An Interview with Marilyn Fenn by Charles van Heck

Originally published by Charles van Heck on the Woodhull Arts Journal, Whitman Pond, 08/21/2012

The Exploration of Art and Design; Shapes, Color, Lines, and Composition: An Interview with Marilyn Fenn

Me, 1990

In his 1925 essay “Hobbies,” Winston Churchill wrote: “Not only does the act of painting divert, rest and stimulate the mind, it also expands and develops the power of observation in realms both of nature and of art. Until I began to paint, I had no idea how much the landscape had to show. All its colouring became more vivid, more significant, more distinguishable.”

Churchill went on to say, “You look at a painting by a great artist, not only for its beauty and charm but to notice how he did it. A single stroke of the brush may claim attention, reveal a method, and suggest an imitative experiment.”[1]

The work of Marilyn Fenn varies between representational art and abstract art. In representational art, recognizable landscapes, objects, or human forms are depicted without attempting a literal reproduction. Representational art can be either impressionistic or realistic. In brief, this type of art brings to mind an object through description. Marilyn’s painting “Dance Me To The End Of Love” falls into this category. For me, this painting evokes a deep emotional response—the joy of discovery and the dance of love, then the loss of love. In this painting, I am reminded of my own finite nature in the realm of the beauty and wonder of sharing a life with another.

“Dance Me to the End of Love”
Pastel Pencil on Canson Paper
24″ x 36″
© 1987 Marilyn Fenn

Abstract art employs a visual language of form, color, and lines to create a composition. In an abstract composition, a recognizable subject is replaced by color and form. Abstract art misleads many to conclude that the artist is simply splashing paint or drawing lines. The opposite is true. As the Russian born artist and art theorist Wassily Kandinsky has observed, “Of all the arts, abstract painting is the most difficult. It demands that you know how to draw well, that you have a heightened sensitivity for composition and for colours, and that you be a true poet. The last is essential.”[2]

Marilyn Fenn’s abstract paintings stimulate the viewer’s mind. Her paintings vibrate with color and movement. The compositions invite us to create with her. At times she is playful, teasing us. Then, in another painting, we are confronted with statements about nature and the human condition.

Marilyn’s work is not simply to be glanced at as we move on to another painting. There are landscapes and brush strokes waiting to claim our attention that will stimulate the mind.

Charles van Heck
Hermit’s Pond

[1] Sir Winston Churchill: His Life and His Paintings, David Cooms with Minnie Churchill; Running Press, 2003; 108.

[2] I have been unable to identify where this quote is from. If any readers are aware of where Kandinsky wrote or said this, please let me know.

About Marilyn In Her Own Words

Q: What brought you to art and how did you develop as an artist?

A: For as long as I can remember, I always knew I would grow up to be an artist.  I spent most of my childhood painting and drawing, designing, and making things.  At school, art was always my favorite class, completely absorbing my attention.  At home, I filled entire sketchbooks full of drawings of horses and such.  I copied Aubrey Beardsley and John Tenniel drawings in pen and ink.  I designed room interiors and magazine layouts, and designed and made clothes and such things as a small Mondrian-inspired hooked rug.  When I was 13 or 14, I won a First Place award from the Texas State Fair for a skirt and shirt outfit I made, and also won a combined art and essay contest.

My parents, however, were a little old-fashioned and afraid of the future I would have if I were to pursue the field of art.  They always said, “You can’t be an artist when you grow up.”  That was kind of like saying “you can’t be who you are,” and I found it very confusing, distressing, and depressing.  Then during my first semester of college, I had a fairly serious illness that kept me out of school for the final month of the semester.  When I made a “C” in art, but an “A” in everything else, I thought, well, my parents were right.  I can’t be an artist.  And I stupidly gave up pursuing art for years.

At some point later, however, I began working as a technical illustrator — getting paid to draw little machine parts — and the desire to study art began to grow on me again.  So I went back to school to study fine art and discovered much to my surprise and delight that my work turned out so much better than I had ever thought possible.  After a couple years of studying all the basics at the local community college, I applied and was accepted into several good art schools, including the school of my childhood dreams, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.  I spent a very short, but very wonderful two-and-a-half years there, graduating with a BFA in Painting and Drawing.

Even after graduating, I continued to attend local art classes and open studios for quite a few more years, trying to squeeze every bit of painting knowledge from every teacher I encountered.

