He starts by cutting a 2×4 board, sanding away the imperfections. On go the primer and layers of vibrant base colors. His hands have a mind of their own; they connect with his brain before he has time to think. Every stroke of the brush is a surprise. “I never know what I’m going to paint,” he said, laughing. “I just start painting and whatever comes out, comes out. I’m just as surprised as anyone else when I’m done.”
His name is Mark Masters. A 50-year-old father of two, Mark said right now he works to support his art. His son and daughter followed suit and draw and paint, respectively. Art has been in the Masters’ blood “since the beginning of time.” Mark’s grandfather told him that their last name dates back to the master craftsmen and artists of the king’s court.
Much different than his family’s landscapes and comics, Mark describes his work as “figurative expressionism.”
Mark currently works at a local pawn shop in Russellville. He said his “doodles” keep him sane when he deals with difficult people and situations.
“Sometimes I get so angry that I go over to the counter, pull out a piece of paper and draw something real quick so I don’t pull my hair out,” he said.
Mark said that he creates better when he’s angry or stressed. He hangs up his mini-masterpieces at the pawn shop, and people ask him if he’s a tattoo artist. Though his work has been turned into tattoos, he said that he is not.
Mark deals with mainly acrylic paints, but he sometimes carves sculptures as well. He digs up his own clay in Russellville, then sifts and refines it. He called the process a learning experience and something that he doesn’t do often due to the amount of time and space involved.
With Mark’s intense colors popping out from his work, it’s hard to believe that he once did his drawings in only black and white. He said his art teacher in high school, Max Hines, would get frustrated that he wouldn’t use color to express himself.
“I kind of fought what they taught me there,” Mark said. “They were more into teaching technique and I’m more about the creation process.”
Mark’s biggest inspiration growing up was his father’s work and his mother’s support. Later his best friend Jeff Stewart’s colorful art inspired him to paint.
Though Mark has lived in Russellville for the majority of his life, he almost left for a more art-friendly city in the early 2000s. The only artists he knew in the area, other than family, was Jeff and Max. He said it was maddening. He considered moving to Fayetteville, Hot Springs, Eureka Springs or even Colorado. To his luck, Russellville has changed a lot in the past 10 years. Mark claimed that the Art Walk, a quarterly arts festival in downtown Russellville, changed the face of the town. Artists from all around Arkansas come to the Art Walk to showcase their work. Mark has had a chance to meet and talk to many artists.
“Most artists are outsiders; nobody understands them,” Mark said. “Most people think they’re lazy hippies. But we’re getting a better understanding around here now. The cool part about the artists here is nearly every one of them is super nice, not uppity or anything. They like to talk to you and get to know you.”
Mark said living in a family full of artists was inspirational, especially his father. He mainly drew with colored pencils and pastels, but even drew classic monsters like Frankenstein and mummies. He eventually started drawing wildlife and then entered a county fair and won grand prize.
Mark said that his father is the reason his art is so different from his family’s. As a kid, he got Mark hooked on comic books. Mark said he had over a thousand. He enjoyed a variety of comics, including Avengers, Justice League and horror. His father was interested in sci-fi, so Mark watched TV shows and movies with him.
“It shifted my artwork away from wildlife,” he said. “I got more character driven, and it made my stuff a little darker.”
His class with Max Hines was the only art class he has ever taken. Max and Jeff introduced him to Picasso and Van Gogh. Mark was inspired by the two “trail-blazers.”
“I love Van Gogh’s use of color and how thickly he applied his paint and how motivated he was. He drove himself mad with it, but you had to admire him,” he said with a laugh. “And Picasso wasn’t afraid to do anything. Usually when his style got big, he switched to another one and he wasn’t scared at all.”
Clive Barker — fantasy and horror writer, film director and artist — really brought Mark to the figurative expressionism he paints today with Barker’s films, Hell Raiser and Nightbreed. In his movies, the monsters were the good guys and the humans were the bad guys.
“I could really relate to that,” Mark said. “I don’t like the way that people treat animals and the environment. I feel like a lot of the time man is the bad guy.”
After he watched Barker’s films, he started reading his books. He was interested in Barker’s writing before he knew he was also an artist. It wasn’t until after Mark started painting in color that he discovered Barker’s artwork; he realized that their work was similar.
With the popularity of the internet came a new experience for Mark. The first time he posted a photo of his work online he sat staring at the screen for over an hour almost too scared to hit the submit button.
“Whenever I first started showing my work, I felt like I was opening my chest and handing everybody darts and telling them to throw them at me,” he said.
Mark’s art has gained attention from more than just the “tattoo crowd,” as he calls them. He said it’s the people he thinks won’t like his work that love his work he most. They will come up and talk to him for 45 minutes about his art.
Those people surprise Mark. Painting is his outlet. He said when he stops painting, it affects him physically. Since it’s his outlet, he creates what he wants to create and isn’t a people pleaser.
“Don’t ever paint to please your audience,” he said. “Please yourself and then the audience will come to you.”
He gets quite a response from his artwork. But according to Mark, “a bad response is better than no response.” One of his favorite interactions from his artwork was a negative one from a lady at the Art Walk. She looked disgruntled at his setup and, not knowing who he was, Mark asked her what she thought of it. She described his work as “horrifying, luminescent vomit.” He said it made his day.
When he’s inspired, Mark said he can finish one of his standard 2×4 paintings in one week. If he’s not, it could take up to four months.
Mark describes himself as a perfectionist. If he doesn’t like the way his piece is going, he paints over top of it and starts new.
“I’m my own worst critic,” he said. “Some of my paintings have three or four paintings under them. It’d be interesting to see an x-ray of some of them.”
One of his happiest accidents and more inspired pieces happened on a stormy night. Mark was mounting a drawing onto a board, but it started bubbling. He decided to sand over it to see if it would help. Anywhere there was a wrinkle looked like lightning flowing over it. Right as he was noticing this, lightning struck his neighbor’s house.
Mark’s favorite work so far, and coincidentally one of his most popular, is The Last Supper, which has to do with franchising and the commercialism of modern day religion. He said it was hard to put into words and that the painting was unintentional.
“It kind of popped out of me,” he said. “I didn’t know what was going on.”
Taking after his dad, Mark used to paint landscapes. One day, he was painting at Lake Dardanelle, capturing the lake and the nuclear plant behind it. Mark said the reason he doesn’t paint in public anymore is because he dislikes when people watch him paint. If people drive by and see him painting they will stop and ask him questions. During this visit, a young boy came riding up on his bike and stopped to watch. Mark nearly put his supplies away to leave, but decided to stay. Twenty minutes went by without a word. The boy spoke up and said Mark’s work reminded him of a mixture of Picasso and Van Gogh, two of Mark’s favorite artists.
“I shook that kids hand and said thank you so much,” Mark said, enthusiastically. “I never saw him again, but I’ll always remember him.”
Mark said he hopes to be able to paint full time in the future, which would make him the first in his family.
“I would like to get to the point where I can support myself with my artwork and still have enough money to travel,” he said. “Not necessarily very far away, but I’d like to finally go to Colorado and do some paintings. I don’t want to be rich or anything, just self-sustaining and happy.”
Mark said that he has only kept three or four of his pieces and has sold the rest. Some of his pieces have gone to houses around the nation.
“I wish I could put trackers on all my paintings to see where they go,” he said.
The average cost of Mark’s pieces is $300-500. View his work online at www.arum1966.deviantart.com/gallery and www.facebook.com/MarkMastersArt/