ML Walker is a graphic prose artist based in Pittsburgh who loves to talk. Talk about his work, talk about Pittsburgh, talk about art, talk about everything. Nathan and I have been known to talk quite a bit ourselves. If we hadn't had a deadline to attend to the day we visited his home studio, I think we'd still be there.
Marcel explores a variety of styles in his creative work that tackles an array of subjects. It was a joy to get to know him better and see some of the work he has in progress.
What type of artist are you?
Predominantly, a comic book artist, or the phrase I tend to use is a "graphic prose artist." I use the term, "graphic prose," to differentiate between the art and the art form. This goes into a long-winded thing, but ... The essence of it is, graphic prose is expressed through different media. Like, you could be a doctor, but you're a dentist, or you're a podiatrist, or you're a heart transplant doctor. So there's all kinds of doctors, they're all doctors, different specialists. So I could be a graphic prose artist who works in comic books, or I would work in comic strips, so I could work in web comics, graphic novels, etc.
There's often a lot of confusion with terminology, which I get. And I think it's just because we confuse the container with what it's containing. I like to say, "graphic prose," but it's also me being a little pretentious, because ... "Marcel, you make comics, don't you?" Yeah, I make comics, that's what I do.
Where are you from?
I'm from here in Pittsburgh. Born and raised, all over this city.
What neighborhood do you live in now?
Why do you choose to make art in Pittsburgh?
I think Pittsburgh chose me to make art in it ... Boy, that's true. I was trying to think of an answer to that question earlier, and ... Yeah, I think Pittsburgh just chose me more than anything else. I think wherever I end up because who knows, maybe one day I might be somewhere else, you don't know ... but I'm an artist. So wherever I go I’m going to be making art.
What is your favorite part of being an artist in Pittsburgh?
The closeness of the community. This just happened last week ... I went to a friend's birthday party. I owed her a present. She wanted a drawing, she'd told me she wanted a drawing, and I just hadn't had time to do it. So it hit me, "I'm going to go to the party, and I'm going to make that drawing at the party." So it was a drawing of her as a superhero. And she's pretty superheroic, so it was super easy. So I'm literally walking down there, and I'm composing it in my head, I can see it, like, "Oh, that can be her logo!" And she doesn't live that far away, she lives, like, down the street. And this happens to me in Lawrenceville all the time ... I got stopped like three times by people who I know, and they had questions, and I'm telling them what I'm going to do, and they're like, "That's great! That's a great idea for a present!" I was already thinking, "This could be kind of cool." And I was just getting jazzed up as I get there.
So I get there, and I tell her what I'm going to do, and she was excited. So I took a place in the living room, and I'm drawing, and that was great, because I like to talk, in case you couldn't tell. I can talk while I draw, for the most part, 'cause I didn't want to be closed off. I’ve seen artists who go to parties, and they draw, and it kind of separates them from people, and that's not me. So it was nice, because people kept coming in the room, and were talking, and they were real curious, and they'd look. One gentleman came in, he was there with his husband ... And I was actually talking to his husband first, 'cause I'd met him at some other GPAC thing, and he was really nice. His husband is a lawyer, and he said, "I came in the room, and I saw you drawing, and I heard your name, and I knew who you were instantly," because he had seen that “Spirit of ’17.” He had seen that online, and had loved it so much. He said he had looked up my work online after that. So he was familiar with me, when he came in. We had the nicest conversation about just art and things. And he was into comics as well, so it gave him another window into what I do. The proximity between creators and audiences, or creators and other creatives, is awesome. And I'm not a particularly well-traveled person, at least compared to a lot of people. I’ve been to some places now, down in Charleston, I've been to Chicago, I really like Chicago a lot. It's like Pittsburgh, but it's flat, and its streets make sense. I walk around Pittsburgh, and I feel like I could get lost walking around the corner. But in Chicago, it's the weirdest thing, I got there and just thought, "I could navigate this city."
But Chicago also felt like - I used the analogy like, "If I needed a vacuum cleaner out there, I think I wouldn't even look where I would get a vacuum cleaner. I think I would just walk out of my house and start walking. And eventually, you'd just find a place where you'd get a good vacuum cleaner, and you'd walk home." Pittsburgh's not quite like that. So it made me think, "What is the arts scene like there, where you're so spread out, there's just so many people, and there's so much distance to cover?" There's a local artist, a friend of mine, he lived in Chicago. He lived in several places, and he's made Pittsburgh his home now, too. And he and I have had discussions about…I don't know how he feels about this right now, but he had said Pittsburgh wasn't real good at being critical of artists and their work. It felt to him like we're just too nice. I actually disagree. I think what happens in Pittsburgh is, because of the proximity, we can't be as anonymous with our criticisms as you can be in bigger cities. In another city, you might see some artwork or whatever, or go to a show, hear some music, hear a band, and you might straight-up hate it, and you just let fly with whatever you think, like, "That sucks! Give it up! What was that nonsense?" Because, what are the chances you're ever going to encounter that person? In Pittsburgh, you might be talking to that person. I feel like a TV character all the time, because I'll be talking about something, and go, "So let me tell you about ... " and I'll look around and make sure that they're not there, because that happens here. But I think that keeps us civil. So it's not that we don't have criticism, I think Pittsburgh's version of that is, for the most part, "if this person is producing art that I really can't get excited about, I probably just won't talk about it." That's how I think it gets. So I like the proximity between creators and audience, and creators and other creators.