Since then, I have been exploring different mediums and different ideas in the pursuit of my own personal artistic vision.  And I think, finally—after 27 years of studying and painting—I’m getting close to being happy with where my work is headed.

Q: You began your undergraduate studies with a major in Psychology and a minor in German from the University of Texas. You then switched to a major in English. How have those studies influenced and informed you as an artist?

A: Those studies were what I was studying when I believed (as my parents said) that I couldn’t be an artist, but I’m glad for the broad education afforded to me through all of the liberal arts, language, social science, math and science classes that I took.  They were part of making me who I am and influencing how I understand the world.  The knowledge and ability to think critically that I gained through those studies are so much a part of who I am now, that I could not extract any specific influence on my art – it’s all part of what comes out when I paint.

Q: You hold a BFA in Painting from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. In one of her lectures, Elizabeth Rupprecht spoke of drawing from the inside out. She also spoke about what is behind you is as important as the rest when painting, and having a fly’s eye view? What did she mean by these comments and how has that advice come into play when you draw or paint?

A: I have to confess that trying to explain the concepts we were learning in this class is very challenging.  I was learning something that I was just starting to grasp after an entire semester of drawing and lectures.  It is the kind of learning that is partly intuitive and partly kinesthetic, and therefore, really hard to put into words.  But let me give it a shot.

It had to do with understanding space, in a way, from the inside out; of trying to be cognizant of the space around the subject, not in a Renaissance perspective sort of way, but in more of a cubistic way—drawing conceptual space rather than perceptual space.  It was about using empathy to project yourself into the picture plane, a way to activate the space by drawing not just the subject in a space, but also the space that encloses and surrounds the subject.  It was about combining 2D space and 3D space in a way that projects the artist and the viewer into the center of the picture, thus pulling what is behind one into the painting.  This is what Cezanne did with his landscapes, in which things get bigger as they go back in space (contrary to perspectival space).

Most of the specific instructions were, I believe, merely tools to help us get to this place.  For instance, we began each drawing by drawing it from a fly’s eye view; imagining what a fly would see from above the space with the subject, and putting that little vision in a tiny box on one corner of our drawing so that we could keep that overhead view in mind while working on the rest of the drawing.  While drawing, we were to remain cognizant that every action demands a reaction and implies a counter-movement: draw in and concave, then out and convex; in and up—out and down.  And make things bend for the demands of the flat surface.

I would have loved to have been able to take the second semester of this course, but alas, I was to graduate, so that was that.  I have to make myself think about these lessons if I want them to influence my work today, but I think that with one more semester, it would have been well-ingrained and then just part of what I do.

“Figure in Space 15″ Charcoal on Paper 18″ x 24” © 1992 Marilyn Fenn

Q: Who were some of your other professors? How did they influence the development of your skills, as well as your understanding of art and what it means to be an artist?

A: I started my art studies with some excellent artists teaching at Austin Community College, and I have to give them all so much credit: Katherine Brimberry, currently of Flatbed Press in Austin, local sculptor Ishmael Soto, and NYU-trained painter Minnie Miles taught me all the basics of drawing, painting, figure studies, 2D and 3D design, printmaking, sculpture and art history.

For those few years, Minnie Miles was an effective mentor, supporting my work, and encouraging me to follow my dream to a great school in a city with a strong history of art. At the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I studied with several of the Chicago Imagists: Barbara Rossi, Ted Halkin, Phil Hanson, and Ray Yoshida, all of whom helped me to understand as much what not to do as what to do in painting (well, maybe more what not to do).  Three of my other teachers from SAIC were quite influential as well: Dan Gustin pushed me so hard to loosen up in figure painting classes and further increased my understanding of using color.  Tony Phillips was very supportive and helpful in several painting classes, always finding the good in the work and then encouraging one to push further.  George Liebert, with whom I first studied at SAIC’s Oxbow Summer Art Camp, was a particularly gifted teacher.  He really took the time to understand what you were trying to do and was able to help you see what was working and what wasn’t, and to offer very specific tips to help you achieve what you were after.  He actually saw things in my work that I didn’t and taught me more about composition.

Q: In a statement on your website, you describe yourself as an abstract and representational painter. You have also said that you find abstract compositions more difficult than representational work. Would you elaborate on the problems both forms present?

