or how gender roles affect their life. But we all live that. We all have experience being limited by the system that we live in. When we frame the conversation visually, I feel like it’s easier for people to realize that they can have a part in this dialogue.

Yeah, and even if people do feel educated and capable of an academic discussion, a straightforward conversation usually isn’t the best way to encourage them to move beyond their preconceived notions about these issues. 

There’s so much ambiguity to these issues. So much of it I find hard to even put into words, but it’s just these things you feel. It’s just so much easier to have the conversation through art, and especially through genre. If I were trying to make social realist paintings about this, it would be like propaganda. And that just shuts people down from really thinking about it.

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“The Cannibal in His Chamber,” 44 x 30″, 2008, watercolor and gouache on paper

Intricate Details, Big Ideas

Can you talk about the intersection between emotion and detail in your work? Your paintings evoke a very striking tone/feeling, yet they rely so much on detail… Elaborate wallpaper, lace patterns, marble, which you’ve described in an interview as “super intricate things that take forever.” Why do you spend so much time on these details? What do they add to the bigger picture and feeling of the work?

So much of my work is about repression, so a lot of what I’m trying to do with these details is convey the feeling that something is being held back or restricted. Something is on the verge of exploding. The details in my work—the wallpaper and the patterns and even the way I paint grass, the things that take me a long time to do—have a still feeling to them that creates a tension, a sense that something is being held back and not revealed. And those really controlled parts of the painting contrast with places where you see the watercolor flowing and moving. That way, you get a feeling that things are being held back, and then let go; they are reserved, and then expressed. So a tension is created within the painting.

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“After the Dinner Party,” 54 x 36″”, 2009, watercolor and gouache on paper

Living and Working at AS220

You’ve said in interviews that being a painter can make you a little “insane” because the work requires you to be alone and in your own head a lot, stewing in your emotions. How does living in a shared artist space, like AS220, affect that dynamic? Are you surrounded by “insanity”? How does having a community help or harm your work? 

It’s been so weird, which I didn’t expect! It hasn’t been hard, though; it’s just been different. It’s been good because I’ve been forced out of my head a lot, whereas normally, when I’m at my house in Berkeley, my studio is in the backyard so I just wander around all day between my house and studio, just kind of lost in my own thoughts. Here, I walk into the kitchen, and I have a conversation. Most of the conversations I’ve had with people here so far about what we’re doing have been like, “AHHH it’s hard to work today, I’m stuck!” And I’m like, “I know! I’m not there yet either!” It’s been nice to have people to commiserate about how hard it is to do what we do. In one way [living in a shared artist community] is challenging, because you are pulled out of yourself constantly, but in another way it’s good, because you’re not stuck in yourself all day.

That’s good to hear, because I’ve always thought a residency or artist colony might be intimidating—like, you feel as if you have to produce as much work as everybody else.

The thing I like about this residency is that it feels really mellow. I feel like I can do what I want to do with it, whereas I’ve been to residencies in the past where I’ve felt a lot of pressure to make work. And then I’m having dinner with really amazing, talented people, and I’m like, “Oh my God, everybody’s making things! I’ve gotta make stuff! Ahhhhh!” Here it’s a lot chiller. It’s more like, “Okay, we’re all gonna make stuff, and then maybe we’ll watch some reality television in the kitchen later.” And being in the city is nice. The other day, when I messed up this painting and had to start over on it, I just left my studio and walked over to the Fez to meet some friends. And then I was like, “All is right with the world! I can do it!”

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Marci’s studio in Berkeley, photo courtesy of inthemake.com

Interview by Caitlin Kennedy, communications intern at AS220; contact her at caitlin.kennedy@as220.org