Olympic Gold: The Muhammad Ali Project

Muhammad Ali by Peter MarsMy Father is a boxing fan. So I grew up as a little boy going to fights, watching them on closed circuit TV and, (yes I’m old enough to remember) listening to them on the radio. Cassius Clay was one of my Dad’s biggest heroes, and as I came of age during the Vietnam years, I quickly understood why this made sense, and what a profound American hero Ali truly is.

Muhammad Ali by Peter MarsFast forward to a meeting in 2008 where my agent asks me, “If you could do an in-depth project with any athlete in the world, who would it be?” The words “Muhammad Ali” literally fly out of my mouth. Within a year he has me sitting in the Madison Avenue offices of Muhammad Ali Enterprises, where we inked a deal for me to be an Official Artist to the Ali family archive.

I dreamed of this opportunity for so long that it felt completely surreal to be sitting in Ali’s offices now, being granted permission to use images directly from Muhammad Ali’s personal archive. The boardroom was beautifully appointed, all quiet and relaxed, but I just couldn’t shake an eerie feeling that, in theory, The Champ himself could bust thru a door at any moment, and either shake my hand with a big smile, or punch me in the head and knock me out cold. So I just took some deep breaths and tried to stay calm enough to listen to the meeting.

I daydreamed back to one of my Mom’s favorite stories about seeing Mr. Ali and his entourage walking through a Las Vegas casino late one night. She described him as “the most handsome man I have ever seen.” Recalling the story seemed to calm me down a bit.

Muhammad Ali by Peter Mars

In the meeting I could hear people talking about how I would be able to use their archive. Muhammad Ali’s archive spans his entire career beginning with his amateur bouts in Louisville Kentucky, thru all the landmark fights, The Thrilla in Manila, Rumble in the Jungle, and his Civil Rights battles that would define an entire generation.

The people in the boardroom start showing me examples of images from the archive.

Muhammad Ali by Peter Mars

And at first I really could not believe that I was even being allowed to see these images, let alone use them in my art. The whole experience transported me to a place where Ali is maybe sitting at his coffee table on a lazy afternoon, kindly showing me through his personal photo albums and scrap books. Again, the only word I have for it is surreal.

Muhammad Ali by Peter Mars

The material is rare and amazing. Here they are, literally thousands of photos taken of Ali in the ring. Here he is on the stand accepting the Olympic Gold Medal in Rome 1960, here he is riding in a ticker-tape parade through downtown London, next, relaxing at home with friends, then shadow-boxing with Elvis in a Las Vegas hotel room, and finally here he is meeting with historic figures like Malcolm X, Elijah Muhammad and every sports-world dignitary you can image.

Muhammad Ali by Peter Mars

How could it be that same little boy in me, who had watched Ali from afar, and across a lifetime, was now paging through these photo albums, excitedly thinking of turning this story into Art?

Very shortly my excitement  turns back again to fear. This time the fear is reminiscent of the “we’re not worthy!” scene in a Wayne’s World movie. How can I possibly even try to tell this story with my art? Ali is superhuman! He’s larger than life both in and out of the boxing ring! He is a man that our popular culture frequently compares to Superman!… mostly because people have just plain run out of words to describe him. And I’m supposed to make paintings that tell this man’s life’s story? …one of the most important stories in American History? We rode the elevator back down to Madison Avenue, my head still buzzing.

After the shock wore off, I got started. And the images I’m showing you today are the results of the past 4 years of my labor on the project.

Muhammad Ali by Peter Mars

Hope you enjoy them !  All the best, Peter

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ELVIS: Peter Mars artworks featured at Clinton Presidential Library

On Friday, June 3, an anthology of original new Elvis artwork by Peter Mars was launched to the American public for the first time via ELVIS, an exhibit that will run throughout the summer of 2011 at the William J. Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, Arkansas. Coming on the heels of a successful show this spring at the Pop International Gallery in New York’s Soho neighborhood, 2011 is shaping up to be an incredible year for Peter Mars! “I like to think I’m a big dreamer, but to go straight from Soho to a presidential library is just way more than even I ever dreamed,” he said.

