Creative Quarantine: Artist / Musician Chris Mars

Imaginative oil painting Doctor Glaxo | 11" x 11" | Oil on board | © Chris Mars 2011

Chris Mars made a name for himself as the drummer for the iconic band The Replacements, but his range of expression goes way deeper than that. EL checked in with Chris to get his take on working during a pandemic, the endless range of subject matter available to artists, and notes on his process.

1. How are you holding up?

I’m holding up well, thank you for asking.  Under any circumstances, I work alone.  So while I wouldn’t use the word “isolated” to describe my inherent state of creative being, isolation is somewhat natural and not an unwelcome state, to be honest.  The weight of pandemic comes not in loneliness or even a day-to-day that looks notably different than it ever does.  The weight of pandemic comes in the form of grief for the loss and hardship so many are facing and fighting now, and frustration with how my country’s leadership has carried itself or failed to carry itself. 

Imaginative oil portrait

2. Has Covid-19 had an effect on your work? If so, in what way?

Earlier on in the pandemic, I created a painting that was very specifically about the disease itself – my version of a hospital, a breathing machine, a patient, a staff.  That piece was rather literal because, in that moment, the disease itself was an issue I sought to explore.  Since then, the news has only gotten worse.  And being in Minneapolis during the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent unrest, the world has been feeling dark….or more accurately, I have been feeling dark, this despite bursts of acute optimism and hopefulness. My response to these stressors has actually been the creation of work that is brighter in tone.  In my work, I am always observing, and wrestling, and seeking to evoke something from the viewer that feels necessary.  Most typically, I’m asking a viewer to explore and question their prejudices.  Right now, I guess I’m asking the viewer to hang in there.    

Imaginative oil portrait
Mercy | 11″ x 15″ | Oil on board | © Chris Mars 2019

3. Is there anything you’ve added to your practice that you’d like to keep after this is over?

Good question.  I’d say that historically, I’ve been willing to take in a lot of social negativity – extremist media in particular – to at times fuel creative flames.  I’d witness xenophobia, prejudice, homophobia, antisemitism, or more interpersonal harms like bullying or social dismissal and I’d channel these into a work of art exploring these themes, with a call to action to explore them, question their existence and the motives for them.  Things being as they are, I’ve found it necessary to avoid media more than is typical or to forego the most extremist sources.  It’s been a healthy change, and I may wish to keep that going.  I’ve always felt about my own work that it is hopeful and optimistic but finding a somewhat lighter spirit within it is something I may wind up carrying on at times as well.

Imaginative oil painting
In Preparation for Barrier Transcendence | 36″ x 24″ | Oil on board | © Chris Mars 2019

Imaginative oil painting
Hanford 14 | 17″ x 24″ | Oil on board | © Chris Mars 2017

Regarding process:  I don’t sketch or do studies at all but rather approach each panel very openly.  For me, the act of painting needs to be spontaneous and flexible.  At times I’ll approach saying “I’m going to do a portrait” or “I feel like doing a scene” but that’s about as specific as it ever gets to start, and even within that broad framework I’m still prone to change direction – I call it “listening to the surface”.  I consider each painting a triangulation between my painting surface (I begin with just kind of a  modeled color wash), the world at large, and the world inside myself – how  I’m feeling at the time, what concerns or interests me.  I usually begin with a single figure or a single feature of a single figure and build out from there.

Imaginative oil painting
Hanford 11 | 16″ x12″ | Oil on board | © Chris Mars 2015

Figures first, background last.  My initial pass is pretty highly detailed, but I will continue to refine further as I go along.  I paint on gessoed board, starting with a light color wash as mentioned.  I use oil paint and linseed with minimal thinner or drying agents.  I finish a single painting start to finish over consecutive days.  A typical painting session is usually around eight to ten hours.  A small painting may take only a week.  My largest works take a couple of months.  I move from one waiting to the next.  When I feel I need a “break”, it takes the form of creating something different.  I make films, so I’ll take a week to work on a film between paintings.  Films do not happen in a single sitting (so to speak) as a painting does, and a film takes months to complete.  I’ll also record music as a “break” sometimes.

Paintings, films, music, I work alone, building up layers to create the finished piece. Painting is my favorite thing to do; it’s the most direct, and closest to my calling and natural aesthetic.  Filmmaking is more stressful but that’s part of the fun.  Music is more simple and I do it less often, but it’s also enjoyable in small doses. 

Imaginative oil painting
Train Dreams | 11″ x 14″ | Oil on board | © Chris Mars 2015

4. Of the artists you follow, who’s handling this particularly well?

As painters, we’re all used to working alone, and in fact, we’re all used to needing to be alone, and sometimes being challenged to carve that time and place out.  So I think in general, my peers are handling things well.  

Fellow painters Chet Zar, Annie Owens, Jennybird Alcantara, Matt Dangler
Turf One…they among others seem really productive.  And photographers like Tom Arndt, Mike Dvorak, Sally Mars….there’s a lot for them to respond to, and I see them producing great work as well.  

Chris Mars is a “self-taught” artist who lives and works in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  His works are included permanently in The Erie Art Museum, The Fredrick R. Weisman Art Museum, The Tweed Museum of Art, The Longview Museum of Fine Arts, The Minnesota History Center, American Visionary Art Museum, Mesa Contemporary Arts, The Museum of Fine Arts at Florida State University and The Minneapolis Institute of Art, among others.  In addition to these museums, Mars’ work has been featured at Steensland Art Museum, The Laguna Museum of Art, Art Center South Florida, Grand Central Art Center, Ruby Green Contemporary Art Space, Phipps Center for the Arts, Fort Wayne Museum of Art and Paris’s Halle St. Pierre, as well as numerous universities and galleries throughout North America.  

His debut monograph, Tolerance, was published by Billy Shire Fine Art Press/Last Gasp in 2008.  A new monograph, Elemental, will be published by Skeleton Key Press, Oslo Norway, and is scheduled for release 2021.  

Imaginative oil painting
Life Is Beautiful | 28″ x 19″ | Oil on board | © Chris Mars 2016

In addition to painting, Mars is an accomplished filmmaker working in both animation and live-action.  Screening venues have included Sundance, SXSW, Palm Springs International Short Fest, Athens International Film Festival, Florida International Film Festival, Chicago International Film Festival, Jerusalem International Film Festival, The Museum of Modern Art (New York) and Starz Denver International Film Festival and many other prestigious domestic and international venues, including numerous public arts institutions in the U.S. and abroad. 

Chris Mars and friend

For more information on the artist and his work, visit his website.