Department Dossier: Marshall Arisman

October 7, 2010

The latest in a series of one-on-one conversations with SVA department chairs.

MFA Illustration as Visual Essay Department Chair Marshall Arisman has been a part of the SVA community for more than 45 years, starting as a faculty member in the undergraduate illustration program in 1964. He continues to have a busy and diverse professional practice, bringing his signature style to illustration, painting and video work; his open-minded artistic approach is reflected in the wide range of style and substance seen in his students’ work. Arisman recently spoke with the Briefs to talk about how his department got its name and the relationship between teaching and his art practice.

You’ve been on the faculty and chairing departments for several decades now. What keeps SVA fresh for you?
The faculty here, unlike most places, most of them teach a limited amount of time per week so they can do their own work in their studios. So I don’t have to do anything to keep fresh—doing your own work does that. If I didn’t work on my own stuff I’d have nothing to bring to teaching. You can bring rules, but in terms of being in the creative process, there’s a kind of natural energy that happens out of the fact that the students are in the middle of trying to create something and the faculty is also in the middle of trying to create something. The by-product is teaching.

Your department has a very specific name—where did that come from?
The program started out being called Illustration as Visual Journalism. The problem we had with that title was we got a great many people who thought it was court-reporting drawing, things like that. This title wasn’t open enough for the program. ‘Visual essay’ says: We work in series. That series can take the form of a series of paintings, a graphic novel, a comic book, a children’s book. The key to all of it was putting in the thesis advisor program in the 2nd year, where a student chooses a mentor who is not on our faculty. That allows them a direct connection to their visual essay, whatever form it takes.

What should a master’s program in illustration provide to students?
It should provide them with an artistic voice and the ability to tell their own stories, written and visually.

What sort of trends do you see in the work your students create after graduating?
The editorial market in illustration—magazines and  newspapers, which used to be the total market for illustrators—has been squeezed in the last 5 – 8 years. So the old illustrator who took around a portfolio and waited for the phone to ring is dead. The new illustrator does editorial work, but they’re capable of creating their own projects. They’ll do an app for the iPhone, do work for Extreme Makeover, design toys, work in animation, etc. What we get down to is: If you can tell a story, there is a market.

How has teaching SVA students for so long impacted the work you do in your own practice?
It’s impacted me the most by keeping me up with self-publishing, Facebook, putting things up on the Internet. Because they’re so naturally connected with the contemporary world, it’s been beneficial to me to be around it. All of my self-publishing and online posting is a direct result of me being around my students. Everybody I know who doesn’t teach is totally out of touch with this stuff and not happy about it.

What impresses you most about your students?
All of the students are in the program because they could not do this alone. They need the community to help them self-generate. And so each student gets a studio space and 24-hour access. It’s meant to be a place where people stay, hang out, talk to each other and look at each other’s work. I often think they do more teaching amongst themselves than we do.

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