Smoking With Our Artistic Director — Marty D. Ison

by Randall Brown December 15, 2005

You have the most fascinating bio ever. I’m going to mention a few things on it and tell me what you can about them:

Sent to a Christian Orphanage.

My father died of a brain aneurysm when I was a young teen. We talked as adults for the first time that night. I remember I was listening to George Jones on the phonograph in the living room right before my mother came stumbling out of their bedroom. I looked inside. He was lying on his back. A trickle of blood oozed from his nose. I ran to wake my older brother but he told me to fuck off and went back to sleep. I guess he thought I was kidding. I never asked him about that night. He has never mentioned it. About this time somewhere on a studio lot, Marlon Brando fell against the fender of a forty-nine Packard as blank shots reported across the set and cameras rolled. He spilled the bag of prop oranges into the street and slid off the fender onto the pavement. I ran back into my father’s bedroom and began to give him CPR, or at least a similitude of it that I had picked up from watching Medical Center on television. He stared at the ceiling and coughed red-winged monsters onto my face, his eyes focused on mine, pleading, or so I thought. I kept it up until he started breathing. The doctors said he was brain dead when he reached the hospital. They pulled the plug two days later.

Afterward my mother committed us to a Christian orphanage in Mt. Dora, Florida. The orphanage forced the children to work in order to pay the shortfall between room and board and the social security stipend. We picked pinkeye purple-hull peas, okra etc after school until dark and on Saturdays. During the summer, we worked forty hours a week in the fields or on the grounds. They were good people trying to help I guess but I did not sympathize with the institution at the time.

Ran away to join the circus.

After about eighteen months of the orphanage Gestapo’s attempts to correct my mind of all independent thought, I decided I had had enough of the love fest. Being the patient, compassionate, and self-sacrificing person that I am, I jumped the first southbound train to Tampa. I spent the next year and a half underground among a certain counterculture exploring consciousness.

Lost my right eye in a bar fight.

I spent years in bars before I was eighteen without incident. Ironically, the night of my eighteenth birthday I drop two hits of windowpane acid and go to a bar down on the Pass to celebrate. It is my first time in this particular establishment. I’m feeling all Deputy-Dan and full of piss and proceed to drink enormous amounts of beer. Anyone who’s ever mixed amphetamines and depressants knows what I mean. You can be piss drunk but not know it. In this condition, I find a partner, put money on the Foosball table, and wait my turn to challenge the winner. When my turn comes, it’s against this thirty-something fisherman and his girlfriend. His forearm is in a cast. Note this detail because it plays an important part later in the tale. We play for a few minutes until he opens this huge hole in his goal. So, I being a good sportsman yell, “Look at that elephant pussy” and then score with a slap shot. (This becomes my first lesson in the limitations of idiom because where I come from this expression means “a big hole,” however, he, looking through magical beer goggles, apparently thought I meant that his girlfriend was a whore.) Almost instantaneously, I see from the corner of my eye the white cast that encases the aforementioned forearm swooping toward my head at escape velocity. The subsequent darkness contained intermittent flashes where I watched a sparkling parade of boots, exploding bar glasses, flying table and chair parts, spinning floorboards, and fireworks. Somewhere during the evening’s festivities, I lost my right eye due to trauma to the zygomatic and sphenoid bones that detached the retina and induced acute angular glaucoma. The impacts also shattered my contact lens and lacerated my cornea. Oddly enough, two friends of mine beat the same man senseless with a baseball bat two weeks later in an unrelated incident. Isn’t life strange?

Ordained as Minister of the Assemblies of Jesus Christ.

Yes. It’s a fact. I was a licensed minister in the late seventies and early eighties.

Publisher cancels novel deal after 9/11.

Yes. I understand many writers had the same experience during that time. It was hard to feel bad considering the horrors that occurred. Nevertheless, it was daunting.

Zoetrope Virtual Studio.

I have never experienced anything like it before. The community is wonderful. It has also taught me the importance of written communication. I’ve never been as misunderstood or misquoted as I have been during online discussions. Although, the opposite is also true. Those discussions and flame wars did more to make me think and write clearly than any workshop critique.

Wow. That brings us to the present. In 1977, you studied Fine Art at St. Petersburg College. In 2002, you begin showing your paintings, and in 2004, Dave Clapper brings you to SmokeLong to do the art work. How’d that all come about?

Meeting Robin Slick was pivotal. She probably does not even remember it at this point but it’s true. At the time I did not realize how trapped I was in vapid kitsch. I had given up. Her insight and comments rejuvenated my confidence in my vision. My recollection is that she introduced me to Maryanne Stahl who knew Dave Clapper who asked to use one of my paintings for a SmokeLong cover. He asked me to join SmokeLong shortly thereafter.

Discuss the process from idea to finished painting. Your artwork and cover work for SmokeLong consistently blows me away. So I guess what I mean is “How do you do it?”

