I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Marlan Yoder for many years. He, his wife, and four sons are long time friends of my husband, but it wasn’t until we started Action Artwork Rental that I really got to know Marlan as more than a father to our friends. Since then I’ve continued to be amazed at the quality and volume of the work he produces. Each piece shows great skill and an almost compulsive attention to detail. In his retelling of a commissioned trompe l'oeil panting he did in 1998, he said, “I remember watching the paint go on and just how perfect it was. I would laugh and say, ‘God. Don’t let me lose this!’ I had never experienced anything like it. It gives me chills thinking about it, because that day I became a real painter.” There is no denying Marlan has a gift. His Tree of Life series, in particular, has moved me to feel things I can’t quite put into words. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of viewing one of Marlan’s pieces in person, it comes as no surprise to learn that many people have been similarly moved. Marlan Yoder is a published author, a musician, a husband, a father, a mentor, an accomplished painter, and a true champion of the individual spirit and strength it takes to make it as a creative in this world.
I sat down with Marlan in his home studio in Woodstock, Georgia for a very intimate look into his influences, how art has changed his life, and the exact moment, almost thirty years ago, that he declared his dedication to living his life as an artist.
AAR: When did you first develop an interest in the arts?
Marlan Yoder (MY): In first grade we were visiting a friend’s house and they had these daughters that were all older than me. The girls had a chalkboard in their bedroom. One of them drew a horse in a real mechanical way. It started off as a cross star, two of those points were the ears and they drew the face out of that. I lived on an Amish farm at the time, so I knew horses. I was like, "No, no, that’s not how a horse looks." So, I took the chalk and drew this horse. I drew the whole horse and I remember them being really impressed. I remember responding to what they did, being offended by their drawing, and drawing a horse. Then in second grade we moved, and we were way ahead of that school, so for the first month I had no work to do. So on the side chalkboard, my teacher said, “Just do murals,” and I did murals everyday. The real additive was in 8th grade, I did a painting of George Harrison, because he was my favorite Beatle. I would have to literally steal my older brother's oils, because i didn’t have any paints. I would take his and paint under duress. When I discovered Impressionism and Monet, that’s when I thought, “Ok. This is what I want to do.” I wanted to be a painter, but knew I couldn’t do that for a living. So from the Bewitched show, I thought I’d do what Darrin did. I made up my mind to work in advertising and that’s what I did for over twenty years to make my money, but I never loved advertising. I had my own agency, Morningstar Studio, for seven years. I worked for a really big agency in Akron, Ohio called Malone. I worked with really talented people. Many of us are still really close and see each other. Ironically, because I worked so hard in advertising, I'd’ come home and be too tired to paint. I’d average two to three paintings per year.
It was at age thirty-three that I made my declaration to God and all entities that could hear me, that I would go all out and live my life as an artist. If you’re an artist, you have to work. It sounds cliché, but I don't have a choice. When I don’t work, I’m miserable. Van Gogh was at his worst when he wasn’t working, Pollock when he wasn't working. They were not fun to be around, and I can be that way. We had a gravel driveway. I took my foot and scraped across the driveway and made a little mark, and I said, “I’m stepping over this line. This is who I am.” I called my mom, and said, “Mom. I’m going all out as an artist. I’m going to live my life as an artist.” She goes, “Oh, but what about Jesus?” “Well mom, this is his idea. He made me to do this. I’m just doing what he made me to do.” That’s when my life changed. That’s what’s so ironic with my son Josh. At age thirty-three he already has a legacy, and I was just starting mine. So when I made the declaration to live an artist's life, it was more than just a decoration, more than just saying words. This is who I am and so it gives me privileges to pull back. People say they don’t have time to do things and it’s a lie. It doesn’t matter if you’re a parent or not. I started writing my first book, The Muck Memoirs, in 2000. I was married. I had four sons, who were all in school. I had a job where I managed a frame shop. I was manager for our two son’s band, and I was in a band at church with weekly practices. So that was my life, and I wrote that book during that. How did I write it? I went up at night, after the boys were in bed, into my studio and wrote until I fell asleep. That’s how you do things, you have to sacrifice time doing something else to do this. I actually gave up cartooning because of being a dad. When Josh and Graham were born, I was an art director at a big ad agency with lots of responsibilities, newly married, in a band, I painted, and I was doing my cartoons. I decided I can’t dabble in comics because everyone else was giving it their all. So I wrote during that time, but I didn’t do a finished product. I did it because I wanted to be a good dad to Josh and Graham. I decided art would never come before my family, but honestly that’s not how I lived it out totally. It did come before my family at times. They didn’t lose anything in terms of like, “I hate my dad because all he ever did was paint,” but I did sacrifice time with them, time with Cheryl, to do my work. Art has to be a priority. It’s a part of your life, so that freed me then.
