Mark Nowell is a sculptor living and working in Memphis. He has created public sculptures in Memphis, such as SHAZAM, 2005, on the corner on Monroe and Madison. BLUFF Magazine, his Memphis art publication, received worldwide recognition, but is no longer in print. He has been such an inspiration to Axis that we asked him for an interview.
x: How has Memphis grown since you first came here?
MN: Baby steps, little baby steps. It’s not a lot of brick and mortar, but it’s had a lot of stuff happen to it. Baby steps—but they’re foundational, and the foundations have gotten more stable. And, I must say, I’ve been successful here. I’ve made it work for me. It’s a little bit of a big-fish-in-a-small-pond syndrome. I mean, it’s never gonna be Chicago, Los Angeles, or New York. It’s funny, I thought it would be when I was a kid. I came up here to go to art school, drove up here for the first time in my little Toyota Celica, and I really thought I was driving to Los Angeles or something. You know, Rolling Stones sang about Memphis, you heard Rock ‘n’ Roll songs singing “Memphis! New York! Memphis! Tokyo!” Well, I drove straight through it. I was looking for downtown, and I took 240 all the way to Frazier or something, and had to turn around and go back. It’s a state of mind, my friend, not a place.
x: Has Memphis impacted you or your art?
MN: Unfortunately, it has. [laughs] I’ve done 4 public art commissions here, and they are different from doing what you want. Public art used to be, if you wanted a big Claus Oldenburg, you got a Claus Oldenburg. You got a sculpture of their artwork. Now it’s shifted to “we don’t care who you are, we want a big bunny rabbit with a little bow-tie!” [laughs] No, it’s not that bad, I love public art commissions— I love public art! Memphis is cool and it’s what it is, a small city in the South. If you can get into the whole, ‘Elvis ate here’ kind of thing, you’re okay.
x: Tell us a little about your studio space.
MN: I wanted a building that was in mint condition, perfect with heat and air conditioning and skylights, and gigantic cranes. I saved money up, looked around, found something that would fit my price range. Unfortunately it had to be a fixer-upper. I’m not into the old charm. You hear “oh, look at the old building, it’s so charming”— no, it’s not! It’s a termite-infested, rotten, old health-hazard! But I like the train, I like the concrete, I like the trees, I’m grateful. The building is easily 100 years old. Originally, it was a building supply warehouse. The train tracks used to run right up next to the building, it was built for the train tracks. All these doors match the same sizes as the boxcar trains’, and the doors slide back so they could roll things on and off the train. Over the years it was a machine shop, salvage yard… just junk, and then sometime in the early 2000s it was a theatre. The Radical Fairies, they were called, a group, I believe, out of San Francisco. Then the Rozelle Artists kids came and set up here for a couple of years. They had shows and parties, they were cool. I have one studio space available, but I don’t plan on expanding. That’s what this stuff taught me: Health, Family, Art. Fashion design? Nope! Oh but I could make beautiful jewelry—Nope! … Motorcycles? I could make a cool chopper—Nope, nope, nope! Sculpture. Be serious.
x: Where do you find inspiration in the city?
MN: My portfolio is a full spectrum in that some stuff is inspired by Memphis a lot, and some stuff isn’t inspired by it at all. Some of it’s like, I’m on Mars or something, pretending that things are like David Bowie from 1972 with his Major Tom.
x: What about a public space inspires you for a sculpture?
MN: That it has outside space. Sculpture is always going to be a collaboration. Painting is more akin to poetry and sculpture is more akin to architecture: it collaborates with air, the sun, the sky, and the rest of the universe rather than the ceiling. Sculpture is meant to be part of nature. It gets tricky sometimes because the architects have egos just as big as mine, and they wanna have some sort of play in size and place. Public Art, I’ve always considered that a collaboration. I make light of the fact that they want bunny rabbits, but I think its only fair that they have a role— how the piece is lit and what its made of and whether its accessible to children, there are so many factors to consider. The design aspect of it, it’s a collaboration with what the Greyhounds want, what the architects want, what the children want… You just have to know that from the beginning. Don’t design some angst heavy metal plane crash for the new library, even if that what’s going through your mind…
But I still do engage in commercial stuff, I have a whole separate portfolio for the non-sculpture stuff. I had a really hard time with it from a therapeutic, psychological standpoint. But from a logical standpoint, it helped me a lot to have two tangibly different portfolios. One is, ‘here’s what’s consistent from 1979 to 2012, here’s this theme that’s my fine art that I built first and foremost from my own initiative. And then here’s a portfolio that says I’ll do whatever you want. But it helped me have a better attitude about it. Somebody says “we want a coffee table” and I say, “don’t make me… I’m a sculptor! ” But you’re broke! Just make the damn coffee table and enjoy it! [laughs]
But I am really grateful that over the last few years I’ve just continued to streamline being an artist. Since I was a little kid, that’s what I wanted. Both of my parents were artists, they went to the Memphis Academy of the Arts, that’s what they called it back then, and they lived in a big, old house in Victorian Village where I grew up. Since I was a little kid that’s what I knew I wanted to do. I had no idea that it would be such a pain in the ass to get to a point where you could just make art. But it was cool to get a scholarship to the school they went to.
When I was in public school in the 70s, there wasn’t an arts program really to speak of, they didn’t see me as an artist, they saw me as a welder. So when I transferred to high school they put me in “vo-tech,” vocational-technical, a program where all your electives were consolidated into the separate half of the school day and you learned carpentry, auto-body, welding, stuff like that. I kept trying to tell them I was supposed to be a rich and famous artist, but they didn’t believe me.
x: Did your parents support your decision to be an artist?
MN: They did but there was a reluctance because they knew what a struggle it is.
x: Would you support your kids being artists?
MN: I have a thirteen year old, and we pretty much have raised him to find himself and do whatever he wants to do. I think it’s important that people find themselves more than anything else. They’re gonna be kids for a little while, but they’re gonna be adults for a long time.
x: When’s the last time that you got in trouble for doodling?
MN: Isn’t that what we’re doing now? [points at the doodle questionnaire] I’m supposed be in there working on a sculpture! [laughs] That’s funny, I used to get in trouble all the time for doodling… that’s followed me around my whole life. I don’t exploit it as much, but I have thousands of these intricate little doodles. Whenever I’m just sitting, bored, I doodle. I’ve been doing it for so long that they just stack up. I wonder how many I’ve got, I counted them last summer and it was something like 3,000. A friend of mine looks at them every now and then and one day he was like, “this is what people that are insane do, you know that right? There are people in the hospital that just sit and write the same thing over and over again, draw things over and over again… Just to let you know ahead of time, don’t be surprised if you get an all-expenses paid trip over there to Lakeside.” But I am of the belief that it keeps me from going crazy.
Visit his website.
Thank you, Mark, for your time, cooperation, and advice!
Axis Memphis interviewed Mark Nowell on March, 6, 2012.