Studio visit and interview with Marissa Long
July, 2022 – Arlington, VA
Conversation between Marissa and Amy Boone-McCreesh
Where are you from/ where did you grow up? Do you feel like your formative years influence the art you now make?
I grew up in a small suburb of Reading, PA, about an hour and a half outside Philly. I’m sure where I grew up and my childhood does influence my work in some sense, but not in a direct way that I feel like some other artists talk about. Where I grew up felt pretty homogenous and there weren’t a lot of people I genuinely connected with or felt like I could be myself around. Leaving for college to be around other artists definitely felt right and was a relief at the time.
Where is your current studio and how long have you been there?
My current studio is at the Arlington Arts Center and I’ve been at AAC since 2017. I moved into this private studio in 2020.
Can you talk about how your work with Art Enables influences your own work or even how you think about art making? (state what you do there)
I work as the Gallery Manager and Curator at Art Enables which is a non-profit studio and gallery for adult artists with disabilities. I work directly with the artists in the studio (along with other staff) and put together our exhibitions, which sometimes involve collaborations with visiting artists, too. The resident artists are amazing. Something I’ve been thinking about since I started there in 2020 (three weeks before the pandemic!) is how confident many of the artists are and how ready they are to jump in and try things. Don’t get me wrong, not all the artists are like that– there are those who are really cautious and plan things out considerably – but seeing people just trust themselves and jump in so often really impresses me.
That’s one of the biggest things I fight against when I work because I can really sideline myself and psych myself out before I get started. I get stuck over-thinking something or researching or doing tests before I start. I actually really enjoy that problem-solving, but it can majorly slow me down. I’m trying to do more jumping in.
You work with so many materials and processes – from photography to these incredible graphite drawings, can you talk a little bit about your most recent processes and how they came to be?
What’s most marked my practice since I came to AAC is trying new things, working in new ways. Until I came to AAC, I was only making photographs. My studio here is the first dedicated space I’d ever had outside of a kitchen table or tiny office room in my house. For a few years or more, I’d been feeling a pull toward other materials that I couldn’t quite realize, and as soon as I got here, all of those things suddenly started to bloom as possibilities. It’s like I wasn’t even able to let myself really think about them before I had the space to try. Since then, I’ve been working mostly outside photography – building and assembling more sculptural objects, casting, some collaborative video work, and recently, these graphite drawings. For a long while this has felt really nutty and intimidating. I was questioning it all the time, like, Should I even be doing this? Who do I think I am? Am I just embarrassing myself? It’s uncomfortable not being good at something new and not having a vocabulary in a particular medium. I would feel such a clear desire to make something specific and then be like, “I don’t know how to look at this, I don’t know what this is or if it’s any good.”
I made a lot of work here that ended up in my solo show in 2019 – Borrowed from Dust. That was, by far, the most intense art-making experience of my life up to that point. Partly for all the reasons I just mentioned – everything was new, I was worrying and being hard on myself while I slogged through researching and testing and learning. And then also the real-life subject matter behind that work was really heavy. There was a lot of angst rolled up with it. It hasn’t been until recently when I started a new group of works that I feel like I’m really reaping the benefits of that time. I’m more at ease and questioning myself less, and it’s feeling like such a gift to have gone through that period of relative turmoil.
This new, in-progress piece we were talking about is cast latex. You paint layer after layer onto an object and then peel it off. Some of the flower stems are meant to be intestinal or umbilical looking. I like that it gives this drooping, skin-like effect, and I think of these pieces as being sort of like hollow, sagging shells of an attractive ideal. I really like work that is more stylized, loose, or organic with a heavy hand in it but I actually have a hard time making work like that. I always want to refine and control it a little too much. So for this latex piece, I like that it has these realistic elements in it but there’s a small distortion rendered through the material. It’s a way for me to sneak that quality into my work.
The images I worked from for the graphite drawings are old Dutch floral still lifes that I’ve altered in Photoshop – layering and collaging and deleting and filling things in. I started them at home during the pandemic and I’m not sure I would have under other circumstances. That was also a medium I felt I didn’t have any business working in, but I’d felt compelled to work with graphite for a while. I just had a physical desire to do it and it felt like the right medium for particular formal things I wanted. I’ve put them aside for the moment but would like to make more.
I used to have this recurring dream when I was a kid that the attic stairwell outside my bedroom had another little hidden stairwell. It led to a second, secret attic with all these treasures. And exploring these new materials feels like that secret attic—a room I just discovered that’s always been there, a little scary and mysterious, but so exciting.
A lot of your recent work is lacking color or is done in neutrals. Is that deliberate?
