Hello Marisha, can you please tell us a bit about yourself and your background?
Hi! I grew up in Scranton, PA, in one half of a West Side duplex. My childhood was mostly spent trying to play the Sims 2 on the living room desktop in peace and desperately shielding the screen during the WooHoo cut scenes. My parents are both artists and public school educators—Mom in visual art and Dad in music—and they’ve always encouraged creativity in me and my younger brother. I drew Catwoman a lot as a kid.
Since graduating from RISD, I’ve held a few different day jobs while making art. I worked as a stagehand with IATSE Local 329 in Scranton, where I built stages out of semi-trailers, gained strong opinions on how cables should be coiled, and spent a lot of time convincing people I can lift things. I assisted a scenic painter and learned how to paint wood grain on top of actual wood to make it look more wood-like. During my time in Philadelphia, I was the custodian of my studio building. I also worked in a needlepoint store, where I gained too much knowledge of a niche handcraft and eventually accepted a high-stress department lead position.
After two years in Philadelphia, I started feeling a little isolated. Many friends had moved away or married, and the emotional demands of my job started to encroach on the rest of my life. Last fall, I moved into a close friend’s Brooklyn apartment on relatively short notice, and I’ve felt really at home here since. I’ve continued working jobs related to production and handcraft, and I converted half my bedroom into a studio space. I always thought working in my room would feel too stressful, but apart from size constraints, it suits me more than I expected—I can easily paint early in the morning or right before bed, and it’s only a few feet from my kitchen.
What are the main concepts and ideas behind your work?
I’ve always been interested in annotation--notes in margins, adjustments to drawings, tweaks to the past through storytelling, and any other kinds of additional information applied to original structures. I love that annotation implies a secondary viewpoint that can tamper with stories in a range of critical or empathetic or playful tones. Reenactments also fascinate me, especially those that attempt to maintain historical accuracy, because even the most dedicated efforts still impose personal viewpoints and current cultural hegemonies onto history. On a more intimate scale, I want to explore how emotional truths might be emphasized or manipulated through embellishing reality, especially in relation to the theatricality and performance of commemoration. How do memories evolve as they’re redrawn, re-performed, blended, and
abstracted? To explore the reliability of recollection, I unravel encounters with irrational fears, adolescent fixations, wavering spirituality, and trauma in an attempt to reconstitute an alternate version of personal history. I create codified visual languages by combining conventions of Orthodox iconography with old fan art, diary entries, and other fragments of the past. By embedding abstracted layers of borrowed imagery, I can negotiate between antiquated traditions and progressive understandings of faith, relationships, and responsibility.
You mentioned that you reference imagery from past fixations such as fan-art, Christian mysticism, and cartoon characters. Can you tell us a bit more about this?
Sure! I think for the rest of my life, I’ll suffer the aftermath of brief middle school DeviantArt fame--a (now hidden) archive of imagery that I reference quite a bit in my current work. I used to be particularly obsessed with drawing this one character, a kind of goth girl who carried throwing knives all over. Online--under a detailed alternate identity—I interacted with a lot of women around my age who were also obsessed with this character. And I mean draw-her-a-lot, usually-in-very-sexy-outfits obsessed. I think, looking back, she was something of a first woman crush, which I didn’t realize at the time because of compulsory heterosexuality and because I thought homosexuality was a sin and, you know, she was just a cool girl character, whatever! So in my work now, as I engage my current self with the past, I can incorporate sections of that old fan art and fan fiction from a perspective that asserts more truth: I thought Mai from Avatar was hot, and that’s okay.
As far as Christian symbolism and mysticism goes, I was raised in a devout Eastern Orthodox family and grew up surrounded by beautiful iconography. That imagery and spirituality still impacts me, even as I reject the oppressive potential of the conservative, patriarchal religious institution. Creating Orthodox icons is referred to not as painting, but as writing: translating complex sacred narratives from archaic designs. Floating inscriptions, coded gestures, figurative scale shifts, and even entire compositions are repeated throughout history, which reflects Orthodoxy’s focus on preserving tradition over immense spans of time.
Icons are simultaneously stories and representations of divine entities. They’re lovingly-created objects through which believers can connect to the unseen and the holy. I think those elements of iconography are what interest me most--their historical lineages, the rituals of their creation, and how people form almost personal relationships with them. I keep all that in mind when adding additional elements from my own life in artwork. Through synthesizing and layering this imagery, I can release memories from their original contexts, and ultimately suggest new examples of what I deem worthy of veneration.
What is the reasoning behind combining unconventional materials and irregularly shaped “canvases”?
I began working on irregular grounds with unconventional materials when I was in Philly, which has a bunch of local thrift stores and an amazing reused art supply warehouse (dear The Resource Exchange, I still miss you). I amassed a collection of used cutting boards, countertops, tabletops, and any other inspiring surfaces from both secondhand shops and trash bins. I really enjoyed letting a stranger’s residual marks inform the direction of my own imagery, and letting the original life of an object peek through. It’s also been a more sustainable way for me to bring more things into this world.
The irregular “canvases” are definitely in conversation with iconography--particularly the ways they’re displayed and carried. In my shaped frames, I reference the silhouettes of charms, weapons, floral wreaths, carrying cloths, and iconostasis panels. I use them as an extra space to add embellishment and annotation, like the margin of a notebook page. Adding words or symbols to a frame allows me to emphasize or complicate what’s inside and approach a subject from multiple angles within the same work.
