Mark Lewis Wagner: Drawing on Earth
Updated: Aug 4, 2021
Mark Lewis Wagner is a traditional and digital artist, graphic designer, street painter, and educator. Founder of the non-profit Drawing on Earth, he has worked with 30,000 children and holds two Guinness World Records for chalk drawings. He created five pieces of art that have been photographed by satellite, and is currently teaching art online, painting in New Mexico, and working on a sci-fi / fantasy graphic novel about art and war. Wagner’s clients include Pixar/Disney, Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, SpaceX, Target, Samsung, Oakland Museum, and Oakland Zoo. He is an NEA grant recipient for exploring digital arts.
1. When did you decide and what prompted you to become an artist? Please give a brief account of your challenges and struggles in your journey as an artist. Any role models?
MLW: As a kid I drew monsters and spaceships with my brother. I saw a drawing he did when I was in second grade that blew me away. I said to myself, “that is so cool, I want to do that!"(draw that good). It was my mom’s idea to for me to go to college and study art – "thanks mom". Fast forward 30 years, I created concept art for the Disney / Pixar film John Carter where I drew monsters and spaceships, and later worked on Terminator 3.
The challenges and struggles I’ve had has as an artist are quite typical – how to pay the freaking rent! There were days I’d spend one-third of the day looking for work in the graphic design and film world, another one-third of the day being a young married man with two little kids, and the other one-third of the day making art that I didn’t know would ever sell.
Role models . . . anyone who continues to get into the studio and make art is my role model.
2. What art project(s) are you working on currently? What is your inspiration or motivation for this?
MLW: I’ll share three things with you: I just finished a big chalk drawing project; I have new studio paintings in the works; and I’ve been working on a sci-fi/fantasy graphic novel for over 10 years.
Guinness World Record: In April 2021 I attempted my second Guinness World Record. The first GWR was in 2008 for a largest pavement art (chalk drawing). We had 6,000 people (most of them elementary school children) to help cover 8361 sq. m (90,000 sq. ft) over two weeks. We had a satellite photograph taken of the artwork. This second GWR is for the largest chalk street art by one artist. The previous record was 167 sq. m (1,800 sq. ft), my chalk drawing area was 1719 sq. m (18,500 sq. ft). I completed it in six days working eight hours a day.
For 10 years I had my eyes on a large chalk drawing area. The site was on the decommissioned Naval Air Base on the island of Alameda CA, just off the coast of Oakland in the San Francisco Bay Area. I even once had the idea of creating the first Chalk Drawing Park in the world but over time the soccer club took over the site. I’d lost the opportunity to use the site and chalked it off as “you snooze, you lose!” Another reason I didn’t make it happen was that I didn’t have a reason big enough ego to do this as a solo artist. I couldn’t figure a way to connect it to children, schools and the community, and Drawing on Earth was busy with other corporate events and a two-year project working with 30 elementary schools with 15,000 children at a nearby school district.
And then there was Covid . . . and the world was a different place!
In November 2020 I drove past the Futsal court and my intuitive voice said, “Hey, guess what, no one is using the courts, it’s still covid and it’s a perfect time to create that monster chalk drawing you have been thinking about for years." I still wanted to include community so I created a Global Creative Challenge which would take place the same time I was drawing. Drawing on Earth invited everyone to join in on Earth Day and make some art together, set your own record along with me, be part of something creative and big that helps connect people to the world through art. Draw in the dirt, snow, on your driveway, dance, write a poem, sing a song, use any medium. “Imagining the Future and Creating Beauty were the themes.
I applied to GWR in December, created a team for support, hired a PR and marketing person, and got a site production manager. Drawing on Earth for the first time had two artists take our Earth Day Creative Global Challenge to their towns, one being in Paradise CA where a mega fire burned a town and killed 80 some people. This kind of immediate art where community interacts is powerful, healing; it gives hope and creates positive energy.
Since this drawing was by one artist there were a lot less logistics and fewer expenses. Guinness World Record wanted requirements: a list of witnesses reporting that I worked alone, a licensed surveyor to correctly measure the drawing, close up and full-scale photos and videos. Drawing on Earth networked the Global Challenge – we had school districts, children’s museums, friends and families, and even connections to the UN and UNESCO.
We paid to slurry coat a thin black asphalt covering over the entire drawing area which gave me a nice blank canvas to work on and be hot in the sun which had me worried. My other worry was that my 60-year-old body was getting a beating (wrists, knees, lower back) – in the end I only had to take Ibuprofen once throughout the entire epic process. And the weather was in my favour; it was overcast, breezy, and cool, so wearing layers and working kept me warm.
