Artist Marcel Dzama on How Moroccan Mint Tea and ‘Dagger Brushes’ Fuel His Wild and Whimsical Drawings

Soon after his crowd-stopping mosaics in the Bedford L train station in Williamsburg were unveiled, we caught up with the artist in his Brooklyn studio.

Marcel Dzama. Courtesy of David Zwirner.

Marcel Dzama has established himself as a fixture of New York City—literally. Last year, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) commissioned him to transform the surrealist, dreamy worlds he typically paints or draws into a mosaic that is now permanent installed in the Bedford L train subway station in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The pieces, collectively titled No Less Than Everything Comes Together (2021), inspired by Walt Whitman’s poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”, have been stopping commuters in their tracks with their lush colors and striking depictions of dancing mimes and a laughing moon. The Canadian-born, Brooklyn-based artist has since been back in the studio, and Artnet decided to stop by to see what he’s dreaming up next.

What are the most indispensable items in your studio and why?

There are two. One is a paint brush that Raymond Pettibon introduced me to called a dagger brush—it holds a lot of paint but it drips down nicely to a point, so you don’t have to dip your brush constantly to get fresh paint onto the paper. It’s the only brush I like to use these days. The other is a pencil brand called Blackwing that has very soft lead. You don’t have to press that hard and it leaves a nice dark mark. They’re nicely designed and the black eraser on the end works rather well.  

Is there a picture you can send of your work in progress? 

What is the studio task on your agenda tomorrow that you are most looking forward to?

I am working on some large drawings as part of a series based in some sort of tropical Paradise, so I could travel in my mind. Since I haven’t traveled since the start of the pandemic, I feel that art has been a good escape from the reality we are in, so I very much look forward to that task. I’m trying to be more positive and hopeful in my new work since we are living in such dark times, but darkness does find its way into my work most of the time.

What kind of atmosphere do you prefer when you work? Do you listen to music or podcasts, or do you prefer silence? Why?

When I am drawing, I love to listen to music. Usually, I’ll have an album on repeat that has the same feeling as the work in some way, so the atmosphere of the drawing comes out naturally. 

I listen to a lot of Bunk Johnson, Nina Simone, Monk, Lead Belly, Bowie, Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Earl Hooker, CAN, PiL, anything Motown or on Rough Trade. 

When I’m painting, I am able to multitask, so audio books are perfect. I enjoy anything considered a classic but my favorites are the two Jameses—Joyce and Baldwin. 

What trait do you most admire in a work of art? What trait do you most despise?

The thing I admire most in a work of art is sincerity or that the artist was possessed by the work or was having fun with it. You can usually see if it was important to them or at least they enjoyed making it. Not sure if I despise any sort of art, but anything that uses cutting-edge technology for the sake of technology, I am a little skeptical of, but not always. 

What snack food could your studio not function without?

I do enjoy a Moroccan style mint tea… and I always have microwave popcorn on the ready in case my son joins me. We both eat at least one bag each. There is also a restaurant near my studio called Bedouin Tents Middle Eastern food, so anything off their menu is a perfect snack or meal. 

Who are your favorite artists, curators, or other thinkers to follow on social media right now?

The only social media I look at is Instagram, but Duro Olowu is always brilliant! Some of my favorites who come to mind are Roberta Smith, Jack Hanley, Jerry Saltz, Thelma Golden, Marilyn Minter, Karon Davis, Rosa Loy, Katherine Bradford, Kim Gordon, Kara Walker, Suzan Frecon, Young Sun Han, Cindy Sherman, Raymond Pettibon, Rashid Johnson, and the hilarious Amy Sedaris.

Marcel Dzama in his studio.

Marcel Dzama in studio. Courtesy of David Zwirner.

When you feel stuck in the studio, what do you do to get un-stuck?

I haven’t really ever been stuck. I usually am overwhelmed with too many ideas. But if I’m not feeling that inspired, I’ll look at an artist book that I admire and usually that brings me back into focus. 

What is the last exhibition you saw that made an impression on you?

Hilma af Klint’s “Tree of Knowledge” at David Zwirner’s Uptown gallery was the last show I saw before Omicron took over NY. It was very inspiring. 

There was a Francis Picabia show at MoMA in 2016. I still think of it every other day. It was so comprehensive, so many of my favorite works of art all in one spot. I wish I could walk through it again. 

If you had to put together a mood board, what would be on it right now?

Anxious and hopelessly hopeful…

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