Megan Marlatt’s works are about identity by way of projecting life on inanimate objects. The large groupings reflect mass consumerism through the absence of the individual and become a balance of observation and abstraction. However, her solitary toy portraits show a more intimate celebration of the individuals’ uniqueness. In addition, her gouache paintings express her experiences traveling and her capgrossos enabled her to literally animate her creations. In the following interview we discuss the influences and process behind her versatile body of work.
RL: What artists or concepts influence your toy paintings?
MM: I grew up in the sixties and Pop Art was the big art form at that time. Not that I find Pop Art particularly inspiring, it doesn’t lift my soul the way a Vermeer would, but it was there and I was with it all of the time. Every time I would go to a museum I would see Claes Oldenburg and all of those guys. There is a part of that in the toy paintings, but there are also classical influences like Corbett or Cézanne.
RL: There seems to be literary or historical references in the compositions.
MM: There is just a lot of stuff in them period. I like when my paintings have lots of doorways and exits as well for interpretation. If you can look at it and see Moby Dick in it, I’m happy with that. In a lot of the toy paintings I would just throw the toys, I had boxes and boxes of them, into a pile and see where they land. The painting Venetian Red Riding Hood was a huge pile, and I would basically just paint from one side of the pile to the other. This was a post 9/11 painting and was really about the chaos, I kept seeing these big piles of destruction from the twin towers on the television. They also, of course, have a lot to do with plastic.
RL: I noticed you are using a varnish just on the areas where the toys are, and it really gives them a plastic surface quality.
MM: They start with acrylic, which is basically liquid plastic. The first time I did it I tried to use oils and it just didn’t work because it didn’t look enough like the material. I hated acrylic, I still probably hate it, but it is what I needed to do in order to get that plastic appearance. I would still go back into them with oil paint in order to give them a full volume, highly rendered, classical look. Then I would varnish the toys because I wanted them to look plastic and shiny.
RL: Where did you get all of these toys and how did you choose them?
MM: Sometimes I didn’t choose them at all. Most of the time I would get them from thrift stores. The thrift stores would put a random assortment in gallon bags for a dollar or two. So, you would kind of know what was in them but you wouldn’t be sure. Sometimes you would find real treasures in there. I still have a couple of things, like one of the first Ernie’s in a tub and the tub is metal. For the most part, when I first started making the toy paintings was all of the confusion and junk and big bright plastic colors. To the point that you look at something so much it becomes abstracted. It becomes a transition back and forth between abstraction and observation. It becomes confusing to try to discern the objects from one another, it’s too much, it’s like vertigo.
RL: Can you tell me a little about the tondos, or round paintings, that seem to have more of a portrait-type quality?
MM: What happened is that I had all of these toys and they were about mass consumerism, vertigo, too much junk, and too much stimulation. Like I said earlier, every once and a while I would find a little jewel that stood out to me. I started separating those and painting them. I came to realize that it’s a no-brainer when you say consumerism, mass consumerism, you have too much junk now. However, what we don’t understand about mass consumerism is that it takes from us a sense of preciousness. For example, you buy a pair of shoes and think, “These are great shoes, I have to go out and get another pair I love them so much.” So you go out and get two more pairs and all of the sudden the pair that you had before isn’t that special anymore because now you have all these pairs of shoes. So I put those little jewels aside to highlight and start to paint them. I began to realize that I was looking at them with a kind of love that a child has when they look at their favorite toy. That’s when I realized what a child does and what an artist does is the same thing and that is that they project life into objects. A child’s favorite toy is imagined to hear them, talk to them, when they go to bed a night it gets up and walks around. They become animated. I decided that I was going to do a series of portraits of toys. In addition, I decided they were going to be puppets because they are animated. I was painting the toys as if they were real. I was making these puppets pose for me and they had to pose for me for hours. I was painting them as if I was Rembrandt and this was a serious endeavor because these are portraits of souls. I did my best to make sure there was that boundary of reality and fantasy, and that they were animated through my paint.
RL: Can you tell me about your works on paper?
