I met Mark at the last Art Clout Social Hour in January. I’d seen his work before and really admired it, and then I found out that he’s a special ed art teacher [at Hope School in Anaheim Union High School District] who’s looking to open a studio/gallery facility for disabled artists. His new undertaking will be called Merge Art Center, and he’s in the process of gaining the knowledge and connections to make it a success. Read on to find out more about Mark’s art and his amazing new venture!
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Give me a little background about yourself—your education and where you grew up and all that.
I grew up in the Midwest, in Cincinnati, Ohio, and went to the University of Cincinnati School of Design, Art, Architecture Planning. I graduated from there in ‘99 with a BFA in Drawing and Painting. I had no interest in drawing and painting by the end of it and wanted to do film and television stuff, so I moved out here. I bounced around from film [and] television companies, and ended up working for the Disney Channel for a season or two, and then realized I hated it. (Laughs)
So you were sort of in show biz for a while, doing that typical LA odd-job lifestyle.
It was great while it lasted, and then I realized I needed to be a little bit more responsible with myself. I had a friend who was an aide at a school for kids with special needs, which is where I work now. He was like, you should be an aide, so I did that in the Torrance school district for three years, and never thought I’d end up teaching. It had great benefits, pay was decent, and time off, like you get the summer off so it was great. Then he told me one day that they needed an art teacher, so I walked into the principal’s office and told her I wanted the art teaching job. She put me down for an interview the next year and I started there, and this is my 16th year teaching art at that school.
Right after school, you said you didn’t want to paint or draw again, so what brought you back into it?
I’d say it was probably 4 or 5 years after we moved out here that I got the bug to start drawing some things again. I finally had a garage where I could tinker with some things, and I jumped into a series that was based on drawings I did as a kid, like tanks and bombs. Everything was on lined notebook paper, so I’d create these giant paintings of lined notebook paper. These are giant canvases that look like notebook paper—the pink line down the side, and then all the blue lines. College-ruled, so there’d be a thousand lines on this paper, and then I’d go in there and draw a thousand tanks, or a whole series of bombs. So it was like what I would do as a kid, on my desk, blown up. I feel like that cracked the egg of getting back into pursuing art, creation, creativity. I’ve always been somewhat theme-driven. Not what I think it has to look like, but the idea that I feel like it has to line up with.
[Exploring] repetition is definitely evident in your current work. How long have you been doing this current series?
I started my Exhale series in the summer of 2014. My family and I had driven across the country, spent a few weeks just exploring, and we saw so many cool things. When we got back I was very inspired to start working on something new, and I found that deep void of frustration of not knowing where to go. Like that writer’s block type of feeling, coupled with insomnia. I think I was waiting for some sort of inspiration, that lightning bolt to strike me, but at the same time, I knew that it never would if I just sat there doing nothing. So this went on for a month or two, of just sleeping a handful of hours a night, biking a hundred miles a week, running 30-40 miles a week. At the time I was also starting a meditation practice and I was reading a book called Running With the Mind of Meditation. There was this Tibetan monk who would run marathons, and he’d talk about the mentality of meditating through running, and everything kept coming back to breathing. I remember sitting in my studio and thinking, “What would it look like if I just drew a breath?” So I just drew a line, and then [I thought] “What if I drew another one?” because I’m still breathing. So I just kept trying with the lines, and it certainly wasn’t as fluid as it is now, they weren’t as long as they are now, I’ve kind of built up that capacity. I have a 36” piece that I’m working on now that’s…daunting. So over time, I’ve come up with this process of each line being one breath.
It’s like being a deep sea diver; some of them can hold their breaths for like, 10 minutes. So you have built that up, you have that control now, which is fascinating. It’s not just an art mark, it’s [gone beyond] that.
Right, and I feel like when people hear that and I tell them that’s what it is, it takes on a different meaning. It’s not just a line. This was a breath. One of my favorite artists is Franz Kline. If you look at his paintings, they’re stunning, they’re beautiful. For me, it’s not an object but more like a record of time and activity and action.
When I first saw your pieces I remember just being immediately struck, because I use a lot of line in my work as well. Sometimes when you have to make a long mark, you do have to prepare your body so your hand doesn’t falter during a sustained passage. So I totally got it, and it really resonated with me, and I thought the marks were so beautiful. Did you get into this series right after your paper series?
