Marilyn Kalish “Making Bold Moves”


By Gwenn Mayers

Drawing is mark making to be sure, but it’s also “another kind of language.”* No matter their scale, their medium, or their function—preparatory or a final expression of a creative idea—drawings speak of intimacy and immediacy. Marilyn Kalish adds physicality, with un-choreographed dancers’ movements, to the language of drawing. The force of her work explodes, the edges of the paper barely containing forms, lines, colors and marks. You cannot look passively at her paintings and drawings, but, swept up by their movement, you enter them.

I spoke with Marilyn Kalish in her new undertaking, the Vault Gallery. She is exhibiting her sketches and paintings in a group show called, Sanctuary: The Power of Images.

The process of making art continually fascinates Kalish and informs all of her work. On her web site,, viewers can see the process unfold. I asked her to talk about her process.

Marilyn Kalish: The process is extremely important to me. I start out drawing, with my eyes closed. I stand close. I am feeling it, breathing it. I’m holding 15 or more pencils in each hand, using whatever pencils are in the studio and varying the pressure and tones of the marks. Moving fast and slow. Building. Eyes closed, head turned, that’s energy. I am trying to clear my mind, trick my psyche … I am trying to get out of my own way. I work for hours with my eyes closed. I enter the drawing. Then I am left with a large scribble, elegant, gritty lines. I leave the studio. After a while, I come back and sit with it. I wait until I see something that resonates. The process becomes a communal experience. The marks are informing me. There are clues. The editing just happens. I cant—and don’t—force the image. I don’t cover up the process; I want to see the experience, the energy. I am interested in physics; the idea of chaos and order is irresistible.

We are looking at Sanctuary, a 48”x144” work on Mylar. There are images of birds and the physical feeling of flight and movement; it is not a painting of birds. Image and process are entwined.

Gwenn Mayers: Tell me about your images.

MK: When I did this piece, I was listening to Messiaen, a French composer, who recorded birdsongs. That energized me. He dedicated a large amount of time to this. He wrote a symphony based on birdsongs. I had no idea that I knew how to draw a bird. Then in the doodles, I saw birds and talons. I did not force my will here, it happened very organically. I don’t know what the images mean. At other times a horse appears, I did not even know that I could draw a horse and the horses may not happen again. I like that viewers try to find an image they can relate to in my drawings. I like the Rorschach quality. The line has the fertility to travel. I am aware of viewers bringing their own experiences to each piece and finding something that resonates for them. My work becomes a communal experience between viewer and the art.

GM: Is music important to your work?

MK: Thank you for asking. Yes, music is critical to my life and my work.

GM: So, this piece is on Mylar, what other materials do you use?

MK: For me, it’s all about materials. I respond to seductive surfaces, what smells good, what feels good. Some artists are inspired by landscapes, by portraits, I am inspired by materials. In addition to Mylar, I also like Stonehenge paper, it takes a full assault. I can release aggression and fear. I use what is at hand. Acrylic or oil paints, charcoal, pencils and sometimes, encaustic. I think of all the artists now and historically who don’t have materials to work with, I am mindful of waste.

GM: Yes, I wanted to ask you about encaustics.

MK: I worked as “ artist in residence” in the conservation department at the Worcester Art Museum for 4 years. Lawrence Becker was the head of the department then. He is now at the Metropolitan Museum. He liked working with artists and thinking out of the box. That is where I first saw the Fayum Funeral Portraits. They were dazzling and I became mesmerized. I was good with materials and I studied the technique. There is no traditional way to work with encaustic, you can get close to how the Fayum artists did it, but we really do not know the exact technique for the encaustic because the recipes were destroyed. Two smaller works here in the gallery are encaustic. I taught encaustics at Art New England, a summer program held at Bennington College.

GM These encaustics are framed, but most of the other works are not.

MK: Seamless framing, I liked the idea of a fragile drawing enclosed in wood and I use a silicone gel to hinge the drawing to backing. That way there are fewer distractions. But I really wanted to break out of the frame. It was restricting and I wanted to work larger. One of my larger, unframed works, “Cool and Green” which is about 5’by 12’, just sold. So people will buy unframed work. This is very encouraging.

Kalish’s colors are difficult to describe; they are “evanescent” colors, dissolving colors, colors that shift with the light, colors that are on the surface but translucent, ambers, grays, greens, ochres, shades of black.

GM: What artistic path did you follow from studies to black and white drawings to large, color paintings?

MK: I have always been drawing. It is a meditation of sorts. I do not care for the word breakthrough so, I will describe what happened as a turning point: I looked at my sketches, and knew they were better than my paintings. Fluid, spontaneous, energized, and, uncensored. Everything I wanted my paintings to be. And I thought, “Why can’t I do work like this?” But of course I did do them. This was very puzzling. I simply did not value them as much as the paintings, the “real art”. How could these sketches matter? I always considered my studies preparatory for something more important. I did color field paintings for years, and had hit a brick wall. I did not know what I was saying. Unfortunately, I could dazzle and infatuate with color.