AAR: Who were some of your biggest influences?
ML: The greatest artist I ever knew was Gary Miller. He died in 2014 from prostate cancer. He worked at the ad agency with me. He was the most talented man I knew and he influenced me quite a bit. There are three guys that mean everything to me-- Van Gogh, Pollock, and Dali. Van Gogh was a brilliant man and could speak and write in three languages. He was not insane. He didn’t cut his ear off; he cut his ear lobe off. He’s my favorite, not because it’s popular to like him, but because he bridged a gap. He’s the father of Expressionism, but he didn’t know it at the time. Dali, I relate to him because he needed his wife, like I need mine. She kept him on the straight and narrow. He struggled with life, and maybe more so than I do, but I do. I couldn’t do it without Cheryl. She's my worst critic. She’s not a cheerleader. She doesn’t say, “Oh you're the best. You’re so great.” I get that from everyone else. She let’s me know in really cool ways how much she loves my work and believes in me, but she doesn't just throw it out there, and I can’t ask for it. Pollock, I relate to his struggles, as well. I like to do Pollock-style, drizzled paintings. So those guys. They’re the ones who mean the most. Monet, he’s like my Beatles, a separate category. When I saw “Woman with a Parasol,” I recognize that was a moment in time. It wasn’t just a painting. He captured a moment, and that’s what Impressionism is. That word, that’s what it means and that’s what it did to me. That’s pretty powerful stuff.
AAR: Much of your recent work is grounded in Pointillism. What about this style are you drawn to?
MY: I saw an advertisement in the mid-80s. It was a big map of the world and it had all these big dots, and as you got closer it was all people’s faces. It blew me away. It was a digital thing, but that’s what drew me to it. It wasn’t Seurat . It wasn’t the Impressionist painters. I liked their stuff, but it had nothing to do with it. It was seeing that ad. I was intrigued by it, but I didn’t do anything with it for years. Eventually, I wanted to get looser with my work. I wanted to employ some sort of a dot thing, but I never could. I used pastels for a five year period to loosen up. I did a painting of my sister-in-law and it was pretty big, the head was almost life-size. I took it and put it on the hearth of the fireplace and I went back into my studio. My son Max was three years old at the time, and all of a sudden Cheryl yelled, “Max just ruined your painting. You can’t yell at him! It’s not his fault. You left it there.” I went down and he had taken his hand and swiped it right across her face. So everything was moved down in a big blur. My first thought was that it’s ruined, but then I thought, “This is my opportunity. I have nothing to lose.” That was the first one, that’s where the Pointillism started.
AAR: Color plays a big part in your pieces, and often the color is vibrant and unnatural. Why do you take this approach?
MY: It’s kind of weird. I try to work in really muted tones and then it becomes something else. Ironically, I wear mostly black. I have a black car. I don’t like color in life. I don’t want to wear bright colors. I don’t want to drive in bright colors, but I paint in these bright colors. When my work really started to explode in 2009/2010, I was really depressed. I thought how strange it was that I was doing these paintings called “Joy” and “Joy Indescribable,” and I was clinically depressed. How does someone who is depressed paint paintings of joy, that bring joy to people, and speak to people? The things that people have said to me blows my mind. That’s because there is power in art. The artists of today, that I talk to, they’re humble. They know they have a gift and some acknowledge it as a gift from God and others just know they have this energy that runs through them. The mortal Marlan Yoder, he can paint, but it’s a gift that brings this stuff out.
