ART & HEART: Interview with Folk Artist and Master Furniture Maker Mark Prieto
(Interviewer: Lindsay Hosmer, A& Editor for SPACES)
Mark Prieto is a folk artist, living and working in the rolling hills of rural Kingsville, Virginia. He grew up with foster parents on a tobacco farm in central Virginia, and has worked creatively all his life, primarily as a Master Furniture Maker, as well as working in store-keeping and antiques. Health problems have forced Mr. Prieto into retirement, but he continues to create, now painting and making Teddy Bear sized furniture, inspired by his granddaughters, beautifully hand-turned pieces, every piece carefully and lovingly hand constructed. His health issues having particularly affected his short-term recall, he paints primarily from memory, scenes from his youth, vivid, lively images from his life on the farm and growing up in central Virginia. Mark Prieto’s work reminds us that we all have something to express, something to share, something to give.
Lindsay: I love that you paint mostly scenes from your life in and around central Virginia. Have you always lived in this area?
Mark: Oh yeah… in Amelia, Virginia, I started out over there, on the farm… that’s me and that’s my dad and the little kids used to come over here and fish in the pond.
Lindsay: How long has your family lived in this area?
Mark: I was abandoned, I was an abandoned kid. My foster parents, their ancestors came from Ireland. But my family is from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. My mom left my dad when I was six months old, and she ran around all over the place and everything. We lived in the back of a station wagon, and then they abandoned me inside of a bus station in New York City. That bus ended up in Richmond, and I was taken in as a foster child in Amelia County. And, well, I was raised up on a farm in Amelia County and I enjoyed it.
Lindsay: When did you begin painting and building the smaller furniture exclusively?
Mark: About three or four years ago, I guess. I’ve been building furniture since I was about eight.
Lindsay: When did you become a Master Furniture Builder?
Mark: You got to be an apprentice for about ten years, then you got to be a journeyman for another six or seven years. Well, I worked in wood all my life, let’s see… forty some years. I worked at Poplar Hall Antiques, long time, I did all the refinishing on their antiques and stuff…. Then I just came out here and then I started losing my memory.
Lindsay: What was life like for you before you became disabled?
Mark: I used to work hundred hours a week. Now, I do not have any television, I have a hard line telephone, but not a cell phone. I just can’t, but I used to have… well. One day I just snapped, I reckon. I’m disabled and I don’t make no money. But four years ago, I worked at Poplar Hall Antiques and Antique Village, where we refinished antiques. I had Two Country Boys & A Truck Moving Company, had Two Boys and a Hammer Renovations, I had people working for me, doing renovations. The renovations we did were historical renovations. Now I’m a little slow and I forget to do things. My doctors say the painting’s what keeps me sane. Now, they said, I just need to slow down and everything might come back to where it was.
Lindsay: Is that why you started painting?
Mark: I started back in 2010, I did it for my daughter, my first painting.
I asked somebody, this person I know in Washington D.C., an artist up there, and they told me not to go to any art school or art classes, because it’ll mess up my art. I have another person in Paris, France that I talk to and they said the same thing, “Don’t go to art school!”
Lindsay: They’re right! You’ve developed your own beautiful style at this point.
Mark: I also asked somebody, I said well, I might be doing paintings wrong because I seen one person draw what they’re doin’, then they paint it. I’ve never done that!
Lindsay: Some people can’t do what you do and go straight to the canvas; some people need a guide. Some of the perspective and angles you do are really interesting too.
I paint sideways once in a while, because I want to get a little bit more room out of the canvas.
I don’t know what it is, but people like my sideways paintings. I think it’s ’cause they see things the way they are then. Look out that window right there, look at the land — how many things do you see that go like straight across? A lot of people think, you know, “Why ain’t everything straight?” Well – the world ain’t straight. One lady bought one painting because she liked how it was, sideways and all. We was out front, and I said, “All right, stand right here,” I said “Look, like at the driveway — does it go straight? No, it curves down and comes up and goes on out – you’re standing tilted.” She said, “You’re right!”
I’ll tell you what else; y’all go to a country back road. They used to drop tar and then gravel on top, then after you drive on it so long, it’s real rough. Take your camera out there, put it on black and white and put it on the ground and take that picture and show people and ask them what it is. They won’t know. It’ll look like trees. Seeing things, I like seeing things. I’ve took all kinds of pictures. You heard of a Nikkormat? That’s like a F1, the real old cameras. I’ve developed my own film and all that stuff.
Lindsay: You’ve done all kinds of art! What’s your favorite art to do?
Mark: My favorite art to do? My favorite piece of art is just going up to the Blue Ridge Mountains and just sitting there and looking across and just see what nature’s art has done. They say if you look at Japanese art, you’re actually a part of the landscape. If you are part of the landscape, then you are part of the art too.
Lindsay: Every artist tells his or her story. We love yours. It’s completely yours, but each painting still feels unique and individual.
Mark: Not everything comes out exactly the same. I told someone that in school. I said, “If you get ten of us and set us all in a chair and whisper in the first one’s ear and let it go all the way through all of us, and then ask the last one what you said, every time it comes out entirely different. ‘Cause we’re different.
Lindsay: Are there any artists, old or contemporary, who inspire you or that you really like?
Mark: I like everybody’s art, all art.
Lindsay: What do you consider your greatest accomplishment?
Mark: My daughter Andrea. My daughter, she invented grandkids. I was married for eight years, and well my wife left, so I pretty much raised Andrea a lot by myself .
I’m from the farm. But I had a real rough life startin’ out. A lot of people do. And most people don’t know where they’re going down that road. But for me, I reckon, the road comes back around into the light down on the farm. I guess you could say this is the place for me.
Lindsay: Here’s the million dollar question, Mark: if you had advice for someone who wanted to paint or start making art, but was scared because they had no training, what would you tell them?
Mark: Just do it.
Lindsay: Any last thing you want people to take from seeing your art?
Mark: I want you to look at my art, well, you know when you look at a picture – look at where the person [viewer] is standing. It’s actually God’s view.