A: For me, representational work is an exercise in seeing and understanding what is, and translating that vision of objects, light, and shadow into paint and into a painting.  I start by setting up a still life or deciding on a composition for a landscape, and then it’s just a matter of painting what I see.  I know where and how to start the painting, and I know I’m done when I’ve completed capturing the scene to my liking.

I return to representational work from time to time as a way to learn something new about how to paint by painting in a way that is like second-nature to me now.  For instance, last year, I decided I needed to really work on my brushstrokes, so I set up tiny still lifes of toys and tried to paint each one in a single painting session, with as large a brush as possible and as few strokes as possible…to be spare in the fussiness and bold in the outcome.  That was my goal, anyway.  I was quite happy with most of the little paintings and learned a lot from the exercise.

Squidward Tentacles Oil on Canvas 6″ x 6″ © 2011 Marilyn Fenn

But how do you know where to start an abstract or non-representational painting, and how do you know when you’re done?  It’s a little harder to be sure when the painting is finished; you can check for the basic design elements: does the composition work?  Have you achieved balance, harmony, variety, and a focus?  Is the color palette pleasing or disturbing – or in other words, does it create the emotional mood you are after?  Or have you used those elements in a way to make a different type of statement?  Have you even made a statement about something or is it just a disorganized mess of color on a canvas?

I often have some specific imagery, shapes, color combinations, or compositional ideas that I like to explore, but since I don’t have a model in the real world to follow, that exploration can take me practically anywhere.  I have to listen to the painting, too, and allow it to go where it seems to want to go.  Sometimes, one can get lost in that process, and lose touch with the painting, thereby ending up with something that’s not quite right or really quite wrong.  So I will study my paintings every night after my painting sessions, and try to see them objectively so that the next day I can fix whatever isn’t working.  It’s easier for me to determine what might be wrong with a representational painting than what might be wrong in an abstract painting, because after all, what is an abstract painting supposed to look like?

With representational painting, you’re painting what is, what exists, something you and everyone can see even before you paint it; with abstract, non-representational painting, you’re painting what isn’t, things that don’t yet exist, where the only place you can see them – until you paint them — is in your mind.

“Quest for Magic” Oil on canvas 12″ x 12″ © 2011 Marilyn Fenn

Q: Some of your early works bring to mind the paintings of Lyonel Feininger’s use of windows, reflecting and yawning light, how he used lines. How influential have the Expressionist painters such as Feininger, August Macke, Wassily Kandinsky among others been on your work as a painter?

A: I love the work of the Expressionists!  I must have been quite influenced by them; several of my early abstract paintings feature compositions and elements that do remind me of Kandinsky.  I later stumbled on a type of abstraction that I thought I discovered on my own.  It was very reminiscent of Feininger’s work and even more so of Stanton McDonald-Wright, so I suspect the impression of so many of their paintings in the Art Institute crept into my subconscious and then leaked out again with those works that kept me occupied for several years.

Q: Lothar Erdmann wrote of August Macke, “Everything he paints is a search, a self-development, a striving for understanding of the most profound kind. He is still experimenting. . . . He lives in a continuous, sharp criticism of his work and is thus constantly changing and developing.” When viewing the body of your work, one is struck by the progression and experimentations. Do you think Erdmann’s words can be applied to you? What are you striving to understand as an artist?

A: Oh my, I was not aware of Erdmann’s description of Macke, and yes, I’d have to confess, this fits me as well.  Although I am frequently satisfied with individual paintings that I create, on the whole, my aim is always to improve.  I feel there is such a gap between where I am as an artist and where I want to be, and the only ways I know to close that gap are to keep painting and keep experimenting.  I continue to strive to make my vision, my interests, and my love of the elements of painting mesh and evolve into an even greater and greater whole.  Simply put, I just want to be the very best painter I can possibly be.

Q: You have said that your work is “the joy of seeing the beauty of shapes in paint.” You have gone on to say, “Some of my new work is inspired by patterns at different scales in the natural world – from molecules to ice sheets to nebulae. Another recent direction explored images of energy unleashed, such as tornadoes and nuclear bombs.” In another series of paintings, you are playful, such as in “Akk-akk-akk-akk-akk!” In other work, such as “Woman Chained,” you are making a powerful feminist statement.  What do you want your viewers to understand or take away from your art when they view your paintings?