The world-class Clinton Library is a beautiful, zero carbon footprint facility using the latest green technologies. The Library’s incredible staff helped to make the June 3 opening a memorable event for Peter, who said he “felt like royalty” thanks to their exceptional professionalism and VIP treatment. The event was very well attended, with a crowd estimated at more than 400 people.

Though Peter most frequently tells stories through his art, his first-hand retelling of the memorable experience he had at the ELVIS exhibit opening best sets the scene:

Arriving in Little Rock
“Upon arriving in Little Rock, Sandra (my lovely and talented wife!) and I were immediately made to feel at home by Lloyd, our friendly driver of the Peabody Hotel van. Lloyd was kind enough to drive us up and down the main drag of Little Rock, a beautiful example of small-town America, and the capitol of Arkansas. The “old” state capitol building is right next to the hotel, and is a beautiful, little old building open free as a museum filled with all sorts of cool, old-fashioned Arkansas memorabilia. You can walk right out onto the floor of the senate chamber, and the wood chairs and desks are all in there – a very magical place! We head to the hotel and the famous Peabody ducks are in the fountain, just as we had pictured they would be.”

Listening to Al Wertheimer
“Next we went to Clinton Presidential Library, and got to sit in the front row and listen to Al Wertheimer give a talk about his years as an Army photographer leading up to his traveling with Elvis in 1956, the exact moment in time when Elvis was on the cusp of superstardom. Al is a smart well trained pro, not just a kid with a camera. He shot using available light only, using black and white film. Ask any professional photographer, and they will tell you what a challenge this must have been!

Al Wertheimer said his mission on his travels with Elvis was to be invisible, and that Elvis let him shoot everywhere. He told stories of traveling on the train with Elvis, of photographing Elvis in New York and Memphis. He reflected on how amazed he was at the explosiveness of Elvis’ stage presence. He went on to relate how seeing Elvis play live was a transcendent experience, almost coming from a type of indescribable force, and that even though he considered himself to be simply documenting a moment in history, Al came away with much more and realized that what was happening was really special. “Wertheimer’s books tell that story too, but listening to him describe it in person was very cool.”

Exploring the Clinton Library
“When Al’s talk was over, we walked around the Clinton Library facility and took it all in! It is massive and cutting-edge, modern architecture – a “Chicago-sized” building sitting on the edge of town with a beautiful view of the river. Seeing the Peter Mars art showcased on these walls was impressive! And knowing that Bill Clinton himself will be visiting the Library in about a week has me super-excited! President Clinton is a huge Elvis Fan, and there are words to this effect posted throughout the Library. I believe the story goes that staffers sometimes called the former President, “Elvis,” for obvious reasons!

There is a complete precise replica of the oval office in the Museum. “All the girls wanted to sit on the president’s desk, but thankfully it was roped off. At the cocktail bar, some napkins bearing the presidential seal did find their way home with me as souvenirs (please don’t tell the Secret Service!)”

About the Exhibit
Most of Peter’s paintings in the ELVIS show were completed during 2010 and 2011 and were made specifically to fit the exhibit space at the Clinton Library. All of the works are Pop Art paintings in silkscreen on canvas, and many were previewed at the Pop International Gallery show this spring. Peter admits to being “totally geeked up” to be showing his artwork alongside the iconic Elvis photography of Alfred Wertheimer, Elvis’s most famous photographer.

During the planning of the installation, Peter requested that Elvis Presley Enterprises (EPE) provide one of Elvis’ motorcycles to be parked in the center of one of the exhibition rooms. Instead, the folks at EPE did him one better and rolled out the original, beautiful, red MG roadster that was driven by Elvis in the 1966 movie Spinout! Peter describes the scene: “To see the whole place full of armed guards, protecting Elvis’ Car, and all that beautiful artwork, made me feel like I was in a movie! This is really something to see if you can make it to the Clinton Library this summer.”

