We had the good fortune of connecting with Marischa Slusarski and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Marischa, how do you think about risk?
Making art is my obsession. It can also feel spiritual, like a form of meditation. When you have a so-called light bulb moment, or what I call a brain orgasm, it’s magic, you are energized and on fire.
But being an artist is also agonizing and heart-wrenching. Every single move feels like a risk. Is this the best size, is this blue the right shade, is this what the gallery wants, is this a good price point? And letting your art be seen often feels like waiting to be humiliated. Overcoming those fears are the risks you take if you have to make art.
Growing up in a very conservative and mostly unsupportive family, I realized early on I was going to have to challenge myself to succeed. But I didn’t choose my career, it chose me. It was in my in my bones. Yes, putting myself out there was a frightening process. It was a process that I learned was always going to be there. It was like groundhog day.
Over time, I began to stockpile the risk-taking quotas and understand that fear makes you stupid. That leap into the unknown became less fraught. As a mid-career artist who has accomplished many goals, gambling is now my go-to for achieving. It’s finally more debilitating to stand on the sidelines, playing it safe, procrastinating. Nothing feels good about just existing, Nothing feels good about not living your dream.
I knew I had to risk my personal piggybank and future retirement fund to become a non-commercial artist. But I also had to pay my bills, my studio rent and buy art supplies. So after graduating from college, I took a series of jobs that were no-brainer intangibles. I often locked my office door and napped on the job, so I could work all night on my paintings. I wrote splendid sales proposals that I knew would never come to fruition in order to keep a fakey-ass job and the money coming in as long as I had my bosses fooled. Some might consider that bad karma, but I justified the strategy to become what I knew I had to be. It was literally physically painful being away from the studio for even a few days.
Looking back, a lot of my success could be construed as serendipity. But I guess it was more like crazy ass hurtling forward into the unknown. I started having shows at strange venues and meeting inspiring creatives and incredible champions. I got picked up by a good gallery in Los Angeles. But again, it wasn’t a cake walk. In order to monetize my income and create opportunities, I was often sticking my neck out and putting myself in situations on spidey sense alert. Sometimes I would arrive at a potential collector’s house and realize that they didn’t want art, they wanted something else.
I began traveling around the U.S and abroad as other galleries began showing my work. I scored a show in Bangkok, Thailand, but I only had a plane ticket and maybe $200. The exhibition tuned out to be a success, and I was determined to have an adventure in southeast Asia for the length of the show. Some crazy Australian journalists asked me if I wanted to get out of Bangkok on a road trip and I said sure! Next thing I know, I’m in a car filled with manic pot smokers speeding towards the Burmese border (which they planned to cross illegally). The only food we could find in the middle of nowhere was basically noodles with worm garnish. It was like Fear and Loathing Thai-style.
In the end, that risky adventure got me a best friend and reviews in the Bangkok Post, Asian Art News and landed me on the cover of Bangkok Metro Magazine, where I was named Artist of the Year.
And then, a few years later that same friend, Claire Barron, who was also a brilliant photographer, succeeded in getting me to move to London where I designed a work-study program and together we collaborated on a photographic project which involved sculptures set in a diorama style landscape. I didn’t have a green card or a work permit or a bank account, but when I told the owners of the flat I was renting that I had sold paintings to some very famous actors, they let me pay with a credit card,
To be in London as an American artist without an MFA was daunting. It took all my courage to black cab our photos to fancy galleries and pitch shows. In the end, we had two fantastic solo shows and were in two group shows. Since Claire was a journalist we got a ton of press. I also had a brainstorm to persuade the owners of the hair salon I lived above if I could start a gallery in their basement. I called it Underbelly, and it was located in the heart of the fashionable east end arts district. It was all going well until I got kicked out of the country for overstaying my welcome. When I got to the airport, I was informed my passport had expired. Maybe my “risk-taking” was sometimes just pure recklessness.
I took many other risks in my artistic career. I started an international artist collective with a collaborator friend and we had a show at another gallery in Los Angeles. The unconventional aspect of the collective was that all the artists were fake. We created all their work and back stories and manned all their social media, designing Facebook pages, Instagram accounts, Twitter feeds, and more. We even risked not telling the owner of the gallery about the “performance” portion of the show until two weeks before the show opened. It turned out to be a huge hit.