No, there were probably 5 or 6 years between. I finished the paper series, and I had a show where I wanted to see where it goes, and it didn’t go anywhere. It had some interest and stuff, but I think that by time I was over it. Looking back, I knew at the time I was using that as a way to kind of crack the egg. I knew that it wasn’t going to last; I had to get something out and see that I could still come up with an idea and follow through with it.
I’m sure a part of you was—I don’t know about afraid—but kind of loath to let go of this idea that was working for you? And even when you were kind of sensing that it wasn’t quite as good anymore you were still kind of, “Well, let’s just keep going”?
I feel like I had enough of a good relationship with that idea that I could tell when the idea itself didn’t want to be pushed any further. I’d come to that point a couple of times with these exhales, and I kind of face it, and then I’m “there’s still more I can do with this”. Recently I finally cracked the code on the spray paint background.
Oh yeah, those are looking really cool.
That doesn’t come without tons of trial and error and torn up paper in my trash can, because it just doesn’t work, and I finally figured that out.
When you’re in that phase of trying to figure it out, like the material or whatever, is it very frustrating for you, or do you enjoy that process as well?
I love that process, I really do.
It’s almost like a scientific process. It meshes with what I’ve learned about you in the couple of hours of talking. You have a very methodical, deliberate way of approaching things.
Do you ever work on other types of art or other ideas at the same time, or are you very single-minded?
I do have a couple other little things going on, but at the same time they’re related. One of them stems from the Exhale pieces—I call it my Pen Test series. As I’m doing my Exhale drawings I tally them, because each one is titled depending on how many exhales it is, so I’m always making marks on little papers. At the bottom of that tally page, I always have to test my pen, just to make sure it’s flowing right, that the tip doesn’t dry out. And then I looked back, and on all of my little cards there’s all that pen scribble-scrabble at the bottom. “I wonder what that would look like as a piece in itself? What if I filled up a paper with just testing out my pen thousands of times”. It’s funny because I use the term “minimalist” when people ask me what kind of art [I do] but if you were to look at those, it wouldn’t look minimalist because it’s not stark, but it is that meditative, constant test of my pen, thousands of times.
The other offshoot I have is what I call my “swipe” paintings. The paintings are also based on the breath and the minimalist thing [and also on my background in screen printing, which I’ve been doing since high school]. I’ll mix the right consistency of paint—which for me is very meditative—and I fill up my squeegee with the paint, kind of slam it down, and in just one breath pull it toward me. Sometimes I’ll layer two colors, sometimes it’s just one swipe on paper. I really like those. I have three of them hanging above our couch, framed, and I look at them every day.
Now let’s talk about the project that you’re trying to get off the ground. It is going to be a working studio and gallery for disabled artists. Obviously, that’s related to the work you’ve been doing for the past 16 years. Remind me how that idea came about.
I’ve had so many extremely talented kids. However, watching those kids graduate at age 22, and trying to follow up with them as they get older, not once have I heard of one of my former students going to an arts-based program. I’ve had a lot of kids who would have a really hard time in all of their other classes, but they’d come to art and they’d not have any behaviors, or they would have a look of just contentment and joy, and I feel like that’s not being provided as well as it should be, so I would like to provide that. It would be for people who want to be working artists. You and I have the ability to choose what we want to do, and if we want to choose to be artists, that’s up to us, and we find those opportunities. These people with intellectual disabilities [are not] given that opportunity to call themselves artists. If we could open a meaningful place for these people to go every day, and be working artists and give them the support and the space to be the creative selves that they are, that would be incredible.
You had mentioned a couple of places in the Bay Area that were your models.
There’s Creativity Explored in San Francisco, NIAD Art Center is in Richmond, and Creative Growth is in Oakland. They’ve all been around since the 70s and they’re all fully functioning art studios. They do have galleries attached to them. I went up a couple of years ago to Creativity Explored and hung out there for hours and just got to sit there and see how they function, ask questions, meet the artists, and it was cool because you see these people working on something, and you walk by, and they’ll grab you and pull you over and want to show and share with you what they’re working on. It reminded me kind of being in college when you’re in that studio atmosphere where we had a huge shared studio, almost like cubicles. You go in and there’s that smell of paint. It’s like that smell of paint and creativity and energy. These places I’ve visited up there, they have that. And for me, nothing says come in here and get to work like that smell and that energy.
So you’ve got the ball rolling on this; you’ve started taking business classes.