AAR: “The Tree of Life” is constant theme. Tell me more about what this means to you.
MY: This painting right here is called “Forgiveness.” Two different women, on two separate occasions, but weeks within each other, came up crying, big out of control crying, and said, “How did you do that? That’s me. You crawled inside my soul.” The man that bought the original said, “I don’t even know if I believe in God, but I’ve been coming to church because my wife and I had split and now we’re getting back together. She loves this painting and I love it, too. I want to buy it.” He had the same story. He said that’s my wife right there. In the painting, you can see the City of Light and The City of Darkness, and she’s coming back to settle. So obviously The Tree of Life represents God, but what I love about The Tree of Life is it can represent different things. My Jewish friends have bought my paintings. My atheist friends have bought my paintings. People who don’t believe in God are touched by the art, because there is power in art. Whether God is a part of the theme or not is not necessary at all. If it’s authentic, if it’s real, it will speak to me. It may not speak to someone else. I mean my art doesn’t speak to everyone, but it goes across the board of people.
In 2008 I thought Cheryl and I were in trouble. She had laid down the law for me, saying, “You have to change or we’re not going to make it.” I won’t go into any of the details, but I took it to heart. I didn’t know if she loved me anymore. I had never even considered that. For the first time I was wondering if my wife loved me or not, and it scared me to death. I told her, “I’m going to change.” Her thing was always, “Put your money where your mouth is.” So, I really worked hard, read books, and saw a shrink. By 2011 the depression was gone. After the fourth Tree of Life painting I thought, “Ok. That’s probably it. I’ll move on now.” But hundreds of paintings later, I’m still doing them. Not everything I do is The Tree of Life, but the majority is. It’s not all I can do, but even when I start a painting it’s there, it wants to be there. I’ve sold more Tree of Life paintings in the last five years than I had in the forty years before that.
The Tree of Life changed my life. It saved my marriage.
AAR: Tell me what your ideal day in the studio would look like?
MY: Get up. Do a fruit, kale, and spinach smoothie. Sit on the porch. Then come down here into the studio. I try to paint and write each day. I love to work in the lawn. So a perfect day in the studio isn’t necessarily in the studio, but it’s part of it. After I get all the personal stuff done, checking emails and all that, I sit out on my back deck, which is my outdoor studio. While working on a project, the painting goes out, in the afternoon it goes up stairs, because of the light, but in the morning I put it out back and I look at the painting. When I paint I probably spend as much time looking at the painting as I do actually painting. When people ask how long the painting takes, I have no idea, because the looking is really important. I’ve learned from messing paintings up, that I never go in the next day and start panting. I look at it and then know what I need to do next. If something bothers me, I need to change it. Or where am I going to put this or where is the tree going to go? I struggle with that because sometimes I have such a perfect cloud right there, do I really want to cover that cloud up? But the cloud doesn’t make the painting. Then I come back in and I paint. I paint for as long as I can hold my arm up. Then I’ll chill and maybe eat lunch. Then try to get some writing done. Do research, things like that. I’m so blessed that I am actually living the artist life. I dreamed this as a kid. I’m outside as much as I can be, doing my thinking. All of my creative thoughts, all of the ideas, are up there on the front porch. I spend time alone. I think one of the most important things an artist has to do, is to have alone, quiet time. I prefer nothing but nature.
AAR: You’re a career artist. What are the struggles and joys that go along with that?
MY: The joys I think I’ve spoken on that. The struggles, the rare times when there is nothing, there are no ideas. Trying to be creative when your son has a brain tumor. Depression, which seems to be such a common thing amongst creatives. I don’t believe depression is the creative force. I think it’s a common factor that we have and I don’t know why. I know a study was done in England, years ago, that found that most artists are mentally ill. [laughs] I think when you take it seriously there’s a dark side that we struggle with and that we have to fight. My three favorite guys, Van Gogh, Dali, and Pollock, all struggled with the dark side, the same way I do. That’s why I relate to them so much, that struggle. People can say, “Oh, woe is you,” but I’m not complaining. I’ve accepted it. I’ve been aware of it since I was in high school and I go with it, and that’s how it works, but I think when people think it’s easy for us, it’s not. Being a painter or a writer, it’s not easy, we don’t just whip things out.
