In Conversation with: Marleigh Culver
Interview by Durga Chew-Bose.
Zoning out to artist Marleigh Culver’s work comes easy. Her palette is alert to opposites, cool purples, and playful neutrals. She’s got a thing for shades of clay. Her pieces bring to mind a vacation’s memories; the way we’re more prone to look up (blue) and experience true restfulness under a shady tree (green, so much green). Culver’s shapes are open to interpretation and always in the mood for fun. Blobs—beautiful blobs—that bump into each other and contemplative Matisse-like petals that give life to a dreary day. Culver’s work is peaceful, up to its own thing, and isn’t that nice?
You're from Virginia Beach, Virginia, right? Growing up, what were your summers like?
Yes, from Virginia Beach! We would go to the beach, and were lucky to be about a 15-20 minute drive from the ocean. The part of the public beach we’d go to is where all the fancy people live, it’s less tourist-y and just beautiful. Do you know that famous Seurat painting, “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte”? The pointillism and visual noise-effect reminds me of what I remember of summers on the beach. Laying with your head in the shade, grainy sand everywhere, muffled distant voices, ocean wind and waves crashing layered over each other. It’s such a surreal experience for me every time I walk up to the ocean. It’s a sensory overload, the sun is so blinding you forget you exist in a real body. It’s the one setting I feel at absolute peace. Other than that I would spend lots of time inside playing video games, with my dolls, walking to the neighborhood 7-11 with my brother to get Slurpees and hot dogs, and singing into the mirror wishing I was Julian Casablancas from The Strokes.
What's your earliest memory of making or creating something where you felt that spark—that need to keep making and creating?
Hmmm, in middle school, I remember being in art class and we had to do an assignment on perspective through painting, and I chose a Matisse interior. I loved how undefined his lines were, the gritty and textured brushstrokes to make a recognizable living setting. I really enjoyed that. I was lucky to attend a public arts program everyday in high school where I totally sunk into theatre production and visual art, learning and working with really cool kids that were hard to find at my regular high school. Having the support and space to just be ourselves, learn about other people, and all different mediums. We got to do welding, ceramics, screen-printing, oil painting. Everything. That really inspired me to keep running with this spark I had inside.
Most challenging project to date?
I painted an interior mural at this dispensary in Brooklyn. It was 18 feet high and a bit over 60 feet wide. And I did it all by myself! It took me about 4-5 days, and I had to stand on a scaffold to paint, which was terrifying. I work a lot in construction zones when I do murals. The worst part was that I was trying to order a scissor lift to use to paint, and as the guy was going to load it into the space, the general contractor in charge of the project was like, “If you bring this in, it’s going to crack the cement in the space because it’s only about 2-3 inches thick, and it’ll cost you about $100,000.” I seriously had a panic attack on the street, I was crying uncontrollably! I felt so stupid and awful in that moment, thankfully the GC was so kind and nice and nice about it! Hence the use of the scaffolding. I’m afraid of heights so it took a lot of breathwork to get it done. The mural turned out amazingly.
Who do you turn to when you need advice?
I turn to my friends, who are also artists and designers, and of course my partner and parents. The people closest to me really understand me, so I trust their advice, and they make me feel heard and always teach me something new.
Who do you turn to when you need to laugh...big time.
Haha well… I love watching British Simtubers on YouTube, and rewatching old vines. Twitter.
Do you like to host? If so, what's your go-to dinner to prepare for friends?
I love to host but sadly have not been able to do so in a long time. Especially with lockdown. We moved into a beautiful apartment last August that really feels like a home and we were expecting to have so many dinner parties. I’ve been making pizza almost every friday for the past four months. I would have loved to have a pizza party! I also love any of those classic appetizers, deviled eggs, tea sandwiches, pigs-in-a-blanket, etc. My parents hosts get-togethers often so I always loved the warmth of having a full house and tons of food.
The last movie you watched?
I re-watched White Oleander while working late one night about two weeks ago. I love so much about that movie. I used to wake up early when I was in high school on the weekends and watch it on TV. There’s not anything explicitly terrible in it, but it felt like a dark movie that I shouldn’t have been watching. There was just always a heaviness and emotional pull that attracted me, I love the scenes with the boxes of mixed media art and setting and the symbolism in them. It definitely inspired art in high school and college about womanhood and self-worth. Plus, Alison Lohman! She was my cool-girl crush when I was a teen. I love an outcast character.
The last TV show you binge-watched?
AHHH Love Island UK. I’m over halfway Season 5 and just started the whole show this year. I don’t typically lean into Reality TV for entertainment, but for some reason I love this show? It’s so funny and dramatic, the language and slang cracks me up. I think I have been trying to numb myself during the pandemic. It’s working.
The last song you played on repeat?
Qadir by Nick Hakim. I was riding in a car with my friend a few years ago and she was playing his music. I was so mesmerized by the music and his voice. This song drew me in, initially by the music. It’s just so thick and dreamy and tender. After looking into the lyrics, I learned that he wrote it for his late friend that passed away.
How do you decide if you'll take on a project? Are you driven by gut instincts?
My gut and intuition are huge decision makers for me. I mostly say yes, and said yes a lot to the point of being mentally, emotionally and physically exhausted. I’m at a point now where I have been working on more design to pay bills. I am always open to art projects, they don’t always come to fruition, I love how excited people get about working with me but sometimes it just doesn’t work out. So that’s where saying yes a lot gives you a bit of a safety net to fall back on, something else to rely on. I’m getting used to saying no if I don’t feel like it’s a right fit, or if I just don’t have time for it. I overthink a lot as well.
What overwhelms you?
Not to be sarcastic but what doesn’t overwhelm me!!! I am overwhelmed when I act on instinct and don’t think through something, and then am full of regret. My fiancé says I am the queen of regret. I have such a hard time accepting and letting go especially if it’s to do with my own decisions. I am overwhelmed by myself. I’m overwhelmed when I’m trying to make decisions about work, or if I’m unorganized (although I use a bullet journal), and overwhelmed when I have a lot to do and zero motivation.
What keeps you grounded?
Sleep, having a whole day, every week, to just turn myself off and douse myself in tv and video games to let my brain not work too hard. Keeping past experiences close to refer to if I need some reassurance. I was going to therapy for about seven months and that has helped how I respond to situations, and manage and understand my emotions.
Who was the last person you texted?
I’m in a group chat with my parents and fiancé. My parents had me when they were 18 so I feel really close to them, and my fiancé gets along with them, and is freakishly similar in some ways to both of them. So we have a group chat to talk about food, movies, politics, memes, whatever. It’s just nice to have those talks to look forward to.
photos by Christopher Fenimore