A Narrative Artist

An Interview with Marcella Hayes Muhammad

Back in 1957, a fourteen year old girl was seen deeply contemplating the work of a 20th century master, Pablo Picasso, in a museum named after him in Paris, France. It was there, for the first time in her life she learned the magnitude of the revolutionary artist’s work – realism tinged with symbolism, cubism, classicism, surrealism and so on. The visual extravaganza impressed her mind immensely and stayed there. The artist in Marcella Hayes Muhammad was stirred to its very core.

With her father being an air – force officer Marcella found herself stationed in many places including Japan, France, Germany and various parts of United States. The experience gathered and all that she has seen through this extensive excursion became a part of her own self. The encouragements of her mother Ruth Hayes, herself an art enthusiast and student of Art Institute of Chicago, and the inspiring stories of her father Harold Hayes that filled her ears as a child made her acutely aware of her own identity from an early age. She was inspired by cubism but had it redefined by dipping the brush in her own cultural heritage and her soulful energy which is self – evident in Plastic Space, a visual journal she is maintaining since 1964. In 1995 after seeing through a successful career in elementary education Marcella set up Maruva Studio in Georgia. Five years later her sister, Dianne Hayes Quarles, joined her and together they established Maruva DQ, Inc.

Marcella’s work is in the permanent collection of National Center for the Study of Civil Rights and African American Culture Gallery, University of Montgomery, Alabama; The Academy of Arts, Inc. Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, Alabama; APEX Museum, Atlanta, Georgia to name a few. But perhaps her greatest achievement to this date has come early in her life when she learnt, ‘inspiration exists, but it has to find you working’. It is owing to this lesson that we find her today, relentlessly busy perfecting her craft even after all the successes she managed to achieve to this date.

As you travelled to many geographically and culturally diverse places early on in your life how did you find yourself affected and intrigued through all these external stimuli? How the environment at more intimate surroundings of home shaped your personality both as an artist and human being?

I was born in Tuskegee, Alabama in 1943, daughter of a Lieutenant in the Army Air Corps who was a Navigational Instructor to the Tuskegee Airmen and career Air Force officer. Because of my father, I was fortunate to live in Japan, France, Germany and many parts of the United States. I had the rare opportunity to grow up learning about and experiencing other cultures and people. I became more aware of culture and its importance by listening to my father and other original Tuskegee Airmen talk about their struggles and triumphs. This instilled in me a pride of my own culture and the need to share this positive outlook which is reflected in my paintings. I also credit my mother, who was a graduate with honors from the Art Institute of Chicago in 1942 when Blacks were discouraged from even enrolling, for shaping my views to respect other cultures, people and artistic expression.

I remember my Mother taking me and my siblings to every art museum and gallery in every country and city we visited and with my Mom’s background in art and her supervision; we got an education that few have had the opportunity to experience. A trip to the Picasso Museum in Paris, France in 1957 was a defining moment for me. It was here that I saw first hand the possibility to depict a three dimensional object on a two dimensional plane. It was here that I learned Pablo Picasso had many styles from realism to cubism. It wasn’t until I was an adult in art school that the true value of actually having seen in real life the artwork that was in my art history books. I realized that I had visited the buildings and architecture and seen the sculptures of the masters and visited the places like the Louvre Palace first hand. I saw the Mona Lisa on exhibit before it was a copy! It really sank in just how valuable those times were. I am sure that all of these experiences gave me a tolerance and an open mind to enjoy new and exciting things and people.

How important the trainings received at California State University at San Bernardino, California College of Art and Design at Oakland and University of California at Riverside were in honing your skills? Do you feel that the formal training was sufficient in nurturing the natural talents of the students?

I feel very strongly that for me personally, my formal education in the arts has given me an edge on completing difficult compositions and using a variety of media on my own. It has provided the skill set and the mindset of professionalism in my work. I was in school when anatomy was actually a medical class and students had to dissect a cadaver and draw the anatomical parts in a sketch book to turn in at the end of the class to be graded. Most of my formal education focused on technique and the drills to improve skills. I especially cherish the classes of different styles of painting and classes of different media such as ceramics, sculpture, fabric arts, woodworking, silver casting, lithography, printmaking and stained glass design. It was only toward the junior and senior years that individual talents were encouraged in your chosen media and you were allowed to explore your own creativity. It was at this time when my signature style of Plastic Space abstract and the use of oil paints was started and encouraged by my instructor. I don’t think I would have reached the level of work I do now or the confidence to pursue whatever I want to try without that gradual progression and exposure to the variety of media in my formal education.

