Interview: Marta Spendowska

Marta Spendowska is a Polish-born (Maine-based) American artist and illustrator. Since her arrival in the United States in 2005, she has worked with a wide range of art collectors and consultants, fashion and beauty brands, and interior designers.

In her current body of work, Marta depicts the colors, rhythms, patterns, and atmospheres she has experienced in America. She balances these compositions by incorporating visual references to her melancholic homeland, portrayed through more static organic forms in tones of black and white.

Her paintings were included in the 2014 Biennial at the Museum of Wisconsin Art and she has been exhibiting her work at a variety of venues throughout Wisconsin since 2012; additionally and recently, she was part of a four-person show at Elliott Fouts Gallery, in Sacramento, CA. Articles and interviews featuring Marta and her work have been published in books, such as the Directory of Illustration, and How to Style Your Brand, and numerous magazines, including Oprah Magazine, Domino Magazine, Women’s Wear Daily, Communication Arts Magazine, and more. She was also artist-in-residence at House of Creed.

Marta has a background in graphic Communications and holds a Master’s Degree in Marketing and Journalism. She currently resides happily in York Beach, Maine though she is scheming ways to be a free-stater (Live free or die!) in New Hampshire soon.

Marta Spendowska

Marta Spendowska

When did you move to the United States? Did you study art when you were in Poland? Tell us a little bit about your background.

The first time I came to USA (Atlanta, GA) was during my 4th year of my University in Poland. It was a 5 month long internship. 

My job was to show up at the place of work, but because I knew nobody was watching (yes, that’s the rebellious side of me in action) ), I decided to experience America on my own terms instead. 

I found creative jobs (working with fashion designers, musicians). After selling my first original art, I sat across from the parking lot of a health food store and decided to think about this really hard: "What is possible in this land of milk and honey that is not in my motherland, Poland?"

After spending five months in Atlanta, GA painting, going to museums, experiencing this crazy land and the most open people I’ve ever met, I gained a feeling and a realization that it was my place to flourish. I went back, graduated (Masters in Marketing), came back with $600 in my pocket and today—it’s been 10 years already! 

Eventually, after a period of hustling here as a waitress, Citgo gas station clerk, housekeeper, and yoga teacher, I managed to get accepted into a design program and I graduated from Graphic Communications. Because I’m quite independent, I realized very quickly I’m not suited for having a boss. After freelancing on the side a bit (I started accepting jobs while studying) I made the decision to set up my own creative business.  

Currently, I work as a fine artist and a commercial illustrator, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I live through fulfilling my ideas and sensibilities by painting and studying art. 

How do you feel your cultural background influenced your paintings?

Poland is a very interesting country. It’s melancholic, sarcastic and very independent. Everyone, left and right, always wanted a piece of us, so Polish people tend to be sceptic, a bit withdrawn and cold. On the other hand, nobody gets together in times of trouble like we do. I always say—if you gain a Polish friend, it’s for life. The friendship itself might take time to develop, but it’s going to be a deep lifelong friendship. We’re not superficial, that is for sure.

This translates into my art. I tend to be moved by melancholic beauty and Baltyk Sea (where I go once a year). Last year I painted the whole series inspired by my travels to this magical, salty, grey land. There is a huge difference between Pacific, let’s say, and Polish sea and this is where I find my definition of nostalgic beauty. 

So, my paintings speak of beauty in a somewhat sentimental way: The blue sea is moody, the botanical flora is either heavy and stubborn with presence or terribly delicate, like a translucent forgotten leaf or petal. 

My art feels like a little storm just went by and left something interesting behind. A petal, a golden island in the sea. Maybe it’s me missing Poland, maybe it’s Poland missing me, but surely, I crave and thrive in that emotional canyon of beauty and sadness. 

I could not paint happy trees. I love intimate, soft poetry as much as I love a melancholic art. 

When did you start making abstract paintings? What was your earlier work like?

I’ve been working as a commercial illustrator for a couple of years. My illustrative work is representational, I’m mostly hired for food, portraiture, some fashion, and lifestyle work. In the beginnings of my fine art history you’re going to also find portraiture. My work was very well received, and I was lucky to get it to the Museum of Wisconsin Art and be noticed in the international portraiture competition. As a child I always loved painting faces, so that direction was a no-brainer for me. 

But after working with “what I know” for a bit and feeling like I wasn't taking a lot of risks, I felt a strong pull towards abstract work. 

It took a while until I showed anything publicly. Funny thing is that after I published one or two pieces, I felt a weird need to prove I can paint, and “I can paint” means I can handle portraiture. This was my first trap to overcome: to make sure everyone knows I have traditional skills. 

Abstract work came to me to help me to develop as an independent artist. During my commercial projects I rely on a creative direction from art buyers, so the non-client driven abstract work helps me to discover the edges of what I can do if I only rely on myself, in a very broad sense. 

I love working in my main two series I call Wetlands and Bloomlands. Having the two correspond with each other pushes me further and keeps me engaged. 

Name a few highlights you experienced as an artist so far.

This maybe be bold to say, but the biggest highlight is to make a good living off of it. I paint pictures every day. Come on! What can be better?

Well, I spend a lot of time on the business side of it, but — I have no boss, no fights with co-workers, no resentment. 

I love Ashley Longshore’s opinions regarding this business of art. Artists are so interested in showing their work or being accepted to the shows. It is all important, but I want to live a good life, have resources to spend two months in Poland with my family, and love doing what I do, and most importantly KEEP doing it. 

As far as tangible highlights, I think being in the Museum of Wisconsin Art is a nice resume bullet point. Additionally, exhibiting in the show with Heather Day is a big honor, having my work on Danielle LaPorte’s product means a lot, my Urban Outfitters collaboration makes me very happy, but most importantly connecting with artists is the best part of all of this. 

What is one piece of advice you would give artists trying to progress their career?

Take the time to discover yourself. Do not cut corners. And discover yourself OUTSIDE of instagram…

What are your favorite activities when you are not in the studio?

My body is the happiest when it works with rituals, so I go to yoga every morning. It’s either Bikram or Ashtanga (I’m certified as a teacher, actually), because it’s intense and allows me sweat all the worries and stresses that come with running my own business. Additionally, sun-bathing, walking by the ocean, inhaling the salty Atlantic (or my Polish Baltyk) are the most invigorating activities. Whenever I feel like something is off, the painting or the string of them goes south, I check with myself and I usually discover I neglected some healthy routines. I always say—I’m never blocked, I must be simply overworked. The remedy is to take long salt baths (with ocean water in them!) and do lots of headstands. 

You recently moved to Maine. Has the new environment provided inspiration and influenced your work?

Actually, I was expecting the influence, but not yet, surprisingly. Not in the sense of the work per se. What living in Maine does is push me to connect locally and work as a part of a collective rather than a solitary artist. The connections are very slim yet (we’ve been here for 5 weeks only) and we’re busy with catching up with work after moving, and searching for a house to settle in. But my goal is to meet regularly with local artists and actually organize art events myself—we’re looking for a specific type of property for that reason. I’m happy to circle back with you in a year and reflect back on this fabulous Maine influence!  

Share a fun fact about yourself.

I am a goof. I paint serious feminine, elegant and beautiful paintings. My favorite creative woman is Virginia Woolf. I love high heels and I adore sad poetry. On the other side, I do cartwheels and I love to walk on my hands. I’m rather loud and very often talk too much or too directly. 

And, I love to swear, especially in English! I can always say (what I used to say in times of trouble): "I have no idea what that means!"