Mandem Talks The Talk With 1stAngel Arts Magazine

Website: http://www.MythpunkArt.com
Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/MANDEMik
Etsy Shop: http://www.etsy.com/shop/MANDEMik
Fine Art America: http://fineartamerica.com/profiles/mandem.html

When did you first become interested in art?

Before answering this question, we should clarify that MANDEM is actually two people — Maize Arendsee and Moco Steinman-Arendsee —  we’re life partners who have been together almost 14 years now, since we were teenagers. We work together in what we jokingly describe as a “Vulcan mind meld,” and the work wouldn’t be the same without both of us contributing.  So, for most of these questions, there’s a slightly different answer for Moco or Maize as individuals than there is for MANDEM as a unit. Our joint identity has a life of its own at this point, which is distinct from either of us!

At any rate, Maize began doing computer-based art at the age most children are using crayons, playing around with early Apple paint programs in the days before computer screens were in color. She has been working with Photoshop since version 4 came out, over 15 years ago. So she really considers herself to be a child of the age of digital art, literally growing up alongside the technology that makes this sort of work possible. However, MANDEM as such didn’t come into being until two things happened: first, Moco began collaborating with Maize; second, we began to transition from just dabbling to actually making something we considered to be art. At that point, we really needed a single title that would fit better in a signature than “Moco and Maize Steinman Arendsee.” We had a close friend who had dubbed our dyad “Mandem” (for “M and M”), and so we just adopted that as our art name. That was maybe 7 to 8 years ago.

What style of art do you use most?

We’re currently doing two styles that complement each other very well, but are quite different.  One of these two is what Maize light-heartedly describes as “pages from a time-traveler’s journal;” these are designed to look like sketchings or illustrations in an old-fashioned journal and are frequently accompanied by text captions.  We even design an aged, distressed paper texture to go with most of them. “The Never Bird” is a good example of this.   We’ve done a whole series recently, and we’re working on more. These are usually a bit light-hearted, though we admittedly tend towards gallows humor. We tend to think of these more as “illustrations” than as “art,” though that’s really very arbitrary of us.

In an entirely different approach, we also have our pieces that are essentially magical realism — pieces like “Skin Horse” or “Herr Drosselmeyer’s Doll” — that are very detailed, sometimes almost photo-realistic, digital paintings and that feel more typical of our general artistic impulses. These are often very dark, both visually and in terms of content, but, unlike a lot of what you’d see described as “gothic” art, the darkness is always there as a way to make the illumination and the colors more vivid. Recently we’ve been doing a lot of work as part of a Steampunk project (Abney Park’s Airship Pirates) but we don’t really consider our work to be Steampunk because it’s not concerned with gadgets or neo-Victorian fashion; very frequently there’s an overlay of Steampunk science-fiction, but the emotional core is usually tied to mythic or archetypal themes.  “Skin Horse,” for example, is on the one hand a Steampunk-inspired portrayal of an automaton horse, but on the other hand it’s also a retelling of the story of Pegasus, and also in dialogue with the Velveteen Rabbit idea that when you love a thing, you can bring it to life. So that’s a large part of why we’ll describe our art as “Mythpunk Art Noir.”

Beast Dancer ©Mandem – Copying from this site is illegal

Has your style changed from when you first began as an artist?

Absolutely. When we first started really emerging as an artist, we mostly did photo manipulations, often involving digital collage. As we went along, and as the technology improved to allow this, we increasingly began filling in and improving the images using a stylus and tablet, and eventually transitioned to a point where in most cases very little of the original photograph–if any of it–remained and the entire thing was a digital painting instead. At this point, we will often not even have photo references, though more often we’ll start by doing a photo manipulation (for example, taking six or seven images and combining them into a very rough mock-up of how we want the image to be composed) and then using that as a jumping off place for the digital painting.  But the vast majority of the time, once we’re finished there’s really nothing of the original photos left, they were just an essential part of our brainstorming phase.

Reference Photo for Inspector Hook – …..But the vast majority of the time, once we’re finished there’s really nothing of the original photos left, they were just an essential part of our brainstorming phase
Inspector Hook ©Mandem - Copying from this site is illegal
Inspector Hook ©Mandem – Copying from this site is illegal

What medium do you use?

We use Adobe Photoshop almost exclusively, though we also photograph textures and models, and occasionally make collages and photograph those.

What made you choose that medium?

