"Live a good life, and in the end, it’s not the years in the life, it’s the life in the years."


By on March 27, 2021 in Arts with 0 Comments
This Austin, Texas parking lot exemplifies Marlin’s expertise in 3-D imagery, done large, very large. Photos taken on the ground just show innocuous black and brown stripes; from above the spider seems to be moving right along.

Marlin Peterson makes art that jumps off the page — or wall or asphalt parking lot — while teaching others that yes, you can get paid to make art

By Susan Lagsdin

Is it an alien invasion, or just a zoological anomaly worth shouting about? 

Gazing almost straight down from the observation deck, you can see them menacing the roof of the Seattle Center Armory building: two astonishing 40-foot Harvestmen, also known as “daddy longlegs.” 

Marlin Peterson, who teaches drawing and illustration at Wenatchee Valley College, was commissioned in 2012 by the City of Seattle to paint an attention-getting rooftop mural for the World’s Fair 50th anniversary, and he proposed those distinctive arachnids. (“They aren’t spiders,” he said. “But people call them that anyway.”)

Their outsize spiky legs gave him a great chance to play with light and shadow to create a perfect optical illusion. After scraping seagull detritus off the gritty roof, Marlin painted solo from wire and clay scale models and gridded mock-ups, and he fulfilled his grant in five weeks.

 “I wanted to do something grandiose,” he said, “something startling that would catch people off guard.” The notoriety of that project led to recent requests from Ohio and Texas for similar 3-D murals of giant spiders.

A dream job for him, he said, would be traveling to do more commissioned work like his startling trompe l’oeil surfaces, but for now he’s found plenty to do at home in Wenatchee, where he moved shortly after the first arachnid invasion. 

Samples of Marlin Peterson’s work on his home’s walls show a fascination with the natural world and the impeccable accuracy that’ s needed for scientific illustration. Sometimes, though, he’ll concoct generalized creatures just for fun. Photo by Mike Irwin

Marlin sees the wealth of unadorned alleyways, walls, parking lots and flat roofs as the perfect blank canvas and is hatching plans for even more public murals.

This city has already been blessed with his mural art, which he sometimes uses as an extension of his college classes: a huge dahlia on Fifth Street and much-larger-than-life animals indigenous to the area: salmon, foraging bears and the latest June 1920 design at Kiwanis Methow Park of vibrant migratory birds.

A collaborative project last year was the student-made, large-scale graffiti art on the brick walls of WVC’s Wells Hall, completed just before its scheduled tear-down. Many of the images, in homage to the building’s history, are archived at WVC.

These fish in their first “alevan” stage are part of a long horizontal mural that Marlin produced in 2016 depicting the life stages of salmon. You’ll see it on the east wall above Centennial Park on South Wenatchee Avenue.

Though he’s known here mostly for his murals, Marlin said, “Because I’m a freelance artist, I have to be willing to do anything a client asks,” so he also does science illustration for books and journals, cartooning, paleo reconstruction, logo design and branding (add posters, tee shirts, cider labels, coffee mugs…) Fortunately, much of that work is digital, a very familiar medium for him, so he can work from home.

Seattle was his basecamp for artwork and traveling for years. 

Marlin’s wife Christine’s job in health care precipitated their 2012 move to Wenatchee, and they were delighted to live in the center of such wide-open recreational bounty. 

“I used to bike here when I was a kid, so it was great getting over here to the Loop and learning all the biking trails,” he said. Peddling fast and far is a favorite pastime of the couple; their two toddlers, already adept on tricycles, will soon join them.

Marlin’s a model for their confidence. He spent years (“most of my 20s”) on a series of biking adventures in Ethiopia, Madagascar, Kyrgyzstan, India and Russia. 

He’d sketch and take pictures and, on return to the USA, repair his bike and make a little money touring slide shows and painting houses. “Not artistically,” he clarified. “I mean exteriors.”

A specialized graphics program at the University of California at Santa Cruz reintroduced him to formal professional art, from which he’d veered away in favor of a history degree from Western Washington University.

 “I was in awe of the natural world and then I discovered scientific illustration, which led me back to illustration of all kinds,” Marlin said. “I was turned off art for a while, but now I can strongly encourage my students to create good portfolios and aim for careers. I assure them — yes — you can get paid to make art.’” 

As a working graphic artist who’s also a teacher, Marlin takes opportunities to hone his own skills. He works in everything from charcoal, ink and watercolor to digital images and latex house paint, so his students are exposed to a range of media. 

“When I give an assignment, it’s always something I would actually enjoy doing too,” he said. “I start it beforehand so I can anticipate problems and advise them as we go along.”

 Animals and insects are frequent subjects. One class project involves creating a small wire and clay maquette, or scale model, of a prehistoric creature, then aiming light from different angles to define contour for fine-line scratchboard or pen and ink drawings. 

Naturalistic, scientific drawings hone hand-eye focus; sometimes, however, his students loosen up with large, spontaneous ink brush washes.

He prepares challenging assignments for his students despite pandemic distance, and Marlin is an involved dad to his sons as well. “I know I have FOMO (fear of missing out), but when they’re in the house I want to be with them,” he said. So, whether he’s doing free-lance scientific drawings, making a mock-up of a new installation, or planning his next day’s classes, he gives himself a late shift, working around 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. in his small basement studio.

In these last difficult months, with the couple adroitly juggling job schedules and childcare both at home and away, and a house-remodeling project to boot, Marlin said, “I’m always on the hunt for personal creativity time — many ideas seem so close and possible I can almost taste them, but they remain out of reach.” 

Spring will help, for sure. Marlin’s other creative outlet, an extensive garden of fruit trees and berry bushes, will beckon him outdoors. 

And, who knows? Maybe he and his young crop of trained mural enthusiasts will be given free rein to adorn even more Wenatchee walls.

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