Of all of the contemporary realist painters, Martin Wittfooth stands out as a shining example of the marriage of psyche and techne. His work is beautifully executed with the patience and subtlety of the old masters, but communicates a message which is conscious, spiritual, and urgent. He composes surreal images of animals, plants, flowers, and landscapes in a way which references the tradition of painters past but is at the same time relevant, unique, and personal. From his studio in New York City, we conducted this interview.
I heard you just recently had an exhibition in New York City. What was the theme of this show and what inspired the work?
The show was called “Offering” and was exhibited at Jonathan LeVine Gallery. The show explored the theme of shamanism and the rediscovery of these traditions and practices currently taking place across the industrialized world, and the shifts in consciousness and awareness and connection that are taking place as a result of this. I was inspired to pay tribute to this idea and explore it in my work via my own participation in ceremonies during which I realized that what I was experiencing was truly profound and that the conversation that’s been going on about these topics was worth joining. The title for the show emerged very clearly during a particular ayahuasca ceremony and it resonated with something that felt very appropriate for this series.
What is your background (where did you grow up, etc)? How did this influence your work?
I spent my childhood in Finland, and sometime in my early teens I moved to Toronto, Canada and then later, in my mid-twenties, to New York. I grew up looking at a lot of old European art, especially work by Northern European painters, like Arnold Böcklin and Akseli Gallen-Kallela (a Finnish painter), Anders Zorn (a Swedish painter), and Jon Bauer (a Swedish illustrator). I think being drawn to that work early on had a great influence on my tastes with regards to the kind of imagery I respond to, and consequently the kind of imagery I am inspired to create. I did my undergrad in illustration, thinking that I’d want to do this professionally, and went through the same discipline for my masters, which I got at the School of Visual Arts in New York. Training as an illustrator got me thinking about visual storytelling, and to explore symbolism and allegorical narratives.
Your work is classically informed and inspired, with a baroque aesthetic creeping through much of your paintings, but is also noticeably psychedelic in the feeling of the work. To me your work speaks about environmental consciousness and nature based mysticism. Are you trying to evoke a particular message or narrative in your work?
For quite a while now my work has been interested in trying to nudge the viewer toward recognizing (or probably more aptly put, remembering) that nature is sacred, that all of life’s, and that the human preoccupation with its own often megalomaniacally inflated place and importance in the universe is simply an illusion, and this obsession upsets the balance of order in the natural world. What psychedelics can reveal to us is this great order, this great balance, and our deep connection to it – a profound truth that we can access and witness via these tools, but they demand a decent dose of humility, and with this humility comes grace. Sometime in 2014 I started to portray my animals as shamanic figures, as totems or sacred icons, worthy of our veneration rather than of disdain or pity, modes of interaction we’re most used to in the places in the world where the ego rather than spirit run the show.
What was your training and approach to learning painting? Did you study under any particular artists or schools?
I was mostly self-taught when it came to painting. I studied illustration in college, but there wasn’t much focus in this program on technique so much as everyone being encouraged to explore their own interests and to develop a unique style. We were given a lot of assignments and in the course of executing them I eventually tried oil paints and really enjoyed how they handled, and so decided to keep working with them until I had something figured out. I just stuck to it for many years and by turning to some of the classical masters along the way for guidance I eventually landed on the kind of aesthetic that my work is known for. I feel like there’s an ocean of exploring left to do though, so while my future work will likely still be recognizable as mine, I hope that I’ll shake things up quite a lot for myself in the years to come.
What are your influences? Do you have any particularly favorite artists, past or present?
I have a lot of them, but specific painters whose work I often look at for a variety of reasons are the French Naturalists, namely Jules Bastien-LePage, some of the Symbolists like Caspar David Friedrich and Arnold Böcklin, 19th-Century portrait painters Henry Raeburn and Thomas Lawrence, American landscape painters like Frederic Church, the Flemish still-life painters, and many of the real classics, like Pieter Brueghel the Elder and Hieronymus Bosch. I’m a sponge for a lot of influences, and it’s not limited to classical painting, though I only mentioned those in that list. I’m a big fan of what a lot of contemporary artists are creating as well, and some recent favorites have been painters Robin F Williams, Christian Rex Van Minnen, Aron Wiesenfeld, Jenny Morgan, Vincent Desiderio and Julie Heffernan. I get a lot of influence from my close friends as well, in both their handling of their own work but also in going deep into the ideas behind our work over many long discussions. I think that’s the most important wellspring of influence for me, actually: the open and honest dialogue that I can have with other artists and thinkers. Many of the ideas for my own work have been born out of these interactions.
Have you always made your living off of you artwork? Was it ever a struggle to support yourself as an artist and do you have any advice for young and developing artists?