This is one of those areas where I (Maize) really wouldn’t give the credit to free will so much as to chance. I began just using the medium for fun and as a way of designing good-looking images and graphics for websites — until I got to the point that I was good enough to contribute something artistically to projects, and then we ended up doing album art for The Cruxshadows (www.thecruxshadows.com).  As our technical skills evolved in the medium, we began more and more to develop a theoretical aesthetic and at some point it moved from a hobby to a vocation (which is, unfortunately, to be distinguished from a career).  Subsequently, it’s impossible for us to really separate what we’re doing from the medium in which we’re doing it, because the choice of medium came BEFORE the choice to do art, as such — however, we have considered branching out into other mediums, and may do that someday. Now that would be a real choice.

Do your ideas come from life or imagination?

That’s a bit of a false dichotomy. We’re not philosophically dualists; the life of the mind is really indistinguishable from the life of the body… they’re both life.  So it’s very hard to answer this question.  Take “Skin Horse” as an example. Certainly, it’s a very imaginative piece — it’s not that we saw a mechanical horse and its human companion and said, “Oh, let’s sit and drawn that.” But at the same time, the texture of the horse’s skin is very closely drawn from the way these old Victorian leather horses look, with the glossy red-brown leather and the cracks… and when we first began thinking about the piece, that texture was the first thing we knew we wanted. So that’s real life. And the relationship between the human and the horse, the way they’re standing… that’s explained in the image by the Tesla-coil link and the Steampunk technology that intertwines them, but emotionally it’s drawn from the way Maize used to interact with a stallion she rode as a child, when she’d throw her arms around him and bury her head in his neck and breathe in the smell, and just emotionally connect as a way of calming him down and preparing to ride… so is that imagination or life?

Skin Horse ©Mandem – Copying from this site is illegal

How do you choose your images and colours?

Recently, we’ve been doing a lot of images that need to fit into a very specific world-building project, because we’re making them for the Abney Park Airship Pirates roleplaying game.  So, some of the content is based on the illustration needs of the publishers and authors. For example, “Allie’s Battle” (our piece with the girl fighting off giant hyena-creatures) was prompted by a request that we please draw some prehistoric monsters such as hyenadons or sabre-tooths. And “Skin Horse” was prompted by the request for post-apocalyptic nomad survivors (Neobedouins).  However, there’s a huge gap between the requirements we’re given and what exactly we do. The key to our images is that we try to capture something emotional and relational about the topic, and also that we always try to add an extra dimension — a sense of slippage and uncertainty — to the topic. For example, “Skin Horse” asks questions about the relationship between humans, animals, and technology that is more complex than either the simple anti-technology perspective (common in post-apocalyptic stories) or the pro-technology perspective (common in science fiction and steampunk).

As for colors, we tend to lean towards earth tones.  There’s not an easy answer for why; Maize’s favorite colors are brown and “oil-spill, beetle-shell, raven-feather bluegreen,” but Moco really loves extremely bright colors like pink and purple and green — but for some reason the art is usually very earth toned. Maize suspects that’s part of MANDEM’s focus on the interconnections between people, animals, technology, and nature (often involving these things rather violently intersecting)… so the colors are mostly naturally-occurring pigments, rather than the hyper-colors that most people associate with digital art.

Do you work in a studio? 

Our studio is a laptop.  There’s something very awesome about the mobility that provides, because the work can very much go places with us.  We’ll often go out for coffee and work on art at the coffee shop, but more importantly we can trail around after the baby and work wherever she’s playing, so at the park, or in the playroom, or on the bed while she sleeps…

Endzeit ©Mandem – Copying from this site is illegal

Who is your favourite artist?

Our favorite contemporary artist is probably Steven Archer.  He does very different things than we do, in some ways — in addition to doing bone sculptures, he uses paint and collage on old hard-cover book covers; he’s mostly not a digital artist, and he’s very prolific… he’ll do one or even two incredible paintings in a day, where it can take us weeks to finish one… but in some ways there are thematic links.

In terms of older artists, MANDEM’s favorite would probably be Maxfield Parrish. Both Moco and Maize as individuals have their own personal favorites, but as it relates to MANDEM, it’s definitely Parrish, because he’s in many ways a fore-runner of what we do digitally. Parrish would take photographs and other print sources and lay them down as a base for his paintings, and then layer paint up over them to create these utterly fantastic scenes, such as “Cadmus Sowing the Dragon’s Teeth.”  And that’s very much the way that we work when we’re using photo-references, where they start off as one thing and then slowly mutate into something else entirely, until they’re entirely covered up and obscured by the alterations and additions…

 What is your favourite piece of work by yourself?

