Marci Washington

Painter, Berkeley // September 2011
I usually describe my work as illustrations for a book that has never been written.

We visited Marci in her backyard studio in Berkeley. It sits just behind her home, a kind of garage/storage space that got converted into a cottage. It’s comfortable and functional, with an open feel to it. Marci is full of gusto— she talks with her hands, takes on all kinds of facial expressions, and she’s funny as hell. She enthusiastically moved through our conversations, at turns awkward and eloquent, but always unguarded and real. We talked about a lot of things, but her affinity for the landscape of the English moorlands, particularly within the context of Romantic Literature, really struck me. Those rolling, uncultivated hills covered in low-growing grass, shrouded under heavy fog and moody skies have wholly captured Marci’s imagination. And it makes sense that they have— much of what interests Marci is mirrored in that rugged, desolate scenery. In various Romantic and Gothic works of literature, the moorlands often represent mystery, mysticism, liberation, turmoil, and passion; they frequently echo the psychological state of the characters, and reveal their greatest desires and fears. Marci’s current work references not just the physical landscape of the moors, but also speaks to themes found in a lot of this kind of literature, and the universal emotions that are evoked—all those feelings and ideas that run wild with mystery, awe, darkness, terror and beauty. I think Marci is after a particular kind of mood that toes the line between terrifying and thrilling, creating a response that’s simultaneously overwhelming and invigorating. All of this plays into her sensibilities as an artist, but also as a person: her love of Edward Gorey and his eerie illustrated books, her unflinching need to feel everything very deeply, her leanings towards the bizarre and unique, and her fondness for the not-entirely-explained. It’s pretty damn amazing that come November Marci will be showing work in England, not far from the wild and lonely moors that have taken up so much of her imagination.

When people ask you what you “do”, how do you answer?
That’s always a really weird question. I just say painter, and then a lot of people ask if I paint houses, and then I tell them that I paint pictures, and then they want to know what kind, and I say big bloody gothic novel ones. And then they usually stop asking me questions, or start asking questions like if I make a living off my work or if I have a gallery— some people want to figure out if you’re a “real” painter, and that’s always a little uncomfortable ‘cause you suddenly have to prove yourself and it always makes me feel a little gross. I get it though, a lot of people don’t meet artists very often and they’re just curious, I just hate feeling unusual or set apart. And I’m always afraid people will think I’m stuck up or pretentious which really bums me out. When I was younger and told people that I wanted to be an artist they usually questioned the feasibility of it, and there are still a lot of choices I’ve made that some people can’t understand— like I’ve never had a credit card and I might never own a home. For some people that’s hard to imagine.

What mediums do you work with? How would you describe your subject matter? What themes seem to occur/reoccur in your work?
I work in watercolor and gouache on paper and I usually describe my work as illustrations for a book that has never been written. But really I steal bits of story from books, film, and fashion photography and then cobble it together into a different story— my own story that reflects the way I see the world around me; my experience of the present as well as its relationship to the past. My work is about the psychology of our time and place in history.

What are you currently reading, listening to or looking at to fuel your work?
I just finished Orlando by Virginia Woolf and it is gorgeous. It was recommended by one of my best friends when we were talking about how being a 30 year old woman is a lot like being a 16 year old boy— we both have all of this crazy restless energy. Orlando perfectly illustrates the feeling. I also just finished watching all of Twin Peaks in order, and have been listening to the Game of Thrones books on audio while I trim or paint the really boring and monotonous stuff (you know, like grass). I’ve been listening to the newish Dark Castle album almost on repeat, and mixing it up with some Fever Ray, Bat for Lashes, and Neurosis to make this epic dark opera of FEELINGS.

What are your biggest challenges to creating art and how do you deal with them? How do you navigate the art world?
The hardest things about being a painter are always being alone with your thoughts and feeling in a really deep way cut off from the rest of the world. It’s hard to explain, but I feel like a lot of people don’t understand what I do or the way it changes my priorities and the way I live my life. Always being alone and in your head makes you a little weird, and the hours are insane so when I do get to go out sometimes I get a little crazy and just explode with words because I haven’t socialized in a long time. And I want to eat everything, and drink everything, and share this huge feeling with the people I’m with in this really epic and meaningful way. I guess what I’m trying to say is that being a painter makes you a little insane and unable to moderate anything. The art world is super weird and for me it’s healthier to keep a little bit of a distance from it. I need to keep a distance from what people think about me and my work in order to keep making it. There are a lot of things about the art world that are super depressing and it’s best to stay away from that stuff so that it doesn’t slow you down. I just focus on making work and try to deal with as little of the other stuff as possible while still making sure that I’m doing the work justice by connecting it with the people who appreciate it. It’s HARD and occasionally painful.

