Review Me: Mark Oldland: Self Spectrum
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Saturday, July 17, 2021

Mark Oldland: Self Spectrum

Mark, many thanks for accepting our invitation to talk about your art and inform us about your artworks. Tell us about your artistic background story and if there was a pivotal moment when you decided to follow your path as a visual artist?

The primary thing I hope my audience understands about where my artwork comes from and how I “got started” as an artist is that I identify as an autistic individual. Being autistic influences all aspects of me as an individual, not just my artwork. I cannot simply separate myself from my autism to paint or draw something. Whether or not I choose to make it a focal point of what I’m doing, it’s always going to be there and resonate within the imagery. Art then becomes a means to an end for me. It allows me, long before I pursued art as a career, to speak and engage socially with the world in a way that I would otherwise find nearly impossible to do without it.

Of course, our readers know you well. And, they believe you have professionally learned how to connect art and your life realities and express your feelings and ideas via your art. Was there ever a moment of doubt to question your art career entirely?

If you’re looking at one specific moment in time, then I’d say immediately following art school when my work was not quite developed as it is now and I first encountered some rejection towards what I was doing. However, as I indicated earlier my artwork is intrinsically tied to who I am as an autistic person and one of my struggles as an autistic person is social anxiety. So, in many ways, I’m in a constant state of doubt about my artwork. But it’s that struggle that I’m trying to relay to the viewer in hopes that they can better understand the difficulties that I encounter and others like myself encounter when trying to “fit in” with the neurotypical world.

You tried to transform external realities into artworks, and when the issues are incorporated into art, their impact can be greater and more beautiful than reality itself. What is your daily routine when working in your studio?

As an autistic person routine is essential for me. Part of this means I must work in a certain order in a certain way. Line drawing first; Line always comes first because that’s how my mind sees and interprets the world. Next, color studies if needed with color and form always built over the line (wash, rinse, repeat for each progressive stage of the work). But it’s not just the routine of the physical labor of art-making that’s important. Perhaps more important is the routine of artistic engagement and interaction with my peers and those who follow my work. It’s those types of activities that allow me to keep my social “muscles” practiced and capable of existing more naturally in the neurotypical world. If I don’t do that, I can not only find myself in a creative lull, but a social one as well.

If people can find and think about their concerns, and work hard to deal with and reduce their negative impact, their emotional gaps will be filled, and their vision will be wider and wider. Fortunately, you chose art for this, and you were able to do it with painting. Now, take us through your process of making your artworks. How do you move from an idea to an artwork?

My artwork is based upon how I see and interact with the world so it’s a natural byproduct of my response towards that. My earlier works are almost entirely based on simple lines very often devoid of any color and perceived by most as being very abstract. This is because that’s where I was socially at that time. My ability to engage at that time in the neurotypical world was very limited and when I did engage it was through my natural perception of the line. As I progressed socially so did my ability to add color and to portray representational images. What makes me, me, is still my interpretation of the line, yet I have no choice to exist in the representational or neurotypical world. This is why my work still maintains a foothold in both worlds and can often bounce and forth between linear abstraction and contemporary representational works. Eliminating one or the other would deprive me of the ability of what it means to exist today as an autistic individual.

Where does an artwork begin for you?

Line… I often tell people that I first and foremost see and interpret the world through the line, that’s why for me, what most see as linear abstraction looks and feels representational. And the traditional representational image to me is akin to what most perceive as being abstract. All of my artwork carries an element of this conversation, but no matter how the end product is perceived by the viewer (abstract or representational) it’s important to know that the through-line is a line.

All the lines you talk about and everything you draw make you very successful in expressing the different feelings you have and social interactions, and this is the most significant thing that can be done through art. Is there a central concept connecting all your works together or each series or artwork is unique?

Living as an autistic adult in a neurotypical world & celebrating it. Most peoples’ perception of autism doesn’t include someone who whitewater kayaks, is a veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard, and is married and raising an autistic son, but it’s my aim through my artwork to change that perception. All of my work speaks towards the central part of who I am and the central concept is meant to illustrate the difficulties that autistic people encounter in a world designed for neurotypical people to succeed. My work is also intended to show how the autistic community day in and day out rises to the challenge to take on those systemic barriers to surpass the stereotypical expectations in society.

