Prelude: Martha Kaplan began her art career at the age of 11 when she stood in front of a painting by Mexican painter David Alfaro Siqueiros at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and was so moved by it that she made an oath (“to the higher one”) that she would become an artist. At the age of 14, she did her first painting. Eric Meadors, her fiancée and long time friend, assists her in her 3,500 square foot studio in Sullivan, Indiana. I have done several artist interviews for Spectrum, and this one is just another reason why I love Art. You can see more of Martha’s work at www.marthakaplan.com.
Brian: How did you get started in art?
Martha: I am a self-taught painter. I was basically independent at the age of 11 living in one of New York City’s boroughs. I was able to get a pass from school to go to the Museum of Modern Art, and then walked through Central Park to go to the Met. I took an oath at the age of 11 while staring at a painting titled “Echo Of A Scream” by Siqueiros that was displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It is a painting of a child crying out in pain and the background shows industrialization coming to the artist’s world. I would visit it every weekend. It captured me. I promised to the higher one that I was going to be a painter.
Brian: So you grew up in New York City?
Martha: I grew up in many residences in different boroughs in New York City.
Brian: What brought you to Sullivan, Indiana?
Martha: I came to Indiana 1970. My former husband and I were caretakers of a farm that was in the backwoods. For 10 years we lived without running water or electricity. The owners of the land sold the land and we were forced out. After that I entered a government program called “Project New.” They selected five women from Bloomington, Indiana and five from outside rural Indiana, which is where I was (in a little town called Springville). I had to write why and what you wanted to do in non-traditional work for women. I had lived by kerosene lanterns for 10 years and I thought, “electricity” that’s for me. I wrote that I wanted to become an electrician.
I was accepted into the program and earned a degree in the building trades. From there, I eventually started working for the power company in July of 1981 in Petersburg, Indiana, and then I came to the Merom Power Plant in 1983. I had to leave the job because of a disability.
Brian: Do you want to talk about your disability?
Martha: I don’t really mention it. I say that I am dancing with a difficult partner. Whenever my body is functioning properly for me and allowing me, I try to get to the studio to paint and to keep my hands functioning. I have had to teach myself how to walk and how to use my hands to paint seven different times. Even with that, I don’t think of myself as disabled. I am just grateful for the life that I have been given.
Brian: So, you have been painting and drawing since you were 11?
Martha: My collection starts at age 14.
Brian: As you moved around, did you bring all of your work with you?
Martha: Well, when I lived in the backwoods, I had to get a shed to store all of my paintings. When I got to Sullivan, I had a one-person retrospective show in Charleston, Illinois, in 1988 and I had to stretch some of my very large paintings. I couldn’t store them in my basement because of the moisture. I found the place we are at now, and it provided the space to build the large racks to house my paintings when they came back from my show in Charleston.
Brian: How many paintings and drawings have you done in your career?
Martha: What I have catalogued equates to probably 3,000 to 4,000.
Brian: That is an impressive and prolific body of work. Do you work on several different pieces at the same time or do you work on one and finish it before you start the next one?
Martha: I work on several different pieces at the same time. I have a painting going on over here, I have paper work going and then I have my pastels. Over here I work on tiny pen and ink drawings. I might spend one to two hours on my smaller drawings when I first come in and then I work my way up to my larger paintings. I used to have about five different pieces going on at once, but now about three is as much as I can handle.
Brian: What mediums do you work in?
Martha: My smaller drawings are in pen and ink. My pastels are on more medium sized paper. I work with acrylic and metallic acrylic on my larger paintings. I also work in just black and white. I have 96 labyrinth paintings. These paintings are inspired by the Navajo pathway (‘atilin) on ceremonial baskets…the teachings inside the labyrinth call for grounding and not for a wandering mind.
Another great part of my life is “Sumi” ink. Sumi ink requires a special grade of paper, especially soft and absorbent. The majority of the paper is purchased from an art supplier or specialized paper supplier. That is my Sumi station over there with all of the pretty brushes. It takes special paper, special Sumi brushes and years of training and practice involved to master the art of Sumi.
Brian: I understand you have exhibited at many different galleries. You have an exhibit at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Indiana and you have one coming up at the Gaslight Art Colony in Marshall, Illinois. What are and will you be exhibiting at these two locations.
Martha: At Rose-Hulman it is my giant paintings that I have never seen displayed up on a wall. These are the ones that I created on the floor while I was working at the power plant. They are multi-panels and they almost become an architectural structure. I had to prepare a book of diagrams for the exhibit. Eric, on the computer, figured out a way to put all of these together for me. The paintings are available for viewing until May 31, 2016.
The exhibit at the Gaslight Art Colony is in November of this year. It will be a collection of drawings and paintings, and it will feature different themes in each of the galleries.
There will be a collection of my smaller, more intricate geometric and organic drawings. Each drawing is based off the left side and the right side of the brain. Analytically it is the pupil, the iris and the rest of the eye. These will be arranged into a large eye. The title of the this specific series is “Eye-Spaces.”
Another exhibit will be titled, “Threads.” That one has black and white drawings. They will be arranged as a large basket. This exhibit was inspired by my trips to the Southwest.
Another exhibit will be brush and ink with symbolic use of color and is influenced by the Kabbalah, a body of mystical teachings of rabbinical origin, often based on an esoteric interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures.
There will also be a few of my larger paintings.
Brian: You have done and are doing a diverse body of artwork. What are you trying to achieve with your work?
Martha: It has come to me lately that it is the struggle of living in the world while being a contemplative person.
Brian: Would you say that represents or defines your lifetime of work?
Martha: I think that I have always have tried to search for unity. As my life wheels forth, it is always about trying to find a place or a path back to heaven. I was raised in three different faiths; I was raised as a Protestant (my mother), Catholic (my grandmother), and influenced by my grandfather who was an Orthodox Jew.
Brian: That is quite an influence. Where are you today with your faith?
Martha: It would place me that I better not be a prejudice person. I pray on that. I would have no room to be that.
Brian: It appears to me that you have been influenced by a number of cultures and art history and that this is reflected in the wide diversity of your artwork. Yet there is a quality that is noticeably original and that it is all you.
Martha: I have been fortunate that I have never had to compromise my integrity and truth in my artwork.