Aaron Martin is a visual artist living in Nashville, TN. He is also a founding member of the psych-soul band, Okey Dokey. Aaron shares his thoughts on his art—process and philosophy—finding truth in creating for people and himself, inspirations, and what's next. Read our interview below.
By Liz Earle
Were art and music central to your formative years? Were you encouraged to express yourself through these mediums?
I think I was always someone who could hold it down as a solid scribbler. My parents were supportive of anything I did that showed an interest beyond my little town, really. I don’t think they even realized at the time. I would get in trouble a lot, but the punishment would never quite show up. I think that’s because every mistake I made, or rule I bent, was really centered around adventure and an unyielding imagination. I was still a nice kid the whole time. In such a small pond, I couldn’t have asked for better parents. They had a few quirks that helped shape me as well. My dad would be working his ass off all day, stuck to a phone, and he’d be doodling the whole time like he didn’t even register a phone call—he’d kill it though. My mom was a little further out I’d say. One time I was watching her spruce up the house, and she started tilting the paintings and mirrors slightly. I was like, “Mom, what are you doing to the house?” She was tilting them so that no one would ever notice, but I was watching it go down. She said something along the lines of, “Nothing in life is perfect. I will not have you living in a pretend world.” I know that sounds silly but young me was definitely changed by that conversation.
Was it an easy decision for you to quit school and focus on art? Where would you be instead?
That’s really hard to say. I was once in engineering school. I was once living in a Taco Bell bag. I was once asleep on the job. I think by the time I was in art school, I had resigned to fluid life already. A combination of déjà vu, insomnia, a death here-and-there, and a pretty long trip had granted me some fresh peepers. I was ready for less safety. So, when a few of my professors told me to leave art school, I was so primed to hear those words that I left with peace instead of the normal dread of leaving a comfortable space. I was young and receiving well over the amount I needed for tuition in scholarships. To leave that environment is pretty heavy to most, so I’m glad I could make myself do it.
Talk about how you got started doing what you do in Nashville. How did the idea to trade art for house shows come about? Who were some of the first bands you worked with? Which pieces are you most proud of? If you could collaborate with anyone, who would it be?
This is one of those questions that you move outside and smoke about, let’s see—how my life really began? I mean, that’s how it feels. I moved to Nashville at the beginning of 2011. I lived eleven stories up in a loft downtown because I thought it was important to know what the city actually felt like. It only took about three months for the sky-life to leave me feeling detached. I was also dealing with loads of hypochondria. After a few months of rolling hooters, I had a solid friend base and started to realize that music was a factor. I decided that if I wanted a career, I needed to find one on my own. I was still in art school at the time.
The music scene in Nashville was in a really wonderful place and you started to see new genres being born and new voices emerge. Our scene was beginning to stick out and people were taking notice. The first band I reached out to was The Jag, they are still one of the coolest bands around. I was like, “Dudes, I love you and I have some artwork for you. Use it if you want but then you need to play a show for me when I’m ready.” That became a handful of bands and a handful of shows. Everything was free to the public and everyone could just be happy. In turn, I could just be happy.
This all cascaded into a Halloween party that I threw with another wonderful artist friend of mine, Ellie Caudill. There were bands playing until five in the morning, like 800 people showed up, there was a 15 ft. bonfire raging, and, boy, did the cops have no idea what to do. They just watched us from afar. There was this one guy who’d dressed up like the Sexy Sax Man, just killing it. In the moment where all substances faded away, enough for me to see what I had made, I looked up and the Sax Man was on top of an Astrovan, playing that famous line, silhouetted by that 20 ft. flame, and nothing could have been a better descriptor for the emotions I was feeling about my new home.
The Sax Man ended up being my best friend, Jeremy Clark. We’ve been friends for six years now and I didn’t know it was him until a month ago—that is unreal. Around that time I went to the Frist and saw the Andy Warhol exhibit. I hated Warhol at that point. The idea of worker bees made me sick to my stomach, and still kinda does, but what I saw was so beautiful. Andy was just like me—the dude on the couch. His friends were all talented musicians and one day he got them together and made a scene. Everyone was crashing on Andy’s couch at that point. None of that could be true, but I saw a message there; we are more impactful as a group. I took that and implanted it into my spine. Everywhere I go now is with my friends. It’s like if you took the exoskeleton of everyone in your social sphere and stacked them all on your own, a spider you can’t squish. That’s what I want to be.
What helps you to create? Motivational, inspirational, or otherwise? Legal / illegal.
I am usually influenced by dreams I’ve had, or things I’ve seen on the road. I feel like the most striking scenes are played out in unfamiliar places. I also love looking at clouds until a movie starts playing out. My friends also influence me heavily. I’ve picked up lots of photographer friends the last couple of years. I find myself really inspired by people who can find so much beauty in others. One friend in particular, Pooneh Ghana, has shown me a lot. I stayed with her for a week last year to shoot a video and I was really impressed by her ability to see a person. I love Fargo, Easy Rider, and the Alien franchise.
What’s your creative process— from the moment you get commissioned to make something, where is your brain? How do you conceptualize what it is you’re working on? Do you listen to music? Is it 2 AM? Is it different for each assignment?
I usually go straight into influences and setting. I ask for three visual examples of mine so that I know a general style that they like and three guiding phrases—"happier down here,""floating getaways," "all together now," "cowboy space adventure," "melty cheese man," "clouds at play"—I love these short descriptors because you get an idea of what a person wants while allowing yourself room to make something original.
