A Conversation with Mars Tokyo


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Psychadelic Face #50 8.25″w x 5.25″h

Mark Kerstetter: First, the cool sounding name – Mars Tokyo. Two places – one in outer space and one in Japan. What does it mean? Who is Mars Tokyo?

Mars Tokyo: I should have it tattooed on my forehead–but I’m opposed to tattooing. The name actually came to me in a dream in 1991 around the time I was forming my rubber stamp company. In the dream, the name signified the alienation I’ve always felt as an artist (aka Martians are the aliens) and then the Tokyo, represented the Japanese people. Who were the only people to survive an atomic bomb. The survival + the alienation seemed to represent what is at my core. I’ve also always admired Japanese block printing, and as a printmaking major in college, I studied a lot of it. The stamp company featured my own hand carved designs. Not in wood, but in soft plastic eraser material.

M K: You are a survivor. Do you also feel like an outsider?

Mars Tokyo: Don’t get me started! I am so outside you can’t even find me. I’m outside of the outsiders. I make the outsiders look like insiders. I have exactly what it takes to fall through any crack possible.

M K: Try to stick around for the duration of the interview.

Mars Tokyo: ha ha

M K: You live in Baltimore. Do you think your work would be substantially different if you lived elsewhere? Is it shaped in some way by Baltimore?

Mars Tokyo: I have lived elsewhere. I spent 23 of my formative years growing up in Peoria IL, of all places. My father was a metallurgist and took a job with Caterpillar Tractor. Then at age 26 I moved to Poughkeepsie NY–for 4 years, then Syracuse NY for 4 years, then I came back to Baltimore in 1987 when my husband Jon, got a job with the Baltimore Sun (he’s a journalist). My work really blossomed around the time I was planning to leave IL and it carried over into the Poughkeepsie years–then there was childrearing–and work mostly geared around that–then the stamp company. By then I was back in Baltimore–then in 2000 I quit working for a paycheck and just started making art full time.

Since then–2001-2007 was the series of miniature theaters. 2007-2008 was the Black on Black series, a reaction to having been subjected to multiple Electric Shock treatments for depression. Then 2009 the Coastlines kind of emerged from the Black on Black (the endless ocean is black and unknown). It’s still about navigation, navigating the unknown. You get your slate wiped clean when you undergo ECT treatments. It’s horrible.


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Coastlines: New Orleans

M K: “Navigating the unknown” is an intriguing phrase. I want to come back to that. Let’s start with the Coastlines.

Mars Tokyo: Okay.

M K: When I look at the Coastlines in thumbnail mode, I’m struck by the bold colors and strong contrasts. There’s a graphic aspect to it. There are so many allusions – to the human body, to rocks and crystals, to vegetation. Can you talk about the series as a whole? You said you are navigating the unknown.

Mars Tokyo: If you have your browser open go to this link. It’s a little animation about the Woman Adrift series that preceded the Black on Black. It’s also about loss–a reaction to my mother’s death. My father just died the end of this past May.

The blackness, the sea, the unknown–all metaphors for things within us–like longing, emptiness. Because navigation, as a metaphor, interested me, I read several books on the great explorers–Columbus, and Magellan. I cannot fathom the kind of courage it took to set sail off into the unknown, unchartered seas, without any guarantee of ever coming back.

The Coastlines are the natural progression from the Black on Black series–where there, there was nothing–blackness, vague shapes in the darkness, obscured paths, a need for groping….Now the coastlines are the sighting of land–of the tangible. The coming ashore, coming home, finding oneself. And they are laid out like maps, from a bird’s eye perspective looking down. The figure-ground relationship between the sea and land, the unknown and the known, the nothing and something–is the most basic form of design concept.

The Bauhaus had its five Gestalt principles of visual perception–1. Figure /Ground. 2. Proximity. 3. Similarity. 4. Continuation (the eye will complete the missing pieces) and 5. Repetition. I taught graphic design based on the Bauhaus School for 9 years at the College of Notre Dame of MD, in the 1990’s. Oh and then, I forgot, you can’t dismiss the significance of the clinical depression I’ve had since I was 20. I guess that’s always a big vat of blackness too.