Art is looking at life differently. Art is supposed to elevate us so that we gain an understanding of our surroundings and human interactions. Some of our problems culminate in the fact that we fail to find the right path and brevity to walk through as well as an understanding of being. Would you like to give a particular interpretation of your work to your viewers or you prefer to leave the whole interpretation to your audience?

Sometimes within an individual work, I might lead the viewer towards a specific interpretation through the subject matter and title; however, the central focus is intended to be clear; my work illustrates my interpretation of the world as an autistic individual. That can’t be changed just like my autism can’t be changed. However, my response to outside stimuli changes quite frequently as many individuals on the spectrum will tell you. That’s why sometimes my work comes across as abstract yet other times it’s very representational (or somewhere in between). I’m responding and/or communicating visually what I’m able to take in from a sensory perspective at that given moment in time. The amount of color & vibrancy of color form is limited by what I’m able to see and feel. Sometimes form and color can even be exaggerated if I’m overloading and capable of existing at that moment without burning out.

I think dealing with the art of painting is a great way for an autistic person who can experience a wide range of spectrums with different intensities because it is really in line with the freedom of art that breaks frameworks with its element of creativity and teaches man to be free. Mark, how do you seek and use inspiration for your works?

My inspiration comes from my desire to educate the public about autism (and Special Needs in general) not just for myself, but more importantly for my son who is also autistic. My desire to make certain that my son has doors opened for him rather than shut in his face inspires me to continue to create more than anything else.

You are attempting to enlighten the public about the many abilities autistic people have to offer. Definitely, your son can learn and be filled with this feeling and, like his father, will illustrate different spectrums to the world. How do you select your artworks subjects? Where they come from?

Very often I work with landscapes; however, I have always been drawn mostly towards moving water. There is something about water sight, sound, and feel of moving water that I find intriguing and calming. As a child, I channeled that fascination with water towards learning as much as I could about whitewater through the practice of whitewater kayaking. My Senior thesis at art school highlighted a key aspect of whitewater kayaking called Reading the River (the practice of distilling whitewater down to simple directional lines in order to navigate it). As I continued to learn more and more about moving water, I became determined to explore the High Seas, in particular the Bering Sea. That’s how I transitioned from receiving my art degree at Maryland Institute College of Art to enlisting in the U. S. Coast Guard.

When our readers realize that these paintings belong to an artist with autism, their sense of admiration increases, and they show more attention and interest in discovering the message of your artworks. Is there an artwork or series that you would like to be remembered for? And if yes, what is it?

Currently, I’m working on a new series called “Puddle Jumping”. It combines all my personal responses towards nature and water as an autistic adult with a frequent experience my son and I enjoy sharing, jumping in puddles. Through this series, I’m moving beyond explaining to the viewer about my individual autistic life towards sharing how my son and I both see and interact with the world together as autistic people. Not only do I hope this series gets the audience to understand me better but my son as well. I would consider this series a success if it paves the way for my son’s life to be more easily understood and accepted than mine has been.

I know your intent by working within this range is to provide a positive social commentary for autistic individuals and promote inclusion for anyone who may be perceived as being different. Given the enthusiasm of our readers to see your future work, I understand that you have reached the result you want. Any upcoming works or future projects that you would like to share with our readers?

This will be the Puddle Jumping series as told before.

Who are your favorite contemporary or historical artists? What are your art influences?

I’m going to deviate from the norm (as autistics often do) here and provide an atypical response. My biggest influence has been my service in the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard not only developed my understanding of water and how I applied it towards my artwork, but it also forced me to develop socially in ways that I never would have had I not enlisted. As an autistic individual, I always struggled socially even through college where it was difficult for me to maintain social relationships. My Coast Guard social development seeped into my artwork. As I began to explore my range socially, my artwork followed. In college, my artwork focused on simple directional lines. In my Coast Guard artistic development, I learned how to build upon those lines to round out form and ultimately move from pure abstraction into more representational imagery. This coincided with my social development i.e. my simple introverted world built up and expanded and formed a larger, more typical, social structure.

Let's take a trip back in time! If you could meet one of your ideal artists from the past, who would it be and what will you ask about?

Alexander Calder. I enjoy viewing his work immensely, but the primary reason I would want to meet and speak with him is that his work is so joyous and playful. I see myself in that light, but because of my autism so few people respond to me in that way. If I met Calder, I’d asked him how to teach me how to impart that playfulness into my work as well as he does.

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