How long does it take to make one of your pieces? Do you get lost in the work? Is it more meditative than visual?
It always varies. Each project has a different narrative, sometimes a narrative is deep and extensive, other times you don’t need to say much. The part that takes the longest is if someone is unsure. I love when musicians say they want a minimal design. This means one of two things, usually—the first circumstance involves a very confident client. Minimal means minimalist, because to them the music is solid on its own. The other side involves someone who knows what they want but not-at-all. There will be more rabbit hole direction and you usually end up doing whatever you want and somehow it ends up being “exactly what the client envisioned.” That just means that they envisioned believing in you, but weren’t ready to, and then found peace somewhere in the middle.
I think psychologists would get a kick out of being freelance artists. It becomes more-and-more about the relationship and the conversation. People hire you because they trust you, but they don’t always trust themselves. That part is so cool, though. I do get lost, but more in the effect that I want a piece to have on my client. I feel very comfortable creating, but I get so much joy from being effective.
Someone recently asked me if doing wheat paste and tagging was more fun to me than commissions. I think he was pretty surprised by my answer. I think a lot of people have this idea that art has to be free and illegal to be carnal and real. That is so goofy to me. Those people are either just making messes all over town, or usually just trying to get their name out there. That’s fine, but it is not for me at this point. I earned word-of-mouth partially through being free and putting my artwork wherever I wanted. I busted out windows, and climbed on roofs, and pissed in cans of paint. It felt great but it feels way better when another human being says, “Hey, I want to give you my money, which is really my time, which is also dwindling away and could be put towards literally anything else, but here-and-now, your stupid world makes me happier than anything else I can think of right now and I want to put it in my home, on my body, on my album that I worked so hard on, on the business that I put my life into, in the neighborhood where my children sleep.” Making people happy is actually real as fuck. I think that is the place where we should try to be lost in process.
When did you get involved with mural work? Do you find it more interesting than pen and paper?
I had a dream a few years ago on New Year’s Eve, Eve that I was painting a huge wall and all of my friends were there. I woke up and decided that my resolution would be to do exactly that because why not? I went out that night and ran into an old friend who claimed that he had been looking all over for me (no phone at the time) and had a wall he wanted me to paint. I thanked the universe and threw a party. Some friends of mine painted as well; Casey Pierce, Daniel Holland, Kristen Brubaker. We knocked it out of the park and I was all of a sudden a muralist. I also happen to love doing them, another awesome surprise. Pen and ink will always be the best to me, though.
I’ve noticed you’ve started working with animation and other digital programs, what motivated you to try digital art? Do you like it? What do you use? What are the advantages, if any, of digital art vs. hand-drawn?
I’ve started to use more and more digital means to create art, yes. For the longest time I was really afraid of the possibility of losing myself to a new process. Drawing on a screen sounded a lot like not drawing shit to me. However, I have an IPad Pro that I love doing design work on now. The Apple Pencil is fantastic and feels surprisingly natural. Procreate is an incredible program and I learn something new every time I pick it up. If you pair that with the many texture packs out there, you are golden. This is just great because you can put an idea down almost instantly. I am also having the time of my life learning how to animate. Jeremy and I have also been developing a video game in the van which is, I think, going to be super cool. I’ve wanted to see my drawings in motion for years and I feel closer to my artwork than I ever have.
When I first noticed your work around town, you were using mostly black ink and paper, now I see your work is vibrant and colorful. How do you select which colors to use together in a piece? What’s your favorite combo? At which point do you decide to use color or go without?
I am still learning about color and how I react to it. I haven’t really found my palette yet but I have learned that I do actually love color. I still start everything ink on paper, though. I like to fill a page and ink is so absolute that I have to be able to keep a composition ahead of me the whole time. I think this makes the final image stronger. Then, I get to enter another place as I dig into color land. I am also content to try new things and to move on when I feel like I’ve grasped a trick. Although, this keeps me in a kind of color limbo so I end up having to relearn things as I do them. I think I am really just growing in comfort and this makes my ideas easier to achieve. The decision to use color comes when it’s all over and is really a decision of whether or not it makes anything better in the first place. When I do release an image with color it is only because it is a better version.
Who are some visual artists that you love/ look up to? Anyone we should know about?
What music are you into right now?
I am obsessing over Benjamin Clementine. Also, I’m kinda losing my shit on Frank Ocean right now. I’m so late to the game. At any given time over the next six months I’ll probably just be spinning Channel Orange.
Where can we find your work?
You can find my work many places, but right now I’d prefer if you found it on my Instagram. This is the best way to stay current and look back on things. Walls get painted over, drawings have coffee spilled on them, my favorite shirt sucks now. Check out my digital space @smilelikethewindboy and later this year I’ll be opening a web store with books, prints, original artwork, and some other tangibles.
Work, work, work. I am working up a few videos right now that I’m excited to share in the next few months and I’ll be on the road with Okey Dokey in October supporting Blitzen Trapper. Come say hello!
FOUND is a monthly interview series by Original Fuzz Magazine. Our aim is to discover visual artists from every corner of the world, no matter their background or creative vision. Art is important.
If you like this interview, you'll love the rest of this month's issue. Find it here.
Liz Earle is a writer who likes art. If you'd like to be a featured artist, let her know. Send a message to firstname.lastname@example.org.