Interview with Marlena Robbins: On Process, Painting and Spirituality

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Photo provided by artist

Arizona-raised artist Marlena Robbins is known for her tactile, self-reflexive painting style and use of color and symbolism. Our Art Editor, Regan Henley was lucky enough to ask her a few questions on her work, style and process.


Regan Henley: You’ve said you haven’t been painting for very long, but you seem to spend a lot of time dedicated to it. Is painting your primary medium? Why or why not?

Marlena Robbins: Yes, painting is my primary medium. I use it more so as a therapeutic expressive outlet. I think the brush strokes and colors help me feel my reality. The simple act of the brush strokes help settle my mind, focus and zone into my present. The colors are psychological; reds are passionate; blues and greens are calming; white is pure, black is powerful; etc. I started painting about 3 years ago; it evolved from there and became my own form of therapy. It became a way for me make sense of my reality, my experiences and what I was going through in order to bring me back to the present.

RH: You’ve collected a very interesting group of pieces. What would you say is the overarching theme in this body of work?

MR: I don’t know that there is a theme to it all; I think each piece that I do reflects what I am experiencing at that particular time in my life. If I’m learning something new. For example, a lot of my earlier pieces were political because I was taking an American Indian Studies course; so whatever I was taking in through my course was being reflected through my paintings. Other paintings were an extension of my feelings, thoughts and circumstances of the moment. What I am trying to understand about my reality. My paintings are growing right along with me; they are a reflection of me and the times that I am in right now.

RH: What is your process for creating these works? Do you begin with concepts or images?

MR: I have the concept first; for example when I say that I am painting what I am experiencing and what I am trying to understand about my life, that’s the concept. That’s me thinking about what I am going through right now in order to create. For instance, we recently had a lot of loss in our family and to try to make sense of that all the only way I could was to paint about it and try to bring closure in order to move forward.

Another important concept to me is balance: balancing myself spiritually, mentally, emotionally, physically and how I represent that in my art. Making sense of balance is a lifelong journey; to sustain, nurture and accept that it is a part of who we are as individuals, as human beings. It is very much a part of our purpose.

The concepts definitely do come first, but I take images from my surroundings, the environment and my creative environment. I am very blessed to know and work with amazing artists and have great mentors who put it all out there to be respected and to inspire the people to create.

Some paintings I do start out with a plan, I sketch it first. However, lately, I’ve been mostly experimenting with the mixtures of colors; being intuitive with it and going with the flow. Not really having a plan but giving the canvas my all and the paints their own direction and free will. It’s intimidating to not know what is going to happen or how it’s going to come out because I have this canvas in front of me and I don’t want to mess it up, but at the same time there’s beauty in the unknown. I believe that is parallel with life.

RH: You’ve mentioned that many people are drawn to the three-dimensional quality of your work. Do you ever work with collage or 3D materials when creating these paintings? Your paintings have a kind of texture and warmth that makes them read like textile and fiber arts. How are you influenced by textile arts when creating these pieces?

MR: My very first collage piece was done to pay homage to the women, grandmothers and mothers who came before us. It was pictures of Indigenous women and their children from the late 1800s to mid-1900s. It shows the love that we have for our children as mothers and how that is gifted from generation to generation; the connection we must maintain and nourish with our children. There is no perfect parent; we do our best with what we have.

When I was finished with it I felt as though something was missing. I saw the beads next to me and started beading the outfits in the pictures. My very first collage was my very first beaded painting. The beads add to it, they are unique, different, offer a new texture/effect and are beautiful because it’s like painting with beads. There are very few artists that I’ve seen who bead their paintings. I haven’t seen much on it or read much about it; I know that it is out there, it’s just very unique. I first started beading about 7 years ago; my auntie taught me a very simple stitch. I stopped beading for a long time and it came to back to me when it was supposed to.

RH: Many of these paintings reference spirituality in an abstract way, from the use of patterns, stained glass and geometry; they definitely evoke these thoughts to me, personally. Can you speak a little bit more to that (Are you directly interested in these ideas or are they themes that come up naturally? Are you a very spiritual person? Etc.)?

