Four years ago, my wife saw Mark Shelton’s work unceremoniously gathering dust in a high dark corner of a public shop. She came home and told me that I had to see it (I’d heard that before). When I finally got around to meeting up with Mark, he brought his work down to eye level and into the light. I was speechless. The work was unlike anything I had ever seen: not quite painting or collage or sculpture – yet all three. Not preachy, yet full of a message. Mark and I met three times – once on location at Maya Lin’s Land Bridge in Vancouver – during January to discuss his work, designation as Honorary Tribal Artist for the Chinook tribe, and the ups and downs of the Santa Fe art scene.
Mark, I think that I have mistakenly described your work as paintings. How do you describe your work?
Actually, I do refer to them as mixed-media paintings. I use papers from all over the world. Handmade, machine-made, hand-dyed, machine-dyed. I lay the paper down, like paint, in fields, and then paint on top of the paper. I try to get as much visual texture embedded. I use things like leaves, flower petals, barks, and reeds to keep it as natural as possible. When it comes to imagery I’m influenced by several different photographers, mainly Edward Sheriff Curtis.
You’ve told me that you don’t use sketches before you begin a piece.
Right. I had a college instructor who insisted on 20 or 30 studies before beginning a painting. My response to him was that I do 20 or 30 studies within a painting.
When you’re layering all of those papers, how do you see the finished work in your mind?
I see the images fractured into intense color fields and pleasing shapes in my mind. I don’t have a predestined plan. During that time I’m in euphoria, or as I call it, “my time with God,” everything just comes together. This is the state that can’t be taught.
I’ve worked with a lot of artists. I’ve held their art, mounted it, touched it. Before you Mark, I’ve never had an artist ask me to wear white gloves before handling their work.
There’s just so much care that goes into the work. But on a physical level acids from your skin can work their way into the pieces. I don’t use frames. I use a gallery-wrap technique so there’s no frame to hold onto when you’re examining or mounting one of my pieces for display. The gloves are a precautionary measure to protect my work in particular.
You are the Honorary Tribal Artist for the Chinook Tribe?
I‘m very proud of that. It’s a great honor. And by the way, it’s pronounced “Chinook,” with a c-h sound, not an s-h sound. The chief will correct you.
I stand corrected. I know that you’re very close to Chief Snider and proud of your affiliation with the Chinook tribe.
At many points during the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the expedition party could have been killed. The Chinook, in particular, aided them from The Dalles all the way to the mouth of the Columbia, and helped them set up Fort Clatsop. If it wasn’t for the Chinook tribe and if the Nez Perce had had their way, the Lewis and Clark Expedition would have been killed before they made it past the Wallowas.
Aside from being a Chinook artist I understand that you’re personally involved in trying to get a bill for recognition passed in the US Congress.
The Chinook are not a recognized tribe. I think of it as a travesty. They had such a tie to history, but they are not being acknowledged by the US Government for that. As Chief would say, “You know, Mark we recognize them, but they don’t recognize us.”
You’ve told me that your art career is taking a path that reminds you of the Red Road. How so?
The Red Road is a path that only native people can travel and it’s the path to enlightenment. There was a time that I was showing my art in Santa Fe and there was a native man who was fixated on a piece of mine, War Chief on Bluff. After several minutes he told me that I would be very successful. I thought that he meant financial success. But he saw it as spiritual success. I thanked him because I know that’s very important to native peoples in traveling the Red Road.
You went out of your way to meet Maya Lin when she was dedicating the Confluence Project along the Columbia River. Did you know at the time how big a catalyst that would be for you to spread your wings?
Maya Lin personifies what you can achieve through art. She’s world famous, perhaps most notably for designing the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. In the case of the Confluence Project she was interacting with all of the tribal chiefs and council members. Her art has an effect on cultures other than her own. That’s what I wanted to happen with my work too.
You asked her to hold a painting for you?
I was presenting a painting of Chinook Chief Comcomly – who dates back to the Lewis and Clark Expedition – to current Chinook Tribal Chief Cliff Snider. She had just exited the stage with her aide at the dedication ceremony and I approached her and asked her if she would hold the painting as I was presenting it to the Chief and getting some photos taken.
That had to have been a busy day for her.
It was (laughs). But Maya Lin’s aide said, “Better yet let’s get a picture of you and Maya together!” You can’t beat that.
Furthering your art career hasn’t always been so easy has it?
I was looking for gallery representation a few years ago and had a great response from a gallery owner in Santa Fe. He made me jump through quite a few hoops. But I really thought that this was my big chance. He told me he wanted five more pieces. I said, “Okay, how large do you want those pieces?” He pointed to the wall and said, “That large.” In the months it took to create all of those pieces, I followed all of his instructions, sending photos and details of the new work and keeping in touch.
What happened when you were ready to sign a contract?