Our favorite is constantly changing… it’s probably whatever we did just before the most recent piece. We’re always very hard on the most recent piece, because as you’re working on something it’s very easy to see its flaws, but we’re getting better all the time, so the more recent work is usually better.  So at the moment our favorite is probably “Marooned” (which is going to be published in Blasting the Past, the next book in the Airship Pirates series).

Marooned ©Mandem – Copying from this site is illegal

 How much time (on average) does it take to complete a work?

That really varies.  Some pieces come together incredibly quickly through a sort of mad serendipity.  “Herr Drosselmeyer’s Doll” took only about 16 hours from start to finish… we created it all in one sitting, with one very short dinner break. That was madness.  But “Skin Horse” literally took months.  It’s not a question of which one is “better,” either.  “Skin Horse” took so long because it has a great deal of technical detail that takes a long time to complete, and it also had a lot of false starts and do-overs (and at least one computer crash that made us start over). “…Doll” just all came together very quickly. “Marooned” is probably pretty average for a full-on painting, and that took about 3 weeks — or about 48 hours of actual work.  And then there’s the sketching illustrations, which can take anywhere from one to six hours.

 How well do you take criticism?

Maize says, “That depends on where I’m taking it.”  Seriously, though, the situation and the tone both have a lot to do with how easy it is to accept criticism.  Because we’re working together, it’s common for us to have to critique each other’s contributions, and sometimes in the heat of the artistic process this leads to people screaming and pulling their own hair out. But since this happens almost every time, it’s gotten to the point that we know if the screaming starts that the project’s really getting good. Last year we went through a childbirth class to prepare for the birth of our daughter, and the teacher explained that the vast majority of the time when a woman in natural child birth starts to scream “I just can’t take it anymore,” that means that she’s transitioning into the delivery stage and the baby’s about to start crowning… so you know it’s almost done when you just can’t take anymore. That’s very much the way it is with the art too — when it’s a work in progress, criticism sometimes makes us turn blue in the face and is very upsetting, but as a pair that works collaboratively, we very much know that it’s vital to the process.

Never Bird ©Mandem – Copying from this site is illegal

We frequently seek out criticism from outside parties to make sure that the work is accessible and actually finished, and we almost never yell at those critics. We do take criticism very frequently and pretty well from people who have commissioned work, and that often makes the piece a lot stronger. For example, “Herr Drosselmeyer’s Doll” in the original format actually had nipples, and we removed those and gave her a more “Barbie” like chest after the artistic director of the book expressed concerns that it was too graphic — now we actually like the edited version better, and that’s the one we’ve chosen to actually print for galleries.

Criticism from people who aren’t at all involved in the project never really bothers us.  Occasionally we find it amusing. For example, Moco was absolutely thrilled at our last art show when one of the viewers started ranting about how we were so talented that it was a shame we were painting such disturbing and horrible topics.

 What do you do to overcome a ‘block’?

Usually by doing something else for a while — we’re extremely busy people. We have a 9-month-old daughter, and we both work full time at other jobs. Maize additionally goes to graduate school full time (for Interdisciplinary Humanities) and adjunct teaches. So if there’s a block, we usually don’t try to push it.  Occasionally we’ll try to work through it and just do something. However, that something almost always turns out terribly… so if we don’t feel like working, we should probably stop!

 How do you know something is ‘finished’? Is it easy to walk away?

Well… remember the answer above about criticism?  Usually what happens is that Maize will decide that it’s done, and show it to Moco. Moco will go through and point out all the flaws, and Maize will huff and puff and then go and fix them. We repeat that process until Moco okays the piece… Or every so often it goes the other way around. But generally what happens is that shortly after we’re both screaming at the piece, there comes a moment when suddenly we don’t feel like screaming anymore, and there’s a wonderful sense of calm and we both say “There! it’s done.”

Have you had exhibits in galleries?

September 2010 & September 2011: Unique & Unusual Art Exhibit (Tallahassee, FL)
Fall-Winter 2011: Strozier Artbrary Exhibit (Tallahassee, FL)
October, 2011: 621 Gallery’s 30th Annual Next to Last Armageddon Exhibit (Tallahassee, FL)

Have you any exhibits in galleries planned for the future?

