Mark Ryden
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Interview: Nathan Spoor & Greg Escalante
September, 2008

Mark Ryden, the very talented and soft-spoken genius behind the most popular of contemporary artworks takes a few moments to chat with us about life, painting and his nature of being. Join Greg Escalante and Nathan Spoor as they dive into Mark Ryden’s contemplative ephemerata.

So tell us about your giant painting, The Creatrix, in the Juxtapoz show at the Laguna Art Museum.
That painting (90 x 60 inches) took about a year to paint. But before actually bringing it to the canvas, I spent many years with the idea and with sketches. It’s the biggest and most complicated painting I’ve ever done, and (laughing) maybe the biggest one I’ll ever do!

Did you work on that piece full-time or work on several paintings at once?
I typically paint one piece at a time, which was the case with “The Creatrix”. I am very single focused. I wanted something new for the Wondertoonel show, and that painting was finished just in time to debut at the Pasadena Museum. That was actually the second venue of Wondertoonel, the first being at the Frye in Washington.

What is The Creatrix about?
That’s difficult to put into words… What the viewer thinks the work is about is more important than the reasons I may give. That may sound evasive, but to explain the painting takes the best part, the mystery, away from it. It’s for others to ponder and draw their own conclusions.

With the amount of work that you’re capable of producing, why would you take an entire year to produce just one painting?
Well, one reason I took so long to paint was that I had just finished the show of miniature paintings (Blood). So I went from making 5 x 7 inch paintings to this 8-foot tall painting. It was quite a jump in scale, but I approached it in the same fashion – using the same technique and application as I had for the smaller paintings. Even though this painting is so large, I painted a great deal of it under magnification. I worked on making this painting function on both a macrocosmic and microcosmic level. I wanted the painting to work well from a great distance, but also to be rewarding when viewing it from just inches away. On the Laguna Museum wall, you can really take in that attention to detail, and the frame is quite a striking piece in it’s own right. The design of the frame is an important part of the work of art as a whole. I make many drawings and have my frames carved in Thailand by
these amazing artisans. I am very lucky to be able to work with them.

So after the Wondertoonel museum shows, you had a big show at Michael Kohn’s gallery?
Yes, The Tree Show.

And apparently certain museum folks purchased most, if not all, of those paintings?
Many of the buyers were MOCA trustees. Cliff and Mandy Einstein added one of my paintings to their amazing collection. You know that sculpture in the courtyard at MOCA, the big twisted metal airplane by Nancy Rubins? They have one of those in their backyard!

So, after being embraced by the highbrow museum crowd, what’s next for you?
My next show will be in Japan at Tomio Koyama Gallery in February of '09. Tomio shows Nara and used to show Murakami before he started his own gallery. Following that I’ll have a show with Paul Kasmin in New York.

Tell us about this children’s book, “Sweet Wishes”, how did that come together?
Marion Peck and I collaborated on the project, which you can see now on YouTube. The short film, which debuted at her solo exhibition at Billy Shire Fine Arts, played in a miniature theater in a side room at the gallery. We released the book just recently.

So what are you working on right now, at this moment?
At this very moment when you guys called I was working on paintings for the Japan show. I didn’t plan on producing big quantities for this show. It’s not a huge one like The Tree Show at Kohn’s. But as I’ve progressed with it, I realized I’ve done a lot more than I intended to do. I’m even working on a big piece for that. It’s not Creatrix big, but it’s definitely a big one.

Ok, so now that we know where you’ve been recently and where you’re going, let’s get some basics on who you are and where you’re from, shall we?
Well, I was born in Medford, OR. We lived there for only about a month and so I don’t remember much about it. Our family moved a lot. I lived the longest in South Lake Tahoe. I was there between first and fifth grade. Then there was Idaho and for a while Colorado. Then we moved to Southern California, where I attended High School and stayed on to attend Art Center in Pasadena. My dad was an auto body man. He did everything, from custom to regular bodywork. I grew up seeing a lot of that sort of custom car work, but I’ve never really been into cars. My older brother, Steven, worked with Dad for years, but hot rods and typical car culture just didn’t seem to rub off on me, nor on my oldest brother, KRK, who is also an artist.

So when did you start making art or notice that you were more of an artist?
I did art ever since I was a kid. It is all I ever did. I found out about Art Center in high school. I visited the campus and it seemed like an art paradise. I had a great time and learned a lot from the old timers that were still teaching. Their programs run on a trimester system. So with taking a couple summers off to work I finished in 3 years.

How important is college and art school?
I think it is incredibly important. I can’t believe how much I learned in my few years at Art Center. Today there is the added need to
learn the computer. Even if you don’t intend on doing “computer art”, you will probably use the computer quite a bit. I certainly do.

What did you do once you got out?
I fell into doing album covers. I didn’t try to, but it kind of worked out that way. It was the most creative of the commercial art that I
did, and I had great success with that. I started doing album covers just as vinyl died out, so sadly I only got to see my art on 5” square cd’s rather than the 12” covers I grew up with.

What was the first album you did art for?
Warrant – Dirty Rotten Filthy Stinking Rich was my first. I have done covers for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Screaming Trees, Aerosmith, Jeff Beck, Ringo Starr and many others.

And what would be the most famous album cover you’ve done?
Michael Jackson – Dangerous

So what’s your most well-known commission then?
Kirk Hammet, the bass player for Metallica actually commissioned a portrait of himself and his wife. That wasn’t for an album cover; it was a rare commissioned “fine art” painting. I don’t like to do commissions of this type. It is kind of in the nether-land between commercial art and fine art. But Kirk was a really great guy and has an amazing house with a great collection of a monster theme.

Do you have any technique to share?
Most of what I do is a very time consuming traditional oil technique with lots of glazing.

Where do you begin when you approach a piece, or what is your inspiration?
Well, I collect things. I have lots of art books, paper ephemera, etc. They are my source of inspiration. I look through things and they inspire ideas. I have boxes and boxes of scraps that I sift through before I begin the work. After being inspired I make many sketches and drawings. My ideas come faster than I could ever paint, so it’s difficult to decide which ones to turn into paintings. I can only make one painting to every 100 ideas.

What sort of artists do you enjoy looking at?
Mostly the old masters like David and Ingres. I also like Bougereau and Bronzino, just to name a few.

Have you ever been influenced by any cinema, movies?
Oh yes, Eraserhead changed my life as an artist. It had a tremendous impact on me as a teenager. I would see it over and over at the midnight movies.

Are there any authors or certain books that you enjoy?
My favorite author is James Hillman, who Marion turned me onto. He wrote “The Souls Code.” He writes about looking at
the world differently than I thought about before; sort of an alternative to modern psychotherapy.

Music must play an important role in your life somehow? Do tell…
It does, yes, but it depends on if it’s for painting or driving or parties. For painting, I like something peaceful and calming, like Debussy harp music, or Brian Eno. Ambient sounds are better for cultivating the paintings, or for studio listening. I also like old jazz or lounge music, especially Frank Sinatra, but not so much for painting. I’ve never really been into rock ‘n roll. Jasper, my son, is heavily into rock ‘n roll and punk now. The kids are both very creative and make great art, but I think they are more interested in other things. Jasper is more into music than art. He plays the bass and he just composed a pretty great song on garage band. Rosie loves acting and dancing.

Mark, we know our time is up and want to thank you for sharing what makes you tick with the inquiring minds that faithfully read BLISS. We really look forward to seeing your next big show in Japan and then New York. We’d like to encourage readers to check out your website - to glean more of your story and amazing art work plus the hot tip that the book Mark and Marion did is currently available there!