When I was awarded a prestigious residency at New Space Arts Foundation, in Hue, Vietnam, I took the chance of giving a presentation about the fake collective to a large group of Vietnamese students, artists and educators. Working through a translator, I didn’t reveal that the artists weren’t real until the very end. It got super scary when about half of the crowd started shouting angrily at me. They didn’t appreciate an American “tricking” them. Still, the younger students and the educators thought it was very cool. Now, what’s real and not real on the internet these days is part of our reality, back then, people saw and believed.
My husband and I travelled to the Kingdom of Bhutan which had been closed to world travelers for a very long time. We had work permits from the Ministry of Health and the King. I decided to infiltrate the Artist’s Studio of Thimphu, in a quasi-residency style coup. I wanted to learn traditional Bhutanese painting, and help teach some younger artists my contemporary style. It was über unnavigated territory. It was like being drop-kicked into the 17th century where Facebook and one Televison station had just arrived. It was also one of the best experiences of my life and I made some friends for life.
My career has been diverse and long. Risk-taking gave me the courage to teach art to teenagers with mental health disorders, to curate shows featuring artists who were my idols, to teach a Visual Arts Lab via Zoom, to start a series of abstract paintings and more.
Every piece of forward motion, every gamble, even every set-back, were like bricks layered on bricks. Each gamble led to another opportunity. Each risk helped me build a beautiful adventure and an awesome life.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
Marischa Slusarski is an interdisciplinary-artist whose individual and collaborative projects have evolved in form and medium over the years, resulting in a body of work that challenges traditional boundaries. She has pursued a successful gallery career exhibiting paintings, sculpture, photography and digital media in the U.S., Europe and Asia. Her work is represented in museums and institutions as well as in many private and public collections. She has been written about in numerous print and online publications and her artworks have been featured in film, television, theater and rock concert set design.
Slusarski has worked as a performer, teacher, body painter, toy designer and curator. She has been a production designer for film, an art director for dance performances, and an art therapy counselor for at-risk youth with mental health issues. Earlier in her career, she founded “Underbelly Gallery” in London’s Shoreditch gallery district, presenting exhibitions, installations, live performances, and video and film festivals. In 2009, she started the painting program for Children Mending Hearts, an art exchange organization between homeless children in the U.S. and the Congo. In 2010, she was nominated as one of 300 artists nationwide for the USA Artists Fellowship Grant. In 2014, she was awarded an artist-in-residence program at the prestigious New Space Arts Foundation in Hue, Vietnam. And in October of 2016, she collaborated with and studied at the Volunteer Artist’s Studio of Thimphu in Bhutan which is affiliated with the New Museum in New York City.
Also recently, Slusarski and collaborator Britt Ehringer, founded “Namaak Collective,” an internationally renowned group of artists who seek to expose the revolutionary new ways we perceive and access art in the digital age. Recent collaborations have included shows at C-Space Gallery in Beijing, China, LAUNCH Gallery in Los Angeles, and New Space Foundation in Hue, Vietnam.
Also recently, Slusarski curated “Electric Koolaid Banana,” a hybrid celebration of the revisitation of the psychotropic and psychedelic, featuring numerous prestigious artists at Merchant Gallery in Santa Monica. Currently, she is remotely teaching the Visual Arts Lab for “The Woolfer Community,” an app and a Facebook annex, which includes remote live model figure drawing and other activities.
I grew up in Denver Colorado in a pretty boring suburb. I spent my summers on farms in North Dakota and Nebraska. There were no helicopter parents in those days, so my sisters and I ran free like ruffians, riding horses, jumping on cows (and steers), building forts, frog houses and climbing corn silos. It was good clean, quasi-dangerous kid fun. My grandmother had ten dogs she named after popular soda pop beverages, like Pepsi and Fanta Orange. These were second and third generation immigrant families, still mostly speaking their ancestor’s native language at home.
My parents were among the first to leave the farm and migrate to the city.
They were very religious and sent us to a strict and rigorous Catholic school. I was a good student, but I was voraciously curious about drawing and painting at an early age even though I had no foundation or support to nurture my creativity. We had no access to contemporary art, fine art galleries or museums. For vacation, we went camping or on road trips to neighboring states in our old station wagon. It was a salt of the earth, pull yourself up by the bootstraps, all American childhood, but I was always restless and dissatisfied by the lack of culture. Even though I really didn’t know what “culture” was.
