I had never met Mark England, the spring morning when photographer Steve Coray and I approached his house in Alpine, Utah. Though I had seen his work in group and solo shows over the years I had never spoken with him. Luckily, after a short conversation on the phone a few days before, England had agreed to be interviewed for 15 BYTES.
The first thing I noticed when we approached his home were the bowling balls. Half-buried in the lawn, they line the walk to his front door. The bowling balls are your first clue. England is serious about what he does. His art extends throughout his entire environment. At the same time, that seriousness, that devotion to his art, is not afraid of whimsy or a good laugh.
The art that England makes is integral to his life. The house itself, built four years ago by England, is a canvas for his art. Most artists have their art hanging on their walls. England has it in his nightlights, embedded into walls as display boxes, and even in the form of a canoe, which hangs upside down, in his kitchen. The house is like one of England’s collage works, a mixture of diverse objects and images recontextualized by the hand of the artist.
Collage, which England calls “the art of the twentieth century,” is the central focus of his work, and graphite his principal medium. It was the way he had used the deceptively simple tool of a pencil to create large works of expansive beauty that had attracted me to England’s art. Intrigued by the visual quality of the works, I had come to Alpine today to better understand how one might “read” a Mark England.
VISUAL IMAGES FIRST OF ALL
Comfortably seated in England’s front room, we began our journey through his art.
AOU: Walk us through the evolution of your work — how you came to use graphite as your principal medium.
ENGLAND: I’ve always felt this affinity to drawing; partly because it is so visceral and direct and simple and basic and partly because it is a requirement to draw well-to-do anything else well … So I’ve always felt that need to at least get [drawing] down. While I was developing that skill [drawing] I was pursuing other ways of expressing myself in my artwork through collage, both two and three dimensional collage, which I developed while I was in my graduate program. I pursued both the collage and the drawing simultaneously for a number of years … I found that I was torn between what I wanted to develop with my collage work and what I wanted to develop with my drawing and eventually painting. Because of time constraints … I decided I would just focus on one. I gradually let the three dimensional collage become a minor aspect of my artistic expression … Most of my energy has now been devoted to the drawing with graphite as well as now incorporating solvent transfer with my drawings.
AOU: So where would you say your decision to concentrate on drawing has brought you?
ENGLAND: For a long time I limited my drawing to just drawing. I didn’t want to say anything; I didn’t want to be distracted by trying to say something profound about the world or whatever you want to call that. Over the last four or five years, though, I’ve begun to focus in on a number of themes and issues and ideas that are being developed and explored in the drawings. They are still subservient to the fact that the work I do is a drawing first. It’s very important to me that these be visual images first of all — and then that there be many layers behind that of stories or suggestions or narratives or illustrations of history and time.
To better understand England’s work, we are soon walking around the house, examining specific pieces. England tells us that “Many of my pieces are about an event. An historical event or a religious event; yet, if you were to look at them you would hardly recognize it as such.” He has purposely put images together that make it difficult at first glance to recognize the event for what it is. In this respect, collage is the perfect medium for one of his main concerns, the investigation of our perceptions.
To illustrate this point England indicates a large scale graphite and solvent-transfer piece, entitled “First Vision” — a reference to the event central to Mormon history when Joseph Smith was first visited by God and Jesus Christ. The First Vision and Joseph Smith are common themes in England’s work, as they are in much Mormon art. England’s version, however, differs greatly from traditional Mormon “takes” on the event.
In regards to Mormon depictions of the First Vision, England says, “We seem to be very obsessed with getting it right. Getting a literal, photographic, true version of what happened … the idea being that if we paint it just right that somehow that will increase faith.” According to England, that’s the last thing it will do. “If anything it will diminish faith and detract us from true faith.”
England is intrigued by the obsession with the visual image and its possibly deceptive qualities. In his version of the First Vision he wants to explore our perceptions of the event.
“What’s important about the First Vision is that it is a symbolic event; that something happened and somebody learned something and not knowing how tall they were or what they wore. That’s just so superficial to the essence of the First Vision … When I approach the First Vision I’m trying to focus on the symbolism of the event and not the literalism.”
