Rothko Center: At which point do you know a painting is finished?

Māris Upzars: By intuition. On the whole, you have an idea, and, when you see there’s nothing to add, the painting is done.

RC: How long does it take to finish a painting?

MU: Roughly half a year.

RC: That’s several pieces at once?

MU: No. Just the one. I can’t do everything at once. I focus on one idea and keep developing it. And when I feel the painting is ready to come out into the light, I just help it along.

RC: Where do your themes come from?

MU: It’s the inner world of man. And I don’t mean anyone in particular. We’re all pretty universal. I don’t think people are that much different from one another.

RC: Do you get commissions?

MU: No, I work for myself because I enjoy it. When I was younger, friends asked for portraits, but that’s different.

RC: When did you choose your style?

MU: I didn’t choose it; I just sensed that it was mine. That was way back, soon after the academy. I graduated in 1997, and by 1999, I was already working in this style. It’s always tough right after the academy – everybody keeps giving you advice (laughs), telling you how to do things.

RC: And do you listen? Or go against the flow?

MU: Nooo, I listen. I don’t think I’m the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree (laughs). People have lived and worked and experienced, and they’re ready to share, so I say thanks.

RC: Do you remember your first emotions upon seeing Mark Rothko’s work?

MU: My first impressions were a bit odd… I mean, and now what? … But pretty soon, I realised that it’s just a language. Like, if someone in the world speaks Latvian, it doesn’t mean I have no right to do the same. I’ll simply do it my own way, in terms of conveying my thoughts and emotions. You see, in Soviet times, our opportunities to see things like that were very limited, which is precisely why seeing Rothko had such a powerful impact. So, sometime after 2000, when I finally saw some of Rothko’s paintings reproduced in a book, there was this super weird feeling – and now what? But no worries. I just kept on painting.

RC: Do you remember your progress towards the first painting in your current style?

MU: I do. I was so impressed by Prospero and Ariel, the two leads from Shakespeare’s Tempest.  I got very involved and tried to make sense of their feelings and emotions. They’re both so brilliantly, so awesomely portrayed. It was such a powerful experience; I was fascinated. I’ve some really pleasant memories of how I delved into the subject.

RC: Do you remember the hardest period for you creatively, when you felt almost as if you were banging your head against a concrete wall?

MU: I’ve been there, of course I have. But they say your worst crisis is also when you’re at your most potent work-wise.  When you look for a way out and find it. Today I look back at my work from back then and see it as very good (laughs). And I’m happy to have had it. A tough time, for sure, but also a good one. My first marriage fell apart, and I had to make some serious decisions. But I pulled myself together and did it.

RC: Your work on a painting, where does it start? 

MU: First, I need to understand what my greatest concern is at that point in time. What’s worthy of being explored. In terms of finding a theme. Because it needs to be something really meaningful.

RC: Do you know from the word go what your painting’s gonna look like when it’s finished, or is it a journey into the great unknown?

MU: If we’re talking about the painting the viewer sees, then yes, I always know how it’s gonna look. Naturally, it can change a bit. And I accept it in good grace. But, on the whole, I already know what it’s gonna be like. I’m not that brave to put myself blindly into the hands of fate or my subconscious (laughs). I adore artists who delve deep into the unknown and draw their art from these depths. I can’t. I’m too scared (laughs).

RC: Are you a controller?

MU: Oh yes (laughs). I try not to, but I am. That’s true. It’s just that I see everything in terms of order. In life too. But then again, I also love the unexpected (naturally, if it’s pleasant). So there’s always a degree of surprise.

RC: Do you have an anecdote about an unusual purchase of some of your work?

MU: Yes, I do (laughs). There was this time when I took a painting to an exhibition. The previous show hadn’t been cleared away yet; people hadn’t had the time to come and get it. And someone brought a buyer to this previous display. But the buyer noticed my painting. And bought it! And I should say rather cheaply. So he took it home, and his wife threw a tantrum and demanded he took it back. Shows just how she hated it (laughs). So he sent it back. The gallerist was astonished; nothing like that had ever happened to her. Some time passed, and at another show, the guy who’d brought the Italian bought this very painting. At three times the price! At first, I couldn’t price it the right way; it was just too fresh. But with time, I learnt to see its value – like, yeah, it’s not that bad. On the whole, though, my paintings don’t sell very well. We don’t have enough well-situated and well-educated people who could do them justice. Those who can afford it financially prefer shelling out on more functional things – houses, yachts, choppers. Art… they don’t really care about it. But those who appreciate art and would really love to buy can’t afford it (smiles sadly). But sometimes I give my work away as gifts. When I feel someone REALLY needs it. And I give with joy. I think paintings should hang in the homes of those who really need them.

RC: And what do you do for a living?

MU: I work in the Natural History Museum; that’s my day job.

RC: Why don’t you paint for a living?