Lloyd, redux
“Punchline to my story about Lloyd, the Peabody Hotel’s airport van driver, is that on our ride back to the airport we again have the same driver. But this time we notice he is wearing a slightly different uniform, and his name badge not only says “Lloyd,” but also below that is the word “Duckmaster.” Turns out Lloyd is not just a limo driver, but also tends to the Peabody’s famous fowl in his dual role as Duckmaster! He tells us a very funny story about having to drive “The Team” (of ducks) up to Chicago for a hotel convention. The fact is that when ducks are “out of water” – such as when riding in a car to Chicago – they must be kept damp at all times. So Lloyd had to stop the car every couple hours and pump spray the ducks with water, proving that there is some truth to the “duck out of water” saying! He went on to say that The Team currently at the hotel is a good bunch of ducks. Once they are on the march from their nesting area into the hotel, they all kind of start to run and make a mad dash for the fountain! And they enjoy being in the fountain all day and having people fuss over them.”

End Scene
Wrapping up his extremely positive experience at the ELVIS exhibit opening, Peter said that it was especially a great deal of fun to hear everyone swapping their favorite Elvis stories. “With the spirit and stories of Elvis in the air, how can you go wrong?” he said. If you’re still planning your summer travels, think about making the trip to Little Rock, staying at the Peabody and visiting the ELVIS exhibit at the Clinton Presidential Library – you may turn out to have as memorable an experience as Peter did!

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Peter Mars Soho show opens Mar 24, 2011

Peter Mars in Soho NYC this Thursday, March 24, 2011, 7-9pm.

Pop International Gallery
473 West Broadway
New York, NY 10012
T. 212.533.4262

if you like Evel Knievel.

Or perhaps you are an Elvis Presley fan

If you like to see Muhammad Ali Sting like a Bee.

Then you should come out Thursday night.

we'll give you somethin' to see.

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Just Like Heaven

100 years at Ox-Bow School of Art.

I’m driving back from Saugatuck now, leaving the forested dunes of the Michigan coastline, rounding the southern shore of the Great Lake.

At I-90 the traffic builds and the pace thickens. 70mph turns to 80-sometimes-90 and the familiar industrial landscape returns. Steel mills, chemical plants, and refineries belch like giant robots mired on an oily beach. The pavement begins to beat with an anxious pulse, past Bethlehem Steel and the Cal Sag Channel. In the distance, the thumping Metropolis of Chicago emerges from its hazy horizon.

But behind me lays a lush green secret and hidden place, a forested Artist’s Haven called Ox-Bow School of Art. The main building at Ox-Bow is an old Inn, secluded on the banks of the Kalamazoo River. The Inn is sheltered by the massive sand dunes behind Oval Beach on one side, and a fortuitous Ox-Bow-shaped lagoon on the other.

You know how there are some places so mystical, so unbelievably cool, so authentic and so real, that you hesitate to even tell people about it because you think those people will just put it on TV and make it all crowded and ruined? Well Ox-Bow School is one of those places. And I’m telling you about it now only because I know you are an Art Lover and worthy of knowing. And you are now similarly sworn to protect the secret, so please share it only with others who are worthy.

Ox-Bow School was originally founded in 1910, by two Artists from the Art Institute of Chicago. After a century of careful guidance and donations from generous Benefactors, Patrons, Artists, and Art Lovers, the original Inn (which dates back to Civil War days), and 115 acres of virgin forest are preserved and transformed into a modern day compound of cabins, workshops, and state-of-the-art Artist’s studios. The entire compound is now protected under the stewardship of The School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
from, the poshest parts of the Saugatuck resort area.

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Collecting Art …the flaws that make it perfect.

Peter Mars Interviews Philadelphia Pop Artist Jeff Schaller

Peter Mars: People are always asking me, “What other artists do you like?” or, ” Whose work do you collect?” so let me just say here, My collection is real eclectic and diverse. I buy what I like, and then once I know it, i want more of of that same artist. Sometimes repeatedly and obsessively and right up and until my wife takes away my credit card. But i think alot of collectors will relate to me here, some work is so powerful, you just feel like “too much” could never be enough.