In his work, England has created a visual evocation of the 19th-century context from which Joseph Smith emerged, especially the contradictory elements of Romanticism and the Industrial Revolution. In the work, machine imagery is set in a pastoral landscape. A figure rising out of a well — a reference to Joseph Smith’s experience as a well digger — is “reaching up to something that is the opposite of this industrial machinery” — solvent transfer collage images representing Joseph’s visitors. But as England points out “the collage figures … are not like any Heavenly Father of Jesus figures we know.” God appears to be a transfer of a profile shot of beat poet Allen Ginsberg. Jesus is an old businessman. Do not read too much into the identities, however. England is quick to point out that it does not matter.
To the left of these two figures is an image which makes it unlikely that this piece will be hanging in an LDS meetinghouse anytime soon. A nude female figure, arms outstretched, represents Heavenly Mother, who England figures or hopes was there even if veiled to Joseph Smith — “Heavenly Mother is obviously our Earth Mother, and earth mothers and earth goddesses are always very fertile beings, so what better representation than a very powerful nude figure.” The nude figure, however, can be very jarring for audiences. Which is precisely what England wants.
“It’s trying to get us to reconsider how we perceive or take our perceptions for granted.” England sees his artistic process is “an attempt to understand truth.” In the end, for England “whatever truth you believe is your own creation … I’m trying to acknowledge that I firmly believe in some truth but that ultimately they are always my subjective interpretations.
We eventually descend into what can best be described as “the hall of kitsch.” A basement room, with a pool table in the center and a raised model train track hugging the walls, the room is filled with all kinds of odds and ends. Busts of Brigham Young and bronze replicas of the Statue of Liberty are stacked underneath a window. These are the working materials for the three-dimensional collages that have been a part of England’s oeuvre. It is obviously from this stack of collected material that England found a Shriner figurine to act as his Christ at the Second Coming, surrounded by hoolah girls, in one of his shadow boxes.
He pulls out a series of large, unmounted works on paper and places them on the pool table for viewing. Combinations of drawings and solvent transfers, these works have also begun to introduce more and more color.
He points to one work which he calls a portrait of Gordon B. Hinkley, the current LDS prophet. The work is an odd mixture for a portrait of a man. Transfers of a young Hinkley can be seen,
but there are also transfers of Sunday comics, and most jarring, a series of “cheesecake” girls from playing cards. England corrects his earlier statement and says it’s not actually a portrait, the real title is “The Apotheosis of Gordon B. Hinkley.” “It’s not so much a picture of Gordon B. Hinkley,” England explains, “but a study of our perceptions of a prominent person.”
England is unabashedly dealing with being a Mormon, but doing so in such a way that few in the conservative culture of Mormonism would warm up to his work. When I ask does he get away with it, or if he think it’s risky, he says — with a smile — “If I were a writer it would be different. People pay attention to words. But people don’t care about artists.”
This leads us to questions about England’s hopes for the reception of his work.
AOU: What are you hoping for your audience in regards to your work?
ENGLAND: The first thing I want is for them to be visually interested enough in [the work] for them to want to look at it so that they want to stop, spend time with it. And I want it to be read on many levels and I realize that many people can’t read it on the more personal levels and I don’t expect them to. But I expect them at least to be able to be visually stimulated, to be intrigued by the lines and the shapes and bring their own associations to that … I want them to get it. But I want them to get it, I guess, on their own, and I will certainly help them and provide them with clues … I usually just provide prompts … People are pretty bright and figure out an awful lot.
TRACES ACROSS THE LAND
Though England may explore a variety of issues such as history and perception, one unifying theme in his work is that all the pieces take place in a landscape. “All my drawings are about landscape, or take place within a type of landscape. Within the landscape I’m exploring perceptions … how we perceive ourselves, our history, the earth, events, the future, present, past.”
Some of England’s works which have appeared in recent exhibitions are graphite drawings of landscapes, seen from helicopter-eye view, looking down on whole continents. These are landscapes about landscapes, “histories of our relationship to the Earth and to the land and the traces we leave on it.”
The United States and North America appear as subjects in a number of pieces, seen from all points of the compass. England uses an aerial view to present a broad expanse that he fills with trees, rivers, mountains, telephone poles and a number of surrealistic elements.
“The point of view that I had used for my drawing of North and South America was from the North Pole, about a thousand miles up in the air, looking down on North and South America.”