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Osaka Detail

M K: There’s a lot to respond to here. First, some of the land masses do look like wounded flesh – Japan (Osaka) in particular. But there are also meandering lines. They serve a decorative function, but do they have another function?

Mars Tokyo: I need to provide better detail photos to give you an idea of the amount of detail in them. There’s a lot of very fine detail. I used tiny tiny brushes and in some cases am painting hairlike lines. The details within the land masses are usually trying to say something about the area being portrayed–but without being factual.

The Coastlines are close to factual in that they are replicas of the coastlines recorded in atlases. But the interior markings are all artistic license. In some cases I try to refer to topology of the area, in other cases the urbanity or civilization. I have one of Hiroshima (there are four Japanese coastlines–Tokyo, Osaka, Nagasaki and Hiroshima) in Hiroshima there is a flat feathering of brushstrokes concentrically from the dot that marks the city. Sometimes I’m commenting with color choices, too.

Liverpool is a sooty grey, as I’ve always pictured it, being an old coal port city. There is also an organic, or living, fleshlike quality to the land also. Some more than in others. Osaka, is especially fleshy. Some have networks of lines, almost like veins, or also the lines on road maps. I don’t know if that answers your question.

M K: You describe them well. Can those concentric strokes in Hiroshima be seen as the bomb you referred to earlier?

Mars Tokyo: Yes, although I worried that it might be too obvious. My husband says it isn’t.

M K: I always listen to my spouse! Is it fair to say that the Coastlines cannot be fully appreciated without regarding the Black on Black series?

Mars Tokyo: Well, I like that they can and do stand on their own. But if you want to know where I was coming from, then the BOB series is essential. But I don’t think that’s needed just to appreciate them. And from a more universal standpoint, the really significant thing about this series is that these coastlines will have disappeared in our own lifetime.

Disappearing Coastlines. Just when you thought it was safe to land, the land gets farther and farther away. I would love to be able to connect with the NRDC or some other organization concerned with global warming and make prints of these available for a generous % donation.

M K: Maybe one of our readers knows of a way to make that connection. The long and dark navigation represented by the Black on Black series – particularly the many details in your photostream of number 26 – prompts me to ask if you mind saying a few words about what happens during electrochock therapy. Not what they do to you, but what happens to you, how you experience and respond to it.

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Psychwoman #22 8.25″ w x 5.25″ flair pen

Mars Tokyo: It’s not so much what happens at the time–although medically probably a lot has been written on that–it’s what you’re left with. All I actually remember is lying on the table under operating room lighting and having nurses stick electrodes at places all over my body. Then an anesthesiologist inserting a line into my hand–and there’d be the most horrid smell of rotten onions. I don’t know why–if that’s some reaction to the anesthesia or something but then you’re out–and come to later in a recovery room.

I had this done in Jan. 2007 after a year of trying to find the right medications to treat the depression. I had to stop two meds. I’d been taking because of severe tinnitus (ringing in the ears)—after 11 treatments, I was no better at all. Eventually my Doc. and I decided to reintroduce one of the abandoned meds and that’s all it took—within two weeks I was fine again. What hell.

The BOB series was a response to the procedure and how it left me–with permanent brain damage. The loss of memory is profound, but worse is the constant struggle with short term memory. Mostly I felt completely lost. I didn’t know how to get around Baltimore anymore–after living her 20 years.

I’d suddenly be in the car and realize I had no idea where I was going–so you see, those continuous lines on the early BOB, where a method of finding my way in the darkness…each picture is made up of one continuous line. Then the line starts to fragment and gradually the tone lifts to grey–ultimately I wanted the series to end in white, but I didn’t get that far. I guess it never goes all the way to white. Light grey is the best you can expect.

M K: But weren’t the Coastlines the next step? Even though there are wounds and loss, you can see land? In aesthetic terms, there’s a lovely balance between a jaggedness and soreness and an organic beauty.