We have a lot of people in art group that come and say, “I love to come to art group and paint because it’s so relaxing.” Never once in my life have I said that painting is relaxing, because it’s not. Now it’s fun and it's hard and sometimes I don’t want to be down here. There are times when I have to force myself, but once you start the muse will come. If the muse isn’t there when you get started, start and the muse will come. I can’t say that 100% of the time, but most of the time. I mean sometimes you have things on your mind, kids are the biggest interference of a clean mind to create. When you’re worried about your kids. When you send them off to school and they’re upset. That sticks with me. I could hardly function until they came home and I could apologize. They’re the greatest thing in the world, yet they get in your way because you do care and love them so much.
AAR: You’ve been artist for over fifty years. How do you stay motivated to continue producing work?
MY: In terms of living up to my work, I like to think I’ve not yet done my best work. I’m just now hitting my stride. I’m sixty-two, and I’ve been painting since I was fifteen. I’m just now getting good at it. I feel blessed beyond words that I get to do what I do. I paid my dues, believe me. I’ve worked hard all my life, so I don’t feel bad, but I do feel kind of guilty sometimes, knowing how hard other people have it. I’m still getting over feeling guilty about what I do, because it’s so cool. It’s amazing getting to do what I do. Yet I worked hard to get here, and thank goodness I have a supportive wife. It’s just not always easy, but I can't imagine doing anything else. I can’t imagine what a drag it would be to have to be something else. I knew so early what I wanted to do with my life and so many kids today can’t figure out what they want to do and that’s not a knock on them. I had it, it was just right there for me, it was obvious what I was supposed to do. It wasn’t even a decision until thirty-three.
Part of the reason I kept going was because of the feedback. It’s really consistent. The paintings bring joy to people. It speaks to them. I try to create paintings that people would want to walk into, that you’d like to live in. There are commercials I see that are usually cartoony of a car driving over a hill and they're all these fun hills and puffy clouds and I’ll say out loud, “I wish life looked like that! I would like to be in there!” So that’s the kind of painting I do. The piece called, “Walk of Home” has a walkway. The people who buy that, they’re people who have lost loved ones and they say it just speaks to them. I did that one after “Where Talls Tree and Mountains Bow Down.” When Susan saw that one she said, “Oh. That one scares me. I feel like I’m going to walk on off the edge of the earth, but it also looks like heaven.” To me it's’ not heaven, but other people have said that, too. So I wanted to do one that was heaven, well i mean, heavenly. I’m not quite so much on the inside that I can paint heaven. [laughs]
AAR: You do a lot of commissions. Tell me about your favorite pieces.
MY: We had a close friend, Susan. Before she died she commissioned me to do a painting for her son, daughter, son- and daughter-in-law, and her grandson. So each one of those had a lily next to the tree. Lily is her spiritual name. We had them done by Christmas 2015 and she passed away in January 2016. She was not just a great friend, she was a real patron. She and her husband, who are the leaders of our church, they inspired me. In 2009, I was painting more, but I hadn’t exploded. I was wondering how I was going to serve God. I had been thinking, should I go to a children's home and volunteer or maybe go and be part of a prison ministry. Susan said, “A prison ministry? You? No. Just paint. Paint.” I said, “Yeah, but that's what I do. Isn’t it supposed to be hard? Isn’t it supposed to be something that isn’t fun?” She said, “No. That's a lie. This is your gift and it brings joy to people.”
AAR: You’ve raised your kids in a very artistic and creative environment. What’s it like raising a family of creatives?
