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Meet Mark Phelan: Artist behind “Mental Mapping”

GW artist MarkP

Can you describe “Mental Mapping (is heavy lifting)” to us?

Mental Mapping is a group of paintings and drawings that I have been working on since I finished grad school last year, with a couple that I made at the tail end of grad school too, where the idea germinated and began to take root.

I’ve been preoccupied with what my next move is (what life looks like after school, what opportunities might present themselves, or be available to chase down and capture. Will I teach, or find a way for my art to sustain me, or will I always be fighting to find the time to paint around a 9-5 job?), and it’s showing through in my recent work. I’ve been thinking a lot about how one plans for a future, as much that is even possible, and how that might look if you got a view into my head.

Mental Mapping

I’ve been looking a lot at train tracks while I ride the commuter rail into Boston every day, and wondering about where each train is headed as it passes in the opposite direction, or diverges from the path that I thought it was taking as I watched it chug along. Even within a concrete system like a railroad, elements can do something you didn’t expect and throw you for a loop. So when one is confronted with an unwritten, uncertain future, how does one plan, or even just consider, all the options  and then map them out to get a birds’ eye view of the possibilities? It’s overwhelming.

So, the work began as a mostly figurative exploration of the idea, and as it got more and more difficult for me to contemplate the parallel and competing realities, the work started to take a turn out of the representational and into something more abstract. This might leave the impression that one work has little to do with another, until you consider the totality of it, and then I think it begins to make sense. The pieces all gel in a tangential sort of way. I think the viewer has to also allow me the luxury of making the excuse that the idea is still in its infancy, and each of the tangents has a lot of possibility and ground to explore. So let’s call it a collection of beginnings.

Can you tell us about your artistic style?

I cringe when I hear the word ‘style’ in relation to my work. It’s the last thing I am concerned about. If the work comes from my head, and is a product of my process and my consideration, it will look like it was made by me. That’s the only way it can look. So, I don’t concern myself with style, or whether my newest work looks enough like previous work, or whatever someone who thinks about those things is concerned with.

GW artist MarkP1

Now, with that said, I do have habits that lead to my work having a common thread. I usually work pretty large. I’ve mostly been working on 6×9 and 9×12 foot canvases. This frees me up to play around with my ideas and have room to roam and build a story. The idea often ends up bigger than the canvas though, and so you’ll often see me add pieces around the margins of the original canvas.

I also tend to draw a lot, even in my paintings. Line just makes sense to me as a way of describing the way objects interact with each other or with the space around them. And lastly, I guess I have a set of colors that I return to a lot. Earthy blues and greens and browns show up repeatedly.

What/ who first got you interested in art and when?

I’ve always drawn. It’s how I think. But I guess I first realized that art could be a legitimate way to get myself through life in high school. And I have to credit Carole Meyer for that. She was my art teacher at West Bridgewater High School, and plowed paths for me to spend lots of time in the art studios in my junior and senior year. Without her confidence in my passion for art, I don’t know that I would have developed such a strong sense of it on my own. She was a rock star teacher for sure, and is definitely one who I look to when I work on becoming my best self as a teacher too.

What is your biggest inspiration?

GW artist MarkP3

Possibility. In a word I think that’s what inspires me the most. Each time I start something new, the possibilities are limitless. And I revel in swimming in limitlessness for a while, as a try to find something to hang onto and take me someplace new. Ultimately, only one or two things happen within the confines of a painting, but before I latched onto those things, anything can happen. And each time I latch onto an idea and it guides me through a painting and out the other side, a totally new set of infinite possibilities is available to me.

How do you plan the process of creating a collection of works like this one?

I don’t. Well, I don’t plan it initially. I have a loose idea that I want to explore, like maps, or imagined space, or a particular person, and I prep a canvas or a panel and I get to work on it. I usually have images of objects related to the idea pinned to a board, and I look at those for shapes and colors and lines, and I think about those as I put a ground on the canvas. If I end up getting into a painting to the extent that I actually know what is going to happen next, I begin thinking about the next layer of information and ways to integrate it with what I am putting down in the moment.

