Marshall Arisman grew up in Lily Dale, NY, a unique community filled with psychics and spiritualists whose influences are seen in every image from Marshall’s vision and imagination. His stories are colorful and allow us to see inside a past that has deeply impacted his work and who is he is in life.
(ambient music) - [Voiceover] Marshall Arisman is an illustrator, painter, filmmaker, educator, and consummate storyteller. His work has appeared in virtually every national publication, including covers for Time magazine, U.S. News & World Report, and The Nation.
His work is also part of the permanent collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and many others. For the past 50 years, Marshall has been a faculty member, and a chair at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. He is currently the chair of the MFA Illustration as Visual Essay program at SVA. A graduate program he initiated in 1984. - We're here in New Orleans at the AIGA conference, and I have the distinct honor of speaking with Marshall Arisman.
Marshall, thank you so much for being here today. - Thank you. It's nice to be here. Nice to be invited. - [Voiceover] So your grandmother, who everybody referred to as Muddy. She lived in a town in Upstate New York, a very special place called Lily Dale, that you made a movie about, and this was a place that was very special to you, and it's a really unique place. Can you talk a little bit about that? - Yeah, Lily Dale is, I mean the interesting thing about Lily Dale is, it's exactly the same as it was when I was a child.
It's a village, during the winter there are maybe 4 to 500 people who lived there, and during the summer it grows to thousands of people interested in spiritualism. So you have to be a spiritualist to buy a house there. And as spiritualist will tell you, not all spiritualists are mediums, but about 60% of them are. So it's a village full of people who do readings. And they all have various forms: some hear voices, some go into trances.
So when I was in high school, I took dates there instead of groping my girlfriends in the drive-in, I was... cost two bucks to get in, and, so I probably had... thousands of readings in my life. Most of them nondescript, a couple of them quite shocking in odd ways, and... (laughs) I had a medium say to me: There is a very large man here, he's got a red beard, he's 6'5, he must weigh 300 pounds.
Got a plaid shirt on, his name is John, and he's a relative of yours, and he hasn't seen you since you were a baby. And I got very defensive, and said: There is nobody in my family with red hair, I have never heard of a uncle John, and as I got more agitated the medium said: Just calm down, I mean when you leave here go home and ask your mother. So I went home, and I said to my mother: Anybody in our family named John? And she said: I don't think so, well, wait a minute.
You had an uncle that was six foot five, weighed 300, had a red beard, right, he was here when you were born, whatever with. Those are rare moments with mediums, I mean, most of it is not very applicable. My grandmother, who evidently was really good at this, had a rule to never read for family members. Very smart rule. So when I kept saying to her: Come on Muddy, I mean, predict my future, this is what you do, you hear voices, you talk to dead people, tell me something.
And she would say, you know the rule, right, you know, I do not do this for family members, and I think I badgered her for enough years, till she finally said to me: Ok. Ill give you this much. You're gonna meet a lot of healers, a lot of mediums, a lot of psychics, they're gonna help you. You're gonna see past lives, you're gonna see auras, if you start to freak out, just calm down, ask for help from the spirit guides.
So I got that much from her, when I was 16 or something. The funny thing was she saw a lot of celebrities, and would not talk about them. My mother said to me, when I was in high school, you know, she just saw Lucille Ball. And I said really? And my mother said, and I actually know because her neighbour told me, what she said to her. She told Luci, who was then 18, she was going to become the most famous comedian in America, in the world, and she was going to meet Mary a Cuban bandleader.
- Wow. - [Marshall] And so when I approached my grandmother and said: Is it true, you've said, whatever. She smiled, right. (laughs) So I have no idea if that's family folklore or what that is, but anyway. So every Sunday I would go there and, on top of everything else, she was an artist. So, my brother would take my grandfather fishing. My brother complained that all he did was row, right, that my grandfather used him as a slave.
And, so, but I would go drawing with my grandmother, so we would go out into the area, the woods, whatever, and draw. And when I was 14, she said to me: Your aura is way off, you are totally lopsided in your energy. You are, in fact, making too many pictures. You have to now make sound. And I said I don't understand what you're saying to me, and she said making sound and making images, are two sides of a coin: they are not separate activities.
So if you're going to continue to make pictures for the rest of your life, you have to activate sound. So I'm going to give you a little money, I suggest the wind instrument. And so I bought a saxophone, and I'm still playing it, to keep my energy balanced, so... At the end of the day of painting, because I'm a closet saxophone player, right, I turned on the, I put on the CD, and I'd play with Miles Davis, and all kinds of people.
(laughs) - [Voiceover] Do you feel like that influences your work back? - [Marshall] Yeah. I think, without question, I mean, I don't know exactly what it does, but it certainly lightens me up. If that makes sense, I mean, it keeps me in a... I think painting, for me, a form of meditation. I mean I don't think, I'm not sure the paintings are important, but it allows me an activity, every day, to focus right, to get out of my rational brain, because my ego can't paint.
It keeps trying to paint, but it can't. So in order to paint I have to find another part of myself. In order to do that, I have to get through my ego to do it. Once I'm in that space, playing it on horn keeps me in the space. So it just prolongs whatever that moment is. - [Voiceover] And your mother was a little bit uncomfortable with the whole spiritual aspect, right? - Yeah, my mother said, well I... When I turned 18, the story about my mother...
