An Interview with Mark Lightfoot

By Sharon Gibbons


Mark Lightfoot teaches art classes in pastel and two-dimensional design at Merritt College with a twinkle in his eye and a calm mien. He is a serious working fine artist, and a gallery owner in the Art Murmur district in Oakland. He has a new commission that he’s anxious to get to, he’s busy with a new exhibit of his work, “Mindscapes” at his gallery, and he’s taking a class in fused and slumped glass, learning a new medium. In the midst of it all, he took time to talk to the BCC Voice to give advice for aspiring artists and share insights from his own artistic process. We met at Manna Gallery, where Lightfoot’s most recent work is being shown.

Lightfoot grew up in Michigan and in high school, was mentored by the artist, Glenn Michaels, working on large murals for the World’s Fair. He then entered the University of Michigan thinking to be an architecture major, until a tour of a local architecture firm persuaded him to switch his major to art and art education. Beginning to teach children’s art classes after his second year in college, Lightfoot earned a B.S. in Design. His college years happened during the Vietnam War and the draft, which required all eighteen-year-old men to enlist, unless they were in undergraduate school full time, which kept Lightfoot in school. Unfortunately, going to graduate school in the arts meant risking the draft, but Lightfoot wanted to develop as an artist and took the risk, going to the University of Washington to earn his MFA. Thanks to bureaucratic delays and the war winding down, Lightfoot wasn’t drafted, but the turbulent times were stressful.

After graduating with his MFA, Lightfoot found it hard to find good paying work teaching art and managing galleries. As he approached his thirties, he went back to school to earn his teaching credential and taught and worked in Canada for several years. To be closer to his family, Lightfoot moved to San Jose and then later moved to Oakland. He continued to do full time teaching at high school and community college art classes until retiring in 2008. He found an art studio in Oakland to share in 2004.

What was it like to have an art studio again?

I was still teaching full time and working [in the art studio] on the weekends on very small things like a study notebook. This led to larger pieces that started to get me thinking about work I had just begun in San Jose. I literally picked up from 1985 and built on that, when I left teaching and was able to work full time. Talk to any professional artist and what you do is you go to work every day. It doesn’t matter! Charlie Rose interviewed some real heavy hitters about inspiration and they all laughed.

There’s no such thing! There’s doing the work and as you get into the work, things start to move. Then, you get momentum.

I also found I was on a wonderful curve for a long time, for a couple of years. Then, I sort of peaked with that particular pathway. I felt, “Oh, it’s like a sine curve.” It was freaking me out. I realize now that it’s important that you continue to go on even though you might make crap for weeks. It’s the habit of going to the studio on a regular basis, even if it’s only for two or three hours a day, As long as you’re in there, things happen.

I’m having a little challenge with that right now. I’m here for the next three weeks [at the gallery] as my partners are traveling so I lose that time in the studio. I have two days a week at the college when I’m teaching so that disrupts my work time. I’m taking a glass class so that’s being in a studio. I have this big commission [a private commission of four paintings] and it’s piecemeal right now. I won’t get it done until I’m finished teaching. I need that block of time from Monday to Friday. I need time to think about it day after day.

You’ve mentioned that you like to work in series…

That’s why I like this commission: it’s a series of four, yet they all have to be unified. I tend to work with at least two, usually three or four, and I’ll have them up at the same time so I can move from one to the other. That keeps my momentum going and keeps this particular idea coming forward.

Could you tell me more about your current show, “Mindscapes”?

I decided I wanted to take a class in digital printing at Berkeley City College as a way to get into new media. It gave me a lot of information about how to work with it. I’ve been exhausted with my painting. There are three artworks that started as paintings, and I wasn’t happy with them, so I said, “I’m going to photograph the paintings into the computer and go from there.”

Would you show me? We walk over in front of his picture, “Samurai,” a mysterious and subtly colored piece.

I was exploring. I was working with more texture. What you see there is modeling paste using spatulas and palette knives to create a broken surface. It wasn’t quite right, so I photographed it. I ended up doing a great deal more work to get a lot more dimension within the figure, a lot more light and dark. You can keep playing with it and if you don’t like it you can change it much more quickly than you can in the actual artwork. So that one is the closest to what the painting actually is, and yet, it’s dramatically different.

If we turn to this one [“Jungle,”] this painting began with a series of shapes, but I didn’t like what it was, so I cut and pasted it, and flipped it, so the composition has become radial. The image is pushed farther back with a semi-opaque mask and a lot of the textural things. I combined photographs of drop cloths I have in my studio. They are in all of those pieces. It gives you an automatic dense textural background. I was able to reinvigorate that image, but it is quite altered if you saw the original.

In Photoshop, everything is a photograph, so you’re manipulating photography and you can do different things with it. I find this kind of digital art much more satisfying than actually trying to replicate or imitate painting or drawing. Actually using photography and photographing your own work, like I did, you’re still working with your own material. So that’s how it invigorated my whole process of thinking.

The glasswork is totally different. It’s an applied art. It’s nice just to think about design rather than think about, “Is it meaningful?” It’s more like: “Is it cool?” There’s a whole little community of people who are into this. I take these classes at Studio One. There are twenty people in there and a lot of them have been taking it for years. It gives you the opportunity to talk to people about things about your work and people are giving you ideas and suggestions. It’s nice to be in an art community again where you’re not just isolated in your studio.

Do you have advice for Berkeley City College art students?

You must take yourself seriously and use your time effectively. If you have a class that lasts for four hours, you should be there in class for the whole time. You’ve got the continuity of time, you’ve got the instructor who’s there with more expertise to help you and you do need help. You may understand the assignment, but it’s better to work in class. You need to ask the instructor questions and engage: you need to be engaged. Your work will get better. You’ll find that those habits will carry on as you move out on your own. You will certainly need to have habits of persistence because it’s very easy to start sliding and not doing it. Years ago, in a graduate seminar, the instructor said, “95% of Master’s candidates will not be doing any art in five years.” To address that, you need habits early: take yourself seriously and do the work.

Do you have suggestions for how to approach marketing and the business of an art career?

There are programs that offer this; California College of the Arts and the Academy of Art University are doing more of this. There are no shortages of consultants who will help you when you get out [of school] and they’re not cheap. Learn how to contact galleries, learn how to submit work; a lot of stuff is online. There are so many competitions online, you could   just be getting yourself in with that. A lot of these are easy to enter and not too expensive. I’d be careful about fees and I would avoid their publications. Oftentimes, their art is weak and who reads the publications?

You have to get into a gallery or set your website so you can make it. A lot of people use Facebook over a website; it can function as well and be more dynamic. People use social media all the time, but there are certainly ways you can market. Selling your work is hard. To get taken up by an art consultant, you’d already be in a gallery. It’s really difficult to get into a gallery because there are so many good artists and it’s very competitive. We [the Manna Gallery] have no problem finding really good artists. If I were going into this, I would go into areas that would lead to more careers like art tech: game design, animation. Pixar pays their artists a lot of money. Of course, you’re a cog in the machine [laughs.]

Pretty neat machine!

A lot of it is looking at what you want to be good at: maybe being a fine artist isn’t what you’re so good at, maybe being a designer, maybe being in graphic arts or web design. A lot of design does not require drawing skills, just that you be sensitive to visual effects.

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