The Relentless Urge to Create: the Work of Earl Joseph Martell

comments (29) March 11th, 2011     

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Jeff_Rudell Jeffery Rudell, contributor
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A distant galaxy, a microscopic organism, a masterwork of high modernism, or a manifestation of chance?
This bold graphic would be at home on any gallery wall...or, for that matter, on any painted wall at all...
The rim of the gallon paint can suggests the origins of this work.
A distant galaxy, a microscopic organism, a masterwork of high modernism, or a manifestation of chance?

A distant galaxy, a microscopic organism, a masterwork of high modernism, or a manifestation of chance?

Photo: Earl Joseph Martell
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Let's start by just looking at some very interesting, very evocative, and very beautiful photographs. Whatever your taste in Art (with a capital "A"), I hope you will agree with me that as exuberant expressions of color, shape, and texture, these images are, at the very least, extraordinary.

Were you to set to guessing what they are (and what they are made of), you would be excused for guessing modern art, close-up photos of enamel jewelry, aerial photographs of ice floes and mineral deposits, microscopic snapshots of viruses, or pictures of interstellar galaxies. What you likely wouldn't guess is that they are pictures taken at a Home Depot by an accomplished landscape painter who usually works in the tradition of mid-19th century artists such as Monet and Renoir.

Epiphanies come in many sizes and, if contemporary films are to be believed, they almost always occur beneath the groin vaults of a gothic cathedral, on a wind-swept stretch of New England coastline, or—on the rarest of occasions—across a crowded room; in my case an epiphany occurred in a suburban New Jersey Home Depot on a mundane Wednesday four weeks ago and I'm still reeling from the experience. What the moment lacked in cinematic scope, it made up for by its crystalline intensity. We have all had a moment when we perhaps thought to ourselves, "This is a moment I will remember; this is important, this means something." Well, I had exactly that sort of moment at Home Depot, and I've been unable to stop talking about it ever since. My friends are now so tired of hearing me proselytize that they have begun to jokingly refer to it as "the singularity" but their ribbing is not far off the fact.

Here's what happened: I was in Home Depot buying a can of high-gloss paint in a hue the Behr color swatch labeled "Bitter Chocolate." As with most paints, the hue had to be custom mixed, and so I was standing watching the Home Depot associate at the paint department counter—a man by the name of Earl Joseph Martell—go through the steps required to produce my specified hue: He grabbed a can of white, high-gloss base paint from a shelf, removed the lid, and placed it beneath the pigment-dispensing spigots of the color machine. He then proceeded to enter the code for the paint formula into the computer —punch, punch, punch, enter—and the machine dispensed the hues necessary to create the shade I had ordered. Then Earl did something I wasn't expecting: He pulled a small, digital camera from his pocket and snapped a quick picture of the can of paint before replacing the lid and proceeding to the paint-mixing machine to give it a thorough shaking.

The photograph, done with practiced percision, took less than five seconds to do and was managed with such nonchalance that I'm certain none of the other customers at the counter with me that day even noticed it. I, on the other hand, recognized in an instant what it was I had just seen: I had witnessed the relentless urge to create, and in that moment I recognized the driving force of my own life and that of so many creative people I know and work with.

Consider for a moment the average painter: He or she selects a subject (figurative or abstract), selects a palette, a brush for applying the paint, then proceeds with that application using a technique or style of their choosing. When the work is finished it is exhibited, admired, discussed ("what subtle color," "what meaningful brushstrokes") and eventually purchased (at a price based on perceived value) after which is it hung on a wall and admired and protected while it hopefully appreciates in value.

Now consider how Earl Joseph Martell reconfigures those steps in what might be referred to as deconstructed, process-based ready-mades: He does not select the colors he will use, nor does he select the base finish (so he has no part in determining whether he will be using oil or latex paint, a flat, glossy, matte, or eggshell finish). He does not "apply" pigments to a canvas or object—just paint to paint, he has no access to the painter's "intent" since a machine injects the color into the paint cans in a random manner outside his control. He then documents the result of these multiple, random factors that have conspired to manifest themselves in an "expression of color and chemicals," after which he shakes the cans (thus destroying the work he has just documented), hands the mixed paint to the customer, who pays for it, takes it home, and applies it to his or her own wall or project (using his or her own brushstokes and making his or her own decisions as to placement, thickness, glaze, and finish).

As you can see for yourself in the following examples, his work is beautiful, lush, and even strange. The pieces seem lively and fresh and surprising, and, well...happy. Such strange but visually stunning work turns out to be the product of an equally interesting and engaged artist. In conversations with him, I discovered an artist whose work I found riveting and whose approach to his craft, and understanding of his own motivations, seemed in many ways in line with my own motivations and thoughts. What follows after the pictures is an excerpt of a long interview I conducted with the artist over the course of a few weeks in May of this year. Read it and see if you don't recognize yourself in his drive to create, his insistence on seeing the world from a position of wonder and amazement, and his utter passion for pursuing his interest in making and sharing his vision with others.