MY: Well I’ll tell you this, when they were little I prayed to God that he wouldn't let my kids be creative. Please let them be doctors, accountants, attorneys, something I need! [laughs] Please don’t let them be creative, because I don’t want them to go through what I’ve gone through. When they were growing up we had a very open home, even though we were Christian. We had rules as a family, not so much Christian rules, but Christianity isn’t really about rules. I would let them be in the studio, but the rules were no toys, no playing. If you’re going to be in the studio you had to work. It was always about working and doing projects. That was how I always lived my life, and they became a part of it. Josh and Graham grew up in the studio with me. Well actually, the younger boys did, too. Max would be in diapers when I did my work. It was fun when I realized how talented my boys are. I encouraged them and let them know that they would surpass me. That’s the natural order of things. They will have more than me. They’re all smarter than me, all more talented than me. I’m a better painter, but that’s about it. They’re filmmakers, writers, musicians, and they’re the nicest guys in the world. My goal was to raise sons, because that’s what I have, that would grow up and we could be friends, we could hang out as adults. To raise them in such a way that they would be good people in society, respectful of others, thoughtful, hard working, and that they would want to hang out with their mom and me. Despite all the failures I had in raising them, I think it all worked out. I’m so proud to go to the boy's shows, to see Max’s events. He’s done premiers where hundreds of people come from all the southern states. Max is as famous as Josh and Graham, in his world. He works with the top guys in skateboarding. Jackson is the youngest. He is creative and a good writer. It’s fun to see how they’ve each done their own thing. Where I’m really impressed with them is that their unwillingness to compromise is stronger than mine. I’ve compromised with things for convenience or whatever it might be, where they are uncompromising. I admire them. I admire my boys very much so. They’re pretty amazing.
AAR: If your art were a film, which film would it be?
MY: Big Fish. When I saw that movie I cried. One reason was the relationship of the father with the son. I related to that both with my dad and myself and my boys. Then him being a storyteller, because I’m a storyteller. The best way to describe my first book is Wonder Years meets Northern Exposure meets Big Fish. It’s a composite of those three, the surreality.
AAR: What’s on the horizon for Marlan Yoder?
MY: Finish the new book. Continue to grow as a painter, as mundane as that sounds. I still want to grow and try new things. I love working with other people, with the art group, and kids. Inspiring others who have the gift and don't know they have it, to help them. Also, we like to do these benefits called “Canvas.” It’s become an official thing within our church. It started off as a Women’s Night Out thing and they were always painting Trees of Life. So another woman wanted to have one, so we were inviting the people and she asked, “Would you mind donating some of the money towards this one family in our church? They have a little girl who is sick.” I was like, what am I going to do? Give them forty dollars out of the two-hundred I was making? What’s the point? So I said if we want to do that, why don’t we do it big? Let’s do it at the church studio and invite lots of people! So forty-five people came! We raised about $1,500 dollars. We did another one with eighty people and it was wild. Our pastor asked if we can do two-hundred people, which I thought was impossible. Now I don’t really like painting in front of people. In art group I rarely paint, and when I do I have a station and it’s private. I was on the stage and had a headset. I was in front of two-hundred people, and I was painting, and I never felt so comfortable in my life. It was just the greatest feeling to be able to do that. It’s easy for me. It’s not like I’m sacrificing something. It is a way of serving, but not a sacrifice or difficult. It’s a labor of love. I would like to see that grow. I’ve been speaking with Josh Rifkind of 500 Songs for Kids. He loves our boys and knows Cheryl and I pretty well. If there's something I can do where we can tie in art with the hospitals, I would love to be a part of that, because that’s dealing with sick kids, which now, I have an affinity for.
Also, just try to serve God in the process, because that’s really what it comes down to for me, without ever being preachy or anything like that. I love my atheist friends. I don’t care about those things. When I see how the paintings speak to people, I can’t take credit for that, that’s a power greater than me for sure. Like you said, maybe some people call it energy and that’s part of art, because art is powerful. You know they say that the most important things in life are Religion, Science, Education, and Art. I think that’s how it goes. I’m not sure Education is in there.
AAR: Probably not. [laughs]
MY: I think Science, Religion, and Art are the three things that shape people, influence people, and motivate people. They bring joy and good things. Art is pretty big one. Art is important. And you know what Einstein said, “Creativity is more important than knowledge.” Yes!
AAR: Words to live by!
To see more from Marlan Yoder, you can visit his website at www.marlanyoderart.com.
That’s a wrap!
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