Artist Interviews 2023
By Laura Siebold
Mark Rosenbohm is a watercolor artist residing in New Orleans, LA, focused on urban sketching.
Mark sketches the city's colorful architecture, crafting a narrative that spans from his childhood memories to his current experiences of daily life in the city. Having been a visual storyteller all his life, Mark incorporates cultural and elements that breathe life into the city in his work, supported by fragments of imagination sourced from stories in books he once read, and his clients' memories for commissioned pieces. The artist creates 'living pieces', designed to transport the viewer to a place of choice in the past or present.
When we asked Mark about the purpose of his work, he answered: "I think of my art as a record, or journal, of my environment." Read on to learn more about this talented artist from New Orleans and his ways of preserving memories through art.
Mark, many of your watercolor sketches are based on actual photographs and tell different stories of New Orleans, Louisiana. How long have you been sketching and what inspires your love for New Orleans?
I’ve sketched for as long as I can remember. Like so many kids, I copied the Sunday comics, Mad Magazine, and comic books. Part of me always saw art as part of my future. Although in high school I was swayed to pursue a more traditional career path, I carried my passion for the arts into my adolescence and early adulthood. My New Orleans drawings and paintings are inspired by my memories growing up in the Irish Channel. Creating art inspired by the city is nostalgic as so much of the city’s architecture is no different than it was when I was a kid. Honestly, I never would have foreseen urban sketching and painting as something of any interest to me, but after seeing others, I tried it and it was such a natural fit for me.
Tell me a little bit about your upbringing. Did you grow up in an artistic household and did you enjoy a formal art education?
I was number 5 of 6 kids raised solely by our mother. Our environment wasn’t a particularly artistic place, visually speaking; however, I remember always reading hand-me-down books from my older siblings. The creative impact from these stories alone was enough to spur my imagination to create stories of my own. I still have the art that I made in sketchbooks that my mother purchased from the drugstore. I still have vivid memories of the books I read that inspired that art.
As far as my education is concerned, I began my college education as an engineering student, but thought I could still make some kind of future in art, so I changed directions and pursued a graphic design degree. In hindsight, I think I would have enjoyed going to a dedicated design school instead of a more traditional university.
I am interested in the process of your work. Where do you usually sketch? Do you need a specific environment to sketch, or can you work anywhere? How long does it take for you to finish one of your works? How do you capture the character of inanimate objects in your work?
I work primarily at home on drawing and painting. I have a dedicated home studio that was damaged during Hurricane Ida, so I’m mostly working at the dining table. I do lots of drawing with a lap board in front of the television and just a bit of plein air work on location. My time to finish varies greatly. I’ve completed simple watercolors in 2 hours, but many of my 10x14 ink and watercolors take 4-6 hours. Anything larger can take considerably more time, depending on the level of detail and other factors.
I think much of the character in my paintings comes from the objects that lend a ‘lived in’ look to the finished pieces. Things like trash cans, cable and phone wires, missing railing parts and such promote a sense of life and character. I also think my line work has a particularly lively feel to it. There’s a certain skewed quality to many of the buildings I draw that sets it apart from traditional renderings. I suppose that’s a big part of urban sketching also.
Can you give us some insights into the artistic community in New Orleans? Do you prefer to work independently, or are you interested in collaborating with other artists?
It seems every time I stop to look around, I see other artist’s work for the first time. I’d say the New Orleans art community is quite diverse. Our city is so culturally rich, I find it hard to believe that it could be any other way.
I see my urban sketch work as something very personal, so I don’t think a partnership with another artist would currently fit well into my creative process. However, I enjoy collaborating with clients when creating commission pieces. One of the most fulfilling aspects of my work is when someone really loves a piece, they have asked me to paint or draw for them. Often, commissioned pieces are inspired by places or things that are very dear to my clients. Childhood homes are common requests I receive. I also have a client that requested paintings of the dive bars they frequented during college. They currently have 6 or 8 of my paintings. That has been a satisfying, ongoing project. I really enjoy getting to live vicariously through my clients' memories and learn a little more about the city and its culture while doing so.
What is the greatest story you’ve ever told as an artist?
The buildings I paint have their own, unique stories that vary amongst each viewer. When people view my paintings, I want them to concoct their own story rooted in their own perspective. Each painting I create is of a real place that may invoke a range of emotions-- [starting] from feelings of mystery, memory, to nostalgia. Really, with my art, I don't aim to create one succinct story with a traditional beginning, middle, and end but want to create a living piece that will transport its viewer to wherever he or she wants to go.
Your book “NOLA Portraits” is a collection of the different faces of the City of New Orleans. How long did it take you to complete this project, and what did you learn throughout this process?
My book represents work completed over the course of a year. I had so many paintings from that time period that it was difficult to narrow it down to a 72-page book. I got to see a natural progression and improvements in my painting ability over the year. Maybe it’s not clear to others, but I’ve noticed subtle differences. I’ve never produced such a quantity of work as I have in these last few years. My pure enjoyment of this medium has been groundbreaking for me in my career. I really love working in this medium and rarely experience burnout. Sometimes, I need a little break, as most of us do, but that usually only consists of a couple of days off. And in all honesty, during those times, if I’m not painting, I’m usually thinking about painting.
Who or what has been your greatest inspiration to this day?
For me, sources of inspiration are everywhere… music, movies, or a story I’ve heard or read. Right now, the city- its architecture, people, and places- are obviously playing a big part in my painting. The work of other artists provides a constant stream of ideas and techniques. Sometimes, it’s a little hard to keep the jumble of my ’to-do’ list in check.
What is the main purpose of your artistic work? Elaborate.
I think of my art as a record, or journal, of my environment. In some way, I hope it transports people to a place and brings back memories or feelings that might be associated. Whenever I have the opportunity to exhibit at art markets or pop-ups, I inevitably have conversations about places in the city that bear some significance to that person. We often find some common ground and uncover some hidden remembrance about the neighborhood, people and places.
I recently completed a commission for a client whose family business had existed for over 40 years. After (his or her) father passed, I was asked to paint the business as it existed during its operation. We also produced a limited set of prints as gifts for siblings and other family members. Ultimately, it was a touching memento for everyone. With the subject matter I paint, I receive requests like this often and ultimately that is the purpose of my work. To preserve my clients' memories in a piece of art.
Do you see yourself exclusively as an artist of New Orleans, or are there any other subjects you dream of approaching, but haven’t yet?
Since people often paint what they know, New Orleans has been an obvious subject for me. I've lived my entire life in the city, so it is a great fit for my work and a huge source of inspiration. Beyond New Orleans, I’d love to get back to traveling and draw inspiration from new places. I’ve seen other artists host international workshops in Italy and France which sound like a great deal of fun.
When I began working in this medium, everyone was locked down for the pandemic, so travel was really restricted. I’d just been laid off from my day job, otherwise, I would have loved to get out and continue to travel. Urban sketching as a movement is relatively new and their manifesto states that it is intended to be made on location as a means to capture a place and time. ‘Showing the world, one drawing at a time’ is the motto. While some of my work is location sketching, I often photograph, even when I’m on location, so it’s technically not completely classified as urban sketching. New Orleans is a tough place for working outdoors, especially in summer!
All this being said, my plan is to get back out there to start painting and drawing on location.
What is the legacy you would like to create for yourself and your art?
There’s no grand scheme for me. I hope some of the work I’ve completed is relatable for viewers. In many ways, artistic pursuits are selfish, but I’ve really received a great deal of satisfaction by creating emotional connections through my current work. Those conversations about what these subjects mean to people are certainly high points on this journey.