Mark Mehaffey was walking through a Shanghai market in 2010. The watermedia artist was surrounded by hundreds of food stalls with thousands of people selling and shopping in the world’s most populous country. He was taking it all in. All those people. All that unfamiliar grilled meat.
An idea hit. It pinged the back of his brain.
“When I start to get the seed of an idea, it rolls around and around and around in my head for quite some time.”
As a conceptual artist, Mehaffey begins his process this way. Waiting in a grocery store. Idling in traffic. Or marveling at beetle grubs on a stick.
“I’ll get locked into an idea, and it’ll precipitate a series,” says Mehaffey, AWS Dolphin Fellow and NWS signature member. “However, sometimes during the series I’ll go off on a tangent if I get another idea. Or sometimes the series just runs its course, and I get a different idea, and I take that to some kind of conclusion. ”
Because he’s focused on concept first and foremost, Mehaffey doesn’t have one recognizable style. He works in what he calls compartments.
“It’s absolutely necessary that I have these compartments because it allows me to move from one conception or set of ideas to another.”
If you’re familiar with Mehaffey’s work, you’ve seen some of those compartments. His personal abstractions work, for example, is the compartment he uses for his workshops because it allows him to explore design.
Working across many compartments provides limitless creative opportunities. But in a professional world that asks artists to commit to a signature style, it can be strange territory for Mehaffey to tread.
Last year Mehaffey, along with Cheng-Khee Chee, John Salminen, Ratindra Das, and others, achieved Distinguished Master status in the Transparent Watercolor Society of America (TWSA). To earn the distinction, an artist had to have had a painting accepted to each of the past 20 annual TSWA shows.
As part of the celebration, Mehaffey had all his accepted paintings projected on a large screen.
“It could have been three or four different artists.” says Mehaffey.
And this is where we start to talk about style. Mehaffey knows artists feel pressure to find and keep one unique style. He worries, though, about what artists are giving up.
“Part of being creative, which is really what art making is about, is inviting change. It’s a necessary thing. If you invite change then your style should also change.“
Allowing for change, Mehaffey believes, also allows for artists to be in it for the long haul, which is what good art demands.
“People get the advice that if they keep painting, the style will make itself evident. That’s the truth,” says Mehaffey. “But people lose patience with the process. And it’s not a quick process. It’s a lifetime thing. It’s a long, long, long, long path. And there’s really no destination. You just keep going.“
Mehaffey’s ability to work through concepts has allowed him to be an active participant in his art making for the last 30 years.
“It’s keeps me involved. I seldom paint anything that doesn’t actively engage me,“ he says.
It’s also been an incredible way for the artist to continue to push his technical knowledge.
“A lot of people start with, ‘OK, how do I apply paint to make a really cool painting?’ Well I don’t even worry about that,” says Mehaffey. “I get a really cool idea, then I decide what’s the best way to apply the paint to show that idea. So over the years I’ve figured out a bazillion different ways to actually apply paint. It’s a different way to approach painting.”
The Waiting Series
Because one style doesn't have to say everything the artist wishes to say, Mehaffey can shift from one compartment to the next and pursue only the work he loves. This includes spending hundreds of hours on paintings that may never see the walls beyond his studio.
Remember that China story from earlier? That was the seed for his Waiting series, currently nine paintings, with more in the works, that Mehaffey knows will probably never sell.
“I’m doing that just for me. I know that the odds of selling any of these paintings is just about zip. Those paintings are sitting in the top of my flat drawer file just for me.”
Each painting takes 4-6 hours just to draw and many more to finish. He takes the time to create two or three per year.
The Waiting series shows a perfect example of how Mehaffey works through the lens of concept first. Waiting allows him to think about an idea that is important to him, in this case overpopulation. It allows him to address his ideas about the reality that as more people are born, fewer resources are available for each of them.
He’s working in a separate compartment, something he’s given himself permission to do. To explore an idea for as long as he wants before calling it quits.
For the Waiting series, it means possibly painting three or four more pieces in the next three years or so. But for his other work and ideas to come, the possibilities remain unlimited.
“You literally could give me three lifetimes,” says Mehaffey, “I’d still not use up the ideas that I have.”
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