I went to a state college in a small town in northern Colorado. I wasn’t allowed to be an art major because I had to get a job after college. There was no money for grad school or anything like that. But again, my will to make art was my life force. So my life was a juggling act between journalism classes, spending days in the painting building and nights in the printmaking lab. I charted my own course. I was basically self taught. I was my own North Star.
Real World Jobs
After college I got a series of what I called goldbricking jobs, where I was hired by companies for positions where I had no supervision and no one knew what I was doing. I would go into the office in the morning, lock the door and fall asleep on the floor after painting all night in my co-op studio in Santa Monica. I felt like cutting corners, breaking rules, living on the edge and “sticking it to the man” was justified for ART. I had absolutely no compunction about that, I was determined to be a full-time artist.
Other Shenanigans in the Art World
At the time I was also working as a body painter in a club called Water The Bush in Hollywood, where I decorated performer’s and dancer’s bodies with day-glow paint. I augmented my income there by selling turkey dogs cooked in a rice steamer for $5.00 each. I was also doing strange performance art projects and acting in theater pieces at places like Highways in Santa Monica with my friend and one of my mentors, John Goss, who was funded with National Endowment of the Arts grants.
First Real Show at a Food Court in a Mall and Things Take Off
My first large scale show was at the Santa Monica Mall in the food court and because my paintings could be construed as somewhat disturbing, it was a bit weird (especially if you’re sitting there with your family, eating “Hot Dogs on a Stick”). In fact, one of the more influential people that happened to see the paintings and who later became a major champion of my art, asked me right off if I had been abused as a child.
The industry people who saw that show introduced me to other successful people who could buy my art. And at that point everything started happening at once. I got picked up by the Robert Berman Gallery who saw something in me and immediately started giving me shows. I had a friend who acted as my European art consultant, and I first had solo shows in The Hague in the Netherlands and subsequent group shows in Amsterdam, which led to other opportunities.
Representational, Biomorphic Art
At the time I was doing representational animal portraits that looked like half animal half human biomorphic amalgamations; deformed and conjoined creatures in the woods (and a lot of two and three headed deer). I also did a lot of commissions for clients who wanted me to paint their special family dynamic as animals or animal/humans. They had very specific ideas like, can you paint me as half “Year of the Tiger,” half “Pisces?” One lady wanted me to paint her husband as a Chippendale beefcake dude with a wolf’s head, sitting on a chair, in front of a lake, while simultaneously reading a book and catching a fly.
Those pieces were hard.
Throughout this period, I kept getting on planes and having shows wherever I could. When I flew to Bangkok with zero money, I met up with a friend of mine who had a complex featuring a hotel, a lesbian disco, a sex toy emporium (mostly stuff like flavored condoms) but also, an art gallery. He gave me a great show and I ended up on the cover of Bangkok Metro Magazine as Artist of the Year along with being featured in a number of other publications like Asian Art News. I remember thinking, this is insane.
The Venice Art Scene and Being a Woman Artist
I scored an awesome studio in Venice on Main Street in the Flinkman building, where I struck a deal to give them one painting a year to rent the space. That lasted for nine years and became the springboard for my entry into the belly of the Venice art scene.
Of course, everything I was trying to achieve was harder because I was a woman. I was also ridiculously naive – this plucky girl from the suburbs of Denver in La La land. There were some near disastrous moments where I had to stage a painting in someone’s house, and subsequently, realize I was in danger.
I knew there were not many women being shown in galleries, maybe 2%-10% of all the galleries’ stables were female. But I was hanging out with my own badass gang of women artists like Gretchen Rollins, Allison Van Pelt, Amy Kaps, Marion Lane, Sabine Gebser, Shana Nys Dambrot, Elizabeth-Paige Smith, Patti Stayrook and more. We ruled the old Abbot Kinney. Elizabeth had a gallery on Abbot Kinney and Sabine had a gallery on Rose and I was featured in a number of solo and group shows along with some great prestigious artists. Abbot Kinney remains a force of nature today, but back then it was like the Wild West. As women, we were all making headway while navigating the start of a feminist art movement.