What does having a physical space to make art in mean for your process, and how do you make your space work for you?
Having a designated space is really important. I work best in a small cluttered room with a place to nap surrounded by books and pictures. I need a space where I can fully immerse myself in the world I’m creating and let magic happen. When I was in school I started calling it “The Hermitage of My Mind”— like a sacred place where you can receive the messages that are being sent your direction and translate them in a deep and meaningful way. I had a really big studio in the city for a while with high ceilings and huge windows and it was a total disaster; it made me feel like a factory worker. Now my studio is a little shack in my backyard next to my garden and it’s much better.

Has there been a shift or change in your life or work that has led to what you’re making now? Do you see your work as autobiographical at all?
I don’t see my work as specifically autobiographical, but you can definitely see the influence of past experiences in my work. It’s next to impossible to talk about any of those things without getting really confessional and personal though, and in the end it’s not why the work is interesting anyway. What makes any art interesting is how it can connect with other people and transform the personal into something that can speak to or of the larger culture. Lately my work has gotten a lot more cryptic and mysterious— less of an open book or didactic fable which I think happened when I turned 30 and unexpectedly flipped out pretty hard and realized that grad school had made me into this gross people-pleaser when what I really needed to be was some weird shaman on a mountain. It wasn’t about getting older, it was more about being forced to reconsider the person I had been vs. the person I am now— the past suddenly felt so close, became so real, and I had all thisrestless energy and aggression. I started listening to a lot of metal. I felt like I had had all of this strength before that I had somehow given up and that I had let too many outside forces into my head. I resolved to care less about what people thought and more about MYSTERY and I think the work has gotten a lot better.

Is there something you are currently working on, or are excited about starting that you can tell us about?
I’m working on a show for the Leeds College of Art that I’m pretty excited about. Leeds is in Northern England not far from Haworth where the Brontes lived and wrote, and next to the Moors, which I’ve always dreamed of and wanted to see in person. Being invited to do a show in a place that you feel such a strong spiritual connection to is pretty amazing.

What are you most proud of?
The thing I’m the proudest of is the way I live my life and how I treat other people. I think that I manage on most occasions to do what is right instead of what’s easy, and I try to be there for my friends in a huge way.

What do you want your work to do?
I want to communicate with others in a deep and meaningful nonverbal way. We are all sharing this time and place in history— my hope is that someone might look at my work and find that something emotionally clicks for them— that they might think to themselves, I know this feeling or I get this, this makes sense to me.

What advice has influenced you?
Oh man, I’ve had so many good teachers! James Gobel told me not to worry about people who don’t get my work. He told me, “fuck ‘em, they’re not your people”. I keep that one close to my heart. Mary Snowden and David Huffman I think I learned from their example that I could tell my own story in whatever language felt genuine to me. Franklin Williams told me to make love to every inch of my painting and that if I couldn’t do that, it probably wasn’t a very good painting— weirdly really good advice. Roy Tomlinson taught me to look at figurative painting as though it were abstract and Shaun O’Dell lead me to a deep respect for magic and mystery and unquestioning abandon to the power of paint. Sometimes it has something to tell you and you should just listen. I owe a huge debt to lots of people and I’m probably forgetting some really important ones and I’m gonna feel like a jerk later.

How will you know when you have arrived?
I spend most of my days exactly how I want to, hardly ever set my alarm clock, and wear whatever I want to everyday. When I was younger and imagined the life I wanted to live, I think this was it. It’s not perfect and I wish I could do some normal things like a buy a car or have health insurance, but I’m super grateful that I’m free to make the work I feel I need to and it still feels like a huge gift that there are people who understand it and want to look at it.

Are you involved in any upcoming shows or events? Where and when?
The Leeds College of Art in November.

To see more of Marci’s work:

  • Rayhart

    Love love your work