What would love to see more of in the Pittsburgh arts scene?
Aha! So! I read that question at first, and I thought, "I don't know, ... " It's like, "Dumbass, you already know the answer to this." Oh yeah, I do. There is a specific thing I would like to see happen, or created. I was just in Charleston, South Carolina about a week and a half ago. They have a festival down there called Piccolo Spoleto, and I went with a friend to support her. I found out that they have an Office of Cultural Affairs. So, it's an office plugged into their civic offices, their legislature, their politics but it's devoted to promoting their arts. And it's a rare model, there's not many that are set up like that. I talked to them briefly, and I plan to get back in touch with them. I told them we would be in touch, and we'll exchange information. I was fascinated with that model, and that that exists. A few weeks ago, a month or so ago, I went to GPAC’s annual convening, Future Tense, and one of the things that came out of that was the notion of the arts having greater, I'm going to say, political representation, especially in our modern climate. And I think that absolutely needs to happen. There's the song in Hamilton about being in the room when it happened. And we want to be in the room when it happens, but that's not just going to happen, of its own volition. We've got to make that happen. How does it happen? Well, there are arts organizations in Pittsburgh, but the more I thought about it after my visit to Charleston, I thought, "We need something equivalent to that. We need something that addresses the arts community's political representation here in Pittsburgh, so we can be in the room when it happens. So we can have a different voice that speaks for us politically, socially, financially, in a way that these other organizations can't."
There's people in the organizations that are doing a fine job, who I love, and adore and want to support them dearly. But I think just because of how they're structured there's limitations on what they can do. So, what would I like to see in the arts here in Pittsburgh? I would like to see us potentially develop an Office of Cultural Affairs, or the equivalent thereof. That's me putting that out into the ether, until I have time to actually literally put my hands on it and address it. Because I do want to send some messages and get a hold of somebody, and talk about that. I'm not a politician, but I like to think I have an idea of what we need.
What’s your favorite music to jam to in the studio?
I listen to a lot of different types of music. And a lot of it is dictated by the project I'm working on. For instance, I'm working on Chutz-Pow Superheroes of the Holocaust. That's what this piece is, I've got on the table right now. So often times, when I'm working on that, I like to listen to classical. And that could be contemporary classical, it could be soundtracks, like John Williams. John Williams is kind of good no matter what, he's a go-to. But that could be Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Yo-Yo Ma, whoever. There was an album I got saved that's Yo-Yo Ma and Bobby McFerrin, and that thing is just great.
It runs the gamut. And when I'm drawing, I can listen to things that I can't listen to if I'm writing. If I'm writing, words will mess me up, they'll be in my head, or I'm trying to sing along, or whatever. I should also point out, I kind of act a fool here by myself. I am so used to working and doing things on my own ... I talk to myself, I sing, just blurt stuff out. I have problems.
What other things do you do when you are not making art…that is, IF you have any free time?
I cry. Curl up in a ball ... Got to get my wailing time. I say that all the time, like, "What are you doing this weekend?" And some of them, they're in on it, like, "Crying?" Oh yeah. There's my morning crying, then the sobbing, which is different, then you get your good wail in.
I’ve got mountains of comics in there that I have to read - not have to read. I do like to read, but sometimes it's hard for me to stop and sit, 'cause I have all these things that I want to be working on, just racing through my head. I'm on the board of the ToonSeum. That takes up some mental energy. That's kind of a go-to sometimes, with free time. I always have projects percolating you know. Row House is right around the corner, I love to go to Row House, tracking people down to go to Row House with, or go to lunch with, or go to dinner with. I love people. I have my limits for sure, but I'm an extrovert in that sense. Typically, I get energy from hanging out with people, so I'd like to spend free time interacting with people. Sometimes that's just chilling, sometimes it's helping. I can't tell you how many people I'll helped move. Someone said, "What is wrong with you? Why do you always have to help people move?" You know you've done something. It's concrete. You can see the end results of that interaction.
