The latest chapter of the SVA Subway Poster series comes from master storyteller Marshall Arisman. His shamanistic beasts and winged beings, lurking below the city’s surface through September 28, ask commuters to ponder an intriguing idea: “Art is the Space between Angels and Demons.” What does that mean, exactly? We asked Arisman, chair of MFA Illustration as Visual Essay, to explain.
“I am the grandson of a noted psychic, Louise Arisman,” he said. “She lived in Lily Dale, New York, a spiritualist community. I spent much of my childhood surrounded by soothsayers, mediums, spirit guides and people who talked with the dead.
“My grandmother used to tell me, ‘The one thing you must learn to do is to stand in the space between the angels and the demons. They will both try to seduce you.’ I’ve been trying to occupy that space ever since.”
Arisman says his grandmother’s advice resonates with him as an artist. His distinctive work, often populated by monkeys, birds, eyes, mythic creatures or the Buddha, reflects his upbringing amid the mystics. “There’s a visual language in all religions, even atheism.”
Earlier this summer, Arisman handed Rose Viggiano (chair, MAT Art Education) a piece of paper bearing the phrase Art is the space between angels and demons and told her, “I’m curious to see what children would do with this.” Viggiano arranged for students in the Art for Kids program—children of all ages and cultural backgrounds—to visually interpret the quote. The universality of their imagery was striking. “Almost without exception,” Arisman noted, “all the angels had wings and halos, and the demons were mostly red.”
With his trio of thought-provoking posters now installed on subway platforms across the city, Arisman is able to turn his attention to “We Tell Stories,” a massive alumni exhibition celebrating 30 years of MFA Illustration as Visual Essay at SVA. The program he founded in 1984 has produced a who’s who of award-winning artist-storytellers including Brian Pinkney, Brian Floca, Stephen Savage, Yuko Shimizu and many others.
Meanwhile, he continues to make art in the spirit of Louise Arisman. “My studio has one wall covered with angels, and the wall facing it is filled with demons,” he said with a chuckle. “I get to stand in the middle.”