As of a couple of years after graduating college I’ve managed to live off of my artwork, but it’s been quite a struggle at times, especially early on. I didn’t feel particularly confident in my work for a long time, and only gained this confidence somewhere around that proverbial ten-thousand hour mark in the studio. In other words, it came by virtue of just working on my artwork a lot, as often as I could. My advice to anyone wanting to tread a similar path is to just work hard and to have faith in yourself. It might mean sacrificing a lot of other pursuits; it might mean a big lifestyle change. Less socializing, more solitude. Learning to say “no” to a lot of things. Simplifying one’s habits, and so on. Making art professionally takes a lot of dedication, and an often-frustrating mix of two personalities: the intuitive creator and the structured businessman/woman. Despite probably working with partners along the way in the form of galleries or independent art dealers or curators, you are a solo business, and have to manage a lot of moving parts beyond the act of making artwork. You’ll get the hang of it eventually, but it does take time and an awareness that it can be a lot of work and rather stressful, and you’ll often forget what day of the week it is because the idea of having weekends and regular vacations and so forth is pretty foreign, at least until you get your feet under you. But I should end this segment by mentioning that it’s very rewarding, and provides one with a great sense of freedom and autonomy.
Where do you see your place in the scope of art history?
I see myself as just another time-capsule creator, who might offer my contemporaries a subjective perspective of the situation we’re currently in, and any interested future viewers might see my work as a curious message in a bottle, containing somewhat anxious, somewhat hopeful musings on where we might have been headed.
What do you think of “visionary art”? Do you think of yourself as part of that genre classification?
Visionary art is a pretty broad term, but generally I think of it as a genre of creativity whereby an artist can try and express the realms of consciousness which by their very nature and magnitude are impossible to truly translate in any known medium. In fact, this pursuit will always be just that: an expression of an experience, because they simply can’t be summarized by something you can perceive with your senses. What this art does do, however, is to provide the creator of it, and anyone witnessing it, a reminder of that unpronounceable state of being: to anyone who has ventured to these places it is a great encouragement to know that one hasn’t traveled there alone, and this art can be a testament to that idea. In the right frame of mind, visionary art can engage with a viewer deeply enough to bring on somewhat of a trance. When IN a trance, the same art can become indescribable.
I hope with my art to bridge the gap somewhat between the subconscious and the conscious – the “visionary” with the “baseline” states of mind. I want my work to be able to speak to the “uninitiated” and the veterans alike. The mainstream is what is most in need of a change of perspective right now, so I’d like for my art to be able to dialogue with it.
How has living in New York influenced your development as an artist?
The city was very influential in intimidating my work to progress and to expand my vision of my own potential. I have also met some really inspiring people in New York, and had a slew of experiences that have shaped my evolution as an artist. It’s sad to see how prohibitively expensive and corporate the city has become though – I no longer see it as necessarily a healthy place for a young artist to seek for his or her muse, unless one plays it very smart or very lucky.
Can I ask about your process in creating a painting? Do you normally create many thumbnails and studies before a finished painting? What does the process look like from idea to finished piece?
I start with a mental image: some rather fuzzy version of the final image will first make its presence known in my imagination. I will then usually do a little thumbnail sketch of it. Something small and made up of loose lines and gestural mark-making. Once I feel that I have something solid to work off of, I tend to make a digital color composition, into which I gather bits of photo reference and establish a color scheme for the painting. I then transfer this onto my surface, and do a monochromatic underpainting in oil. This layer dries pretty quickly, usually in a day or two. I then start my color layers, working from the background to the foreground, ending on the focal point last, which is usually my heaviest paint-layer. Toward the end of the process, I often do glazes and thin layers to push and pull certain elements in the painting.
How has your process changed throughout your development as an artist?
With regards to the techniques mentioned above, the process has changed mostly by trial and error, and soaking up advice given by other artists who achieve certain effects in their work that I’d like to incorporate into my own. More importantly, my way of working itself has gone through some changes over time: I’ve slowly but surely become much pickier with what commitments I take on, how many shows I do a year, and so on. I’ve learned that what I need the most of for my work to really grow is time, and peace of mind. I work best with less on my plate, and I’ve learned to curate my life to facilitate this better. Some circumstances still challenge this from time to time, but for the most part I’ve become better at simplifying. This has in turn allowed my focus to shift from smaller paintings to larger, more time consuming and ambitious ones. I’ve learned a lot by allowing for this space, to breathe more deeply with the work that I create.
Any final words that you would like to add?
I have a solo show at Corey Helford Gallery in Los Angeles in the Fall of 2016, and my first solo show at a museum at the Long Beach Museum of Art (also in California) in late 2017. Both of these shows will continue the exploration of the theme that I began with the Offering show, so there’s a lot of ground to cover. The museum show will borrow Terence McKenna’s title The Archaic Revival, and will be a visual journey into themes that he first brought to my awareness. Lastly, I want to say thank you: for this interview and if you got this far down the page, for reading it.