Remembering Mark English
Mark English has died. His contribution to both the illustration and art world in general is profound and likely unquantifiable in its enormity, having influenced and educated so many artists over his long career. Mark left a catalog of artwork one hundred miles deep, being one of the most prolific and diligent painters I knew. He brought a strange beauty to the world, an aesthetic that is just now on-trend, one that dismissed “prettiness” for the peculiar, but consistently functioned harmoniously, with subtlety and brilliance in its color relation and composition. He pioneered a school of image-making, which seeks to convey his and other career-artists’ methodology, called the Illustration Academy, founded with his son, John English. Mark loved his family most of all, and was quick to tell a story about a child or grand-child and always introduced Wendy as his beautiful wife. He was a friend and a gentleman to all.
I met Mark English Fall of 2001. The chair of my undergraduate art department, Nano Nore, an intense Norwegian who lovingly took me under her wing, could see I was foundering in the limited program and facilities offered at my small, liberal arts college in north Kansas City. I was fascinated with representational realism at a time when abstraction was still pervasive at most higher ed institutions, including my own. Nano knew I was a fan of Mark’s work and hoped his counsel might help. She set a coffee date for the three of us, and I was nervous as hell. I went out and bought a black leather portfolio and, back at the college’s painting studio, gathered 12-15 of what I thought were my best pieces. After a quick perusal of these selections, Nano swiftly edited the presentation. Looking back, it would have been a Sophie’s choice situation: all of my work was terrible. (I’m fairly certain an anatomical rendering of the skeleton was included.) A couple days later, one crisp Autumn morning, the three of us convened at a coffee shop on the square. I remember my first impression of Mark was that he couldn’t get his coffee strong enough. He asked for some instant coffee to add to it and told me he liked “cowboy coffee.” It looked like motor oil. Years later I’d make a painting called “Cowboy Coffee on Moving Day,” about Mark helping me move after a tornado had destroyed my apartment. At the coffee shop, we talked for a bit and I showed him my work. While I was oblivious to its shortcomings, Mark engaged me as he did everyone: with honesty and politeness. Seeing my ambition and need for direction, he offered to tutor me. He was also kind enough to employ me and allowed me to apprentice him in his studio. There I did odd jobs, which included everything from priming his painting surfaces to packing his work for shipment to one of his many representing galleries. As I worked, he was also constantly working at the easel, often for hours on end. I’d look on, occasionally pausing in my duties, as he would magically lay down colors next to one another that just absolutely seemed to vibrate off the surface. He could see my curiosity, and would call me over each and every time to patiently talk through his decisions and philosophy of image-making specific to that piece. Thereafter, he’d send me home with an assignment to apply what we’d discussed. We’d end many days with a game of chess, and occasionally Wendy would invite me to stay for dinner. Being two hours away from my mama’s cooking, it was a welcome and wonderful invitation. This went on through my final semesters of college, and thereafter Mark was then kind enough to sponsor my attendance of the 2003 Illustration Academy, held the year I attended at VCU in Richmond, VA. It was in these small lessons and their application, these acts of kindness, these critical reviews about about both life and painting, that informed who I am today. Mark equipped me, as he did so many students, with the tools and vocabulary to approach an image with a plan, while still allowing for the magic of the unknown to occur. What was the intimidatingly white void of the painting surface became, through his teaching, a blank canvas of endless possibilities and therefore made life feel full of the same. There’s not a day goes by that I don’t approach the easel without Mark on my shoulder. I, and so many other artists, owe our careers to him. I will miss him dearly.