Right now, I’m into Patricia Ryan, Wesley Willis, Howard Finster, Lee Godie, Jeff Schaller, Jay Ryan, Paul Garner, Ed Paschke, RA Miller, Mark Shepherd, and Jimmy Lee Sudduth. There are many others I want to add, but collecting is a lifelong passion, so I still have time. Collecting pop art is an Art form of its own. Bringing new Art into your house is so much fun. And good Art just ages like a fine wine, it only gets better.

Jeff Schaller is a pop artist whose work I just love. He lives in Philadelphia. I met Jeff because his friend Burton Morris is a fellow pop artist, shows at the same New York gallery that I do. And Schaller and I and Burton Morris did some collaborative pop art works together as well. You can see some background on Jeff at www.jeffschaller.com

Here is my interview of Jeff Schaller.

PM: To me, perfection in art is as boring as it is in real life. And I like to see the real heart, the real hand of the artist in a painting. Pablo Picasso’s observation that, “Computers are useless because they can only give you answers.” really rings true for me in art. The flaw of the computer being its very own flawlessness. But what are your thoughts on perfection?
Jeff Schaller: Ahhh, the unachievable perfection that drives me nuts. Actually, I like perfection and strive for it. It’s the faults, gestures, and steps to achieve perfection that I really like. In a way it is keeping track of the failures. When I make pop art I like to keep the brush strokes, marks, and scratches in there. It is a way of recording the journey to perfection. It’s the flaws that make it perfect!

PM: I love any art that looks so easy to do that the viewer doesn’t even realize the difficulty level. The same viewer that watches an Olympic athlete “effortlessly” jump a high bar, and thinks “my kid could do that,” will look at a successful painting, and think that same thought. And if the athlete or artist is skilled enough, the moves look deceptively graceful and easy. And sure with 20 or 30 years of practice, maybe their kid could do it… in any case, on the surface it just looks that easy. I love that, it gives me a rush to see that in pop art, and I see that in your art. Is it something that you consciously study or aspire to?
Jeff Schaller: Yes, I think it is important to make it look effortless, especially with encaustics. A painting can get really thick and built up quickly. It’s the confidence of making a mark with the brush that gives me a rush. It’s just making sure that every continuous brush mark there after looks as confident. Sometimes the best paintings are the ones that were the easiest and took the least amount of time. Well, that is, the least amount of time on the easel. There is 39 years of practice and confidence that moves the hand to make that mark. When some say to me, “I could of done that, I reply, but you didn’t and I did. Now you can’t because I did and that would be copying”.

PM: Good answer! On the other end of that scale, you do use a lot amazing techniques in your work, and your paintings also give me that wonderful, “how the hell did he do that?” chill running down my back. Tell me about some of your favorite techniques.
Jeff Schaller: Ha! That goes back to making it look easy. It’s a mixture of practice and not knowing what I’m doing. One time while teaching an encaustics class a student commented that I paint like I’m using oils. She said she never thought of painting encaustics like that. I never knew that there was a right or wrong way to paint with encaustics. I just love the medium. Oh, I could go on and on about how I love encaustics but we probably don’t have enough time. One of my favorite techniques is painting with a thin layer of wax and a little bit of pigment, kind of like glazing in oils. See there I go again, I don’t know the difference.

PM: Describe your studio, what do you think makes the ideal environment for making paintings?
Jeff Schaller: My studio looks like a barn. It has the red metal roof with a cupola and a board and batten front stone patio. It fits right into the “country” feel. But don’t let the appearance fool you. It’s all brand new. When we bought the house 5 years ago it was my dream to build a studio. I wanted lots of room, open space, and lots of windows so I could look outside. My painting area is small (about 8 x 10) but I have the space to lay things out, step back, and dance around. The beauty of it is that the studio is close enough that I can leave projects out and let them sit while I contemplate them at the house. Since the distance is so minute I can easily return to my art to contemplate some more with the work in front of me.