MM: I travel a lot and I have been to a lot of artist residencies. I, for the most part, do not like to bring oil paint with me when I travel it is very difficult to carry it around and use it. I like to use gouache instead. A lot of those paintings came from my different travels. The toys that I use for the gouache paintings real small. They usually come from cracker jacks or from kinder eggs, European chocolate eggs with a toy inside, and the scale is really small. I collect those and carry them with me when I travel. For the painting At Sea, those are actually gummies. At one point gummies came into it because they have similar qualities. I painted At Sea when I was actually at sea on a cruise ship at semester at sea where my husband was teaching and I went to visit him. I had these gummies, an octopus and a penguin, and there was a little boat. The little boat came from when we stopped in Stockholm, Sweden and Helsinki, Finland as well as Gdańsk, Poland. In all three of those cities I went to their toy museums for a day of two and drew their toy collections. So the little boat in At Sea is from the Gdańsk toy museum in Poland. The works on paper reflect what I am seeing and experiencing when I am traveling plus my little bag of toys.
Megan Marlatt's Works on Paper
RL: Can you tell me about your work with the capgrossos?
MM: Capgrossos is a Cantolonian word that just means big head. I had been working on bringing life to those puppet heads for a year or two, when a friend of mine who had been to Spain emailed me a photograph of the capagrossos, and when I saw it I said, “Oh no, look at those! You could just climb in them,” I could be the toy and be the spirit I was trying to project into them. I became really conflicted because I had spent forty-five years being a painter and identifying with being a painter. All of the sudden I wanted to make big heads. So I thought, I’ll write a research grant to the university and if I get it then that means I should do it. I got the grant, so I went over there and I read up on it and researched it, there was a really great book by Jo Farb Hernandez about traditional crafts in Spain that are still being used. There was a whole chapter on David Ventura and Neus Hosta, who are the artist that I learned from. So went over to Spain with the intention that I was going to paint their capgrossos, I wasn’t going to make them, but I just couldn’t help it. I had to start making them, they intercepted my world, my life, and my soul. So I learned how to make them and painted them, they were wonderful people. When I came back I did a show about six or more months later in Richmond. I had made my own capgrossos and the curator at the Visual Art Center in Richmond wanted me to do a workshop on making them. I told her that I would rather try to bring over Ventura and Hosta. She wrote a grant and we brought them over, which was a big deal, and they loved it. For two weeks they were working with the artists in Richmond helping them make capgrossos, then I brought them to UVA for a week where they taught my students. So there was a big group of artist in Richmond with Big Heads, I had Big Heads, and my students had Big Heads. I just remember thinking, “What are we going to do with all of these Big Heads? We can’t just go home now without playing with them.” I asked everyone if they wanted to form an artist collective and call ourselves the Big Head Brigade. Some agreed, others didn’t and the rest is history. Now I’ve made several Big Heads and I’ve become a Big Head artist. I’m still painting and I’ve started a new body of work, I’m still doing the gouaches, but I’m still making Big Heads, I’m doing it all now.
RL: They are papier-mâché, but from my understanding it is more like a paper cast, right?
MM: It is not your typical high school papier-mâché; it is not strips of paper over a balloon at all. They are made in clay first, then cast the clay in plaster to make a negative mold. That then is split in half to make a two-part mold. We use a special paper that is like a pulpy cardboard, instead of a thin paper, that is soaked in water and press it into the plaster mold. From one mold you can make multiple heads. What you end up with is ultra-fine, well defined, strong, and very light weight. They only weigh about two pounds, but it is really strong almost like plastic. There is a website www.bigheadbirgade.com where you can see all kinds of variations.
RL: What do you find most difficult and most enjoyable about being an artist?
MM: I don’t think artist suffer any more than anybody else, but I think an artist has the opportunity to document their lives or in a way release their suffering through a muse or art form that brings purpose to their lives. Most artist feel that they have purposeful lives and I think that is fulfilling What is difficult is that you are more sensitive to things that other people are in denial about, so sometimes you feel more pain where people feel nothing because you are seeing things in a way that they are not, but that is also the good part about it. I have a creative life that is defined by me making and painting and not everybody has that.