We would love to be a part of the Dragon-Con Sci-Fi/Fantasy Art Show that’s held every Labor Day in Atlanta, GA, so we may try to make that happen one of these years. We’re in communication with a couple different venues, but we don’t have anything specific planned…. yet.

Allies Battle ©Mandem – Copying from this site is illegal

What are you currently working on?

For the past year, we’ve been engrossed in the Airship Pirates project. This is a steampunk roleplaying game based on the music of Abney Park (www.abneypark.com), written by Cakebread & Walton (www.cakebreadandwalton.com), published by Cubicle7 (www.cubicle7.co.uk – also the publisher for the Doctor Who roleplaying game and The One Ring Lord of the Rings roleplaying game). The Airship Pirates Core Rule Book was released this summer with maybe 15 original works by MANDEM (along with several other extremely talented artists). It’s 300+ pages of full-color gorgeous artwork and design; even people who aren’t interested in roleplaying can appreciate it as an art collection.

The first supplemental “Adventure Book,” Ruined Empires, was released this fall, including cover art by MANDEM. Now, we’re working on art for the next book, Blasting the Past, which is all about how time travel works in the universe… and after that, there are at least three more supplements planned. So we’ll be exploring this universe for a while! Our collaborative project for the cover of The Cruxshadows CD Ethernaut is finally available, and we’ve also got 2 more CD covers in the works over the next couple of months.

 What are your plans for the future?

Revisiting some of our older work. We’re interested in returning to some of our early pieces and revising/improving them. The technology has improved so much, along with our technical skill.

We’ve been approached about collaborating on a poetry & art collection, and that’s going to be very exciting because it will be very much a return to our roots in photo manipulation — we’ll be taking photographs and poems, and doing collages and manipulations and paintings and just working all that together to create a poetry collection that has a lot of its roots in the graphic novel tradition. We’re really excited about that, though it’s probably still a year or more off.

We’re also working on a short animated feature that won’t be done for quite a while.

And of course…. we’ll be working on Airship Pirates for a while too.

 What was the best advice given to you as an artist?

“Mandem — Don’t be so shy.”  –Captain Robert

About two years ago we were at a convention where Captain Robert Brown (the genius behind Airship Pirates) was performing. We’re very reclusive, so we made a friend take our messenger bag (the one we now use for our laptop) over for an autograph, because we were feeling socially awkward about bothering him. That’s what he wrote on the bag with his autograph: “Mandem – Don’t be so shy.”

So a few months later when he put out a call for artists, we decided not to be shy and went ahead and contacted him. This project has really sparked some of our best work, but we don’t know if it would have happened without that advice.

It’s also been useful in general about our art. We, Moco and Maize, had very different childhoods, but we were both very much encouraged by them to not be very self-promoting — in Maize’s case it was part of an extreme religious fundamentalist upbringing that had very strict gender roles and encouraged women to be submissive and soft-spoken and so forth, and while that sort of ideology was something she absolutely rejected very early on, it can be very hard trying to break through that kind of social conditioning to become self-assertive.  Moco came from an abusive home, meanwhile, which also can encourage a person to withdraw…

In many ways we’re strangely grateful for these early challenges, because they’re great touchstones for artistic passion. But on the other hand, a huge part of what makes an artist successful during their own life, as opposed to being an Emily Dickinson-esque hermit, is being willing to get out and fight to bring attention to the work, to engage with the artistic community, and to have the kind of capitalistic impulse needed to actually put a price-tag on the work (even if you don’t actually care whether you make money on it).  And that sort of networking is something that comes very easily to some people, and not so easily to us. We really have to work at it. In the same vein, we were more recently advised that “what you need is a man in a suit.” We haven’t actually gotten one of those yet, and we probably won’t any time soon, but I think that’s part of the same phenomenon.  Many of the best artists I know are living in total anonymity because they don’t have a man in a suit or they’re too socially withdrawn to be pushing their own work aggressively….

 What advice would you give new artists?

Advice needs to be tailored to the person receiving it. If you’re just starting doing art, my advice would be: “Work very hard. Practice, practice, practice, and whenever you think you’re done with a piece, zoom in to 300% (or if you’re doing traditional media, just look very, very closely!) and go over every inch of the piece with a hyper-critical eye looking for any little error.  Then fix it. Don’t settle for good enough or close enough. Your technique matters.”

For people who are really confident in their technique, but they’re still “new” because they’ve never had anything published or shown in public, that’s when I’d pass along Captain Robert’s advice: “Don’t be so shy.”