Techniques and Materials: For the GWR everything needed to be chalk that was commercially available, in case someone else wanted to beat my record. I created a technique using a garden hand-pumped sprayer that had powdered chalk that contractors use for chalk lines that I mixed with water. This technique was how I was able to underpaint most of the surface. I worked this way the first three days with the main problem being my powered chalk colours were limited. On the first night I had a power generator (no electricity nearby), projector, and laptop onsite to project images of polar bear, buffalo/bison, little bird, a prehistoric goddess sculpture, rhino, and dinosaur. This is called anamorphic perspective when the viewer stands on one place (where the projection originated) and the animals appeared to be standing up off the street surface. Many of my world-class, chalk-drawing artist friends do this in such an amazing way – see Tracy Stum and Kurt Wenner.
My team was awesome, people brought warm handmade meals. Fortunately for me the house where I was staying was only 10 minutes away, perfect for an afternoon nap and a short very tired drive home at night. The last three days were the details, drawing and colouring in smaller areas. My dog Karma, a 10-month old Pit/Weimaraner, loved being in a fenced in area and was in heaven as she chased the drone camera about.
Mark and Karma onsite
The Design: The title of the artwork is The Creative Spirit Blessing the Earth. It is my belief that human creativity and imagination are our biggest assets for living a life where everyone and everything thrives. That’s why I work with children; they are our best investment for the future, let’s nurture them creatively when they are young so they grow up being fully alive, connected, and in service. In the middle of the drawing is a 2D figure, inspired by the extinct Mimbres Native American Indian designs from southwest USA. The figure is holding an artist’s pallet with one hand, rays of light reach out to the Earth while the other arm is a circle/shield that is wind powered, while the 23 m (75 ft) spirit bird is solar powered. There is a butterfly, lizard, flower, and a row of elephants and their shadows can only be seen from above. This diagonal design movement is what I call the “Creative Spirit”; it’s an eternal divine energy available to anyone all the time.
The Creative Spirit Blessing the Earth, photos of the process of the Guinness World Record attempt
(Please click on the arrows to navigate the photos)
Over to the other side of the Earth is a 3D geometric structure also drawn anamorphically with its perspective point converging into the centre of the Earth – the same place as the figures. I like how this turned out and how clearly it reads in aerial photos. To be truthful I still struggle with the design and I’m OK knowing that I was working in an unknown territory, and on such a big project that had to be completed on time using limited materials. In hindsight I would've repeated how the butterfly turned out and used more black in each element for greater contrast. Live and learn – next time! We did do a beautiful ceremony at the end of the public opening, we all stood on the geometrical area and spoke out loud “bad ideas” we wanted to leave the planet, like racism, inequality, and patriarchy. I spoke about violence towards women and indigenous people.
It did rain the day after the event was over. The chalk basically stayed put – it got wet and then dried. It will be there for several months.
The Creative Spirit Blessing the Earth, video shots of the Guinness World Record attempt
Studio Paintings: I live in Oakland California and I’m beginning to build an art studio in northern New Mexico where I’ve been now living for the last half year. One of my goals is to create work that sells in galleries in the southwest. I have been focusing on a series of Spirit Birds. They are semi-abstract explorations in materials and techniques. I am practising being mindful as I work, as prayer, in gratitude, seeking to imbed a heartfelt energy that helps the planet creatively evolve.
Tree of Life
The Journey Home
Raven Magic 2
Sci-fi/fantasy Graphic Novel – GRAFFITI WARS: When Art Saved the World. Some projects take days and week, some take years. This story started in glimpses over 10 years ago while photographing tugboats in a shipyard and while exploring a decommissioned Naval Air Base. I started to get downloads of stories slices which I eventually pieced together to create the story. I’ve written several drafts, written it as a screenplay, storyboarded the entire story, created a professional book proposal, sent it out to publishers, only heard back from one with a “thanks-but-no-thanks.” I am now back to rewriting and studying more about storytelling (taken Neil Gaiman’s Masterclass online), visual storytelling, and comic/graphic novel page layout design.
I’m excited about the story – I know it will require a shit load more work to manifest, and am willing to put in the time and energy because if I don’t make it, who will? And I know the essence of the story is pure gold. Here is the elevator pitch: GRAFFITI WARS: The God of War is enslaved by men, power, and money. With the help of an alien universe, a Vietnam Vet, ghosts, a whale and a dog - two Oakland graffiti artists journey through time and madness trying to save the world, and each other.
3. Contemporary art has become very diverse and multidisciplinary in the last few decades. Do you welcome this trend? Is this trend part of your art practice?
MLW: The world is becoming more diverse and multidisciplinary. Of course I welcome and embrace this, it’s about time! It’s time for the white male to step back and let others be.