After several attempts, I phoned the gallery director who told me that he would put me on speaker phone with the gallery owner who was sitting there next to the speaker.
What did he say?
He wouldn’t talk.
That was a lot of work to amuse an indecisive gallery owner.
I was pretty upset by the whole thing. But my artist friends consoled me and said, “You know Mark, it didn’t work out this time, but it will, and now you have a great body of work to show for it.”
It was quite clear to me that you put your heart and soul into those pieces. Did that struggle give you a sense about what you wanted to focus on in your work?
With both my landscape series and my portrait series it all boils down to the people. Whether they’re interacting in a vast landscape, or whether it’s a portrait close-up. The people are the basis of my work. People ask me, why don’t you do paintings of birds and wildlife? To me, where are the people?
You had several smaller shows and group shows along the way. Then along came an offer for a solo show in the Pearl District. How did that go?
It was a magical time for me. I’ve been an artist all my life. It was the first opening that my father had come to. There was a native flutist performing, Milledge Bennett, and he played an honor song for both Chief and my dad, the two most important men in my life.
What came next?
After that show I continued to sell my work during Indian Market in Santa Fe. I had gotten a bad taste in my mouth from that particular gallery owner that we talked about. I had been told that the market in Santa Fe was very fickle. So I had a poor view of gallerists there.
You changed your mind?
I see now that I had the wrong view. But it took me a while to recover from that bad experience. But now I’m in a top gallery down there, on Canyon Road, rated in the “Top 10.” My new gallerist is great, forthright, and the staff is the best ever.
In the art world Santa Fe is big.
Dollar-wise it’s the second largest art market in the United States. Only New York is bigger.
Were there other venues for your art in Portland?
I love the Portland arts scene. Unfortunately for me there was only one Native American gallery here – Quintana in the Pearl District. Although they’re a fantastic gallery, known nationwide, their genre is traditional Northwest Coast art, not contemporary native art. Santa Fe was a natural fit for me.
But you did get a great show at Gallery 7126 before the owners went on sabbatical. How difficult is it for a Portland artist to get gallery representation?
It’s a struggle. The course I took was to first show for my personal gratification, not particularly for the sales. Then to get it up on walls so that everyone could experience it. Then, finally, to sell my work and plant my work in various homes and corporations worldwide. I’ve met art school students who think that a limousine is going to pull up and whisk them away to fame and fortune on graduation day. It’s not that way. I’ve worked hard and spent a lot of resources to get here.
That’s got to be pretty nasty medicine for a graduate of the Pratt Institute to swallow.
Actually, a funny thing happened right after I graduated from Pratt Institute. I dropped by the Rolling Stone magazine offices in Manhattan to drop off my portfolio and I thought I was standing and talking with a receptionist. It was actually the deputy art director. I thought it odd that the receptionist was so eager to look at my work. She really pored over my portfolio and told me that she wished that I had been there a week earlier. I put two and two together and realized later that I had the right talent and I was talking to the right person – just at the wrong time. I wasn’t expecting an interview with Rolling Stone magazine just by walking through the door.
You seem very focused. Do you think that in a lot of ways you’ve put your personal life on hold?
I think of my work as my children. My mom shared a realization with me recently and said, “You know Mark, your name will live on through your work. Some people have children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren who carry on the name.” She said, “No matter what happens with you, your work will live on through the generations.”
One painting, in particular, was a milestone in your career.
Wishram Fisherman was a symbol of how one piece can really be a stepping stone to other things. I created that piece for a show at the Bonneville Power Administration called Celilo Falls: Echoes of Falling Water. The show was about the flooding of Celilo Falls during the building of The Dalles Dam in 1957. It hung in a prominent space at the BPA headquarters in Portland. Then I was invited to the Heard Museum in Phoenix, Arizona, where it won an award. That piece was also integral in me being certified as a Chinook Tribal Artist. The scene was of a Wishram fisherman at Celilo Falls fishing in the traditional ways. The coloration was a Southwest palette of greens and reds and golds, but it was of a Northwest scene. So basically it carried over from the Northwest to the Southwest in theme and color. That piece really launched me into what I’m doing now.
People can get very emotional when in the presence of your work.
I didn’t expect the emotional impact on viewers to the point where one viewer was sobbing. I had to ask him if he was okay. The work was impacting people on a level where I didn’t expect it. I knew that my art was impacting me that way. I didn’t know that I would hit it with others on that personal of a level.
I want my work to continue to affect viewers and collectors in a profound way, worldwide. I know that the American Indian is respected by other cultures for longevity, wisdom, love for the land, and its people. My feelings on my life’s work can be summed up by a quote by Salvador Dalí: “There are some days when I think I’m going to die from an overdose of satisfaction.”
For more information visit Mark Shelton’s website: www.markdshelton.com