How do you fit the life works of one of Mobile’s most prolific artists into a few thousand square feet? You start by making it a family project.
“Fred [Marchman]’s family has done the yeoman’s work of sorting through thousands and thousands of pieces of original artwork. He never threw anything away,” William Coleman Mills said.
The paintings, sculptures, drawings, woodcuts and carvings that make the cut will fill the entirety of Mobile Arts Council’s (318 Dauphin St.) three galleries throughout August. Marchman passed away in April 2016 just five days after his 75th birthday.
Since January, his sister, Louise Marchman Meredith, has rifled through his stores of visual and literary work and added up the miles between here and her Irondale home. She also had a setback.
“I had a foot fracture at the end of June so I’ve had to leave everything in my younger brother’s hands and my son’s. They’ve had quite a job,” Meredith said.
Meredith’s estimate is 150 or more works will be in the show and revisions are expected until it opens. She said it will be the largest showing of her brother’s work ever.
“It took us eight hours to select 40 pieces on paper for the show. It’s an extensive Southern gothic pop art collection,” Mills said.
An artist and residential designer, Mills is part of the aforementioned family — “we’re cousins, second cousins, I believe” — and has been down this road previously. He hosted a noted retrospective at his Fairhope atelier for Fred’s 70th birthday.
“He was totally underappreciated. I do two shows a year, one in Santa Fe and one somewhere in the South, and I paint specifically for the show and to sell my paintings, that’s part of my income stream. I don’t have a tenth of the talent Fred had,” Mills said.
After growing up just blocks from Murphy High School, Marchman earned a BFA at the University of Alabama, then an MFA from Tulane in 1965. The Peace Corps sent him to Ecuador in the mid-1960s.
Marchman launched the Nail Press in San Francisco in 1968, then forged the first of several fictional characters in publishing “Dr. Jo-Mo’s Handy Holy Home Remedy Remedial Reader.”
Expression was key, the avenue didn’t matter. Marchman published short fiction and poetry, most recently “Word in Space and Duets with Erato” and “Portals in Paradise.” Mills referenced books filled with Marchman’s cartoons, drawn by his various personas.
Also on hand will be some of Marchman’s wooden duck decoys, a skill he developed through masters of the East Coast. It afforded Marchman esoteric fame and income.
Marchman was soft-spoken, reflective and introspective. He cited “the ‘orthogonal’ principles” of “Mondrian and Kandinsky’s theosophical concepts.” It also plagued his inability to market himself.
His friend Don Briddell said, “He was very much a Van Gogh-type character: producing great art but unable to make [an] adequate living at it.”
“[Fred] didn’t even know how to contact people to represent him. All he cared about was producing the work. He did not know how to talk to people about it, including us,” Meredith said.
Mills said creativity was “like breathing, blinking, heartbeating — a reflex operation” for Marchman. “He created art for its own sake whether he expected to sell it or anyone else to see it.”
Marchman was said to have created hundreds of works each year. Often he would pick up pieces he hadn’t touched in years to go at them again.
“When we were going through his house we opened up the kitchen cabinet doors and he had painted on the backside of the cabinets,” Mills said.
Mills compared Marchman’s style to that of Howard Finster, but it goes beyond that. It’s a Southern gothic-pop art-expressionistic amalgamation that orbits themes of television, kudzu, belles, the Confederacy, the cosmos, machinery and the human form.
Meredith said while there will be a few things at MAC set aside for family, most of it will be for sale. That includes books.
“Coleman is an artist himself and has shown in galleries outside the South. Fred never had the business knowhow to market his own work and he never had anybody to help him do that. Coleman has the wherewithal to help us,” Meredith said.
“I always felt like he was in the wrong market, that if Fred had representation in New York or L.A. or even in Santa Fe where I paint, he would have been tremendously successful financially. The vast majority of it is brilliant, the social commentary and the way he looked at Southern pop culture,” Mills said.
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