Has your artistic self been influenced in any way through your extensive experience of teaching?

I was teaching when the new idea of teaching African American history in schools became a big issue. There was very little published material to use and no history books available to address that subject, so research was very necessary. Teaching influenced me to explore and do a lot of research on the history of African Americans in America and to use my art as a teaching tool. My passion is to share the positive aspects of African American culture with the world. I have found that I automatically do plenty of research before I work on a historical piece of art so it becomes a narrative work telling a story and remaining accurate. This is my legacy; to show the world that my history and culture with many contributions to American history are very important and should never be underplayed or be left out.

Enigma, Painting by Marcella Hayes Muhammad

While being based on cubism your art is still truthful to yourself. How would you define your relationship with cubism having added layers from your own vision? How organically did it develop over a period of time?

My relationship with Cubism is a love affair of mutual admiration and respect for the mathematical precision. Cubism is described as a method of representing three dimensions as seen from several viewpoints using a technique called faceting to dissect and reconstruct the subject to depict its essence rather than its exact appearance. I wanted to take a different approach. I enjoyed the dissection of the subject but not so much that it was no longer recognizable. I also wanted to follow the curvature of light as it travels around the subject. So by incorporating the elements of my choice I evolved the style to partially abstract the subject, use color and light to create three dimensions on a two dimensional surface and still maintain the mathematical precision of direction and balance. This began in 1964 and I have been developing this style right up until today. It is my most challenging, most fun and creative style. It is my signature style and I self published a book about this style titled, A Journey Through Plastic Space available on Amazon.

The vibrancy of colour is a hallmark of your paintings. How significant do you feel colour’s contribution is in depicting the character and preserving the freshness of the subject? Do the hues have a tendency of changing according to your changing moods over a period of time when the piece of work is being developed?

Color is at first a secondary issue since I do most of my ideas as a sketch in pencil to work on subject placement, balance, direction of light and dark. It is when I transfer the sketch onto the canvas that color becomes important. My favorite choice of colors is using chromatic hues (a warm palette) and I work in layers. I like to begin with a white canvas and this ads vibrancy to my colors because they are not muted by any base color. I find that I usually use two, three or sometimes as many as four colors in action at a time on my canvas. This is in direct contrast to most European art that focuses on a one–point–one color in command style of color application. I have found that my choice of colors is not influenced by my mood at the time of a painting but more by the subject matter on the canvas. If I am in a bad or down mood … I just don’t paint. Sometimes I may have a specific color in mind in the beginning of a painting but often the painting dictates the final outcome in the end. This is when I feel like Indiana Jones on a quest and the final product is a wonderful discovery.

Enigma, Painting by Marcella Hayes Muhammad

‘Plastic Space’ is having a series dedicated to ‘Masks’ and its role in traditions or even fables. Does it feel ironical that as a visual storyteller you are peering into the soul of a subject and actually ‘unmasking’ it?

By exploring my series of Maruvian Masks in Plastic Space abstract, I feel that I have indeed unmasked the mystery of these various masks from around the world. Before I began this series, there were too many folks with the notion that masks were evil and full of Voodoo as told by different cultures. They were looked on as a bad thing to have around especially as a painting in their house. This prompted me to do research in libraries and speaking to my African friends about the various masks from different areas of Africa. I discovered that most of the masks are not evil and they were and still are used as instruments to aid in community building and social guides. So with a focus on the positive masks of Africa, I also explored the positive masks from other cultures such as Native American, Eskimo, Japanese, European, Chinese, Maori, and Balinese. Masks have been in every culture all over this planet from the beginning of humanity up to today as exhibited in the world’s largest fantasy convention, Dragon Con here in Atlanta, Georgia. My personal focus is on the ancient masks of the world.

How do you create the profiles of the characters from your observations and insights? What role does spontaneity play in the depiction of the subject?