The Amazing Artist Community of Venice Back in the Day
I loved the community atmosphere in Venice during those days. All of Venice had this edgy “happening” thing a little like we were later day characters hanging with Andy Warhol and Lou Reed at the Factory. There were really great artists making iconic avant-garde work without the internet and without social media. And as women, I don’t think we felt less than the male artists who dominated the scene.
I loved meeting Billy Al Bengston and Chuck Arnoldi and going to Laddi John Dill’s place for rip-roaring parties. Everyone hung out at Hal’s on Abbot Kinney and I got to meet Ed Ruscha and Ed Moses and dancer and choreographer Alvin Ailey. You could run into Larry Bell or Robert Irwin and Chris Burden who famously crucified himself to the top of his car in the 70’s and Karen Finley was still shoving yams up her back-end in repeat performances. It was a very fertile time to be an artist.
London and Underbelly Gallery
One day, rather impulsively, I subleased my rent controlled apartment and moved to London to do a live study work program with a collaborator I met in Bangkok, the photographer Claire Barron. I rented a flat on Brick Lane in Shoreditch, and I used one of my bedrooms as our studio to create a series of large scale diorama style photographs. We used old-time analog style filters and scrims and scaffolding. We populated our scenes with taxidermy forms and troglodyte looking clay creatures we sculpted by using stuffed animal armatures. We staged stories for our progeny in silver-sand deserts with sci-fi looking vegetables from the Bangladeshi markets down the street.
I was in the one of the most difficult cities in the world to try to be a gallery artist without having an MFA. I didn’t go to Goldsmiths. I didn’t check off all the boxes. I was flying by the seat of my pants. But we got numerous solo shows and a a bunch of group shows as well as a bunch of press. Then we started a gallery of our own. When I asked the hair salon below my apartment if I could have a gallery in their cavernous basement, they said, sure. We named it Underbelly. We had some amazing events and it was really happening. And the weird thing was, I didn’t know that I exhibiting Yank bravado, I didn’t know until later that I was “that crazy American girl on Brick Lane.”
And I think that’s the way you have to go at it to be an artist; you really can’t care what other people think. Anyway I finally got kicked out of the country for overstaying my welcome.
Back in the States
I was unhappy to leave London and have to regroup, but I just kept making art and I just kept getting on those planes to go overseas and have shows in Asia, Europe and in more cities here in the U.S. San Francisco, Chicago, etc.
I was always challenging the traditional boundaries of a gallery artist. I worked as a production designer for a horror movie in an abandoned amusement park in Ohio. I developed a children’s toy and met with reps from Mattel and Spinmaster in Canada. It never went into production but I learned a lot. I taught art to at-risk and homeless children and to teenagers with mental health issues. I was also a dance theater art director and I had my work featured in movies, TV shows, rock concert set design and more.
More about Hollywood and Celebrities
Showing at Robert Berman’s, I painted a portrait of Jim Carrey’s dog as a dog with a human body, sold a number of paintings to Patricia Arquette, and designed the Brain Forest Tent for Perry Farell of Jane’s Addiction for Lalapalooza. I remember an endless meeting with Bob Odenkirk. I spent some time with David Faustino who bought a painting I ended up having to fix because he stuck his fist through it. You live in LA long enough, you meet a lot of people. I met Leonardo DiCaprio in a bathroom (he forgot to lock the door) and he said he wanted to buy a piece. I worked with Absolut Vodka and through them sold a piece to the head of UTA who paid me in cash. I met numerous famous studio heads and movie producers and directors and writers and entertainment attorneys and talent and sold a lot of paintings. I ended up marrying one of those studio heads, but that’s another story.
I started collaborating with artist Britt Ehringer in 2013, and we decided to create an collective featuring artists from all over the world. But there was a catch. Everyone was fake. Even the name of the collective was fake: Namaak Collective (Namaak means fake in Dutch). We invented people, their stories, their backgrounds. We designed Facebook pages for each of them, an Instagram page, a Twitter feed. And we made all their work, paintings and leather punching bags, printed sculptures, lenticular prints, woven tapestries and more. We were a bit ahead of current trends exposing fakery, appropriation, and perceptions of what’s real and what’s not real on the internet. We showed the work at Launch Gallery in LA, at C-Gallery in Beijing, and in Hue, Vietnam. I was offered a residency in Hue, where I gave lectures and worked with the New Space Arts Foundation. I also studied for over a month with the artists at the Volunteer Arts Studio of Thimphu in Bhutan.