MR: Spirituality, to me, is an intricate and delicate thought process but very simple to appreciate. It’s not overruled by any written agenda or book. It’s not confined entirely to a religion. It’s how we cope with our reality, how we understand and see ourselves, see the people around us and the world we are in.

I grew up in Window Rock, AZ on the Navajo reservation. Our family didn’t lean towards any religion. There were a lot of traditional Navajo families and Catholic/Mormon families around us. Our mother chose not to excessively influence any one form of religion, she let us understand it for ourselves, and I really appreciated that because it was less confusing. I am not too traditional but I am not religious either. I understand both because I witnessed both. It’s hard for me to respect any Christian religion as a legitimate source of spirituality based on colonialism and the fact that it wasn’t a part of our Indigenous beliefs before colonization.

The flower of life painting, for example, is a reminder to mellow out. That while we strive for perfection, nothing is ever perfect, and while we try to control every situation in our lives, sometimes that choice is not ours to make. We may think that we are making it but in the grand scheme of things we are not; by going with the flow and letting it all evolve the way it’s supposed to, we let it unfold as we go. I can plan my life out 10 years from now but still need to be happy with who I am this very moment by taking care of myself before I go overanalyzing my future. Understanding my present and being grateful for it is a part of spirituality; forgiving my past, accepting my present for what it is and acknowledging my future for what it might become.

RH: What are your biggest influences right now, artistically or otherwise (Artists, movements, styles, book, philosophies, ideas, things you’ve seen or heard, etc.)?

MR: I’ve been very blessed to be able to surround myself with very artistic and influential people in the community and throughout the nation. My mentors Carmen and Zarco Guerrero, my sister Zarina Guerrero, my good friends and accomplished artists in their own mediums: Thosh Collins, Thomas Greyeyes, and Samuel La Fountain. These very genuine people are true to themselves, their art and the world we live in. They have been inspirations to everyone they meet. I draw from their work and ideas. It helps motivate me and drive myself.

RH: What have been the biggest challenges for you in making this work?

MR: Time is the biggest challenge for me. I am the mother to a very energetic three year old. I work for two incredible organizations. I am the Assistant Director of Cultural Coalition, Inc. and am the assistant to the COO and Directors of Community Bridges, Inc. I will be attending graduate school in the fall, pursuing my Master’s in American Indian Studies–Indigenous Rights and Social Justice. I am preparing for my upcoming solo-debut show “777” this May. I am building up my collection and portfolio for the Indigenous Fine Art Market in Santa Fe this August. I’m starting a therapeutic art program at Community Bridges for our clients. And most importantly, giving my son the attention he needs and deserves to make sure he is growing in a good way.

RH: I want to ask you about your art site name, “Mello out Mella.” What’s the story behind that?

MR: Mello out Mella is a reminder for me to “Mello Out.” My nickname growing up is Mella. At times I am a control freak, I want everything to go my way. I have assumptions and expectations of how I want things to play out it and if it doesn’t it can be almost shattering for me. I had to have everything in order, organized to the T, this is how it’s supposed to go, this is how it is going to go, if it doesn’t go this way then what was the point of it all? It took a very long time to let go of that control and understand that things are not always going to go the way I want them to and I have to go with the flow and let it evolve the way it’s supposed to. Mello Out Mella is a reminder for myself and every other control freak out there, that it is ok and there are worse things that could happen, but right now we are safe, strong, happy, healthy, living, breathing and are in the present, grateful for that breathe we are taking in.

RH: So I noticed you also screen print your pieces on shirts and the like, but you’re also showing your work in galleries. Some people would consider those things as conflicting, or even find it difficult to live in both those worlds (fine art and commercial), so to speak. What are your thoughts on this, as an artist doing both?

