Mark is a local artist with a unique knack for cartooning and a passion for painting people’s portraits. Russell Pell catches up with Mark to find out more about his creative talents.
How did you end up living on the Mid North Coast?
We moved here ten years ago from the Illawarra. I had a little house there with a big mortgage, and the real estate boom hit and the prices started going silly there, so we sold up and paid out our mortgage and had enough left to buy a bigger house here with a small mortgage. The warmer climate up this way was a bonus.
Do you enjoy living here?
Like I said, I like the climate – and the slower pace. When I go back to the city now, the traffic just drives me berserk. It’s also an excellent place to raise small kids, but once they get a bit older, there’s not a lot here for them.
You’re the creator of the cartoon ‘Gonad Man’. Tell us a bit about who he is and how he came about?
He first appeared in 1993, in Waves magazine, and ran for about 6 years. I was doing a few illustrations for the mag, and the editor said they wanted to get a comic strip going. It all just flowed on from there.
They had a sort of action hero in mind, I think, but I wanted to make it a bit more true to life. He was basically this incredibly gifted surfer with no people skills or life skills whatsoever, so his surfing prowess didn’t ever really translate into any real success, on a personal level.
Being a great surfer didn’t make him a better person. He always ended up losing out – making a fool of himself. I guess he was based on my own experience, in many ways: his gift for surfing was the sort of fantasy I indulged in as a teenager.
I seemed to strike a chord with readers and was very popular for a few years. But after a while, it’s hard to keep coming up with fresh ideas, and it just sort of ran its course, I think.
Where can people check out his adventures?
I always felt that I probably didn’t make the most of the character – I’d sort of left him engulfed in the worst excesses of surf stardom, back in the late ‘90s. Then a couple of years ago I had an idea for a story, and I worked on it a bit. I thought it was worth pursuing, so I resurrected Gonad Man online. The Return of Gonad Man is one long story that I’ve been serialising over the net for the last couple of years. It starts out with Gonad Man washed up in a rehab centre for surf addiction, and sort of runs on from there. You can see it at gonadman.com. I was doing it on a subscription only basis, but it’s too hard to get any traffic to the site like that, so we recently decided to tear down the paywall and make it free for everybody.
Eventually, The Return of Gonad Man will be released as a book. You can buy the book of his original adventures through the site; there’s also T-shirts and things on there.
You made a cartoon called ‘Dream’. What was the idea behind that? How long did it take to make the entire piece?
I trained as an animator, back in the early ‘80s. Most of the work we did was making ads for TV, and I really just wanted to test out my skills and see if I could make something of my own. It was an incredible amount of work – it took two years, and involved 5,000 paintings in the finish. It was shown at the Sydney Film Festival in 1989, and even then it was the only short that was shot on 35 mm film. The idea was based on a common enough story when I was a teenager in the ‘70s, about surfers getting caught up in heroin addiction. It happened to a few of my friends, and it was probably only the fact that I had my art to hang on to that I didn’t fall victim to it too. It didn’t really occur to me, when I was making the film, what a confronting subject it was to represent. I just knew it was true and thought that a lot of people would relate to it. But it was tough to find an audience for it, until the surf film Litmus came out in ‘96, which is where most people would have seen it.
The resin paintings you did after ‘Dream’ are unique and impressive; describe the process and what the inspiration was behind them?
A friend of mine, who was the driving force behind Litmus, had been at me for a while to produce some artwork based on the surf imagery in the film. I resisted the idea, because I’ve still got all the original artwork from it at home. I’ve got nearly fifty kilos of hand-painted cels here, sitting in boxes. Eventually I agreed to do it, but I thought they should be accurate to the film, because animation is a very precise medium. So I projected the film onto boards and traced off the frames I liked, then coloured them up with pigmented surfboard resins. The finished product is pretty nice, when they work.
You enjoy painting portraits of people in their environments. Is this your main passion in art at the moment?
Yeah. The cartooning and animation are probably easier for people to relate to – they’re more modern mediums, and they’re designed to be immediate. Oil painting is a bit of a dinosaur’s convention, in a way. It’s very subtle, and people aren’t really tuned to appreciate it in the same way they did, maybe a hundred years ago.
But that history of it is what I love about it. When I paint, I feel like I’m part of a long and noble tradition that’s as old as civilisation itself. I don’t work from photos or anything like that, because it’s the experience of being in a room with someone, sharing that space, that you’re trying to convey. It’s about empathy, which is a universal human trait.
It frustrates me sometimes, because society seems to have become increasingly rational in its focus and, as a result, art has become this sort of grand intellectual pursuit. Art’s never been an intellectual pursuit for me, and I think art that justifies itself on that basis really diminishes its own power to affect people.
What advice would you give young artists who are looking at making art a career?
Learn how to draw. When I was young, I had a bit of raw talent and a strong desire to learn, but not much real skill. Then I went to work in an animation studio, where I had to draw fifty drawings a day, and they all had to be right. If they weren’t, the boss would just throw them in the bin and tell me to do them again.
That was the best training I ever got – don’t assume that everything you do is a masterpiece. I struggled and struggled, but I kept at it, and eventually it just clicked.
Where can people check out your work?
I have a couple of landscapes in Eddy Frankel’s new gallery in Macksville, and there’s a festival happening in Byron Bay next month that I’ve been asked to put some work in. Apart from that, you can go to marksutherlandart.com and send me an email. Then we can make an arrangement for you to come and look at some pictures. I’m always up for commissions of any sort.