(laughs) My mother said to me, two deals with you: One, you promise never to live with me again, and I promise never to live with you again. That was her first deal. Second deal: Never send me your art. I'm upset by what you do, I will not hang it on my wall, and I think that all those ugly pictures you make, are my fault. So never send me a picture. So 20 years later the phone rings, my mother says: (laughs) Remember the deal about "don't send me your art", and I said "Yes mom", she said I want to break it.
My little dog Cleo just died. All the photographs I have are out of focus, or has a red dot in his eye... I want to send you a photograph of Cleo, and I want you to paint a picture of them, and not fool around with it. And I said: Ok... I paint with my hands. I know my mother wants an Andrew Wyeth painting of the dog. So, I go out and buy brushes, I get a book on Andrew Wyeth, I get the photograph, I blow it up, I trace it down, and I paint every little hair on little Cleo's body.
I go home at Christmas, it's on the wall, and my mother said to me: How do you like your painting? And I thought, I don't know, it looks just like Cleo to me. And she said you notice anything different about it? And I said: No... And she said, but go look at it. So I go, I'm a half inch away from my own painting, I'm looking for a tare or scratch, whatever... I see nothing, and my mother said: Look at the eyes. And I look at the eyes of the painting, and I realize that my mother has gone out and bought a photography book on dogs, cut out two dog eyes, and glued them over the eyes of my painting.
And my mother said: You sent me a painting of a dog with mean little eyes. Cleo did not have mean little eyes. So that's my mother in a nutshell. Does that make sense? So my mother was actually quite psychic, but Muddy terrified her because she was the real thing. But as a kid, the parlour games we played at home where raising tables.
We would get out a card table, and people would put their fingers on it, and it would raise up on one leg. And then everybody would accuse everybody of pulling that up with their fingertips, and whatever... But my mother could actually pull up a oak table by herself, on one leg, right, with her fingertips. And we, as kids, would hang on it , right, I mean we'd jump and hold on to it, and whatever... So she had a lot of this stuff in her, but when she confronted Muddy, I mean I think she felt inadequate, and terrified.
Because as long as it was maintained within the family, my mother's activities, weegie boards and all this stuff, does that make sense, it was fine. Right, and the family loved it, 'cause she was the eccentric, right, I mean, but the minute it went into the outside world, and Muddy was the outside world, or something, I mean my mother got spooked, right, and kept saying to me: You can't keep going there. Right, it's dangerous, to them they said you have no idea what you're playing with, right...
You're too close to Muddy, all of that. When Muddy died, it was fun... My mother, all she wanted, from Muddy's house, was her crystal ball. And Muddy had already told me, I once asked her, because, I said: When you do a reading, right, you use this ball, I mean it was beautiful, it's a crystal ball. a<nd she said it's a prop. She said people get very nervous if I look 'em in the eye and start telling 'em what I'm hearing.
She said, so, they're much more comfortable if I have a prop. So I bring out the crystal ball, I pretend that that's where I'm getting the information, and people feel more comfortable. So my mother said to Muddy: Would you leave me that crystal ball? Believing that that was the magic ball, right, so... I remember coming home, for a couple of years, and my mother would be on the back porch, at like two in the morning, right, staring into this crystal ball, right, never saw a thing.
(laughs) - And did your father support your work? - [Marshall] Yeah, my father, I didn't learn until he was in his 60s, that my father saw pictures all the time. I mean my mother said to me one day: You know your father sees pictures? And I said, what do you mean? And she said: He sees things, and I said: I never knew that, he never talked about it, you never, I mean, and so I said to him: You see things? And he said, well, yeah.
And I said: Like what? And he said: Well, they're like photographs, he said, they're usually farmers, and standing in front of the barn, people I don't know. And then, every night, I see a series of sunsets. And I thought: How nice. (laughs) He said, yeah, four-five sunsets and whatever. So I think my father who never, I mean, he was fine with everything, my father.
Does that make sense, I was like, I mean, he seemed, he had no judgment about things, it was like: You want to do that? Fine. Right, you want to be a mechanic? Great. Wanna be an artist? Great. Does that make sense? I mean, so he was totally supportive, but no comment about this growing up in a spiritualist's house, does that make sense, I mean, and he saw stuff. I mean, I said: Well tell me, you're a kid, you're in the house, what do you see? Right, and he said: Well, Muddy and her friends used to sit around in a circle in the living room, and they had a trumpet in the middle, which is a aluminum cone, that looks like a cheerleader's tube or something.
And they would lift it up and they would fly around the room. And I said: What? (laughs) He said: Yeah, was kinda interesting, you know, kind of sounded like a plane, you know, the air was going through it. And I said, and they didn't touch it? And he said: No. - [Voiceover] Wow. - And I said: You never talk about this stuff. And he said, well it was kind of interesting. (laughs) - [Voiceover] Is it just that it was so normal? - [Marshall] Yeah. - [Voiceover] Wow. (laughs) So anyway, I mean, much of this stuff gets in the suspended disbelief, and much of this stuff gets into arenas where I think we've all seen things and things have happened to us that we can't explain.
I mean, I was there. In these moments. Does that make... And I still can't explain 'em. I have no place to put this, in whatever it is I'm trying to organize. So they float, as real stories that I have no explanation why or where or... And I have too many of these stories. (laughs)