There was no reason to push harder. I had to ask myself why I was so free in the sketch, yet became self-conscious with the larger work, paper or canvas. I gave this a lot of thought over the years. The paintings were beautiful, but I was suspect of their beauty. I struggled with how to balance color field painting and drawing. I had a color sensibility and I knew how to draw. But, integrating the two would take me many years. Remember learning about the value of “happy accidents” in art school? Now, I am allowing those accidents. With these works, (the large paintings) I integrated mark making and my color field obsession. I found my voice, this is me. Of course, not all work is successful. Now I am OK with that, I feel quite tender with that.

GM: Who are your artistic influences? Mentors?

MK: Mark Rothko and Rembrandt influence my color sensibility. Physicality is very important to me, with a Rothko, you can enter his painting. I also look to the Greeks for their precision. Antonio Tapis is another influence; he makes such intelligent and seductive surfaces. Frank Cressotti, Chair of the Art Dept, Holyoke Community College was a mentor. I was a struggling artist, about 25 years ago and Frank visited my studio, I was working on a piece that was going nowhere. Frank kept saying, start another one, start another one. So now I work on 6-8 paintings at one time. My other mentors are my family, my friend Ray Pieczarka, who believes in me. And Sigmund Freud and Clemens Kalischer for sanity and music.

GM: How do you arrive at your titles?

MK: I like to write. I put a great deal of attention to my titles. I try to connect to what is going on in the painting.

GM: Are there any negatives to living the artistic life?

MK: Well, the downside to being an artist is solitude. Solitude is the best and worst friend.

GM: Isn’t it always?

MK: The process of art filled my life. I think too much isolation—which I can easily do—is unhealthy. I always found that I would do one other thing that would allow me to mingle with my species. I was a hospice worker for a few years.

GM: How did that come about?

MK: I had a friend whose mother was a hospice worker herself and she suggested that I do this work. I took the workshop and each week I said goodbye to the other people, not intending to come back the next week. But I did. After the training, I became a relief caretaker; I would sit with a gravely ill person and sketch, while his or her own caretaker had some time off. It was a different isolation.

GM: What was next in your escape from isolation?

MK: Well, I volunteered in the conservation laboratory of Lawrence Becker at the Worcester Art Museum. That ended about 5 years ago. After that, I rented a studio in Pittsfield and began to just work. I did bas-relief, used found objects, and worked with marble dust. It was all about the materials. I worked with lots of different materials, I was trying to find myself, trying to integrated my mark making, love of color and seductive surfaces: waxes, lovely papers. I was making these huge encaustic pieces and some charcoal pieces. Everything was black and white. About 2? years ago Clemens Kalischer, the photographer, came to my studio and immediately offered me a show at his gallery, the Image Gallery in Stockbridge. Right after that, color happened in my work.

GM: And then the Vault Gallery?

MK: Well. I was looking for a new studio and saw this space. I immediately thought that it would work for a gallery. I contacted Clemens, Craig Walker, Barry Moser, and several other artists who have a quality that impacts me. I wanted to show their work. If any of them had refused, the gallery would never have happened. As it happened, they all agreed to let me show their work and the Vault Gallery opened this past May. I was recently able also able to get Leonard Baskin’s bronze sculptures to exhibit. The space lends itself to a salon. I am learning as I go. I love being a beginner. I have no business experience and I must say I was frightened. Would running a gallery mean my work would suffer? Would I feel trapped? Be bored? None of these things happened. I now have a wonderful studio two doors away at St. James Episcopal Church. I am dividing my time between both. I do have experience with balance. Gwenn, you are meeting me at a good time in my life. I have kept this quote close for years: “Make bold moves and powerful forces will come to your aid.”

GM: What is the future of the gallery?

MK: I am selective and I like to build slowly. Right now I represent ten artists and I like the idea of weaving in new artists, but slowly. I am surrounding myself with work that has quality and integrity. The goal is to have different works, have a dialogue. The gallery is a non-threatening environment and serious collectors as well as high school students are coming in. I have stayed ambitious in my work, which is a good place to place your ambition. In the worst case, you get to make art, the world may come or not. I am privileged every single day to do this. I have never known any guarantee that I can continue. I am not self-indulgent. It is the only thing I can do, I do it out of necessity.

Marilyn Kalish will have 3 paintings on exhibit in the 2005 Florence Biennale in December 2005. Her work is on exhibit at the Vault Gallery, located in the historic Mahaiwe Bank on Main Street in Great Barrington, MA and at the Image Gallery in Stockbridge, MA. For more information call: 413-644-0221 or visit

*Richard Serra as quoted in the catalogue, Drawing is Another Kind of Language, Harvard University Art Museum, 1997.