fifty years' attentions


BIOGRAPHICAL PREFACE by stephen petroff

Without him, I would not have developed the yogic powers that enabled me to live a life in poetry, upon this hostile planet!  Mark Petroff’s unceasing creativity, subtlety of Mind, and unstinting merriment are my life’s blood.  MP has been my greatest teacher.  That I am the older brother, made it possible for me to begin my education as soon as he was born.

Mark Petroff was born in May 1954, in El Paso, Texas, to a native Maine family.  His father, a Master Sargent in the U.S. Army, was stationed at Fort Bliss, training gunnery crews for artillery units.  His mother was a Bowdoinham farm girl, who worked in a Defense plant in World War II.  As the youngest in an Army family, MP spent his childhood in Germany, Connecticut, Germany (again), and Maine.

In his late teenage years, he was a favored student of Maine Painter, Peter Farrow.  It was Farrow who suggested that he apply to the Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pennsylvania.  When MP applied for admittance, it was Farrow who provided the recommendation. 

After high school, there followed a period where time became jumbled, with many art-oriented activities and the personalities of unusual men and women. 

In 1975, MP signed the articles of incorporation for the Union of Maine Visual Artists, and served in the first slate of officers, but shortly afterwards, he moved, penniless, to New York City.  He lived at first in a hostel for indigent men on the Lower East Side, where he painted and drew, wrote wonderful letters, and experimented with xerography, in the character of a young Taoist Immortal. 

He earned just enough money in various “between-the-cracks” jobs to sustain himself with coffee and cigarettes, commuting by train to attend the Barnes Foundation.  There, he was profoundly influenced by the lectures of Violette de Mazia and the Barnes collection. 

He had known UMVA president, Carlo Pittore, very well in Maine, and when Carlo himself moved to New York City, in the late 1970s, Mark and he became neighbors, and visited nearly daily for several years.  During that time, MP painted, composed and recorded music, designed theater sets, created sculpture, and published artists’ books and broadsides under the NEOCODEX label.

He had a close relationship with writer (and painter) Shulamith Firestone.  In later years, she visited him when he had returned to Maine.

He now lives in Brunswick, Maine, where he and his partner, artist Sarah Brayman, make their studios. 

A conventional label for MP would be: the faintly dismissive “Renaissance Man.” More than anyone I have met, he fulfills the dictum: “Use every available means of expression.”  For more than fifty years, Mark Petroff has been consciously creating an original artistic personality, and his body of work grows.

-- Stephen Petroff 2014


What would you like viewers to get out of your work?

I would like viewers to feel generous.

A painter is fortunate if he lives past his prime, after he loses, as they say of poets, a distracting, even incriminating, urge “to sing.”  He’s lucky if he’s lived beyond his will to dominate lesser talents, beyond the need to teach anyone a lesson.  If he stays on the path that the life of a painter requires in terms of sacrifice and security, he finds one day that he can remove himself, at will, from day-to-day worries about his special place in the minds of others.  He has worked through his fear of the neglect of his peers and loved ones and he is detached from his youthful hungers for acknowledgement, crowd control, and the need to be a large orange fish on a little blue plate. 

Why do you do the work that you do?

Experimenting with oil paint is a mental challenge.  It’s a little like walking on stilts, trying to eat an ice cream cone with a bullwhip.  I have skill which I arrived at through painting routines, but I believe the real adventure begins when the personal roadmaps we assume give us painterly legitimacy are abandoned, when one goes deeper into gesture; for example, when pulse and breath are used to some extent during the act of painting.  Some people like to talk when they paint, it sets up a vibration and a rhythm.  This is another manifestation of gesture, of touch.  I used to think Carlo Pittore was just a blabbermouth, needed an audience while he painted, until I thought about how he used speech in his painting.   The goal of painting is to become one with nature, to become like the air, to become like the elements, everything working together, in the groove.

Why are you obsessed with this particular theme, color or idea?

I’m limited by my genetic framework along with experiences too numerous to mention which guide my decisions within my chosen medium; I have a healthy curiosity about inner personal change.  If I’m “obsessed,” it’s with the fulfillment of the promise of the Imagination.   

What issues in the world are most important to you now?

Water, essential for life. Who wants to control it and why?

What advice would you give to other artists?

A good day’s work is not necessarily a good day’s work. 

What are you going to do with your artwork before you die?

The other day, I was cleaning the gutters of our house, removing all the accumulated muck, and, from that vantage point along the roof, I had a full view of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art.  I don’t care.  It would be nice if a younger artist could re-use some of my materials after I’m gone.  Art supplies are so expensive for underprivileged artists these days.  Much of my good work belongs to various collections already and an alarming amount of my work has deservedly perished.

How much do you value your earlier work?

My brother. Stephen, and I discussed this a while ago and we agreed that our earlier work looks better than we thought it did at the time the work was made.  Earlier work is sometimes surprisingly good, even better if you see it again after a few years in someone else’s possession, after they’ve purchased it, for instance.  Other work has no magic at all and just seems like drudgery, worthless.

How do you make a living?

I have a job. 

Ambitions at this point in your life?

Continue to be of service even while stamina diminishes.

Do you have a favorite artist?

God, no! This is no time to be making enemies!

Do you have a favorite writer?

God, no! This is no time to be making enemies!

Other passions or priorities?

I devote a vast amount of time composing digital electronic music using software synthesizers and samplers. I have a small home recording studio for this purpose.  I use different digital audio workstations.  I use Native Instruments VSTi (Virtual Studio Technology instrument) software and many other software synths and VST software effects. I use Cubase, not Pro-Tools.  I enjoy a colorful interface and, although I use Cubase for its audio engine, I like the looks of programs like Sonar.  The most colorful I use right now is Bitwig, a newer work-in-progress digital audio workstation created by escapees from Ableton Live which is live performance software.  I am a member of a couple of software testing teams.

Has collaboration ever been important to you?

Yes, from around the age of 4, for instance, I collaborated with my brother, Stephen.  He would draw dinosaurs and let me fill up the dinosaur shape with reptile scales.  He was great at drawing dinosaurs and I was great at drawing many little 4-year-old U-shaped things. Collaboration is important if the chemistry is sustained and the motivation is mutual.

How does your work reflect what’s happening in the world?

The older one gets, the world keeps turning, the louder the questions.  Every decade previous to this one had its horrors.   My work occasionally includes something  that pictorially mimics world events or the behavior of characters on the world stage, but those events or behaviors are emotionally embedded in the paint or brushstrokes in a way that is difficult to explain without a long discussion about individual paintings and, even then, probably not important to the appreciation of the paintings.

Any Rants? 

I save those for Facebook.