(NB: The photographs featured here are copyrighted works belonging to Earl Joseph Martell. Each picture is a discrete image; the pairing of these images into diptychs is my doing in an effort to show as many images as possible in this post and does not represent the artist's intention.)






Q: How long have you worked at Home Depot, and during that time, how many of these pictures have you managed to snap?

A: I've work at Home Depot for one year exactly as of Memorial Day Weekend. During that time I have snapped hundreds upon hundreds of photographs. I take the pictures pretty quickly (with customers waiting there's no time to worry about lighting or focusing or motion blur). I have about a 60% salvage rate in that 40% of the images are either unfocused or poorly lit. Still, I'm left with hundreds of great pictures.

Q: On your business card you describe yourself as a Monmouth County (New Jersey) Plein Air Painter. For someone engaged in the 19th-century tradition of outdoor painting—the very precepts of which seek to explore and exalt the luminous effects of natural light and atmosphere—what led you to undertake a project so diametrically opposed to those precepts, a project to photograph chemicals, in a can, under fluorescent lighting, in an interior space, from an aerial perspective that effectively negates any sense of atmosphere? How did you come to begin photographing these "Paint Pictures" in the first place?

A: I was born in Northern England where I lived with my family: my mother, my father, and my two older sisters. In 1952 we moved to Berlin then on to Holland for three years where I learned to speak Dutch, then back to the UK, followed by Kansas, Seattle (during the 1962 World's Fair), Athens, Greece (where my daily ride on the school bus took me past some of the most important and recognizable ruins of the ancient world), then to Turkey, Central France, Hawaii (where I was training to be an aviation technician in the Marine Corp), and California (1971). Along the way I always pursued art, even in high school. I have, in fact, been painting for 40 years, though seriously for only the last 16 of them. I've spent my life becoming better trained with my tools, more highly skilled in my technique, and more disciplined in my approach. In a very real sense, life has prepared me to see beauty no matter where I look.

Q: I have to ask, what do these photographs represent to you? Are they works of art in their own right, exercises in color, creative experiments, or work-day diversions?

A: I sort of think of them as exercises, akin to Chopin's Etudes; beautiful in themselves but for me they are visual exercises, a way to hone my understanding of color and effect; sort of a way for me to keep my creativity "limber."

Q: Do you remember the first time you decided to photograph one of these images? What led you to pick up a camera?

A: Back when I attended Brookdale Community College in Lincroft (New Jersey), I had a teacher who taught me about the early Flemish tradition of underpainting and glazing. The technique yields a very beautiful effect and I remember looking into a can of high-gloss latex paint, with a splatter of pigment seeping into and dispersing around the emulsion, and I thought, "Early Flemish looks like early Flemish underpainting." It was beautiful and so I wanted to capture it. The pigment dispenser uses 16 different colors, but the combinations and ratios of those 16 hues lead to an almost limitless range of fascinating and arresting expressions. This is what I do. It's part of how I'm put together. Taking these pictures, capturing and documenting these beautiful things...taking these pictures helps keep me alive.

Q: I think there might be a perception that many of the people who work at Home Depot are themselves "handy" or, to a lesser degree, maybe, "crafty." Your work seems to cross into the realm of "art." Do you know of any coworkers who are similarly endeavoring in an artistic vein?

A: I do. I work with a very talented muralist whose work is really quite good. He has that great ability to capture and tell a story (a vital skill in a muralist). I also work with a woman who is a painter. However, it can be difficult to make a living in the arts and so we all have jobs at Home Depot in addition to our creative pursuits. This happens to a lot of creative people; they need to do something to earn money. The key, as far as I'm concerned, is to never let your primary passion—your art—become secondary to your job. It's a difficult thing to accomplish. It is very easy to become exhausted by the struggle of making work, selling work, marketing work, staying passionate about the work, and earning a living.

Q: Let's talk about that a little more, how do you stay in touch with the creative side of yourself when you're working all day with customers and coworkers and management. How do you retain your commitment to painting?

A: One of the things I learned in college is that education is not necessarily about taking something in (as in gathering information) but is often about just opening yourself up, being receptive to the world around you, allowing yourself to see what is already there. This is what makes me tick. I haven't always found a way to make it pay the bills. Painting means more to me than anything else I do, or have done. As long as I remember that, I seem to be fine.

Q: Clearly I think these pictures are extraordinarily beautiful and exuberant. As if that weren't enough, I also love your plein air landscape paintings. Tell me, what drew you to landscapes?