A: My primary concern as a painter continues to be the exploration of how to make a beautiful, intriguing painting through playing with the various elements of art and design: color, line, shapes, composition, etc.  I have no objection to my sense of humor getting involved, and there are times when something happening on a societal or political level bothers me so much that it sneaks into my work or just plain takes over the painting (or at least the painting title).  But what I would most love for my viewers to get from my work is pure enjoyment of the visual elements, colors and shapes to get lost in, an appreciation of the very nature of paint, and of course, a sense of fun.

“Sugar Max” Oil on Canvas 12″ x 12″ © 2012 Marilyn Fenn

Q: When did you decide to begin painting minimalist landscapes? Who are some of the minimalist painters that influenced you?

A: The minimalist landscapes were sketches in which I was exploring how to create interesting compositions that relied on little more than a few bands of color.  I can’t really claim to be very influenced by minimalist painters; I’d have to say I rather prefer “maximalists,” or compositions that are very rich with color, lines, brush strokes, forms, and shapes.

“Minimalist Landscape 2011-10-10″
Watercolor crayons
6″ x 6”
© 2011 Marilyn Fenn

Q: You primarily paint with oils. You’ve said that you like the thickness of oils, their blend-ability, and the beauty of the colors. Recently, however, you began painting with acrylics. Why the switch? And what have you learned about yourself as a painter with this change?

A: The most recent attempt at painting in acrylics was strictly for a practical reason: I wanted to have another new painting for a show that was to open in just over a week, and I needed the painting to dry sooner than an oil painting would have dried, so I took a chance on acrylic.  It is not my favorite medium; it dries so fast, it smells funny (like plastic), and it’s not very blendable – even the open type of acrylics set up too fast for my preferred way of working.

What happened with that large acrylic painting was wonderful.  I was thrown out of my comfort zone (even more than usual) and had to struggle to make the paint behave, and then had to relax and discover what the paint could do, and learn to work with it instead of struggling against it.  The very act of changing to a less familiar medium caused me to find new modes of expression that ranged from more loose painterly abstract brushstrokes to the more-or-less representational painted fruit and flowers of the artichoke plant.

I don’t think it will be a permanent switch, but rather something I come back to from time to time, for one reason or another…in part because I haven’t yet come close to mastering the use of acrylic.

And what I’ve learned is that I can appreciate acrylics a little more after that painting, but I appreciate oils a lot more!  I really prefer the process of painting wet into wet and the freedom to keep doing that for a few days, which only oil paints allow you to do.

“Food Forest”
Oil on Canvas
24″ x 30″
© 2012 Marilyn Fenn

Q: What advice do you have for others, regardless of their age, who are just beginning to explore artistic expression—the gift of creativity?

A: The most important advice I can give?  If you feel the calling to be an artist, don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t!  Start as soon as you can, and don’t give up.  Don’t ever give up.  Just do!  You can start just by putting pencil or crayon to paper, but I also highly recommend studying art, especially if you can study art with others.

Seek out good teachers, whether at an art school, a local college, or art classes at the local museum or even the Y.  A good teacher will know the basics and be able to teach them to almost anyone in the class.  They won’t necessarily try to teach you to do things their way or one specific way but will evaluate your strengths and weaknesses, (hopefully) compliment you on your strengths, and try to find ways to help you overcome your weaknesses.

Study the history of art so you will know what came before, and why it matters.  Go to museums, galleries, and local art shows.  Look at the work of your contemporaries, and try to understand what they are doing and why.  Read the artist’s statements.  Learn to discern what work is good and what work is schlock so that you don’t end up adding to the pile of schlock (and I’m not saying I haven’t added to that pile myself!).

As much as I have learned from studying the masters, I learn just as much from looking at the work of current artists, who after all are usually commenting on today’s society, and therefore in some ways more relevant to work that you may produce.

Art is a conversation between artists as well as between artists and society.  If you want to be an artist, you need to join the conversation.

You may or may not be able to make a living as an artist (and I wouldn’t necessarily count on it), but if you really feel the calling to be an artist, you will find a way to do your art.

To learn more about Marilyn and her art, visit the following websites:

Art Site:



All the images posted with this interview are used with the permission of the artist and are copyrighted by Marilyn Fenn.