A Mark of Success

By Peg Major

Mark Alsterlind '76 is serious about his art. A dozen exhibits in as many months say the art world is serious about him.

When Mark Alsterlind '76 has been away from his studio for a while, he often spends days "throwing brushes" when he returns. Sometimes he gets so frustrated that he punches a hole through the canvas. "But that's the beauty of working on a collage," he says, laughing at his temperament. "I can usually patch it up and make the hole work into the piece I am creating."

But make no mistake, the 33-year-old abstract painter, who lives in Van Gogh's hometown Aries, France is serious about his art. Now the art world is beginning to reward that effort.

"He is someone who has arrived." Lydia Modi Vitale

"He is someone who has arrived," says former de Saisset Museum director Lydia Modi Vitale, now assistant director of Vorpal Gallery in San Francisco.

Alsterlind sees himself as a young, maturing abstract painter. "Nonsense," says Vitale. "He is a conceptual artist and a good one."

The critics support Vitale's claim. In May he had a personal show of paintings and drawings in Basel, Switzerland, followed by group exhibits in Nancy and Rochefort-sur-Mer in France, and capped by a one-man show in Paris in June.

He also was one of 20 young painters invited to show their work in a special exhibit in Sete, France, in July, and, next September, will participate in a group show of "Young French Painting" in New York City.

These were not his first shows, although he has only been exhibiting since 1987. The year before, he had decided if he were to make a living as a painter, he would have to promote his work.

Within eight months, he had been featured in four personal shows and two group exhibits in Paris and southern France. At one of the Paris shows, he had the heady experience of selling all his work.

At first, young professionals—doctors, attorneys, and decorators—bought his art. Today his buyers include established collectors like gallery owners and art patrons.

Success has come so quickly that even Mark has difficulty accepting it. After all, his career was not exactly planned; it happened more by accident than by design.

It began, he says, because of Lydia Modi Vitale, de Saisset's dynamic director (1967-78), who was like a beacon to Santa Clara students in the 1970s. Believing art to be ''an important asset to students that should be a part of their education," she enticed them to the de Saisset for student openings of avant-garde exhibits by featuring food and live music-often rock bands. What followed, of course, were discussions with exhibiting artists. In the process, students found themselves learning about art-and enjoying the experience.

Vitale hired undergraduates to work part time in the museum, among them European history major Mark Alsterlind. "I did a little of everything, from helping set up shows to serving champagne at member openings," he recalls. But it was the opportunity to talk with painters, artists, and photographers from varied backgrounds that impressed Mark and kindled his interest in art.

In his junior year, he took a class in etching and became so absorbed by it he thought of leaving Santa Clara and going to art school. But that did not happen.

He graduated with a B.A. in history in June 1976, uncertain of his future. But a graduation gift from a friend-a round-trip plane ticket to Europe- helped determine his path. Dated March 21, 1977, the ticket "gave me just nine months to earn the money I would need to live abroad for a year," Mark recalls. He worked as a pasteup artist by day and as a waiter by night, and saved every nickel.

His first five months in Europe in the spring of 1977 were wonderful. When his money began to dwindle, he headed for cheaper fare in the Middle East and Far East, where he managed to stretch his tour another six months. Everywhere he went in Europe and Asia, he visited museums and galleries, learning about cultures new to him and experiencing some of them firsthand.

"I am in a place that allows me the concentration necessary for my vocation."

When his funds ran out, he headed home to California and went to work as a guide for a travel company, which soon took him back to Europe for three more months. It was during this second trip that his direction became clear: "One day I finally just said, 'I'm going home and go to art school,' " he remembers. 

He graduated from the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland in 1980. Because of his bachelor's degree from Santa Clara, the humanities course work at the four-year school was waived, allowing him to complete the program in 30 months. More important, it enabled him to spend all of his class time in pure studio work-two or three classes each day.

In his European travels, Mark met a young French woman, Catherine, who since has become his wife and the mother of their daughter, Margaux. She was working as a speech therapist in Dordogne, near Bordeaux. When Mark finished art school, he followed her there.

He was fortunate to be commissioned right away to work on the Lascaux prehistorical project near Dordogne, drawing animals in the Lascaux Cave two hours a day, and creating a replica of the real neolithic polychrome paintings in another, newly created "facsimile," which is now open to the public. The rest of the time he painted in a small studio he fashioned in their home.

They moved to Aries in 1981, and Mark worked as a printmaker at the School of Fine Arts in Nimes. Two years later they bought a neglected 17th-century stone house and Mark devoted the next 18 months to restoring it . It was a period he remembers, especially because it no longer allowed him time to paint. "But I kept on drawing," he recalls. "I had to. My work had become something I could not do without."

Their new home included a large studio for Mark and he eagerly returned full time to his work. But it was at this juncture he realized he was committed to his art, and he began promoting his work among galleries, with unexpected success.

"Promotion is hard work," Mark says, "requiring tenacity, motivation, and luck." He estimates he now allots a third of his time to that endeavor. Yet he believes it is essential he represent himself at this point in his career: "I get to know the context of each gallery when I spend time with the owner. That is important to me as a painter. There must be a harmony between the gallery and the artist."

The next step is to become more broadly known as a serious painter so he can be represented by one of several ~ris galleries he has painstakingly identified as possessing that harmony. To that end, he traveled to New York in fall 1987 and visited 50 galleries; a third of them viewed his work.

An affiliation with the right gallery is important, Mark says, because it will give him the freedom to paint while his work is being shown inside and outside of France.

A versatile painter, Mark works in assemblage and collage with pastels, oils, and acrylics. His wife, born and raised in Paris, had no expertise in art before she married Mark, but has become quite knowledgeable. "What she thought about a piece I was doing used to affect me a lot," he admits, "but that is less true now. Sometimes she lets me know when she thinks I've been working on something too long by saying, 'I liked it better a week ago."' 

Like many other artists, he works on five to ten paintings at a time, typically on three by five-foot canvases. Some come easily; others take months. After a while, Mark says, intuition takes over and he finds it difficult to tell whether something has occurred by choice or by chance. "If one of every ten pieces has something, I'm lucky," he says.

He usually works 9 to 12 hours each day. "I'm not a morning person, but I discipline myself to be in my studio by 9. It may take me a couple of hours to settle into what I'm doing. After lunch with my family, I return to the studio for another five hours. After dinner, I go back to work, usually until 1 or 2 a.m."

Mark finds living in France very different from life in the United States, especially because it is free from the stress he relates to living in America. "I lead a low-key life. Americans my age are more concerned with success, especially material success. I am not that way. In the south of France where I live, most people equate a 'good life' with doing some traveling, having a good family life, and spending time with their friends. Intuitively, or by chance, I am in a place that allows me the concentration necessary for my vocation.

Living in France the past seven years, he has picked up the language and speaks it fluently, but with an accent he can't lose. On a recent U.S. trip, he complained it took him two weeks before he could speak English smoothly again. "Even then, I discovered I was still thinking in French and converting it to English."

Although Mark has not studied formally with anyone since art school, he says he continues to learn from his experiences. "Over a glass of wine with a friend, for instance, or in a conversation with another painter, I keep learning new things." 

Mark acknowledges that Catherine would like them to spend more time doing things together-especially traveling. Her job allows her several months of vacation time a year. But at present, that's not possible. His work is all consuming. And compelling.

When asked why he works so hard at his painting, Mark doesn't hesitate: "I do it because I must."


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