Mars Tokyo: Yes, the Coastlines came about two years after the ECT. I’m much better than I once was, but there’s a lot that will never come back. And a lot of ongoing struggle.

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Psychadelic Face #48 8.25″w x 5.25″h

M K: Let’s talk about the Psychedelic faces. They are drawn in Moleskine books. What are the dimensions and number of pages?

Mars Tokyo: Each two page spread is 10.25″ wide and 8.25″ high. I think there’s about 50 pages in the book, or close to that. They were a progression from those Psych Women (also on flicker) that were just in B&W. I started using Crayola Twistable colored pencils and decided to do them in color. All of these are done in books, and while I watch TV.

M K: Have you considered detaching any pages, or do you consider the books as single objects?

Mars Tokyo: I’d never take the pages out, the book itself is way too cool to destroy. The book itself is an artist’s book. I’ve made handmade books also. As an object it’s really nice. I have tons of filled in books like this–this is the only psychedelic faces one but others are travel logs etc.

M K: I agree about leaving them intact. I would think holding such a thing would be like having a fetishistic object (I mean that in a good way!) You like Zippy the Pinhead, don’t you?

Mars Tokyo: Zippy’s da man!

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TV Woman #29 3″w x 5″ h flair pen and crayola twistable colored pencils

M K: TV Book 2-women seems to be making light of wrinkles and aging in women. There’s even a dog. Are you laughing at death?

Mars Tokyo: I always laugh at death!! And aging—it’s horribly sad–so you might as well laugh.

M K: Who is Psychwoman?

Mars Tokyo: I don’t know. It’s kind of an extended doodle–very similar to the faces in the psychadelic book. I start with the eyes and everything else just sprouts out of it.

M K: It seems to be the same person or face.

Mars Tokyo: It’s really a kind of mindless meditation. I could draw these in my sleep. It’s not anyone in particular. I started doodling like this when I was a kid. Drawing faces over and over.

M K: In your sleep? Most of us couldn’t draw like that if our lives depended on it. Tell me about Flair pens.

Mars Tokyo: Well I’ve been at this a LONG LONG TIME and I was good at it from the get go. I don’t know why. I remember when Flair pens first came out. It was love at first draw. They were so black and rich. Unlike ball point pens, but not messy like India ink dip pens. Completely portable. They changed my life.

M K: You’ve done a series of large sideshow posters for the American Visionary Art Museum of Baltimore. Tell me about this project.

Mars Tokyo: Are you also in Baltimore?

M K: No, I’m in St. Petersburg, Florida.

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Madagascar 15″w x 22″h gouache and india ink

Mars Tokyo: Just curious. Okay, the AVAM thing. Well, I have a good friend named Joe Wall, who has built lighted display cases for the miniature theaters when I’ve shown them. Until just recently he worked at the AVAM and I think that’s why they asked me if I could paint the banners. It was a fun project–I can’t remember how many I did–maybe six?–on canvas in acrylic paint. Did you see them on Flickr? The FIFI one of the pink poodle was stolen last year at a local arts fair. AVAM wasn’t watching their tent I guess.

M K: Yeah, I saw them on Flickr. AVAM is described as a “National museum of self-taught art”. You describe yourself as a self-taught artist. Does that mean you have no formal training at all?

Mars Tokyo: And also the space egg what stolen–two of them. That’s part of why I said don’t get me started on the “Outsider” label. Because the “rules” only apply if they want them to apply. I have a BFA degree which I fought long and hard to get on a full scholarship. So of course, I’m not considered self-taught. Even though I was making art long before I ever went to college. And there are plenty of artists shown in the AVAM who have art degrees, but they forget about that, if they feel like it.

M K: We have to talk about the Teeny Theaters. Most of your work is accessible to an online viewer. Even the clothes and jewelry (which are fantastic, by the way), thanks to your outstanding photography, are easy to see. But the Teeny Theaters are a special case, aren’t they?

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Teatro della Fragilita ~ The Fragility (the fragility of life)

Mars Tokyo: How so?

M K: Aren’t there two dimensions to the work? The theaters themselves, which are best seen in person, and the photos of them?

