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An Interview with MartinJon

By Lauri Apple in Arts & Entertainment on Jan 12, 2009 7:00PM

martinjon pirate.jpg In 2001, Chicago artist MartinJon embarked on an ambitious project to paint the portraits of 1,000 different people. Eight years later, he's about halfway through -- though, he says, the project might never end. It has become more about sharing the creative experience than about meeting a quota.

MartinJon makes art accessible via ChicagoArts, a YouTube channel featuring his interviews with local artsfolk, and by exhibiting his work -- most recently at Uncle Freddy's Gallery in Highland, Indiana. Recently he took some time out of rendering people's noses and eyes to tell us about his portrait project.

Chicagoist: What circumstances led you to pursue this project?

MartinJon: There were three main influences on my decision to start the portrait project. First, I was still in art school, and I would do drawings of artist friends of mine as an exercise. Then as an adult I was inspired to revisit this exercise as a way to feel more productive in my art practice. Around that time I decided that there needed to be a change in my attitude about making art. I liked the idea of meeting people, and I feel that in terms of social interaction I am most comfortable one-on-one. So that is where the idea began to take shape.

The second influence was that I had spent years trying to figure out how to make my work available to people I admired. One time, these folks came to a show of mine and told me they were out-priced before they walked in the room. My relationship with them was really meaningful to me, so trying to make my work more accessible to them and people like them became a central focus.

Finally, I was at a friend’s house and did her portrait as a thank-you for supporting me in a time of need. When I was finished, she had already gone to sleep, so I placed the portrait on her table and left. I was driving around before going home and had this epiphany that this is what I should do. I liked the idea of the exchange of a portrait for time spent.

C: How many people have you painted since then?

M: I’m about half-way done.

C: How many portraits do you do per month/year?

M: Well, that number ranges; the first 300 were done probably within the first 3½ years, but the last 200 will have been done in the four years since then. I currently average between 2-4 portraits a month.

C: How do you pace yourself?

M: That is a great question, because when I started this project I didn’t think much about pace. I really anticipated that I would be done in five to seven years easily. As I have been just hovering at the halfway point for a few months, I see how much pace matters.

C: How long do the portraits usually take?

MG: Usually between an hour and a half and two hours to complete, meaning to actually to draw and finish. I could be at someone's home for nearly three or four hours, though, because we are getting along and talking. That is an average; some portraits give me trouble and take more time because I need to restart or do something that I feel is necessary. However, some go real quick and only take 45 minutes if I get a real good drawing down and make good solid choices while making the piece.

C: Do you switch mediums?

M: I have, but I don't now. When the project started, I wasn't sure if I wanted to work with oil pastels, watercolors, or pencil. The first one I did was oil pastels, and it worked out really great. Oil pastels were relatively cheap, especially the ones I was using at that time. On the fifth portrait, I decided to use watercolor because I wanted to review my options for this aspect of the project. I wanted to see what was available to me, as I was going into other people's homes and needed to have a medium that was compact, easy to work with and acceptable to the general audience.

As a result, the watercolors weren't going work -- I had to use water, and that seemed like a bad idea, as it could all go wrong. It was important to leave behind the portrait without creating a mess, and the only way I was able to be completely self-contained was with the oil pastels. At this point, there is no reason to switch mediums.

C: What have you learned about people, having visited the homes of different strangers?

MG: That is not an easy question to answer. People are so diverse, although I would venture to say people are more the same than different. I am tempted to stop there, leaving everything open and not saying anything new. However, I can easily say that it isn't what I have learned about others that is interesting, but what I've learned about myself through others that holds my attention. I have found that most of my thoughts of others, good or bad (if those notions exist), are solely because of my particular thoughts on a particular day in a particular circumstance. And I would say that a lot of people do not understand that as well as I would hope.

C: How has the project evolved over time?

M: It's all in the documentation; that specifically has changed a lot. Also, the pace changed, as stated above.

Initially I envisioned that I was going to do the 1,000 portraits without documenting them right away, and then go back and find everybody. For some reason, I had it in my head that I would literally go back and find people to document their portrait. Cell phones had not taken off yet; not everyone had one, so I knew it was going to be difficult, but the idea of finding people was interesting. The Internet was not what it is today, either. There were free services online that I had used that are no longer free, and I used to be able to literally look up people with old addresses and get their new phone number or mailing address. Of course, I understand why that isn't free, but I can still get the information if I want to pay per name. As I approach the 500 mark, I am really not willing or able to pay per name to track down all of those portraits, so I don't think I am really ever going to find all of the first 200 portraits.

I still talk to some people whose portraits I had done early on, and some of those portraits are gone for good. Some were lost or given away, and I'm okay with that. This project isn't about 1,000 photographs, it's the 1,000 portraits, and I will see that much through.

Another thing that has evolved is the quality of the time and conversation I have with people -- it has improved, because I am not as nervous, and am more open-minded. Also, my ability to be second at a portrait improves the quality -- meaning, my needs are less important during my time with the sitter. I am not looking to preach or to get across any idea -- I just want the process to go as smoothly as possible for the sitter.

C: Do you keep any of your portraits?

M: I don't keep any of the portraits, and nobody has to buy the portraits; this is an even exchange, although keeping the portrait would make it more viable to galleries and sales. I go to people's homes, do the portraits, and they keep them, period. They get to keep them for their time and for allowing me to come over. I accept tips, but I would say that for 90% of the portraits I have done, I received no compensation.

It's really important to keep this project free, because it started as a way to get people to have artwork in their homes. Most of my work revolves around art being accessible, and honestly, it's also entertaining: I like going to people's homes.

C: Has anybody ever hated their portrait?

M: I know there have been people who have not been happy with their portraits. Hated it? That's a tough call. I'll never do 1,000 things the same, and they will never all be perfect, and really it's alright.

The portrait project does something very weird. I've discovered that sitters experience different emotions revolving around the portrait during the first two days or so. Every couple hours, they tell me, they feel differently about the portrait, and it's that series of emotional responses that will then define that particular work of art and their relationship to it. So to answer your question, yes, and that's why I set up the flickr account -- because I want to know what people think after there initial shock has subsided.

C: Do you end up befriending some of your subjects?

M: I would say there is nobody currently in my life, save two or three people, who are pre-portrait project. When I started this project, I realized that I didn't have to settle with friends that I conveniently find at school or work, but that I could choose people I was happy around and who were doing things I respected. So now, my friends, the people I love and cherish my time with, are mostly from the portrait project. Truthfully, this project has introduced me to a whole spectrum of new experiences.

C: What's the most memorable experience you've had doing this project?

M: The most memorable experiences I've had with the project were unfortunately two negative ones. There are tons I remember, but when this question comes up I often gravitate towards domestic abuse and what I would consider bad child-rearing. Probably because they were the most shocking; the reality, though, is that there is a range of moments I will never forget.

For example, I did one portrait while watching Akira Kurosawa's Ran, and the subject's dog jumped on me the whole time. I generally don't like dogs, but it was great -- even still -- because it was so vivid and comic. Another place had pianos everywhere, and the sitter was translating German medical documents into English. I was totally blown away. I would hope that all of these experiences are remembered as fondly for others as I remember them.