But these are two very different things.  Someone who’s just starting out should really probably be shy for a few years until they’ve gotten to the point where they have something really worth showing.

Herr Drosselmeyers Doll ©Mandem – Copying from this site is illegal

Have you done any courses to help you?

MANDEM, as a unit, is self-taught. To be fair, Maize has taken a few publishing-oriented classes that included Photoshop as part of the curriculum, but not until well after she’d already mastered everything art-related that those classes would teach.

Moco has rejected the higher education system, considering it part of the repressive ideological structure of our society, aimed at force-feeding the status quo to young people while saddling them with massive, lifelong debt. Maize admits this may be true, but is currently in the last semester of an MA program in Interdisciplinary Humanities, with a focus on alterity/otherness and gender. Maize had a double undergraduate degree in Classical Civilizations and Humanities (with a focus on English and Medieval studies). So Maize has done a lot of research on art history, critical theory and intellectual history, mythology and religion, and other related fields, and she brings all of this home to share with Moco. So there’s often a very direct connection between these academic subjects and what’s going on in our art. For example, one of the earliest pieces we did in a very painterly style was an image of Ariadne and the Minotaur that Maize used as a cover for her undergraduate honors thesis.

After she graduates, Maize is considering going back in another year or two to get an MFA in studio art, so that she can teach Art as well as Humanities and English, but that’s still very much up in the air.

What do you do to market your work?

We don’t actually try very hard to market our work. We do try to find good commissions or projects to be a part of, such as the Airship Pirates RPG, or album covers for bands, because we feel that art is most valuable when it is widely shared… but if there’s a decision to be made between working on something in line with our passions and working on something that will be paid, we go for the passion every time. However, we’ve recently started making prints and selling them through Fine Art America (http://fineartamerica.com/profiles/mandem.html) for canvases and Etsy (http://www.etsy.com/shop/MANDEMik) for other archival prints — this is mostly a response to demand, since people saw our work in publication and wanted to buy it. We usually price things for a minimal profit over material costs, because we want people who are interested to be able to afford it, and to a very large degree we don’t make art that’s really targeted at the 1% of people who can afford to treat art as an “investment” rather than as something you want to buy for its own sake.  Some day this might change, but for now we market our work with the end goal of dissemination rather than profit. In fact, I think so far this year we have spent more on prints (including all the ones we gave away or kept for gallery shows) and supplies than we have made in profit… but we’ve gotten our images into the hands of thousands of people, so we consider that to be a fair exchange.

Knowing how to market art is really a hard decision. To some degree, if an artist is not trying very hard to make money, they may seem less serious as artists – as if it’s “just” a hobby and not to be taken seriously – but on the other hand, I’ve seen a lot of people who, in the pursuit of having an art job, have traded their artistic freedom and integrity for a paycheck. I’d rather have the freedom and have to have a primary job, and I’d rather sell things cheaply and know that they were out there in the world affecting people than sell them for a high price but make them so exclusive that no one who’s really passionate about the work can afford them.

 Do you use social networking in your day to day life?

We’ve become active on Facebook to keep people up-to-date on our projects: http://www.facebook.com/MANDEMik

 Are you available for work (commissions)?

Yes, absolutely, but not for rush jobs. 🙂

 Have you got hobbies?

Well, in one sense most of our lives’ work is a hobby – at least if you’re defining hobby traditionally, as an activity not undertaken for financial gain or necessity.  We both work wage-paying jobs that are occupations rather than vocations. This is an equivalent exchange for the ability to then pursue our real vocations for pleasure rather than for income.  So art is a hobby, strictly speaking, because we usually do it for minimal monetary reward. Maize says that her educational pursuits are very much a hobby, because she’s entirely cognizant that most of today’s Humanities PhD graduates will end up adjunct teaching for far less money than your average factory worker and she doesn’t particularly expect a solid career in the field — anyone studying gender and art should be in it for the pleasure rather than the wealth. Moco also bakes incredible vegan cookies and obsessively takes snapshots of our daughter, while Maize likes to read and make lists. For the last decade or so we’ve been creating an archive chronicling the history and culture of the (fictional) city at the end of the world, and we’ve just signed on as proofreaders and editors for Cakebread & Walton (a UK-based RPG publisher).

Where are you based?

Tallahassee, FL, USA…. but it may be more accurate to say we’re based on the Internet. Our friends, our business contacts, our art-world friends are seldom in the same geographical location that we are.

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