MR: That never occurred to me. I love these paintings and wanted to share them because know I am not going to recreate them. I wanted to build a design out of it and share via t-shirts and posters. That way the design and painting stay alive. The shirts and posters help relay a message that was embedded in the painting. A lot of symbolism goes into my work; there are stories behind every painting which is a big part of my art. There is always meaning behind them, it’s never just a painting; they have feelings, energy, thoughts, prayers, etc. that go into it. I pray before, during and after I complete a painting. While these paintings are helping to heal me, after I am finished with them they are meant to heal the viewer as well. As the viewer, take in what it is offering. I hope my paintings/designs offer good energy, good thoughts, good words, good feelings and good health. They helped heal me and my intention is for them to help heal others.

RH: These pieces mark a significant period of work. Have you learned anything new about yourself during this period of time?

MR: Yes I have, painting has definitely helped me understand my reality for what it is. And accept and acknowledge parts of myself that I could never really grasp or deal with. Before I started creating, I went through a very difficult time in my life, and I am grateful for how it has helped me move forward. I see a lot of myself in what I paint and a lot of my intuition that goes into it.

RH: If you had to explain your art in 5 words or less what would you say?

MR: Healing, evolving, spiritual, embracing, balanced.

RH: Where can we see more of your work and keep up with you?

MR: You can find more of my work at www.mellooutmella.com and my upcoming solo-debut show, “777” at One Spot Gallery in Downtown Phoenix, the first and third Fridays of May and June 2016. 

You can also reach me at Marlena.c.robbins@gmail.com.

Susan Lang Book Release and Reading at Changing Hands First Draft

unnamedPrescott College writing instructor and Arizona Commission on the Arts grant recipient Susan Lang presents her new thriller The Sawtooth Complex, available now from Changing Hands Bookstore.  On February 25 at 7 pm, Susan will be doing a reading at Changing Hands First Draft in Phoenix. 

The Sawtooth Complex is a fascinating novel that deals vigorously with the dilemmas of human life on the planet. Our willy-nilly destruction of the exquisite natural world is set against the efforts of some people to protect and care for the biology that sustains us. Most characters are torn by contradictions, both personal and political. A few are avid developers; others seek a balance between humanity and nature. Several touching love stories develop and falter among them. The true hero, Maddie Farley, is an inspiring and reluctant monkey-wrencher who lives most closely to the earth. The natural world she inhabits is invoked with poignant accuracy and love. Ultimately, nature itself blows up everyone’s world in a startling forest fire that overpowers the land and the people, laying waste to most everything. The writing about this thrilling climatic event is terrifying, spellbinding, very intense and powerful. And then a miracle occurs. In the wreckage left behind, the author, who is no sentimental idealist or doomsday prophet, finds reason to hope. The story is engrossing, entertaining, and really makes us think. It’s a fine addition to our best environmental and human–humane–literature

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Susan Lang is the author of a trilogy of novels about a woman homesteading in the southwestern wilderness during the years 1929 to 1941. The first novel in the trilogy, Small Rocks Rising, won the 2003 Willa Award, and she was awarded a 2008 Project Grant from the Arizona Commission on the Arts for her novel-in-progress, The Sawtooth Complex. Lang’s short stories and poems have been published in magazines such as Idaho Review, Red Rock Review, Iris, and The Raven Review. She founded and directed the Southwest Writers Series and Hassayampa Institute for Creative Writing at Yavapai College. Currently, Lang is Faculty Emeritus at Yavapai College, teaches courses at Prescott College, and serves as Event Coordinator at the Peregrine Book Company in Prescott, Arizona. Susan Lang was raised in a wild canyon much like the one referred to as Rattlesnake Canyon in a place homesteaded by her mother. As a young child she lived there first in a tent, then in a rugged cabin once her parents built it. Water was piped in from a spring on the mountain, and the family used a wood stove for cooking and candles and kerosine lamps for light until butane tanks were available to be hauled up the twelve mile rut road from Yucca Valley. A garden and rabbits were essential to the family’s survival. The love her mother had for the wild canyon was passed on to her children, especially her brother, and his wife and daughter who made protecting that wild canyon the focal point of their lives.

