To say Martha Rich MFA’11 didn’t plan on becoming an artist is putting it mildly. She has been a hotel desk receptionist, an insurance-claims adjustor, an employment headhunter, a Tex-Mex restaurant hostess, and a debt collector. “Planning has never worked out for me,” she says. “I mean, how do you plan this?”
This is a vibrant studio on East Passyunk, a first-floor storefront that she shares with three other artists, boundaries loosely drawn by the artistically organized clutter orbiting each person’s workspace. Above Martha’s desk hangs a yellowed, stiffly pointed bra, which acts as both sculpture and inspiration, alongside brightly painted portraits, old photos, and a stack of plywood speech bubbles awaiting their words.
Martha embodies both East and West Coast traits—easygoing yet laser-focused—a whirling dervish who brakes for lobster and cake. After she sprints back and forth to her car with armfuls of plywood, we settle in under the large picture window, in the light, to talk about how she didn’t plan her art career. — CG
How did you get started in illustration?
When I moved to California I ended up getting a job at Universal Studios in human resources. It was fun, but I was still in a cubicle. I’m just not a cubicle person and I kept trying to get cubicle jobs. You feel you shouldn’t be doing it but you don’t know what else to do. And then I went through a divorce and I was like F-it!
I started taking classes at UCLA extension at night, in graphic design, so I could design magazines. That’s where I heard of Art Center. On a whim I took an illustration class and that was it, I just blew off graphic design, because graphic design is too detail-oriented. Kerning, y’know?
The Clayton Brothers were the teachers. [Rob and Christian Clayton are collaborative artists.] They were like “You can do this, you should quit your job and go back to school.” And I listened. I didn’t know how I was going to pay for it, and I just did it and it sort of worked out. Ignorance is bliss. Not knowing is good. Makes you do stuff. If you knew everything, you’d never do anything.
There are some recurring themes in your work—women, lobsters, cake, bras, burgers, girdles, more cake …
I basically just paint things that I like. I love lobster. That was always my birthday dinner, I always picked lobster. And cake? Cake is fun to paint and it’s good to eat.
The women you paint seem powerful to me, and at the same time vulnerable, like they’re on the cusp of something.
My mom was a feminist back in the ’70s; she was doing things that moms in my neighborhood weren’t doing—that’s my role model—being this artist but also teaching, being the mom but doing other things. So there were feminist themes in our household.
Around the time you arrived at Penn to pursue an MFA in painting, you began using the New York Times Magazine as a sketchbook, painting over the printed pages. This seemed like a turning point, when your illustration and your fine art became one thing. What made you think of doing that?
I had extra paint that I had mixed for something else and I had some New York Times Magazines nearby. I hate wasting paint. I’d done it on books before at Art Center because I was cheap and I didn’t want to buy a sketchbook, so it’s a continuation of that. It gives you rules, so you don’t have to come up with an idea—which I think is a big issue for people, including myself. It’s so much fun. It’s really satisfying.
It’s all based on the grid, covering specific columns of words, covering the shape of what’s underneath. And I was interested in leaving some of the words.
And this led to your mind meld paintings? Where do you get the words for those?
I have notebooks full. I would eavesdrop. I would take the 40 bus to Penn every day and I’d write down words. I have notebooks full of sayings I’ve overheard on television, advertising, spam messages. Spam is the best.
Is an MFA degree worth it?
I’m still answering that question. I think yes, it is. The degree has gotten me teaching work and people think of you in another way. But I don’t necessarily think it’s worth how much you pay for it.
I did start working a little bit differently but it also messed me up for awhile. I got really angry at the lingo and the way of thinking. I feel much freer now that I’m out and can do what I want and be a kind of hybrid between a commercial artist and a fine artist.
Can you give an example of MFA lingo?
“As an artist it is crucial to create a visceral reaction of one’s counter gender memory while appropriating an identity between the blurred and deconstructed tropes of normcore youth skater prep culture.”
You’ve always had an active website and now a strong social media presence. People can find you from so many angles—did you plan any of that?
It just sort of happened. I’m so glad Instagram came along because it fits my personality. But now there are so many people putting stuff up that it’s harder to stand out. Maybe the key right now is to go back and start writing hand notes or a postcard mailing and everyone will be like “What? Who is this person?”
Tell me about your personal projects, like the Travel Drawing Club.
I teach a class at FIT and I bring in 5 different artists to lecture about personal projects and how they turned it into more than just a personal project. I brought in Andy Rementer, a Philadelphia-based artist. All his work is very fill-the-page, so he did an exercise with my class called horror vacui, which means fear of empty space. I took the train home with him. We went to the café car and just started drawing and after that I did it every time—I sit in the café car and do my Amtrak drawing club. Then Gina Triplett spoke to my class and I was like “We gotta do the café car.” And so it became a thing—every time we’re on Amtrak we sit in a café car and draw.
Now it’s translated into going on vacation, I do it as a journal of the location. I just pick out conversations and funny things. It fits my personality so I don’t have to create a scene that’s logical.
And 100 for $100 ?
Slow work. I always make projects for myself when it’s slow. The first one I did was in 2007 when I did a painting a day for a year. That changed my whole career, because people started buying them. So then I decided to make 100 paintings for 100 dollars and it worked!
What’s the best piece of advice you ever got?
The Clayton Brothers basically said trust your intuition. They gave me permission to not think. Because most of the stuff I do is when I’m not trying to do it. The minute I try to do something it never works.
Do you pass that on to your students?
I try to but they look at me like “Give me the Rules!” I tell them, “Don’t think, and make really bad stuff—if you’re not trying to make something good, you’ll be more willing to experiment and that’s when you find the good stuff.” They don’t buy it. But I know.