The Arts have always been trespassers to the unknown: they cross the boundaries of reason and explore the human relationship with the sensory world, creating bridges of multi-dimensions. The Arts connect the mind, ideas, heart, feelings/emotions, intuition, and the imagination; they take the artist and the viewer out of linear time, help in seeing the bigger picture, and help us experience the others worlds that are perhaps even more important than what we know. The Arts intimately help connect everyone to everything and that is what we all yearn for – to feel and know connections.
Diversity is an artist’s playground, diverse materials on the drawing board, diverse colours, diverse ideas and stories, computers and technology. At this time I'm not addressing the current social unrest; I have other things that want to be explored and expressed.
4. Does art have a social purpose or is it more about self-expression?
MLW: I sense it’s both about self-expression and social purpose – self and the other. Art and creativity is a right relationship to life. An artist who creates self-expressive work is still connected to society and usually interested in showing and sharing their work. An artist whose art is social purpose/political is still expressing themselves in each mark, colour, narrative they use. My work has a evolution/humanity/earth purpose. I am trying to make art that will help humanity evolve from the mentality of a teenage to a mature being. The teenager brain says “f*ck you” or I want to “f*ck them,” very me-me, nation-nation, ego-ego, selfish, brothers fighting brothers, gods fighting gods – it’s actually destroying everything. Mature mind says life is on my terms, I have all the time in the world, and I will never lose because I will never stop – or something like that. Initiation is a timeless experience that exists in all tribal cultures on the globe. Initation from boy-girl/teen to adult generates an awareness that one is responsible for oneself, friends and family, the community, and for the world. This is where I make art from. I paint as an initiated man, from here everything feels out of my control and I like that. My job is to just pay attention, be open, and create beauty. The world needs more beauty.
Mark and Karma creating happiness though beauty
5. Where do you create your art (workplace / studio)? What is your process?
MLW: Two Studios: I create art in two places: Oakland CA and in northern New Mexico, north of Taos, where I am currently living. I recently bought land here and I’m slowly building an art studio complex that will be connected to my non-profit Drawing on Earth that will offer solo artist-in-residency. I have a prefabricated Art Barn, 3.6 m x 9.7 m, that was delivered in one piece – it’s really cool. It’s pretty rustic here – a nice small trailer that is good in the heat and cool, a tool shed, and soon there’ll be a cabin for friends and artists. The toilet is a literally a bucket behind a tree at the moment and there is no water. I’m working with a neighbour to use her well for water – that might happen soon. There is a mountain a mile east and mountains 100 miles west. My goal here is to live half a year here and the other half in Oakland.
Art studio complex at northern New Mexico, north of Taos
Art studio from inside at northern New Mexico, north of Taos
My Oakland studio is amazing. I share 3,050 sq. m of a studio industrial complex with three other working artists. We have two buildings, a large yard, lots of tools to share, and shipping containers for storage. It’s the polar opposite of my New Mexico studio; it’s in a dangerous area of East Oakland – no nature, train tracks, but also amazing graffiti nearby.
Oakland CA studio
Mark and Zander at the Oakland CA studio
Process: I use a lot of different materials so that determines the process. For example, if I’m chalk drawing for a school, I work out the design, show up early to school to get the beginning drawing started, present an assembly to the entire school. I have up to 650 children come out on the playground to draw with me throughout the day, then stick around after school is over and add final touches to get a good photo, some of the best by drone (mavic air).
On the other hand, if I’m painting or working on the graphic novel in the studio, I’ll light a candle, burn some sage, and turn the mostly nonverbal electronic music up loud. Then step into the creative flow state, paying attention to where things want to go, trying to get out of the way, and following my intuition.
6. To what extent will the world of art change in the post-Covid period – both in terms of what is created as also the business of art?
MLW: Covid . . . I listened to a radio program where people were calling in saying how freaked out they were being at home during the early Covid times and didn’t know what to do by themselves. That’s what the Arts are for – being and connecting with yourself, with without other humans to be influenced by. I sense the Arts were elevated during Covid as something one could do at home by oneself. I know a writing teacher who doubled her income with her online classes. She teaches women around the world who want and need to write, to share with each other, to be part of a community. I’m not sure how the bigger business of Art faired. I’ve spent as much time in the studio as I usually do – the chalk drawing in schools certainly stopped. I know the film industry changed, the game industry did great during Covid, and the performing arts and musician took a beating.
7. Tell us about any other interest you may have besides your art practice. Does it get reflected
in your art?
MLW: The three things I’m most interested in are creativity, sexuality, and spirituality; for me, they form a holy trinity. Nature is always a place of interest; nature seems to be the key to everything, pure creativity, and glorious death all around us. Spirituality seems to be at the source of everything I create. I’m still waiting for the time to incorporate more of the sexual into my art – that’s a touchy subject. Everything feels nature connected in my work. I’m so grateful that I’ve been able to create the life I want to live – you can too, just don’t stop.
(All images and videos are courtesy of the artist, Mark Lewis Wagner.)
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