24 Jun Featured: Surreal Mixed-Media Artworks by Marlise Keith
Underneath the immediately colourful facade of Marlise Keith‘s work we find a darker, more complex narrative from an artist who “cannot create an artwork without remembering the morning’s newspaper headlines.” Working predominantly in acrylic ink, gesso, pencils, pen and collage; Marlise produces artworks that are surreal and layered with the ability to disturb as much as they intrigue.
We spoke to Marlise about her journey to becomming an artist, how her environment influences her work and the stages of her process.
What type of environment did you grow up in?
I grew up on Suikerbosrand nature reserve, a few hours from Johannesburg. We were the only kids (two brothers and myself) on a 14 000 hectare reserve and I have to say it was quite idyllic. We often had to nurse various creatures back to health and foster abandoned animals until they were ready to be released into the wild again. This included a few jackal, duiker, meerkat, and bush babies to name a few. The not so idyllic part was when they died or had to be released. The other not so idyllic result of my upbringing is that I find humans frightening. That may be a bit of an exaggeration, but I am never at ease in social situations – I always monitor my behaviour and people’s reactions to it. People are hard work for me and I am most at home with my partner, books, cats, dog and movies.
When did you realise that you wanted to pursue a career as an artist, and how have you gone about doing so?
I wrote a letter to the school newspaper when I was 9, informing them that I wanted to be an artist when I grew up. When I was 14, we moved to Pretoria and I sat for the entry exam of Pro-Arte – who were willing to accept me only if I was prepared to repeat grade 9, on the account that I was so ‘raw’. Over my dead body. I wasn’t prepared to spend a single year more than I had to in school. I was advised by the guidance counsellor of the next school to take history instead of art as a subject, which art as an after school activity. There wasn’t money for this so I drew at my own pace. When I wasn’t selected for occupational therapy, I told my parents that I was going to art school. After matric, I took some private lessons and applied for my Bachelor’s in Fine Arts at the University of Tshwane. In the interview I was able to only name one artist that I liked – van Gogh, I knew nothing else – but on the grounds of my portfolio and what we did in the 3 day testing period, I was accepted.
Those four years were a mixture of agony and ecstasy. I was the worst, worst, worst – but managed to make my way into the ‘upper echelons’ of our group by my 4th year. I was a serious student and I had to work my ass off, but I was exactly where I wanted to be. After graduation I worked at an interior decorator for 20 months, while saving up to come to Cape Town and complete a Master’s degree. This turned out to be another 4 years of hell, in which I realised that I would rather make art than write about it.
After my Master’s I had a intermittent career in teaching at a high school level and at a film school, slowly getting more bored and numb by the day. One day, I just quit. I made no provision, moved to Kalk Bay and started to focus on making art full time. That was the darkest and the most incredibly difficult time of my life. Luckily, at that point I was so thoroughly depressed that I did not have the energy to quit art in order to find a job, so I just plodded along: making art, exhibiting, selling every now and then, entering into competitions etc. Slowly, slowly, it got better.
How was your style or approach developed since you first started out?
I majored in painting, and used to make huge abstract works. My other subject was drawing, which was taught to me by Diane Victor. In my final year I combined drawing and painting. During my Master’s I finally bid farewell to painting only and embarked on drawing and a little bit of painting in-between. I loved to come up with drawing solutions for a painterly problem.
What mediums do you work in/with, and why?
I work in acrylic ink, gesso, polychromos pencils, pen, collage. I am not very patient and so oil paint, although more forgiving than the inks, did not allow me to work as fast as I liked.
To what extent does the environment you find yourself in influence you?
Very much so. I cannot create an artwork without remembering the morning’s newspaper headlines, what I’ve recently seen and who I’ve interacted with. It might not come out in a way where I could say “Duimpies’ death made me do this drawing”, but it is always there in the colour, line and mark.
What else are you influenced and inspired by?
Nature…how it changes constantly. I love it because it makes me understand my place and my value. I’m also inspired by other people’s awesome art. Sites like Pinterest, this is colossal, Tumblr, etc. are old haunts of mine.
In terms of process, would you say that yours is more structured or spontaneous?
The ‘thinking’ part of the process is quite structured, a leftover from my Master’s degree I think. This part also takes the longest. Then I just draw, because the skeleton has been provided by the thinking part, so I can add the fleshy bits and choose and manipulate the images according to the skeleton. I find the ‘spontaneous’ process lovely, because there is always a surprise or odd solution that can’t ever be foreseen.
Tell us about some of the recurring themes in your work.
Amputation: it is almost always a symbol of my feeling of helplessness. When the world and pain become too much to bare, drawing about it is a nice balm. Eyes: I suffer from chronic migraines, and once the headache slips behind the eye nothing brings relief. Girls: to me they resemble a total vulnerability, an inadequacy to cope with a monstrous world that simultaneously hosts magnificence and terror. Women: I am one, and womanhood continuously perplexes me…
What has been the most rewarding part of your journey so far?
It is those days – after I started my day with yoga, swim in the tidal pool and walk into my studio for a full day of drawing – that I realise I am exactly where I want to be and doing exactly what I want to do.
On the other hand, what are the biggest challenges?
Not freaking out when I look at my bank balance, and remembering that it will always be feast or famine. Realising that I only have a scooter to my name on the wrong side of 40. When I have to go to the dentist or doctor. Wondering if I am good enough. Wondering if I am an imposter and will be caught out.
What are you currently working on, and what are your plans going forward?
I am currently working on some more soft sculptures. I have decided that I am three-dimensionally challenged and should embrace space, so I’m working on some more folded drawings because they fry my brain, and I’m trying to master the art of embroidering with a thimble. I have never been a good “5 year plan” type of person so my goal is to do my job, which is create stuff. The rest should hopefully take care of itself. Maybe I will own a big bike on the other side of 50!