Congratulations Nicole Rollender

Congratulations to SR Contributor Nicole Rollender on the release of her first full-length poetry collection, Louder Than Everything You Love (ELJ Publications), available now from ELJ Publications.

More than anything else, Louder Than Everything You Love is about transformation. The narrator in these poems is many: women who talk to the dead, women who mourn dead mothers and grandmothers, women suicides, women who’ve been raped/escaped rape, women who cradle premature babies, women who suffer depression, women who prepare the bodies of the dead, women who exist between their children’s bodily needs (“this body-psalm of need the only holiness I know”) and saints’ incorruptible bodies.

These women also live inside themselves, contending with the wolves within, asking: “How do I measure the body’s gardens form within its bone fences?” The dead, the living and the divine inhabit this collection – they’re looking for kinship, remembrance, for some kind of communion. The poems in Louder Than Everything You Love are about the struggle of living in a body, being a parent, trying to find the balance between what our lives on earth mean/what it means to come to terms with dying.

Louder Than Everything You Love is also available for direct purchase from Nicole for $18.99, who will sign it and send it from her house free of shipping with a copy of her poetry broadside “This Is How to Feed Your Young.”

Read more of Nicole’s poetry in Issue 15!

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Guest Post, John Messick: Remarks on a Jar of Squirrel

I didn’t become a trapper during my first winter in Alaska because I aspired to be the last mountain man. I lived in Fairbanks, and about halfway through December a family of squirrels started to eat the insulation out of my roof.

It gets cold in Fairbanks in the winter. Really cold. My fiancé, Mollie, who is also a writer, says that the winter can be hallucinatory. The only time I’ve ever been colder came during the season I spent at South Pole Station, Antarctica. There are no squirrels at the South Pole.

The damn squirrels burrowed into my eaves. They scattered pink insulation onto the snow like confetti. At three in the morning, the whole family scampered to a spot just over my head and scratched woodchips down onto my face. More than once, I woke up with hives because chunks of fiberglass had found their way onto my sheets. The squirrels chittered and chattered and systematically replaced my perfectly good insulation with a spruce cone cache. Spruce cones, you should know, are not very warm.

I had to do something—I was desperate. So, I borrowed a crate of number one marten traps from a guy at work, baited my sets with a smear of peanut butter, and pretty soon the bodies started to pile up.

I started getting more sleep. My heating bill stabilized. But something about a killing those squirrels didn’t feel right, and I couldn’t bring myself to toss the bodies into a dumpster. I left them dead and frozen in a bucket on my porch. I guess it had something to do with use value, with wanton waste.

Even in death, even though they’re just squirrels, I imagined they might still have some worth. I thought: life isn’t confined to a singular purpose—and that also applies to tree-dwelling rodents. The meaningful steps of existence branch outward, downward, to leaves and roots and connected sinews, shifting and expanding, taking on new roles and titles, just as I am not merely a ‘writer,’ but am also a teacher, a hunter, a gatherer, a meaning-maker, a preservator. It occurred to me, as I contemplated what to do with those squirrels, that all creatures carry a multiplicity of talents, and so I couldn’t throw the bodies into the dumpster.

Instead, I opened a copy of the University of Georgia Extension canning cookbook and found a recipe for canned squirrel: “Soak meat one hour in brine made by dissolving one tablespoon salt per quart of water,” the book said. “Rinse. Use preparation procedures and processing times recommended for poultry, omitting the salt.”

In Irma Rombauer’s Joy of Cooking, I found no fewer than five recipes for prepared squirrel. I asked around to see if anyone had ever eaten squirrel.

“Down south I have. Up here, not even the pine marten eat them. They probably taste like a spruce cone,” said the guy who had loaned me the traps.

I wasn’t deterred. When I had a halred-squirrel-1248232f-dozen squirrels in the bucket, I brought them inside and set about the task of turning a nuisance into a meal.

