Mark Howard Still Paints. Religiously.

Artist Mark Howard

Painter Mark Howard’s public art work is ubiquitous—from trash cans downtown and in the Heights to the walls at Hopkins Airport and beyond. Once a regular presence in the art scene, he’s been low-key in recent years. We caught up with him to talk about what makes the right gallery, what public art owes to the public and big-time foot surgery.

jimi izrael:  What have you been up to?

Mark Howard:  I had big-time foot surgery.

JI:  After a certain age, all foot surgery is big-time, I think.

MH:  I’m 55, so I guess you’re right. [laughs] I’ve been doing a lot of painting this past summer, actually the past couple years really.

JI:  You’ve been showing?

MH:  No—the last show I had was probably about four years ago, at William Busta’s Gallery. I’m doing smaller things on canvas and paper—close to 200 small paintings and drawings.

JI:  How was it that you’ve gone from doing large public pieces to a work where you’ve done over 200 smaller pieces?

MH:  I enjoy doing smaller pieces now because they are a lot more intimate.

JI:  Are you exploring any specific themes?

MH:  I did a whole series of little Madonna and Child paintings. There’s about a hundred of those on canvas. They started out as an idea of loosely applied paint, then that evolved the [idea of making them] small. Nothing is really larger than six by seven, six by eight.

JI:  I’ve seen quite a lot or your work. You could say that religion is a recurring theme.

MH:  Yes. It always has been. I’ve never stopped painting religious paintings. I’ve been painting them since I was thirteen.

JI:  Tell me about the paintings you made when you were thirteen.

MH:  I’d probably say the first paintings that I did were religious paintings, from photo reproductions in a family bible. I think I was probably about nine. Then, I remember when I was still in high school, I did a Madonna and Child, a Black Madonna. It was in our house. My mother had it framed and everything. Then, we were looking at it thinking, “Maybe we should give this to the church.” My mother gave it to our church. It was Blessed Sacrament, a Black, Roman Catholic parish.

I remember one day, it was probably one of the strangest things. I’m not sure what the occasion was. They took my painting—the priest, the altar boy, and everything—they took the painting, they were coming down the aisle of the church, and they put it on this easel at the altar in front of the church. I thought, “This is just the strangest thing. This is so weird.” Here’s Mass going on and I’m looking at my painting up on the altar with us during Mass. Afterwards, this little old lady came up. She knelt in front of my painting, did the sign of the cross, and lit a candle. That blew me away because that was out of my hands now. In terms of [at that point], it’s no longer my painting. It’s gone to a totally different level where someone sees it in a totally different context. That was an eye opener. As far as I know, the church still has that painting.

JI:  What I enjoy the most about your work is your use of ideograms—symbolic images meant to convey ideas. Can you talk about that choice, especially in your public art?

MH:  That came about with the paper print outs when I started doing that in ’92. Before I was doing the paper cutouts, I had that period I was doing the silk screen imagery on canvas. I don’t know if you remember that. That’s going back. That’s like 1988.

JI:  Does public art owe anything to the community that it serves?

MH:  Of course, it does. All the public art that I’ve ever done and that I’ve seen [of] other people’s. For one thing, the nature of public art is that you deal with the public. It’s not creating something in a studio like you would on an easel because the only obligation you have is really to be yourself as an artist. It gets put on a wall in a gallery. With public art, you’re dealing with a whole different set of issues.

JI:  How come it’s been so long since you’ve shown? You have this huge body of work. How come it’s been so long?

MH:  I don’t know. I just haven’t found the right spot that I really feel comfortable in doing it.

JI:  I don’t understand.

MH:  Well, you want someone who knows what they’re doing for one thing. It’s nice to have a gallery that has a good stable of artists that you respect. Running a gallery is very difficult. It’s not easy; so many come and go. Not every gallery is right for every artist depending on subject matter, how it works…

JI:  When are we going to see your work out?

MH:  I don’t know yet. I really don’t. I’ve got a series of mid-sized pieces, like 40 by 60.

JI:  Jesus, that’s mid-sized? Holy shit.

MH:  Abstract. Totally abstract pieces. Hopefully, this summer. I’ve been working on those for about a couple of years. Last year, I did a bunch of detailed drawings in preparation.

An example from Howard’s current series
of abstractions.

JI:  Is your work out anywhere where people can buy it right now?

MH:  Just a few people have a few pieces. Paul Biber and Joan Perch— they used to be dealers that represent me. They still have some works of mine.