“We need myths that help us to venerate the earth as sacred once again, instead of merely using it as a ‘resource.’…Unless there is some kind of spiritual revolution that is able to keep abreast of our technological genius, we will not save our planet.”
~ Karen Armstrong, A Short History of Myth
“Having a place means that you know what a place means…what it means in a storied sense of myth, character and presence but also in an ecological sense…Integrating native consciousness with mythic consciousness.”
~ Gary Snyder
Martin Wittfooth is the kind of painter whose work makes you think. There is a response required from the viewer. His is not a passive dialog.
Recently, Martin Wittfooth and I discussed this symbolism and the artist’s passionate views behind them.
INTERVIEW WITH MARTIN WITTFOOTH, SYMBOLIST OIL PAINTER
New York City:
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Your paintings contain such a strong narrative.
Martin Wittfooth: I have always loved the power of symbols. A carefully crafted allegorical piece can dialogue with the viewer, compelling us to extract something more out of a piece than an obvious route to an underlying idea.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Much of your work explores humankind’s exploitation of our natural environment, and yet in some pieces you also offer hope. Is there a purity of heart from which we have grown increasingly distant? If so, how can we hope to gain back more of our humanity? What is the artist’s role in helping us with this?
Martin Wittfooth: The animals in my work are sometimes presented as dead, or in the act of dying, but most often their sacrifice yields fertile ground for new life to grow. In these works
I’m exploring allegories of rebirth: the notion that we often have to let something die (metaphorically speaking) for something else to be allowed to be realized and flourish.
Martin Wittfooth: In other works, the animals struggle through one scenario or another, also compelling us toward empathy but also a reflection on our own collective and personal actions. I use animals as my protagonists because they speak in symbols, in universals. They are both us and also the players on a stage that was set by our hands.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: As a boy growing up in Finland, what narratives inspired you? How did that unique environment impact you?
Martin Wittfooth: I was exposed to a fair amount of interesting stories with accompanying illustrations during my childhood that were decidedly Nordic, (Jon Bauer, etc.) which piqued my interest in image-making and visual storytelling.
Martin Wittfooth: My summers were spent at a cottage on an island in Finland where wilderness was large, dramatic and seemingly infinite, allowing my imagination to race free and to cement a lifelong love for the unspoiled places in this world. I battle with some ongoing anxieties regarding the downward direction we’re on in these matters, and the seemingly absurd ignorance that many hold onto as almost a birthright. Much of my work attempts to process this personal source of unease – not the environmental aspect, per se, though some of my work does – but the follies at the heart of so many contemporary issues: ignorance, pride, blind faith, and greed.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: The misuse of religious dogma is a theme throughout much of your work. What would be a healthy relationship with faith?
Martin Wittfooth: Religion can’t be ignored. It’s a main player in so many aspects of how the modern world behaves, whether it’s the persistence of utterly archaic laws or the threat of, or execution of, conflict, and on and on. One of the more ridiculous things I have heard muttered in polite society is that one can’t criticize religion, and I couldn’t disagree more.
Martin Wittfooth: I feel that ancient belief systems must be taken to task for entirely obsolete and outdated ideas, which not only divide, oppress, and mislead people, but are also mutually contradictory. No doubt many people derive comfort and from their faith and are motivated toward good deeds, but many others use it to fuel destruction, discord and chaos, or to control power. These institutions and their stranglehold on such a vast population seems to me a symptom of a broken system.
Martin Wittfooth: On the other hand, I believe that faith derived out of experience – not read in scripture or heard from the pulpit – can yield some profound insights into one’s own consciousness and the mystery of existence. I refer personally to explorations into the realm of psychedelics (or more succinctly, “entheogens”) as a tool that has offered me some incredibly interesting revelations. I would go as far as to say that these experiences have made me what one could call “spiritual.” Philosophies such as Buddhism offer up that one’s own consciousness and connection to the world and to the flow of nature must be found by looking inward, by immersing oneself in the experience of being: an open exploration, not a closed bubble.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Have you ever painted a piece that perhaps cut too close to the bone? A painting too hard for even you yourself to look at?
Martin Wittfooth: Some paintings like “The Sacrifice,” “Red Soil,” and “Fountain” were tough pieces to craft in the sense that while I wanted to make beautiful images, I was also focused on not shying away from portraying scenes of violence, suffering, and sorrow.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Is there a theme you would like still to explore in your painting?
Martin Wittfooth: My next series which I’m about to embark on next year is throwing me headlong into a visual exploration of psychedelics/entheogens and what I believe I’ve learned from them, their implications. It’s going to be a tough challenge to face in doing justice to the underlying ideas, but one that I’m really looking forward to. I believe that it’ll be my most personal series to date and will include the largest paintings I have ever created.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: What would be the greatest compliment you could ever receive on your work?
Martin Wittfooth: That my work was able to give someone the spark to find their way out of a dark place or the push they needed to direct them toward something they loved to do. If I’m able to inspire anyone in any sense, I feel that my efforts were worthwhile.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: You are very active in using your art and your position in the art community to help others, whether by donating you own prints to support disaster relief efforts or by promoting fellow up-and-coming young artists. What is the responsibility artists have for their community and the responsibility community must have in turn to support art?
Martin Wittfooth: I don’t think artists carry an inherent responsibility for anything other than perhaps their work. Art is so subjective, as are the motivations for making it. I personally feel compelled to help out charitable organizations or individuals, or expose fresh talent when I can in whatever way seems fitting – social media for instance is allowing me to do this quite efficiently. We’re all in this together, and there are many directions in which we can reach out and lend a hand. I certainly don’t think that this is limited to the efforts of artists – I believe that anyone with any kind of a following or network can put great initiatives out there to motivate support, aid, and interest. What I have discovered is that artists who act with honesty, integrity, and selflessness tend to have good fortunes reflected back at them: more doors tend to open when hearts do the same.
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Martin Wittfooth was born in Toronto in 1981, and spent most of his childhood in Finland, moving back to Toronto in 1993 where he earned his BA in Illustration from Sheridan College in 2003. He currently lives and works as an illustrator and fine artist in New York City, where he earned his MFA at the School of Visual Arts.
Wittfooth’s oil paintings explore disquieting themes of industry and nature, unhinged evolution, the clash of old ideologies with modern fears, and the growing shadow of the human footprint on the earth. Set in atmospheric landscapes rendered over many paint layers on canvas, linen, or wood panels, these themes are realized through a combination of symbolism, the juxtaposition of visual narratives, and the displacement of expected realities. The worlds created in Wittfooth’s paintings implore the viewer to question the status quo, to challenge that which is taken for granted, and to proceed with caution on our present course.
To view more of Martin Wittfooth’s work, please visit: www.martinwittfooth.com