You have frames made of clay, wood, and even yarn on some of your works. Can you tell us more?
I love working with (or against) the inherent connotations of different materials to influence painted images. Along with that, I just really enjoy making tactile surfaces. I like smearing paperclay around, and sanding wood into little shapes. I started incorporating needlepoint after working in the needlepoint store, because if I had to spend over forty hours a week there, I wanted it to feed back into my artwork somehow. I recently started exploring punch needle, too, and it meshes really well with my work style--it moves quickly, and it’s easy to change compositions on a whim. (Needlepoint is more meditative, but it requires a lot of planning, and it’s a bitch to undo, and it’s hard to finish, and it takes a million years.)
I used to make large scale oil paintings, and I cared a lot about the surface quality of each mark. That desire for a sexy combination of textures has since moved beyond paint into merging handcrafts with jewelry remnants, toylike carvings, and hardware. I think that these elements--the textiles in particular--inherently show an amount of time and care spent during creation, and that gives the finished pieces a quality reminiscent of homespun devotional objects.
What is your process like? How do you go about transforming something intangible like memory, trauma, and intrusive thought into tangible art?
Almost everything begins in writing. Most of what I write rarely sees the light of day, but all those poems and disorganized iPhone notes and fading gradeschool diaries inform nearly every creative decision I make. It’s my first step in processing especially heavy themes such as heartbreak and trauma, probably because I’m a quick typist and can’t smash out thoughts faster in any other way. Along with a daunting collection of half-finished notebooks, I nurture a few sprawling Google Docs filled with scraps of writing from the past decade. As I add to these archives, I take note of repeating motifs--animals, environments, times of day, that sort of thing.
That imagery informs my drawings, which are also influenced by an equally disorganized archive of photo albums, screenshot folders, and old sketchbooks.
Terrible instant coffee is important. So are the Two Dots game soundtrack, Joanna Newsom songs, really loud rain sounds, and old reggaeton. When I start drawings I need to be as unfocused as possible, otherwise I’ll overthink things and get too precious--it’s easy for me to do, and I try to get that out of my system in the writing stage, but I’m ultimately a sentimental person with weak self-control. I have to clear my mind and start layering things that resonate with me in the moment, like a character’s hairline or a bunched sleeve or the three-to-five mugs I have accumulated in my room at any given time. Usually about midway through a drawing (or after a few warm-up sketches), I start feeling a specific direction or tone or meaning, and then I’m able to start engaging and building upon that that more deliberately.
I’ve gotten a decent collection of little drawings from this method. I test them out in rugs, needlepoint, reliefs, and collage-like paintings to see what materials hold the imagery with the greatest emotional precision. I rarely make any preliminary plans, which is both an exciting and immensely frustrating way to work. I try to be good about respecting everything’s timeline, though. Sometimes half-finished pieces ferment in storage (the top shelf of my closet) for months before I stumble on something that inspires their completion.
How do you come up with titles of your works?
It used to be whatever made me laugh, or felt absurd enough. Now, I mostly pull lines or descriptive phrases from the same writings that inspire my work as a whole. I have a few pages of title lists which remain dormant until I finish something new, and then I try on a couple titles until one draws out the specific elements I want to highlight in a piece. Since I tend to cram a lot of personal (often opaque) symbolism in my work, narrative titles let me solidify motifs and give viewers an easier entry point.
Do you have any bad habits? Do they affect your work?
Yes, absolutely. I’m easily distracted. If I don’t have snacks in my workspace, I lose the ability to function until I find something to eat. I’m prone to naps and suffer an immunity to caffeine. I’m self-conscious, I sit on the couch in silence for extended periods of time, and--like most other artists I know--I enter the cruel Instagram void on a regular basis.
I think the biggest habit that negatively affects my work is second-guessing my decisions. I tend to shut ideas down for arbitrary reasons before allowing their exploration. The defocused drawings have helped with this, but I’ve yet to successfully halt my internal monologue of incessant self-roasting. Whenever I get too in-my-head, instead of stopping work altogether, I switch to something more familiar and meditative: sitting at my desk with pencils and slowly rendering some realistic portraits. It’s a skill I’ve practiced for a long time, and I’m good at it, and it’s the only thing that helps me relax.
Are you working on any new projects these days?
I always have a few different projects bouncing around (including a stubborn painting that’s been in the works since 2016). Since I use a variety of materials, I’m constantly between preparing new grounds and finishing a punch needle piece and planning a needlepoint pattern and messing with some drawings. I’ve been developing ideas for larger projects based on segments of iconostasis structures, but I don’t currently have the space to build or store them, so in the meantime I’m just loosely figuring out logistics. Right now, I also really want to find a woodshop to facilitate the creation of more complex shaped pieces, because there’s only so much my drill, coping saw, and sheer force of will can do.
I also participate in the work-exchange program at Endless Editions, which has been an incredible opportunity in learning how to create Risograph zines and artist books. Through that program, I have access to equipment to make my own projects, and I’m currently (procrastinating) drawing a poetry zine. It requires a lot of planning, which is at odds with how I usually create--but I’m hoping if I tell enough people I’m working on it, I’ll eventually have to finish it.
Is there anything else we should know about you and your work?
I have a lot of little scars on my hands from bad tool-related decisions that date back to middle school. I look forward to improving my safety standards.