I’ve met with a lot of people; I’m trying to get as much feedback and advice as I can. Being an artist, clearly, I have no business mind at all, I don’t know how to start a nonprofit, I don’t know how to do any of this stuff. And I want to do it right. I’m looking for somebody to help with that business side of it, so that’s why I’m talking to a lot of different people, somebody might have some experience with starting a nonprofit, and I can kind of pick their brain. There is a Small Business Development center based out of Long Beach City College so I took one of their classes. They don’t do nonprofits so I’m trying to contact them again to see if there’s a similar organization that does nonprofits. They have a Business Plan class that I’ll probably take next month, just some things to kind of keep my foot in the door, learning as I go.
You’re looking for someone who’s a little more business-savvy, but also educating yourself. How far along in the process do you think you are? Do you feel like you just got into it?
Going back to saying that I’m a percolator, I decided that I wanted to do this probably like 6 or 7 years ago. I couldn’t act on it then, but now I can start to let myself dream. Plus, 16 years at the same school, the same classroom, I get a little bit over it, and I’m not the kind of person who’s like “20 more years until retirement.” If I look back and that was the choice I made, I’d be pissed at myself. Because that’s not my mentality. Plus, I look at these kids every day, and they have such potential, how could I not try to give that to them?
So you’re ready to take this thing to the next level, to make it more interesting for yourself and also to provide more value.
I’d say the main thing is to provide value and opportunities. And it’s not a school, it’s a studio. I’m not teaching classes. It’s going to be an open studio. Yes, there might be a group of people that are working on a show together, so they might have a teaching artist guiding them. We might need to teach people how to use the [facilities]. We might have at some point opportunities for afternoon drop-in classes or something, but it’s a working studio.
Would you be sort of a studio manager, then?
My dream would be to be the Creative Director slash Studio Manager, I’d definitely have teaching artists there every day, working with the clients and the artists, somebody overseeing the business side of it, somebody running the gallery. I’d probably have to find grant writers and that kind of stuff.
You know what works, what’s been working, and that’s what you want to emulate.
Through teaching I’ve been involved with VSA (Very Special Arts); it’s funded through the Kennedy Center. It’s nationwide, but Orange County has the longest-running program. It’s been around for 42 years now, and every year we have a Very Special Arts Festival at MainPlace Mall in Santa Ana, where there are thousands of pieces of artwork from all over Orange County. I’ve been on the planning committee for 16 years, so I feel like I have a connection with the Orange County disabled arts population, but I love Long Beach. I feel like Long Beach would be my first choice for where to have this studio, but I wouldn’t mind having a couple of them eventually, like one in North Orange County [also].
The need is there.
The need is there, but I don’t think people know that. Once it opens, people are going to be like, “Why wasn’t this here sooner?”
So many people are ignorant of what disabled people go through. I didn’t really know anything about it until I started talking to you.
Unless you see [the disabled people] getting carts at Target or something, you don’t see them.
No, because they’re at home, probably.
And there’s a huge population, and they’re at home, but what are they doing?
I guess even families that have become familiar with how beneficial these programs are for their kids are unable to duplicate that or keep that going in a home situation, and that’s what you’re trying to help with.
Yes, within a year to a year and a half, I would love to open the doors. And I have no doubt I could easily get 20 artists in there on opening day, ready to work, and that’s just from the people that I know. I know all these people who are in their late 20s early 30s, [but] there are probably some 60-year-olds out there with developmental disabilities who have been waiting for something like this.
So it’s not age-based at all.
It’s not just a right out of high school thing. If you have somebody, [like] an older sister or brother who is very artistic but has a developmental disability, this could be the place for them.
I know you want this to be a nonprofit, would the clients have to pay anything? How would that work?
There’s an organization called Regional Center, and I want to say there are 13 of them in California. It’s state-funded. They are responsible for providing services to anybody with an intellectual disability. They’re in charge of providing options for employment, finding the place—they pay for the clients to go to those kinds of places. I just looked on their chart, and right now it looks like for arts-based programs, they would pay between $40 to $50 a day for that client to go there, and that’s all state-funded so the client isn’t paying to go there. However, the models that I’ve looked at do take a percentage of art sales that’s usually 50-50, which is super-cool, because when I was at Creativity Explored I met a guy there who sold like $8,000 worth of artwork that year.
And for someone like that, to come home with $4,000 extra dollar that year, that’s incredible. Good for this guy, you know? Plus, they’re showing their work all over the world now.
I think that’s the kind of thing even regular artists would really love. (Laughs)
Follow Mark and his work here:
If you have any tips/resources for Mark for getting Merge Art Center off the ground, please contact him at: markrebennack[at]gmail[dot]com