Quaker painter Adrian Martinez works in solitude yet craves the communal silence of Quaker worship. We talk with him about art, spirituality, and how a poor kid from D.C. wound up painting for U.S. presidents.
For me, painting is—and I see in retrospect it always was—very similar if not congruent to Quaker meeting for worship. The difference is in that worship, alone in my studio it’s more of a solitary prayer by myself. You would think a person that spends 8 hours a day by himself in silence wouldn’t need to go to this place to be with many other people for more silence. It’s essential for me to have the experience of being with people.
Painting for Worship
My name is Adrian Martinez. I live in Downingtown, Pennsylvania. I’m a member of Downingtown Meeting. My work is oil painting. It’s oil paint on canvas. It’s a very old school technique, very simple, goes back 500 years. There’s nothing technologically innovative about it, but with these simple tools you can get infinite variations and glazes and scumbles, and so the poetry of just a few paints has always been miraculous to me, and it still remains that way today.
I grew up in a very bad place, a very dangerous place, a very violent place and thank God it was an area where they had large, magnificent and free museums. In a museum, I had an “art attack” looking at a painting. I had favorites that I wanted to find: my favorite knight on a horse, my favorite soldier, my favorite… you know, boy stuff. And then I walked by a 13th-century painting, a very obscure artist, Sassetta. I got flushed and panicky. I rushed out and was hyperventilating and was thinking, “Oh my god, what’s happening to me?” And then I realized—I’m talking 9 years old here—I realized, “Oh my god! That’s art.” That’s what art does. That’s what art can do. And then I went to the next step and said, thought, felt: “I can do that.”
Painting for the White House
I grew up in Washington, D.C., before the subway system. It was a very different place. At night it was a ghost town except for the slum areas. When I was a little kid in D.C., I had these clothes that were very raggedy and we were very poor and I remember having my hands around the bars of a big fence looking at the White House and thinking, “What goes on in there? Who’s in there and what are they doing?” And every once in a while, the gates would open and a big black car would come out and people would gather around, saying, “Who’s in that car?”
Thirty years later, I met President and Mrs. Bush. They bought a large painting of mine, and when he became president, they asked me to do the first Christmas card. To do that, I’d have to go to the White House. So I went to the White House. In the White House, the gates opened, I went in. I had a very good time with them. And that is a relationship that continues to this day. It’s very fulfilling.
Painting a Meeting for Worship
I did a painting connected with the series I was doing on Native American interaction with Quakers, and one of those paintings was called Meeting for Worship. All these children and parents were dressed—from my Meeting, from Downingtown Meeting—were dressed in 18th-century clothes, sitting as they do in Meeting for Worship. All those people, including my wife and son are there, were and are close friends, members of Downingtown Meeting. It actually became a meeting for worship. The kids, they just went into a “covered meeting.” And that I didn’t expect. And even when I was done with my work, I was not going to interrupt… I just sat there. It was incredible.
The painting I did, Meeting for Worship, I just knew was not something that was going to get sold. It was not an economic decision. It was a necessity to do, nonetheless. When I did it, I had this big show and it was immediately purchased. First one. And it’s interesting: where it went was the boardroom of an insurance agency. The man that owned the company bought the painting because he said, “The reason I need this painting, and I need it in the boardroom, is because we need more of that in our business.” And I thought, this goes back to when I was a 9-year-old sprout getting an “art attack” in the National Gallery. I’m thinking, “That’s art. That’s what art can do.”
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