So, I am an ENTJ. That, "T," though, I'm right on the cusp. The thinking and feeling, though, because I took one version of the test that said I was equally split between a T and a J, which I don't think is a bad thing. The test thing even said, "That's rare, it's very rare that you have a split type." Like, of course I'm going to be that. And Wayne (my roommate), who actually went to school for Psychology and at one point was allowed to give that test. He's really good at figuring out what people's types are. So I asked him after I took it, "What do you think I came out as?" And don't you know, he got little hung up on the T and the J. And I do think, when it's all said and done, I probably fall a little bit more on the thinking than feeling. Because at times, I do like to organize some stuff. I do like to organize a move. The ToonSeum just had to move a lot of stuff out of storage, into offsite storage and stuff. I just kind of become the de facto organizer person. I think it's also because I'm bossy, and like to tell people what to do. I'm loathe to admit that, but that's probably just true.
What would you tell artists who are just starting out?
Find a mentor, or find somebody who does the thing that you do, and seek them out. Seek at the very least, a person. But ideally, seek out your community. And if you don't think that community exists, it exists. So find it. You may have to do some poking and prodding, but in this day and age, I think it's much easier to find communities. The internet changed everything. I'm like, "I'm old." I am old! But I'm not. I've got to tell you the funniest thing somebody said about age, my age specifically, recently. I was at the Holocaust Center. We have this wonderful exhibit of Teenie Harris photographs. A lady from the archive was there at the opening and she's great. We're talking, and she's older than me. Very nice-looking lady. She's older than me, if I had to guess, probably in her 60's. And she's talking about how she had gone out to the west coast in the 1970's. And she said something in relation to age, and it was to the effect of, "Well, you're too young to remember this thing." I laughed. "I'm not quite as young as you think." She goes, "Well how old are you?" And I tell her, "I'm 46." And she just dropped her jaw.
And I get that. People often go, "Really?" I'm the older person at the Holocaust Center, who works there. I'm older than my boss by a couple years. So I'm like, "Man, that's weird."
But she says, after, she goes, "It's just ... You have such youthful energy you've got young man's energy ... Not spastic and weird, but ... " I laughed my ass off. I want that on my business card. "Marcel: Got a young man's energy." Flip it over. "Not spastic and weird."
But to get back to your question ... I would tell newer artists, or younger artist, aspiring artists, find your community ... When I was younger, before the rise of the internet, I had to find people. And some of those people, it happened. The world is that way. You will be where you're meant to be. The first artist who I encountered, the first working professional who I actually sat down with at his studio, his name was Don Simpson. Don was attending the Art Institute at the same time I was, he was a returning art student. Teachers knew, he was professional, he had worked professionally, being printed at the time, and they said, "Marcel, there's this person you need to meet. He'd probably be good for you to know." And sure enough, I got introduced, and he was very nice. He was very, very nice. That's a favor I try to return when I can, because it made an enormous impact on me. I often say, I learned more in the two, maybe three hours I was in his studio, watching him do demonstrations and all, than I learned the whole time I was at the Art Institute, because it was very specific to what I wanted to do, and wanted to be. But nowadays, you can find the people. You can be put in touch with people so much faster. Even in Pittsburgh, it can happen almost instantaneously. So, find your person, find a mentor, find your peers. Be ready to find them, because often it can happen so quickly, you might not realize, "Oh, this is somebody I should talk to." And be amenable to the discussion, to whatever. Don't feel like you have to hide your work, or it's not worth seeing. I've met young people who were often very, very shy about showing their work. And I get it. I lost that quality a long time ago. But I do understand it. And definitely, I've had artists, I've had artist's parents, because I've worked with a lot of kids and youth teams, who want to show me work. I try to make myself as available as is practical. But find your community, find somebody who will be straight up with you, who will give you those honest critiques. Then be receptive to them. I've dealt with artists who say they want you to be honest with them, and then you are honest with them, and they get defensive. That's not going to do you any good. If you know the person you're talking to knows what they're talking about, listen to it. Try to absorb it. It doesn't mean you have to do what they tell you, but absorb it for what it is. Those are the best, earliest steps.
And then just keep producing. If you're a musician, keep playing that music. The saddest thing I hear, and somebody just told me this, they told me how they had taken music lessons, I think it was guitar lessons, for years when they were younger. And then they just stopped. And I thought, "I would kill to be able to play a musical instrument." So just keep going. Even if it gets hard and you get discouraged. There are definitely days I sit right here, looking at the drawing table and think, "What did I do with my life? Why this?" But usually if you hang in, it's just a moment. You get through the moment, and then you remember. I have more moments where I'm here and it's like, "This is the place where I am supposed to be."
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