I never stop sketching ideas in my sketch books. I may not address the drawing right away, but it is often inspired from an idea, an experience, a dream or what I actually see at the time during an event, on the street, at the mall, reading a magazine or watching T.V. I like to work in series because it helps to focus the subject matter for me. Right now I have about three series going; Maruvian Masks, Civil Rights, Family Traditions and I move back and forth between them. I try to bring emotion and a story to the canvas through the subjects chosen. If I don’t have a sketch idea in one of my sketch books that fits for the composition, I use a photograph or use a model to pose for me. I think the only spontaneous thing about my work is in the very beginning stage of getting an idea and beginning the sketch. It’s all a fast ride from there.

You explore a variety of topics through your art. Is there any one topic that you hold closer to heart compared to others? From or beyond the world of art who have inspired you most over the years?

One topic that I hold close is the exploration of masks from around the world. It has been an ongoing theme that I have explored and grown since 1980. I am exploring the recurring pattern designs that seem to tie them all together and with my artistic license, rearrange them using Plastic Space to blend them into what I call Maruvian masks, named after my art business, Maruva DQ, Inc.

My inspirations are from my gifted mother Ruth Hayes and other artists such as Lois Mailou Jones, Elizabeth Catlett, Samella Lewis, Henry O. Tanner, William Tolliver and Charles White. It was because of them that I began to explore my own history and embrace my culture as important and to not be absorbed into the status quo. I learned it was important to embrace my colorful style of painting and continue being a narrative artist.

Develop a solid work ethic that guides you from start to finish… never give up on those dreams and stay flexible because sometimes the path to your dreams is not necessarily a straight one.

What would your advice be for those young talents willing to pursue their own dreams?

To all the young talents willing to pursue their own dreams you must realize ‘good’ advice given does not always have to be taken. Listen carefully and keep an open mind to learning new things even if you think you already know it, no one but God knows everything. Develop a solid work ethic that guides you from start to finish. I would encourage getting a formal education to enhance those natural talents bringing them to a whole new level. But most of all, to never give up on those dreams and stay flexible because sometimes the path to your dreams is not necessarily a straight one.

How do you view your own metamorphosis through the passage of time?

My artistic metamorphosis from beginning in Elementary school to right now has evolved from self taught to formal taught to years of dedication and experience. For over 56 years, I have been at this form of expression and still have room to grow and develop. I have gone from painting with watercolor on paper, little puppies, flowers, and landscapes to varied complex works in oil on canvas. I never tire of the spark it brings when a new idea is presented. I have experienced the evolution in the art field from having available only original works available to sell; to prints being available for artists to order; to the advent of computer technology for artists to do their own editing and art which has been exciting. I have grown with the technology and learning curves to enhance my art experience. Just think, I don’t have to carry a heavy and full portfolio of images around because they are all on my Smart Phone or iPad. It’s wonderful, I can’t imagine what is next but I am willing to see!

Portrait of Marcella Hayes Muhammad

Marcella enjoys…

One of my favorite destinations to get away is a place like Playa Del Carmen Mexico with my husband where I can take a tour or two, simply relax; enjoy good weather, great beaches and good food. When I think of music I have to smile because I think of Maze, that group lets me ZOOM. I enjoy listening to Bob Marley while I paint or just some soft Jazz. I also like watching a good action movie, when not listening to music, while painting … more for the company than the content – Indiana Jones, Fast and Furious, Wanted, Chain Reaction and G.I. Joe I & II to name a few. Right now, I am reading The Good House by Tananarive Due as recreational reading. Since I do so much historical research reading, I enjoy a book that takes me away into a fictional world and I do enjoy scary stories. I self published a horror novel of my own titled A Quilt Of Dreams available on Amazon. I did this when I was recuperating for 2 months and could not paint and was inspired by a Quilt show at the local art museum. When it comes to food or dessert, I cannot resist a good healthy homemade smoothie, vegetarian dinner at the Café Sunflower in Atlanta, Bruster’s strawberry shortcake, occasional fresh hot KrispyKreme doughnuts, or the Nation’s Bean Pie.

Find more of her work at http://www.maruvadq.com/

Image Courtesy: Marcella Hayes Muhammad