A: Landscapes move me. They move me in a very strong emotional way and I wonder why that is. While I am painting I am always trying to figure out what it is in the sky and the clouds and the land and the rise of the hill and the reflection of the water that gets me so excited. Unlike the Impressionists, I am not trying to capture the fleeting moment. I am trying to capture the place...the emotional essence of...the place, and that effort is what provides the electricity in the exchange between artist and landscape in plein air painting. My life has trained me to recognize that sense or essence of a place and I've learned how to get it into my brush and onto my canvas. When this happens, when the sense of place really resonates from the canvas, I know I've succeeded. When it resonates in someone else's heart, too, when they like the work I do, well, that's the greatest satisfaction I can feel.

Q: I always ask people whether they believe the urge to create—to make something beautiful or useful—is something that is inate in people (or in some people) or whether they think it's something that can be acquired or developed. Which side of the question do you come down on?

A: I say, realize what you've got, what you've been given, what's in front of you, and either embrace it and move forward or settle into something less than your truly authentic life.

Q: You always have a smile on your face, you always seem eager to engage with people, and you always seem perfectly content wherever you happen to be; my grandmother would have called it a certain "generosity of spirt". How did you get to be such an optimist?

A: I was always a highly resilient have to be when you move as many times was we moved. I have been guilty of following my own interests for most of my life. And, I tend to trust my heart more than my intellect. I've never thought of myself as an optomist but I am an enthusiast. I mean, I'm alive and there is an enthusiam that radiates from that knowledge.

Q: Where can readers find out more about you and your work?

A: I have some of my plein air paintings up on my blog and readers are welcome to take a look at the work there ( If readers like what they see, I'd love to hear from them. I'm always interested in hearing if my work has resonance for others.

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Comments (29)

chikie writes: This is awesome! At first glance, I thought the work was similiar to Dale Chihuly's blown glass work! I love it!

Posted: 8:58 pm on October 8th
Pam_BatesMercantile writes: I love this! awesome pics. glad he is documenting.
Posted: 2:40 pm on March 13th
canvaspaintings writes: hi there, this is really great, keep up the good work

supporting Uk canvas paintings
Posted: 3:00 pm on November 1st
wwwmelissapylearts writes: Great interview! "It" truly is about how we see the world and share our world. It was a pleasure to meet you Mr. Martell.
The color you mixed for me today was on the mark!
Posted: 9:19 pm on September 6th
LenRose writes: I love this article and these photos.

I have known Earl Martell for nearly 20 years, and he is one of my dearest friends. He has an irrepressible enthusiasm for life and an uncanny ability to find beauty in even the seemingly mundane, and capture it, whether through painting, photography, collage or other media. I am the proud owner of several of his works, and when I look at them, they brighten my day. Because of him, I now am able to see the world in a different way.
Posted: 10:50 pm on June 8th
LenRose writes: I love this article and these photos.

I have known Earl Martell for nearly 20 years, and he is one of my dearest friends. He has an irrepressible enthusiasm for life and an uncanny ability to find beauty even in the seemingly mundane, and capture it, whether through painting, photography, collage, or other media. I am the proud owner of several of his works, and when I look at them, they brighten my day. Because of Earl, I now see the world in a different way.
Posted: 10:45 pm on June 8th
LenRose writes: I love this article and these photos.