The pandemic, abstraction and my recent show at Rio Hondo College.
I was very despondent during the first part of the pandemic. I laid around watching Netflix and eating the same can of soup everyday. My husband, who decided to quit the movie business at age 48 and become an emergency doctor, was scared. I was scared for him. No one knew what was going to happen.
I realized I needed to give myself a job that met the moment. I needed to interact with others. I began teaching a visual arts lab via zoom for a large woman’s group, an app and a Facebook annex. The women in the group were so diverse in their skill sets, jewelry makers, weavers, quiltmakers, abstract painters, digital artists, illustrators and more. I was already flirting with the idea of making abstract art and the class heightened my curiosity to do something completely different. I began buying kitchen baking utensils and frosting tips and make your own pepperoni and jerky caulking-like guns and nozzles. I wanted to push paint and hand collage it onto a canvas. I also started making large scale abstract art that was both handmade and machine made, both digital and analog, both fantasy and folk art, and both past and future. The pandemic allowed me to explore materials and techniques I had never used before.
I just ended a solo show up at Rio Hondo College. It was created almost entirely during the pandemic and was my first presentation of exclusively abstract work. Because of the pandemic, I didn’t have to worry about my social schedule. Gallery shows were nonexistent or only virtual and many galleries were permanently closed. There were no studio visits either. I had a single occupancy studio, I had a lot of paint and I had canvases, so I drove to the studio every day and painted for hours and hours. I had no fear of missing out, I just made art. And I didn’t feel judgement or ego, because everything was so uncertain anyway.
The real narrative of my career is that I lived and worked in many different directions. Past thinking dictated that you had to replicate yourself and develop a definitive style in order to create a brand. People still do that. You see that with influencers and people online. I just couldn’t paint the same thing over and over. I gave a lot of lectures to students and to others who feel disenfranchised by the art world. My message to them is, you can do it your own way.
Looking back, I probably wouldn’t have done anything different. Maybe we all become the artist that we are supposed to be. ART is a rocket ship from your past headed into your future. And I don’t know where that future is headed. To live to make art is the glorious gift of the mothership. But it’s also a glorious grind. It’s not all romantic and spiritual, there’s a lot of ambivalence and trauma. Your own insecurities will haunt you. But I probably wouldn’t thrive or I might not even want to live, if I couldn’t make art. Passionate, feisty determination and will to escape my past handed me a great life and a great career.
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
The Los Angeles Flower Market in the Fashion District DTLA
The Arts District DTLA including Hauser Wirth, the Broad (lunch at Otium),
MOCA, street/graffiti art, the Row and much more. Make a day of it and stay overnight at the Hoxton, Citizen M, Nomad or the Ace
The Getty Museum and lunch at their excellent restaurant
Picnics on the beach at the end of the peninsula in Marina del Rey
Los Leones hike in the Santa Monica Mountains
Koreatown Eateries and Karaoke after
Chinatown art galleries and restaurants DTLA
Ivy on the Shore outdoor patio brunch and people watching, Santa Monica
Santa Monica Wednesday Farmer’s Market
Huntington Botanical Gardens, museums and their amazing library in Pasadena
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
I want to thank my husband who is the best thing that ever happened to me. His support and insight are everything to me.
Thank you Dr. Dormer of Colorado State University for helping me see in tangible ways that a life making art would be a fulfilling one. Thank you muse, mentors, and brilliant artists, John Goss, David Takacs, Marion Lane, Bella Pillar, and so many more
Thank you to those who believed in me and opened doors for me: Martin Durazo, Claudia Huiza, Robert Miller, Robert Berman and Danica Derpic…
A special thanks to Britt Ehringer a long time collaborator, business partner and unparalleled
And finally thank you, Tulani Bridgewater Kowalski for always being there for me, and for always being the wisest one in the room.
The rest of you, art dealers, fellow creatives, collectors and friends, you know who you are.
Instagram: @art_marischa @mslusarski
Linkedin: Marischa Slusarski
Facebook: Marischa Slusarski
Photos of me in my studio (dressed in black): Christopher Mortenson IG @mortyvision