The Daily Heller: Marshall Arisman, Artist, Illustrator, Shaman, Trickster

Posted inThe Daily Heller
Louise Fili, Marshall Arisman and me, c. 2018. Photo by Kim Ablondi.

It is difficult to reconcile Marshall Arisman’s drawings, paintings and sculptures—often so violent—with the spiritually serene man posing in the center of the photograph above. However, Marshall’s mystique is defined by duality. In public he is calm and calming, an erudite raconteur, insightful teacher and generous counselor. On canvas, paper and clay he is the trickster, shaman and mystic who sees auras and experiences paranormal phenomena. Arisman spent a lifetime seeking balance and harmony in existence. He often said of his art that he liked to “amuse himself” by making images that captured the darkest to the lightest of his subconscious; in fact, he was always looking for answers to existential questions often through humor. I hope he found his grail when unexpectedly and suddenly he passed into the unknown last Friday afternoon at 83 years old.

When David Rhodes, president of School of Visual Arts, informed me that Marshall’s perfidious heart attacked my friend of 50 years, he added, “nothing good happens on Fridays.” That resonates with me. Fridays are double-edged; the end of a week is not the beginning of a weekend. Friday afternoon is a nether time where tragic or wonderful things happen—and this Friday was filled with shock and sadness.

Marshall’s passing is incredibly painful for his wife, Dee Ito—with whom he shared everything—and for those friends, students and colleagues who were drawn into his orbit by design or happenstance. His passing leaves a void that, while impossible to fill, overflows with memories that will last many lifetimes.

I’ve attempted to write a conventional, objective obituary about Marshall—pertinent places and dates, accomplishments and triumphs—but it is impossible to detach myself from our long and cherished relationship. To say he altered my existence is made even more vivid—and heartbreaking—by his absence.

Marshall expelled me from SVA. He had to. I rarely attended classes. I enrolled to get a draft deferment. I was already working, and when he saw my portfolio of published work, as primitive as it was, he offered a deal that allowed me to graduate from SVA and retain my deferment. He called my job as cartoonist and so-called art director of an “underground” newspaper “work study.” He said he would allow the job to earn me enough credits to advance to the senior year—but “only if you attend classes,” he emphasized.

Marshall was not what I expected of a department chairperson. I had already experienced the cold bureaucratic kind when I briefly attended NYU, and Marsh’s kind and empathetic persona took me off guard. We chatted about illustration, art (the quality and lack thereof in my own work) and the Vietnam-era politics that were driving us all. I was so at ease after our talk that he convinced me to accept his offer. I can only imagine how many others he treated in a similar way—how many lives he saved.

A few days after I emerged from his spell, I did, however, reject the plan, preferring a job to school. Instead, I commissioned him to do covers for one of the papers I worked for. A friendship ensued with Marsh, Dee and me. I didn’t see that coming, but it seems so natural in retrospect. That’s what Marshall was about.

A few years later, he asked if, given my experience with newsprint, I would like to teach a class that would result in the SVA student paper, AIR (Artist In Residence). I accepted, but it didn’t last long. Marshall then approached me with his concept for developing a new graduate program entitled MFA Illustration: The Illustrator as Visual Journalist. I agreed to lecture on the history of illustration over two semesters. I had once wanted to be a historian; lack of schooling squelched it, but Marshall didn’t seem concerned that I would learn on the job. He had faith. I was nourished by his faith.

I thought then that Marshall had a divine power, and still believe it today. Our friendship grew exponentially after 1984 when the MFA was launched after two years of preparation. Fourteen years later, when Lita Talarico and I co-founded the SVA MFA Design/Designer as Author department (now entering its 25th year), I promised to stay on at MFA Illustration. I did for only one semester, but Marsh and I remained close friends.

Marshall was responsible for my third and final marriage (now in its 39th year)—to Louise Fili, one of my favorite designer/art directors. Unbeknownst to me, he arranged for us to both be jurors for an illustration competition at SVA. He knew exactly what he was doing when he suggested I walk her home. Although I was skeptical of his mystical proclivities, he somehow made magic happen. He saw that our auras were in sync.

Marshall was a trickster who questioned, subverted and mocked authority and convention. Just a month ago, at dinner, he admitted to a trick he had played on me decades earlier. Whether he was somehow anticipating his demise and thought he should reveal this before it was too late or he was just playfully—albeit cunningly—toying with my mind, which he enjoyed doing with everyone, I don’t have a clue. He spoke in that hypnotically calm Arisman voice as he reminded me of a trip we made together to lecture at a conference at Marshall University in Huntington, WV, in the late 1980s: “There were two ways of traveling; one was a direct flight in a regular jet, the other was a transfer to a small puddle-jumper prop plane,” he explained. “They would arrive within an hour of each other. I had my travel agent make the reservations.” He paused and with a cagey smile revealed, “I knew how terrified you were about flying [and he was right], so I thought for a minute, weighed the possibilities, and told her to book the puddle-jumper. I never told you. I thought it best.” I was indeed terrified.

Ahh, Marshall Arisman—he was Puck incarnate: tricky and sensible; inspiring and artful; loyal and compassionate; sly and wily. He added spice to the lives of everyone who loved him, and we all loved him, spice and all.