“Underground Images,” the traveling exhibition of posters from SVA’s long-running advertising campaign in New York City’s subway system, is on view through April 27 at the University of Texas at Arlington, and both MFA Illustration as Visual Essay Chair Marshall Arisman and SVA faculty member Mirko Ilić gave talks on their work at the university on Monday, April 13. SVA Close Up recently spoke with Arisman about his latest set of SVA subway posters, which debuted last year; his documentary film, A Postcard from Lily Dale; and the connection between the two projects.
Postcard, co-directed with MPS Directing faculty member Francesco Portinari, tells the story of Arisman’s grandmother Louise, a medium and artist who lived in the spiritualist community of Lily Dale in Western New York, and her deep influence on Arisman’s life and work. The film—which follows Arisman as he revisits Lily Dale, talks with its current residents and celebrates his grandmother’s legacy—was screened as part of Arisman’s talk.
“At some point in most people’s lives, they bump into someone who sees something in them that they didn’t see in themselves,” he says. “For me, it was my grandmother.”
Among other things, Arisman’s grandmother gave him a lifelong interest in spiritual philosophies and the paranormal. “She would tell me, ‘You must learn to stand in the space between angels and demons,'” he says, a piece of advice that he re-purposed for the tagline of his 2014 posters, which celebrated the otherworldly nature and power of creativity. Louise was known as a reader of auras—visual manifestations of a person’s energy or mood—and Arisman has incorporated depictions of these into his work for years, leading many to mistakenly interpret his art as explicitly religious. To Arisman, however, auras are and have always been part of his lived experience, and just another of the many biographical elements that serve as raw material for his art. (Also on this list, apropos of his rural upbringing, are “cows” and “guns.”)
“I tell my students to tap into their personal experiences when they make their work,” he says, whether that work is a personal project or a commissioned illustration. “You have to have an artistic life that is rooted in something.”
Images: A still from A Postcard from Lily Dale and one of Arisman’s SVA subway posters.