It’s like attraction between iron and philosopher’s stone. I feel a pull. It distorts and shapes my vision around an image. As if distance grows and a backdrop fitted behind my microscope emphasizes each defect and bulge of phenomena. A soft decanter of subnatural experiences traps each image. As I concentrate, its frame quickly deteriorates like the flesh of a mouse eaten by insects viewed in time-lapse photography. Soon only bones remain. The slick-pink magnetic bottle of reality collapses around irrational plasma creating supracellular fireworks as my affection for the idea destroys my sense of its importance. I am glad that you like my art. Acceptance is a bonus.

I remember some time ago a discussion about the relationship of the title to the finished piece. I think someone had trouble connecting the two. Yes?

I will often use a title to provoke thought outside the image. Sometimes I am simply trying to avoid narcissism by poking fun at myself. Sometimes it takes a little work by the viewer to solve the puzzle. Any of these can cause a disconnection between the title and the work. In the end, the work is alive in the mind of the viewer. I have no further control over it after I lay down my brush or publish a file.

You talk about writing poetry and painting fearlessly. Specifically, what’s that mean? How were able to reach that point in your creative life?

To me it means to write what you know is right for what you want to say. Do not be concerned about the reception. If you think about reception then you will edit yourself during the process. Creating fearlessly means not giving a flying beaver’s tooth if anyone accepts or understands your work. As long as I think clearly and understand my process and why I am doing what I am doing the way I am doing it, then that is all I require for personal satisfaction. The only way I reached it was to have a paying job so I do not have to rely on the acceptance or kindness of others for financial support. Otherwise, the reception and ultimate sale would always haunt the process.

How does your poetry guide your painting—and your painting guide your poetry.

I am not aware of superior/subordinate reciprocation. Both come from the same source. It’s more a matter of medium.

It’s hard to imagine SmokeLong without your art work. What happens between you and a story/issue to create these amazing paintings that can be found throughout each issue?

I try my best to absorb the story and create a graphic to compliment it. Sometimes I am successful. There is a difference between illustrating and fine art. What I attempt to do is illustrate the stories.

You’re also a published poet. How must (or maybe does is a better word) a poet view the world? How is different from the vision of the everyday guy or gal on the street?

I will not presume to understand another person’s perception. However, I do believe that perception is relative. My experience tells me that everyone has certain gifts. I do not value one gift more than another. Sometimes I feel autistic. It is my opinion that any good artist is intrinsically selfish and arrogant, even if they do not show it. I accept my own arrogance to become brutally honest with myself because unless I become that honest I cannot admit that my bad work is bad. If I am lazy, I must accept it before I can surmount it. If my work is facile, I must admit it. Denial does nobody good.

Tell me more about, what I’ve heard you call, your “genuine people personality.” How does this conflict with your need to be genuinely honest?

That’s a nod to the humor of Douglas Adams. It is an artificial personality that exaggerates a particular trait. It has no balance. Some creative people cannot discuss their art constructively. In my opinion, it is because they cannot explain their art. If you understand what you are doing then any question only becomes an opportunity to elucidate. I use a “genuine people personality” during social interaction or workshop participation to avoid frustration. I can usually sense if someone is able to discuss art on an intellectual level or are prejudiced by personal aesthetics or ignorance. Not that there is anything wrong with that kind of prejudice or even ignorance, but it makes productive discourse impossible.

There is also the case of misplaced arrogance. Some creative people have a shallow comprehension of art or literary history but despite this possess an arrogance that is simply ignorance. If you read a story by a neophyte with a dog-eared plot and stereotypical characters, you should call it cliché no matter how well written it is. That writer’s ignorance might mistake your assessment as an attack. That is misplaced arrogance. However, the ignorant do not have a monopoly on misplaced arrogance. There is a cure for ignorance: education and experience. In my opinion, there are few cures for bad instincts and none (that I know of) for a lack of talent.

I will be the first to admit that I have a lot still to learn and I hope a lot still to offer. I accept that I have not contributed anything groundbreaking to culture and welcome criticism. However, I also know the difference between a critic who knows more than I do and one that has no idea what I am trying to do. You stop growing when you refuse to experience a different perspective or listen to criticism. Nevertheless, you cannot let criticism deter you from attempting something. I use a “genuine people personality” to avoid wasting my energy arguing with or risk offending people who are interested in speaking rather than dialogue. I love passionate but friendly discussion. I cannot talk to people with closed minds for long without switching on my GPP.

What did I miss? Or, in other words, what’s on your mind that I didn’t touch upon?

Answer. Nothing. That’s probably too much for this type of interview. :)

About the Interviewer:

Randall Brown is on the faculty of Rosemont College’s MFA in Creative Writing Program. He has been published widely, both online and in print. He earned his MFA at Vermont College.

About the Artist:

A native of Ohio, Marty D. Ison lives with his wife transplanted in the sands of the Gulf of Mexico. He studied fine arts at Saint Petersburg College. In addition to the visual arts, he writes poetry, short stories, and novels. See more of Ison's work here.