PM: How did you get started making pop art?
Jeff Schaller: I think I knew I wanted to make art in kindergarten. It was, and still is the only thing I am really good at. In school I learned I could get good grades on bad reports if I had a great cover. So I drew great covers. I realized that all the bullies on the play yard wore jean jackets. I painted images on the backs of them like “Iron Maiden” and skulls, and things then charged them for it! College was the same, but then I was dealing with groups and clubs. I realized that if I designed a club’s logo, t-shirt, or poster, I could make some extra cash. So I kept making art. and i guess at the time i didn’t really realize it was “pop art”

PM: Tell me about your years of study in London.
Jeff Schaller: Oh, London was great. When I was over there for the semester the students boycotted the school and it was shut down. I had class for about 2 weeks before it closed. It reopened a few weeks before the semester was out, so the school work was easy. The greatest piece of advice I got was from the art teacher. He said, “don’t take the tube to school. Walk or take the bus, you’ll see more”. He was right.

PM: How do you decide when an artwork is “done”?
Jeff Schaller: This is the biggest problem. It seems like I’m always one brush stroke away from either a masterpiece or a disaster. I guess it’s that feeling that you can’t do anything else to it. There are some paintings that scream, “I’m done”. Those are the best. When there is not one more brush stroke that would make it any better, I sign my name right away. There are others that sit and wait. Eventually they will get touched up or I add my signature “word”. It’s always the text that I add last this seems to bring it all together. Signing the piece really finalizes it for me.

PM: Describe what it is like being the center of attention at a big show in Switzerland.
Jeff Schaller: I compare it to David Hasseloff in Germany. Here in the U.S. he is on Baywatch. In Germany he sings and he’s a rock star, but we don’t know that. Switzerland is great. They really appreciate the beauty of the wax and the difficulty of the process. I actually have people waiting in lines for openings. That totally blows my mind.

PM: Well, the surfaces of your works are really wonderful so I can easily understand that kind of hype, but tell me, do you have a final vision of work before you start it or are you kind of just making it up as you go along?
Jeff Schaller: I make it up as I go along. Wow! (an honest answer) I find an image I like and feel inspired to paint it. The process of moving colored wax around to replicate the image is a fun part of the journey to a completed painting. The best part is adding “the word”. That gives me the Aha! Moment. When the association of word and image come together the meaning of the image can change entirely. When it’s placed accordingly it makes the whole composition come together. Hopefully after that, the painting is done and the journey is over. Then it’s time to pick up another board and start again.

PM: Even though there certainly is a dark side to this new era of Global war, terrorism and uncertainty. Sure I’m a product of my environment, but I see the Pop Artists as maybe providing the comic relief, our way reassuring people to stay hopeful. What do you think about this?
Jeff Schaller: Yes, I agree. I try not to involve politics or worldly affairs into my art. I really just paint what I like. Just look at my paintings and you’ll know what I like.

PM: One of my favorite gallery owners (Bruce Cutean of Thirdstone) once told me he believes that artworks contain a type of magic, that is put into them by the energy of the artist’s hands, and that energy stays inside the painting forever. What do you think about this?
Jeff Schaller: Is he still around? Is he looking for a new artist? I think it’s in the viewer. If they can see the magic in the painting then it really works. They are looking at a compilation of my thoughts, my experience, my brush strokes, and yes, the energy I put into it.

PM: I spent a lot of time working with some of these artists like Howard Finster and Wesley Willis who were untrained, Outsider, or whatever you want to call it. How do you explain that parts of making art are simply innate, and already “in us” and then other parts are learned and take many years of intense practice to master?
Jeff Schaller: It’s the talent that’s “in us” that creates the art. It’s the mastery of the tools that allows us to make art. Four years of art school doesn’t make you an artist it teaches you how to use the tools.

Peter Mars: Many musicians, dancers and visual artists describe entering a trancelike state of mind during periods of performing or making art. Does this happen to you?
Jeff Schaller: Yeah, I love it! I think it’s called “flow” when everything is going right. It’s a perfect flight of continuously perfect brush strokes. I really think I’m addicted to it. It is one of the reasons that I go to the easel and paint. Sometimes I swear it’s a fairy that comes by with magic dust. I really have to figure out her schedule.


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