You should know that these were not the fat and fearless squirrels that inhabit university quads across the lower 48. The red squirrels in my roof were smaller, chipmunk size at best, with thick fur and muscles made for life at 50 below zero.

It took two hours to finish the skinning and deboning. When I was done, I hadn’t even harvested enough usable meat to fill a pint jar. My plan was a bust. I tossed the meat scraps in a Ziploc and they spent the next two years getting freezer burned. Eventually, I did what I had tried so hard to avoid. I threw the meat away.

It’s been half a decade since my first winter in Alaska, and the need to reconcile those things that must, by necessity, be destroyed has only clarified with the passing seasons. I’ve discovered that my attempts at preservation aren’t so much efforts in sustainability, but part of the practice of discovering diversity. If only the garden’s harvest will help me remember last summer, if only the fur hat can help me retain warmth, if only my essays can teach me to understand my own motivations, then I will know that balance is possible.

Like the failed attempt to can those squirrels, I don’t always find a way to that perfect place where everything becomes multi-functional. But I try, and some of it seems to work. Mollie is an avid gardener, and even the flowers she grows –nasturtiums—are edible. The trees in our yard, which must be cut as a fire buffer, become winter firewood. This fall, our cupboard is filled with jars of smoked salmon, and halibut spills from our freezer. When possible, we render the unused fish heads into winter food for our dogs. Weekend hiking trips have begun to double as berry-picking expeditions.

When everything must have some pragmatic value, it’s easy to lose track of the deeper impact of language. As a new English teacher at a small college up here, I don’t always balance the needs of my students with the demands of my own writing. I struggle constantly to find the space where the story I want to tell and the poetics of describing it fit together properly.

The last image: the inside of our cupboard in winter. The smoked red salmon jars cascading into the orange of canned carrots. Piles of raspberry jam, blueberry jam, rosehip jelly, wild cranberry sauce, canned chickpeas. Pickled things—fiddleheads, cucumbers, sauerkraut, zucchini, mustards. Mollie’s tinctures and balms and herbal teas, things she made from dried wild plants.

Often, before I go to bed, I will open the cupboard and marvel, not at what we have preserved, but at the array of colors, at the beauty of food encased in glass. Standing there, I imagine a world where everything becomes useful, becomes beautiful, a world where I will have time to write and still manage the thousand other activities I have taken on, where I can find a way to make positive use of the troubled parts of myself.

To find symmetry amid such diversity is an act of almost religious significance. Like finishing the last stitch of a quilt and panning outward to discover a work of astonishing complexity, I believe these connections can draw together the limitless parts of myself. Still, the fact remains: there is no jar of squirrel on those shelves. One does not achieve balance without casualties.

The Editing Process: Fiction

I haven’t been editing fiction for a long time, but even in the time I’ve been a fiction editor here at Superstition Review, some things have come to my attention about the role an author’s decisions play in an editor’s decision process. It’s so simple to say that good writing gets published and that bad writing gets rejected. However, with an acceptance rate of about 4% for fiction (probably higher than the standard acceptance rate) the fact is that a lot of good writing goes back to its author with a rejection notice. While there are a lot of factors that go into the editorial process and some of them are beyond the author’s control, there are some relatively simple things an author can do to increase the odds of getting published. As with everything, these are rules that can sometimes be broken, there only has to be a deliberate point in doing so.

This may have a different meaning than intended.

This may have a different meaning than intended.

Self-Editing

This is a quick one. If there are easy-to-catch editing mistakes (especially doubled-up
words and misspellings) it becomes incredibly easy to send that rejection notice. Make sure that it is clear to your readers just how important your own work is to you.

Nail that Opener

Throughout my time as a writer, I have often been told the importance of the opening line, and of that line’s innate ability to make or break a story. While the first line is not always the most important, there is a great degree of influence in those first couple of paragraphs. Let’s say the first page is not only pivotal in setting up the mood and direction of a short story but it is also the space where the author needs to prove that they are good at what they do. The opening is where the most polished writing needs to be. It may sound harsh, but if you have more than one or two problems in the opening then I am automatically going to assume that those problems prevail throughout the story.