I have known Earl Martell for nearly twenty years. He has an irrepressible enthusiasm for life and an uncanny ability to seek out beauty and capture it, whether through painting, photography, collage, or other media. I am the proud owner of several of his works, and when I look at them, they brighten my day.
Posted: 10:40 pm on June 8th
SweetbriarStudio writes: This was soooo great! I like the photos but, almost more, the different approach. Not being constrained by how one is 'supposed' to paint or create. Very inspiring. thx!
Posted: 6:06 pm on June 6th
CJSassy writes: Thank You for sharing this story and these amazing images with us. I enjoyed both very much
Posted: 8:46 am on June 6th
SpiritCloth writes: Not only are the photos gorgeous, but the 4 paragraphs from the 4th paragraph ("Here's what happened:...") on are literature in my book. Without seeing the photos yet, I was taken into the experience of Jeffrey Rudell and came away enriched.
Posted: 12:47 pm on June 5th
eveh writes: At first I thought this was an article about marbleizing paper. I sometimes, drop spoonfuls of paint in different colors on top of water and then dip a piece of paper or anything for that matter, and watch the marbleized look it gives. I always think how beautiful the water looks with the different colors. A lot like these cans of paint. Beauty is everywhere in lovely patterns and colors that are just unbelievable to those who have eyes to see.
Posted: 11:52 pm on June 4th
LunarFaith writes: this is really great - and i love all these splurges of paint adhering to each other making a complete impression - which feeds the soul and the mind ..really gorgeous. Thanks Jeff for putting this to us and really taking a little time to recognize "Art" around. .
Posted: 4:21 am on June 4th
lavenderfield writes: Unexpectedly beautiful!
Posted: 12:59 am on June 4th
lavenderfield writes: Unexpectedly beautiful!
Posted: 12:58 am on June 4th
wilksgallery writes: Wonderful article, the pictures are gorgeous! Thanks so much for sharing. Martell's outlook on life and Art is refreshing and inspiring.
Posted: 8:46 pm on June 3rd
hotdotyuki writes: I loved your story about Earl Martell. It is inspiring. I also could feel your insights with all the creative paper ideas you have had. How do I keep in touch with you?
Loving all things paper and trying to keep creative with it (could be my Japanese family background) I have so enjoyed everything you have offered on this site.
Posted: 5:26 pm on May 31st
krobbie67 writes: I am disheartened to have read today on Dudecraft that Jeffrey Rudell will no longer be contributing to this site. I find his work to be inspiring and sophisticated. It saddens me that you would discontinue his participation here. Jeffrey, is there another site that your fans can follow your work? A rudimentary search left me lacking. Thank you!
Posted: 10:37 pm on May 26th
cottageindustrialist writes: What a beautiful story--both in its essence and in its retelling. I can understand why you have been so captivated all these weeks.
Posted: 2:13 pm on May 26th
DebsK writes: Yes, I am so very aware of this wonderful local artist, Earl. I can proudly say he is a dear friend of mine & my family. He is not only one of the most talented artists I have ever met but a sweet, sensitive, intelligent, inspiring person as well. I also own a few of his wonderful creations. I look at my "Earl" wall every day for comfort when I am sad, for inspiration when I feel 'stuck,' and just a smile~
Thank you, are so very blessed.
Debbie Paddack-Kloby
Posted: 1:59 pm on May 26th
annquill writes: Jeffery, you never fail to look at things from an inspired perspective. That's what I love about this site... the way you and the other crafting experts constantly surprise us with new ideas. You might have been after Bitter Chocolate that day, but you came away with nourishment for the soul. Earl's photographs and landscape paintings are beautiful.
Posted: 10:46 am on May 26th
AWilcox writes: In a million years, I would have never have guessed what these colorful masterpieces are. The work is simply amazing, and your description and writing is extraordinary; such as the work your create yourself. I really enjoyed reading this piece and the interview, it is very inspiring and refreshing to see and hear about such unusual talent. Thanks for featuring this great artist and sharing his art.
Posted: 10:25 am on May 26th
BerniS writes: Earl & I have known each other for most of the years I've worked at Brookdale Community College (he still keeps coming back!) & have always supported each other in our artistic endeavors, so I'm absolutely thrilled to see this magnificent writeup & interview. He's one of the most dedicated artists I've ever known. As he states: never let your art become secondary to your job. Bravo, Earl!
Posted: 7:49 pm on May 25th
garnetnm writes: What a great experience. When my brother took us on a flight from Akron to Cleveland and back, my husband was busy taking pictures. As we were looking at them later, one had captured an interesting design and composition for me. It turned out to be a utility processing complex. Art is where you find it.

Thanks for sharing, and I will be sharing this with friends.
Posted: 7:09 pm on May 25th
VINTAGE2GLAM writes: What a wonderful and inspiring story. It is amazing how one can see art and beauty in your everyday life, weather at home(home depot) or at work. How great is it that he has been taking pictures of this part of his job and that everytime he has an order for paint he is adding to his collection of fabulous photos. Never knowing what to expect when the order is placed. It must make Earl happy and excited to see a line of people ordering paint, I know I would be excited. Earl is taking a job that maybe some would not find interesting and making it a fun and creative art process. Great job Earl, an another Great art inspired story Jeff. Thanks again for a story well done.
Posted: 3:04 pm on May 25th
Jen_W writes: I love that extraordinary people with amazing back stories are all around us...if we only look and engage them in conversation. I think it's tremendous that he finds such inspiration in what some might find a mundane day job.
Posted: 12:09 pm on May 25th
WendyQM writes: Sometimes the most beautiful art can be found in the mundane. This article inspires me to more carefully analyze my daily life: to find the hidden beauty in things I would typically overlook... the boring, the seemingly useless things... to find the unexpected genius hidden within.

Posted: 12:05 pm on May 25th
krobbie67 writes: I find the pictures to be fascinating and Martell's take on life and art to be encouraging. I also find it inspiring that Rudell took the time to recognize something special was happening amongst what could have been quite an ordinary transaction.
Posted: 11:45 am on May 25th
paperrain writes: well, there's much to think about, here, but I love his take on education.
Thanks for sharing his work with us!
Posted: 10:31 am on May 25th
Maureclaire writes: Yup ! I can relate ! If I worked at Home Depot, I would HAVE to be taking those pictures too !
Posted: 6:02 am on May 25th
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