Chris Mars, my mission: free the oppressed, champion the persecuted

I learned it first from my Brother. He didn’t teach me; I watched it. They will pin a word on your chest and use it against you. They will create a word that’s excuse to take your humanity away. I saw it happen to him.

And everyday, this: A word to make you serve, and one to make you grateful for it. There is a label out there just for you. This will make you easier to categorize, and to sell to. There is a word for the man next to you that makes you comfortable with the fact that you have so much more than he does. There is a word for you that tells you what to settle for.

There are the voiceless, who cannot speak for themselves. These are the easiest ones to shrink down. There are words for the non-conformers, simple words that can be quickly acknowledged by those that buy in: Crazy, Faggot, Gang, Rich. One is sinful, one is lazy, one is violent by nature and one is always, always good enough.

It’s such a precious thing that no one wants you to have it. You can’t be trusted with it. It’s such a delicate thing that it turns to something different in different hands. They might bury it but you can dig it up: You are strong enough for the Truth.

From my hands, my mission: To free the oppressed; to champion the persecuted, and the submissive; to liberate through revelation the actualized Self in those proposed by some to have no self at all. It’s in every single one of us, somewhere underneath that word on our chest.

In my hands, my version: All art is political in some sense, be it through conformity, reflection, propaganda or rebellion. My paintings are rallies and trials, photographs of a moment when Truth was made public, and Mercy known.

Question why a villain is villainized, a victim martyred. Ask why a group is demonized, and the motives for control. See for yourself what the truth looks like in your hands. Dig it up and hold it for a while. This work you see, it’s my Truth. But please don’t take my word for it.

When my brother Joe was fifteen years old, he was institutionalized for schizophrenia. He saw things, he heard things. Were these monsters? Was he?

Through some thirty years of his treatment, he encountered compassionate souls, both fellows and caregivers. He was also neglected and exploited by individuals and a system more interested in commerce and statistics than his very well-being. Were these exploiters monsters? He was fifteen. I was five. I went to see him. Did he see monsters? Or did I?

Let me tell you something about Monsters. I have great empathy toward Monsters, or more accurately, Perceived Monsters. To me, Monsters are more like misfits, people who are physically deformed, or rather, uniquely formed (as indeed we all are, each of us); or, people who are mentally on a different plane than the majority. By this definition, might I be speaking even of you? I am sympathetic toward Perceived Monsters, because I have known and loved perceived monsters, and have felt this way myself.

There are Real Monsters that walk this earth, cruel, evil people; oppressive, dehumanizing beliefs. I despise Real Monsters, because of their nature and their acts; and because of a public willingness to have this label, “Monster”, shared between those that are ‘different’ and those that are evil. The word Monster in its original application describes a child born with a physical deformity. What does it mean that our society has taken this word now to mean “evil”? Where is that leap between appearances, either physical or emotional, and the specifically dark nature of one’s soul? All of this speaks of a shallowness I seek to conquer. My work is about looking beyond the outer to the inner, and finding with this the true definition of Beauty – which is beyond form.

I use conventional vehicles such as light and composition and technique to invite the audience to my work. I use these conventional vehicles to specifically lure the viewer into my world, which is a direct product of the World, where Angels can be mistaken for Monsters, and actual Monsters for heroes or kings.

So look closely at my work, look hard. Because I’m trying to show you something beautiful.

The imagery that is my work stems from the very strong visual and emotional impact of growing up in a family marked by mental illness. My eldest brother Joe suffers from schizophrenia. Joe experienced his first pronounced episode at age 16, and was immediately institutionalized. As a result, I acquired an early and lasting fear that if you are not one of society’s “Normal” members, then you are likely to be labeled, whisked embarrassingly away from your family, stripped of your freedom, drugged and humiliated. Joe was hospitalized on and off throughout my childhood and adolescent years. The seemingly medieval hospital visuals etched into my consciousness, along with the trauma of my brother being repeatedly taken from us. The sights, sounds and smells I experienced as a small child visiting him there are prevalent throughout my work.

As a child, I found identity with the monsters depicted in film and books. I believed I knew the unfortunates hunted by the angry mobs, the freaks that fall victim to a gang mentality, which harbors ignorance. I believed I knew the deep lack of understanding plaguing these monsters. I connected here, and began with these symbols to wrestle the issues concerning my brother’s illness. Here, I could champion him. And so, this theme announces itself in my work now. I want people to consider the beauty that lives beneath the veneer of my troubled figures and faces. Through my work, it is my intention to bring these souls forward as a symbol of and a memorial to the many who live with mental illness, those who are labelled and thereby limited by some flaw that is in truth only a fraction of what that whole person is about.

In each piece, I am freeing my brother. I am creating a monument to him and those like him. I rescue Joe from the oppressive institutions of the 1960s, the stereotypes of society here today. Through my work, I challenge the cultural system that finds it easier to turn their heads, their hearts, away. I urge the viewer to consider the beauty, on a grand level, of that which may appear ugly at first.

As the environment defines the disease, so the environment defines my work. Pastel, paint, clay all speak in my work with a voice unique to them. The very surface on which I work is an environment which defines the materials I apply to them. I use colors designed to attract, forcing the eye towards the image, towards the people who live within it. Often, a city or grouping of buildings in the distance serves to symbolize the outsider status of the families which populate my work.

As an adult I can comprehend mental illness, even the need to institutionalize people. But as a child, my brother’s schizophrenia was met with horror, depression, confusion and fear: Fear of the system, fear of the words, the hospitals, the demons others saw. Fear that it would happen to me next. Through my own need to create, to communicate, I have gained through my work an understanding and insight into these early, lasting, and tragic events. I am continually compelled to explore this.

During my visits to the hospitals, looking into my brother’s eyes, I knew so much more than the clinicians did. I knew the depth of this person, what made him laugh, his interests, what he was proud of. But what I could only and can only imagine is the hardship, confusion, embarrassment and despair that he suffered from being so singled out by a disease that at the time, they knew so much less about. Through my work, I try to understand this. I try to show my love. This is what I seek to share with you.
Chris Mars
Apr 22, 2020

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