Mars Tokyo: The theaters are three-dimensional tiny boxes you look inside. There is a skylight on each roof that admits light. They are best seen in person, but on the website I’ve tried to take interior shots that show the full range of angles.

M K: One of them is Bush as the King of New Orleans. For someone who has never been to Mardi Gras, what does this signify?

Mars Tokyo: This is a reference to his asinine performance during the Katrina disaster. Heck of a job Brownie, and all that. The Theaters of Dissent are mostly about getting down on Bush.

M K: And there are others, of romance, for example?

Mars Tokyo: There are three different directions I went with the theaters–Political, Personal–things referring to my own life or experiences, Homages–ones done in tribute of people I admire–Emily Dickinson, Bette Davis, Picasso–3 that come to mind.

M K: They’re only 3 or 4 inches in size, right?

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Teatro della Cuore Solitaria ~ The Solitude (the solitude of life)

Mars Tokyo: Yes. The theater assemblages range in size from 3.25″W x 4″H x 4.75″D to 1.25″W x 2.5″H x 2.75″D.

M K: I think about what it takes to make something that size. There’s a size that feels comfortable to the body. Then, when one gets very large, there are special challenges. But one crosses a threshold in the other direction too: magnifying glass, tweezers, etc. Were these special challenges for you?

Mars Tokyo: Not really. I mean, I used tweezers some times, and a magnifying glass but not all the time. The size felt comfortable for me. But then the whole thing was about size in art. I was trying to take on the notion that bigger is better. If you go to an art museum, you would certainly agree, since mostly what gets shown is very grand in size.

The bigger you make something the more attention it commands. It practically hits you over the head with its grandiosity. So I wondered how small I could make a piece of art and still have it work formally on all the levels that we want art to work on. The size I came up with was about as small as I could go and still achieve the level of success I wanted.

But something interesting happened when people looked at it. They would be drawn in by the very size–you can’t see one of these from across the room. It begs a level of intimacy. And with that intimacy comes a lot of power. People usually have very strong reactions when they look into one of these pieces.

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Mechanical woman #5, from Moleskine ’08

M K: I’ve never thought bigger is better; the abstract expressionists did that to us. But speaking of big, you went to China in 1995. Can you say a few words about the circumstances of your trip or your overall impressions?

Mars Tokyo: The United Nations 4th world Conference on Women was taking place in Beijing and I got it into my head I wanted to go. I was a member of the WCA (Women’s Caucus for the Arts) at the time and they were putting together a group trip. So I signed up. We never actually got to go to the UN part of the conference, we were relegated to the NGO portion of the conference which took place in a muddy lot 20 miles outside of Beijing called Hairou. It was a great experience.

My son went to China about a year ago and it sounds like things have really changed and opened up a lot just in those 12 years or so. It was still very Communist in 95. Chinese artists were forbidden to make contact with western artists.

M K: They wouldn’t let the American women into the conference on women? What’s NGO?

Mars Tokyo: Non-Government Organizations. All the organizations from around the world that deal with women’s health, rights, the arts etc. were in the NGO portion of the conference. But the official UN part of the conference was just the governments coming together. No one was allowed into that one.

M K: But you couldn’t talk to the Chinese women?

Mars Tokyo: No, we were closely watched and not allowed. It would have meant the Chinese person would be sent off to prison if found out.

M K: I have a hard time wrapping my head around that. The readers of Escape Into Life also like to read poetry. You’ve mentioned Dickinson, and I know you like John Ashbery, and I wonder if there’s a particular Ashbery poem or book that you really like.

Mars Tokyo: I guess Houseboat Days is my favorite book of his poems. Daffy Duck in Hollywood comes to mind.

M K: I love those. Thanks so much for sharing your work and your thoughts.

Mars Tokyo: You’re welcome.

Visit Mars Tokyo’s website

Visit Mars Tokyo’s Tiny Theatre

mkMark Kerstetter steals time away from restoring an old house in Florida to write and make art. His poetry has been published in Shaking Like a Mountain, Unlikely Stories, Evergreen Review and other journals.  He is the author of The Bricoleur.