MU: I love order, as I’ve said (laughs). I can’t live hoping someone buys something someday in the future. Such things can really dampen creativity. If an artist depends on his buyers, art becomes commercial. You can’t help but compromise on your ideas and play up to the commissioner, try to keep up with the trends. On the other hand, work keeps me in the flow of things, keeps me alert and alive to the world around me, focused on experiencing it with all my senses. And on trying to understand others and their experiences.

Rc: And why the Natural History Museum?

MU: It was one of my favourites when I was growing up (laughs).

RC: You have an unconventional social media profile. On Facebook, there’s your work and also lots of humour, some jokes from Odessa.

MU: Yes, yes! My daughter scolds me, she says – you’re a popular artist, and people should know you from this side, your artist’s profile should look more serious. But I disagree – that’s also me, another part of my life, and it’s important. It’s like a password to my friends and associates, a code, if you will (smiles). I need a good joke; you can’t live without humour! As to the Facebook group “Odessa jokes”, sometimes it’s nothing special, but some days you just sit there and laugh (laughs hard). Maybe that’s why I long to go to Odessa.

RC: And do you have a place of power here, in Latvia?

MU: That would be Liepāja. That’s where I least feel the meddling hand of man, if you know what I mean. Or maybe it’s so well-placed that I just don’t notice. And the architecture… it’s just so sweet (smiles). My wife and I, we try to go three in the off-season, when there’s fewer tourists. Like, for the New Year.

RC: Your daughters, they’re also talented?

MU: Naturally! They’re both artists. The eldest is very clever; she got her second MA in colour design, out in Sweden. She did it all by herself – found a programme and learnt what she needed. She’s fascinated by colour. As to my youngest, I call her a genius – she can draw just about anything! She loves printing on textile.

RC: Lately, you’ve refocused on the colour black…

MU: Just for ten years, not long at all.

RC: Are you planning to discover all its secrets? What’s your philosophy with regards to black?

MU: I simply accept that it has a place in all our lives. Our mind is such a vast space, and we know nothing about it. So I’ve found this allegory – it’s a dark room where something is hiding. A dragon that wants to jump at you or a beautiful princess who’s waiting for you to find her. It’s just an unlit room where something is hiding. Maybe a bad thing and maybe good.

RC: And what do you want the viewers to feel when they look at your black – curiosity or anxiety?

MU: Curiosity. I try not to force my message. Everybody is free to choose what it means. I think that’s how it should be in art. You should always leave the viewer some space to think. Actually, I think what makes art ‘art’ is born in the soul of the viewer. The viewer who’s ready to give it some time, attention and effort.

RC: …and lots of grey.

MU: Yes, I’ve come back to it. Now I remember that nothing’s just black and white. And I’ve come to terms with the fact that I don’t know anything. Well, maybe a little something. But by and large… You can’t go into art with a fixed mind-frame, thinking that you’re such a clever know-it-all. You should always keep your eyes wide open and always pursue the unknown. That’s why being a fool in art is nothing to be ashamed of. Quite the opposite – it opens the door for insight. And not just in art, in life too! (laughs). Nothing holds you back, and nothing is impossible! You have your divine right to make mistakes. In fact, that’s how we learn. And we MUST make mistakes. How else can we learn about the world and ourselves?

RC: Who’s the first person to see your work?

MU: My wife and my daughter.

RC: And who’s your main critic?

MU: My wife, she’s also an artist.

RC: Do you rub along well? I mean, you’re both artists…

MU: Hmmm… that’s a tough question. I guess any two people would find it tricky to rub along well (laughs). She works in a similar technique, but if you look more closely, it’s completely different from mine. A similar language, but she’s not me. Anita has her own visual language, and it’s fascinating! I’m always amazed by what she does.

RC: Whose work would definitely stop you when passing by?

MU: If we’re talking Latvian artists, I love Boriss Bērziņš, of course. And Imants Vecozols. He’s very realistic, but his colour combinations… I’m so impressed; they’re impossibly good! I also like Rūdolfs Pinnis. Back in art school, I was saving money to buy his painting (smiles).

RC: And the old masters?

MU: Again, I won’t be original – Leonardo da Vinci, Rafael… (thinking) Oh! Rembrandt! Of course! I felt there was someone here, standing and hinting (laughs). Rembrandt, he’s the chief guy. I just can’t wrap my mind around it. How did he do it? From huge canvasses to miniatures where you just don’t get how it was done – to touch the surface like that, to portray a human face with all its emotions and feelings… pure genius.

RC: What keeps you going? What do you do when you need to make tough decisions?

MU: I say the Lord’s Prayer. Very often. It’s my universal formula. I’m a believer, but I don’t believe in the church as a structure. I love believing in everything, one and all. But I don’t believe in the church. I’m really sorry but I can’t.

RC: Your work, does it have a higher purpose?

MU: I want to give an impulse that will make the viewer search their soul. And look for what they need there. So my work is not definitive; it’s a starting point of a journey. Or a doorbell ringing.