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Don Martin
June 17, 1931—November 6, 1989

Don Martin Artist
(photo Patzquaro, Mexico, 1987)

Martin dedicated his life to art,
but was uncomfortable with the title artist, 
calling himself instead a maker of things to look at.

The son and grandson of coal miners, Don Martin, christened Donald Theodore Martin, was the first man in his family to spend his entire life above ground.

His father, Theodore “Ted” Roosevelt Martin, came from a family of Irish miners who worked the hard coal mines of Pennsylvania. Like the ore they mined, they were hard men, proud of their membership in the Molly Maguires, a secret society with roots in Ireland that was active in the violent labor uprisings of the 1870s.

His mother, Mary Jane Waddell, was the daughter of a soft-coal miner from Yorkshire, England, who had acquired a hundred acres in West Virginia. His land included a mountain of coal that he hollowed out with only his sons to help, while his wife and daughters maintained the garden and kitchen. A gentle people, their home in the West Virginia hills was a summer haven for young Martin.

In the 1920s Ted Martin escaped from the mines to the rubber mills of Akron, Ohio, where he met Mary Jane Waddell. She had moved to Akron to join her older sister’s family—a move typical of Appalachian people looking for opportunity in Ohio cities. The two married in 1921, and after ten years she gave birth to Don, their only son.

Both parents fostered Martin’s early interest in art. Watching his reclusive mother bent over her sewing machine inspired his interest in the creative process—what he later called “making something to come home to.” His father, hoping his son would escape the dirty labor in the rubber factories, encouraged—even forced—him to draw. He would keep his young son up late into the night drawing cartoons to show his co-workers in the morning.

(Photo: Martin, center, Akron, Ohio, 1948)

Martin spent a typical youth with a close-knit circle of friends, doing what young men of the time did: drive around in cars, date girls, and in between times go to school. While in high school, he had a job at a local department store helping with window displays, another step in his journey towards a life in art—what he called “chasing that kite.” After graduation in 1949, he was off to study at the Art Students League in New York City with Carl Holty and Sidney Laufman, a big move for a small town boy. To earn his keep, he took a job with a firm of custom tailors, which reinvigorated his early interest in making clothes. They offered to teach him the trade, but he chose to return to Akron for further study with Leroy Flint.

Soon thereafter, he left home for good, first shipping out to Turkey with a merchant ship carrying mules to the Turkish army. He spent his off-duty hours drawing his shipmates. On his return he landed in New Orleans and decided to stay. There he studied with the painter Charles Malcolm Campbell and was active with a group of young writers, musicians, and artists, among whom was the folk singer, Lori Fair. In 1954, she encouraged him to join her on a trip to Mexico that would deeply inform his art. (For details on Martin’s life in Mexico, see writer Tony Burton’s article in Lake Chapala Artists.

On arriving at the Mexican border, Martin told the authorities he was an artist and, to his surprise and delight, they honored him. In Akron they would tell him to “get a job.” He and Fair moved to the town of Ajijic on Lake Chapala in the central highlands of Mexico. Martin fell in love with the town, the people, the animals (the bulls, the roosters, the stray dogs), the lake, and the mountains. There he found a home as an artist; his work was appreciated and he was productive.

Martin exhibited in local galleries with renowned Mexican artists, and critics applauded his work. During his seven-year sojourn in Mexico, he continued to chase that kite “that was still there just above the head.” Never attracted to traditional techniques of painting and drawing, the Mexico years gave him the space and time to experiment. Most significantly, he discovered lacquer, a medium whose fast-drying property allowed him to build up layers of color [Osmosis in the Boo Rushes].

(photo: Don and Joan Martin, Highland Farm, Santa Cruz, CA, 1973)

In 1962, Martin left Mexico for good and settled in Venice, California, with his future wife Joan Gilbert. The Venice years brought friendships with other artists, many of whom were part of the Southern California Beat art scene, including George Herms, Wallace Berman, and Cameron. With only a small studio, he produced small images, using a variety of mediums: spray paint over stencils, torched paint, and ink resist.  In 1963, San Francisco gallery owner Muldoon Elder, impressed with Don’s work, gave him a show at his new Vorpal gallery then located in North Beach, which featured these small works [Magic Like Art].

In September 1966, the opportunity to move to a farm with extensive outbuildings in the Santa Cruz Mountains proved irresistible. In a large studio in a bucolic setting, he produced a series of large paintings. Among them was a serene image of the Buddha seated among clouds and spinning worlds—a painting that started out in Venice using torched spray paint [He]. Martin then began to experiment again with lacquer, making a major series of paintings depicting flying spirits and mandalas. He applied layers of lacquer over a relief surface and then scraped back to reveal the colors and patterns. He continued these lacquer paintings until his death in 1989 [One].

Because he could only work in lacquer in the summer when his studio doors opened wide to dissipate the noxious fumes, Martin filled the winter hours with a series of wash drawings he called his Codex. True to his aversion to mainstream techniques, he drew with water-based ink on sturdy paper, then ran it under water, and drew on the remaining image with an ink pen. As with the lacquers, he worked on the Codex throughout his remaining years [Pale Fire].

In the 1970s, Martin began a new series of drawings that he called Twins. Drawing with colored ink on one board, he blotted it onto another, and continued to draw on both until two twin images were complete [Danza del Pescado]. At this time, he also revived a drawing technique he had begun in Mexico where he made line drawings for the local women to embroider. Instead of embroidery, he filled in line drawings with ink and called them a Coloring Book [Untitled].  In 1976, Martin bought a house and land on Happy Valley Road in Santa Cruz where he built a studio and continued his dedication to “making things to look at, capable of receiving respect.”

(photo: Happy Valley, Santa Cruz, CA, 1978)

For much of this time, Don made his living as a jeweler, co-founding a co-operative of metal smiths operating out of the Cooper House, a renovated courthouse filled with restaurants and shops in downtown Santa Cruz. This ill-fated venue was destroyed in the October 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. This was also an ill-fated time for Martin. He was diagnosed with a fast-moving cancer at the start of that year, and died shortly after the earthquake on November 6, 1989.

Note: This Don Martin is not the same person as the cartoonist Don Martin (also born in 1931) who was closely associated with MAD Magazine.