Perspective

PerspectiveThe point of view from which a narrative is told is as important to a story as the writing itself. Most writers seem to understand that the role of first person is to provide the audience with a specific character’s insight and perspective on the world. During this particular submissions period, we received a lot of stories written in second person. We accepted one, but would have to think twice about accepting several. What really seems to be the problem is that writers are forgetting that the second person perspective requires two subjects. The first is the narrator and the second is the person they are addressing. It is when this second character is forgotten or poorly developed that this point of view falls apart.

Dialogue

Dialogue is much more like an iceberg than anything else; there is more going on beneath the surface than above. Also, much like an iceberg, not paying the appropriate amount of attention to it is going to sink you just as surely. I have two suggestions here on ways to improve dialogue. One sounds fairly straightforward, the other much less so. The first is sitting down and reading a couple of plays. Playwrights like McDonagh, Kushner, and Pinter are great examples of playwrights who know the importance of dialogue as well as the importance of what is left unsaid.

My other suggestion is to pick up and read some comics. Now bear with me a second, because I do have a reason for suggesting this. The Last ManThe thing about comics is that their dialogue makes up a majority of the written words on any given page. As such, the dialogue has nothing to hide behind. A bad line is separated from everything else and framed by a black line for all to see. There is no escaping it. Creative writers should do the same thing with their dialogue. Imagine it alone on a page and see if it stands up to that sort of individualized scrutiny.

One more note: dialogue tags (he said, she said) are the absolute worst, even more so when only two characters are present in a scene. Having characters constantly use pronouns in their dialogue is not any better.

Clichés

It’s one of the first lessons we learn as writers: avoid clichés. Luckily, most writers seem well aware of this fact. However, there are still what I call microcosms of clichés. This is when a specific subject starts to make up an alarmingly large portion of the submissions received by a magazine. This is a difficult thing to avoid and not entirely the fault of the author, but it does have a lot to do with whether or not a piece will be published. As an example, during this submission period Superstition Review received a lot of fiction pieces featuring cancer. Think of this as increasing your competition. Now, not only do you have to be one of the best writers submitting but you also have to have one of the best pieces featuring cancer.

Again, this is not really something the author has complete control over but there are some things one can do to try and avoid it. My first suggestion would be to watch being overly topical in the sense of broad problems that affect everyone. If it’s a subject on every news program and part of the collective mind then it is probably safe to say that it is going to find its way into a lot of creative writing. One way to overcome this is to talk about these subjects in a different way or to come at them from a different angle. Cancer is not the interesting subject, the way in which people deal with it is. In this case, the story need not be about cancer but can be any disease that compromises its host in the same way. Another suggestion is to watch the literary magazines that you are submitting to, if they are already carrying pieces dealing with a specific topic then try shopping a piece with the same topic someplace else.

Balance

It is hard to sit down and read something that is all action with no thought given to imagery or voice. Imagery, and the way an author describes the world in which their story exists, is a large part of what makes creative writing so unique and a large part of why people read it. Without it the writing is going to feel stale and lifeless.balance

There is the opposite of this as well. Though it is less common, the overuse of imagery/voice will kill a story just as quickly as having none at all. These stories are often jumbled and confusing, leaving the reader little frame of reference in which to find their way through a story.

Word choice is another part of this balance equation. It is very easy to miss the repetitious use of a couple of words, but nothing makes me question a writer’s ability quite so quickly. While it is sometimes necessary to repeat a few words, I cannot really think of a justification for doing it more than twice in a paragraph. Really watch out for those pet words.

Again, there is the other side of this as well and that is the thesaurus approach. This is when a writer clearly uses a thesaurus to generate unique words in their story. The words often come off as awkward and create a disjointed sentence. There is nothing wrong in using it occasionally when the right word is escaping you but, ironically, overuse is just going to drain a piece of its feeling of originality.