My decisions are born of process. I decide by doing. Planning in advance beyond the loosest concept never works out for me. Each of my paintings feels like a new path to me. And you can’t really plan a new path. You have to get in the jungle with your machete and just hack away at it.

What do you think about while you’re painting?

GW artist MarkP2

I think about painting. That is, I think about line and space, and the development of the image or idea. I talk to myself a lot. I talk to the painting a lot. I listen to a lot of music. You’ll find a lot of lyrics to songs I listen to buried in the layers of my paintings. Sometimes the paintings are named after the lyrics of a song I listened to while I made it. Or it references them somehow. I think about how I am never more happy than I am when I’m making things. It’s why I exist. So even if I’m dealing with difficult subject matter, there’s no work I would rather be doing.

Have you ever hit a creative roadblock? How did you deal with this?

Because I tend to swim in limitless possibility, I don’t really ever have a shortage of ideas. Sometimes I don’t know exactly how to express the idea that I have, but that is exactly the most important moment to simply get to work. Go to the studio, move some paint around, and see what happens.

I leave myself open to my initial idea leading to something else altogether, and I am always willing to follow where the work leads. This keeps me free to pick up on any good idea and just go with it. I also typically work on 5 or 6 paintings at once, so if I hit a roadblock with one, or get bored with it, I can move on to another. As I do this, I find one painting informs the next, and that informs the next, and so on. By keeping the dam open, ideas keep flowing.

What is your favorite part about being an artist?

GW artist MarkP6

I touched on this a bit in the question about what I think about while I paint, but my favorite thing about being an artist is that I can’t imagine being anything else. Now, for me, being an artist isn’t just being a painter. I’m also a printmaker, I’ve messed around with sculpture some too (one of my pieces lives downtown at the corner of Route 18 and Union St, in front of Cork Wine Bar) and I build hot rods. When I am at my best, I am making.

Do you have a favorite piece in Mental Mapping? Can you tell us why?

I think the idea behind Mental Mapping is my favorite part about this body of work. I don’t mean that in a conceptual way, I just mean that it can be very freeing to allow oneself to imagine the possibility of anything, and search for a way to explain a little of what it’s like to live in that kind of head space, and find a few pictures to begin telling that story. Some work better than others in accomplishing that goal (and I’ll let the viewer decide which those are).

Are you currently working on any other projects?

I’ve been noodling out this series of “portraits” that I want to start on. I put portraits in quotes because not all the paintings will have people as subjects. But it’s an idea that is related to Mental Mapping, and will connect to a lot of the work in that series that has sort of laid the ground for what’s coming. I am also working on more images that will probably end up being considered as the same body of work as Mental Mapping, as that idea just keeps pushing me along. I’m building a couple cars currently too, a 1934 Ford Coupe, and a 1939 Cadillac Lasalle Coupe.

GW artist MarkP5

Do you have any words of wisdom for aspiring artists?

The artist Chuck Close said:

“The advice I like to give young artists, or really anybody who’ll listen to me, is not to wait around for inspiration. Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself. Things occur to you. If you’re sitting around trying to dream up a great art idea, you can sit there a long time before anything happens. But if you just get to work, something will occur to you and something else will occur to you and something else that you reject will push you in another direction. Inspiration is absolutely unnecessary and somehow deceptive. You feel like you need this great idea before you can get down to work, and I find that’s almost never the case.”

This is great advice. Just show up to the studio and get to work. Move some material around and see what happens. If you’re not satisfied with it, wipe it out and start over. Don’t be afraid to erase. Erasing is not admitting failure. Thomas Edison said something about that too. “I haven’t failed over and over, I’ve just found 2000 ways not to make a light bulb.” Or something like that. There’s no pressure in failure. You just learn from it and move on. There’s also no better, safer place to fail than art school. You’re so protected there. The professors will reel you back in if you need to be. Take advantage of the protected environment and take all kinds of chances. You’ll learn a lot.

GW artist MarkP4

Where can we find and follow you and your work?

You can see my work at and you can follow me on Instagram @generalgow. I post way more stuff on IG than I make updates to my website, and you’ll get to see a lot of process pics, and non painting projects there too.

Lisa Schiavone
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