Yeah, for a long time, it’s just felt really right to use black and white; a kind of absolute, forbidding, almost frightening black and also reflective silver surfaces. And in the graphite drawings – layering smoky shaded details with stark deletions and flat black and white. It’s a lot to put into words but I think there’s a drama, darkness and duality there that aligns with where I’ve been working from. I’ve always loved black and white photography but a lot of my older photos were really colorful, too, so it ebbs and flows for me.
When I started branching out from photography, I think vivid color just didn’t fit the emotional tenor of that time. There will be more color in some of the new works I have planned; red, pink…so I think that it’s changing again.
Can you talk about some of the imagery in your work – I see recurring candles, fruit, flowers, what do these things mean to you?
I think that most of the recurring imagery I use is traditional subject matter that we’re used to looking at. We have expectations about it – what it’s for or about or how it should be read. Flowers, for example. But it’s more about taking that familiar subject matter and recontextualizing or disrupting it in some way to evoke an emotional response or make it more about how we’re looking at the thing than what the thing is. Which, like, I’m not trying to use that as a formula, it’s not exactly conscious. The images for different works come pretty fully-formed at the beginning and the imagery is directly related to certain preoccupations of mine – things I’m going over and over in my mind – translated into these visual rhymes for the feelings those preoccupations stir up. I also think I probably just like the beauty and cheesiness and romance of some of this imagery! I can’t help it. I like romance and drama and I like to sometimes undermine those things or make them absurd, too.
What do you hope your work communicates to others, and how does it serve you when creating?
I hope it resonates viscerally or emotionally, that it strikes a chord that’s recognizable but still mysterious. Like an image in a dream, maybe, something you know instinctively without fully understanding.
It sometimes almost feels embarrassing when I finish something, because it feels like such a naked presentation of some of the most personal things I experience. It seems so exposing! But I know it’s probably not that obvious to anyone else. I have thought a lot about placing more steps in between the initial idea and the final result, distilling the imagery down into more ambiguous formal qualities, but I’m not sure I can actually work that way. After my last solo show, I was like, Dude, you have to chill with this, it’s too obvious, it’s too earnest, it’s too on the nose (which is funny because so much of that show was about not being able to see something clearly). But just recently I’ve felt more like, Why am I fighting this? I don’t need to add one more thing to over-think. I’d rather be honest than cool. And the more I have leaned into it, the stronger the reaction I’ve had from people who see the work. I’ve had a lot of meaningful conversations about the pieces I questioned the most. I’m not done with photography, but there’s something about making physical objects with my hands that works differently. It’s closer to my skin, literally and metaphorically. It has brought me to a deeper place.
It’s always been a pretty direct channel for me, and I think it’s become even more direct in this way. It does help me understand and see myself better. It used to shock me sometimes when I was younger, and now I’m hip to what’s going on more quickly, but occasionally, it still surprises me, it’s such a mirror.
How do you deal with the inevitable down periods we all feel as artists? How do you cope when the studio is tough?
One of the toughest things to deal with is, of course, the lack of time. There’s never enough time, especially working a full-time job, and my commute is long, too. I’ve been trying to come right to the studio after work as much as I can. Even if I’m in the studio for just an hour or two, it really helps because then I feel obsessed with coming back the next day and it keeps the momentum up.
I think constantly about how slowly I work, that feels like a big obstacle sometimes. I’m trying to both kind of hack the way I work and lean into it. I need a lot of time up front to really think through stuff and research and experiment. I like fussing over details, a certain material or a surface or what makes something feel right. Giving myself more concentrated time up front to work through that stuff can really help. At least I know I’m getting somewhere and putting in the time.
Also, sometimes if I’m able to sit and try to clear my mind, even a little, it really helps. I haven’t ever gotten it together to have a meditative practice; it would probably fix all my problems! But doing a small version of that even a few times over the course of a week can loosen things up in the studio. Clearing out the junk and opening a window so something else can breeze in.
Do you have anything coming up you’d like to promote or another artist you think we should be watching?
I’m currently working toward a solo show at Arlington Arts Center in 2023 – dates TBA.
There are so many artists I’m watching and love and I honestly feel like a lot of INERTIA readers are probably aware of most of them, too. You’re probably following a lot of them on Instagram already! I’d love to take the opportunity to point people toward Art Enables in DC and other sister studios, too (like MAKE Studio in Baltimore), which are often much less visible. If you’re not in the DC/Baltimore area, there’s likely a progressive studio near you. Find them, follow them, share them, go to their events, buy their amazing (and often very affordable) work. Building a more inclusive art world is crucial and, also, I just know so many artists out there would be obsessed with the work coming out of these studios. If you’re an artist or a curator, collector, art-lover, human citizen, you should have these organizations and these artists on your radar.