Some elements of the landscape are easily recognizable: the Mississippi River, the San Fransisco bay area, and the Great Salt Lake, complete with spiral jetty. “What this is,” England explains, “is a figurative as well as illustrative and literal drawing of the United States of America … It’s not concerned with accuracy. But the reason I’m not concerned with accuracy is because I’ve found that no matter how much you study history a lot of it has to do with perceptions. There is no absolute history. We might be able to get some facts relatively close but even those facts are subject to an awful lot of opinions … I don’t really believe that you can’t draw any conclusions, that you throw up your hands and say “what’s the point?”, but I want to draw attention to the fact that a lot of our history and perceptions are highly subject to what we want to see.” The more of these pieces you see, the better oriented you become. The Great Salt Lake and the Great Lakes may indicate the points of the compass. Soon, you see frosty Canada, or Central America snaking away into the distance.
In these works, past, present, and future can all be seen in a sort of temporal collage. A cactus in Canada may refer to the future climate of North America due to global warming. Buildings rarely occur in the drawings. Usually only a foundation, hinting at the past, or to future ruins. The landscapes are maps of our traces across its surface, and the consequence of our actions.
REDEEMING THE VISUAL WORLD
The landscapes can also be the vehicle to explore very personal relationships. When Eugene England, Mark’s father and a prominent Mormon thinker, requested a drawing of his hometown, he expected a modest depiction of the pastoral farmland of Downey, Idaho. What England produced was an expansive view of North and South America seen from his father’s hometown. The piece takes “a landscape that we are all too familiar with and [turns] it on its head, literally.” The drawing really became a portrait of the man himself. A companion piece, a portrait of his mother entitled “Davenport, Iowa,” shows the United States looking west from the Atlantic Ocean. The drawings are meant mostly as a visual statement rather than a literal reading, “creating a state of mind within a landscape.”
Personal relationships have had an immense impact on England’s work in the past year. The death of his father last year and a divorce from his wife brought England to a low point that resulted in a ten-month period in which not a single work was produced. “During the past ten months I completely eliminated art from my life,” England tells us, reflecting on this period of time which is obviously present in his mind. “And it was only then that I realized how much making art influenced the way I see things.”
England has thankfully returned to art. He has created a new graphite/transfer collage entitled “Celebration.” A long sheet of paper is filled with a free-form layering of images England found worth celebrating in his life. Reflecting on this “breakthrough” piece which promises a rebirth of his artistic output, England comments that in the end “all of my artwork is meant to be a celebration.” England’s personal celebration is extending itself outward toward his community as well. He speaks of searching for new ways to create communities in his life, and one way is by undertaking a project with Alpine City. With the city’s help, he hopes to build the largest earth sculpture ever, with community as its theme.
Though his recent trials seem to have taught England a lot about himself, his art, and his community, he is quick to point out that he does not see his artwork as an open diary for these things. “I’ve always hesitated to let my art be a dumping ground for my pain and anguish.” England’s work is indeed more intellectual than it is expressionistic, but his inner life seems to seep into his work in less overt ways. Thoughts of redemption and renewal are obviously present in England’s mind. He speaks about the very nature of collage as being redemptive. By taking ugly or discarded images and placing them in a new context, England feels he is able to redeem the images and give them new meaning. His recontextualizing of images both destruct notions and reconstruct new ones. He realizes now that his art in a way is an attempt to “redeem a world I would quickly grow very cynical about.” Collage, solvent-transfers, and the pencil have allowed England to develop a mature style perfectly suited both to his aesthetic and his conceptual concerns. With his graphite drawings and transfer collages, he is essentially throwing a bowling ball toward the pins of our preconceptions, knocking them down, and reassembling them.
England may be digging up some of those bowling balls embedded in his lawn and rolling them our way in the near future. Spring is coming and Mark England is ready to get back to work. Being an artist is no easy task, and doing the serious, committed work England does oftentimes goes unappreciated. But I suspect England would make art even if no one would ever see it.
“It’s terrifying to take a huge white piece of paper and fill it. It’s like the fifteenth-century sailors who set off west into the great unknown … The payoff, though, is really quite exciting.”
photos by Steve Coray
This article appeared in the February 2002 edition of 15 Bytes.
The founder of Artists of Utah and editor of its online magazine, 15 Bytes, Shawn Rossiter has undergraduate degrees in English, French and Italian Literature and studied Comparative Literature in graduate school before pursuing a career in art.