No one ever expected to see a moustache on Diana Ross.
“People always get upset at me because I put a moustache on her,” said Eric Marlow, 52, with a laugh. “I like to take people and push them to the limit.”
Every day, GW students stream in and out of the Gelman library with little regard to their surroundings. The media lab, home to hundreds of films to be viewed by students, also boasts an artist in residence. Marlow, senior AV Technician for the Media Library, has worked in Gelman for 11 years and has lived in D.C. his entire life. His love of art stemmed from his childhood when he began taking art classes at the Corcoran when he was eight years old.
Marlow grew up in Foggy Bottom where he lived on F Street and attended the Grant School, currently known as The School Without Walls, back when rent for a townhouse was only $65 a month.
When Marlow was living in this area, the streets were racially segregated: with white families living on the south side of F Street and black families living on the north side. Many of the black residents worked across the street as maids, nannies and cooks in the other homes. Marlow moved to Southeast with his grandmother in the mid-sixties when GW offered his family and many others in his situation a flat fee for their land.
“That is why I have such bittersweet memories of this place – this used to be my neighborhood … I probably used to know these little old ladies (that I see around the area),” said Marlow, who has been around the see Foggy Bottom change with the growth of GW.
His artwork spans from line drawings to detailed pastel drawings, mainly depicting various pop culture icons with his own twist added in, toying with the notion of race and gender.
“I like to take people and push them to the limit,” said Marlow, whose favorite artists include Michelangelo, Walt Disney, Andy Warhol as well as the Flemish masters and Impressionist artists.
He pursued his study in the arts at Howard University in 1969.
“That was a really exciting time … everyone had afros, (there were) middle class blacks from the Midwest coming to Howard to discover their blackness,” he said. Marlow attended Howard for two and a half years and then decided to take a break.
“I told them I was taking a break, but I never went back,” reflects Marlow. “They should school and college – I know I wanted to be an artist, but it never occurred to me that I would have to go to school (to do so).”
Marlow also talked about the education of an artist; most of his professors at the time were practicing artists.
“I think they were jealous,” he said. “Here is this young whippersnapper who comes along and can do their thing as well as you can … you’d be kind of intimidated.”
However, there was one professor at Howard who acted as Marlow’s mentor. Ed Love, professor of sculpture, encouraged Marlow to push the limits, a theme in his current artwork. Love also encouraged Marlow to explore mediums that challenged him such as clay modeling.
“I never thought I could (sculpt) he always said painting was something to do on Sunday afternoons,” Marlow said. “He really inspired me. He was always trying to get me to take it farther, I guess I took it too far.”
For his thesis show at Howard, Marlow exhibited a series of paintings depicting supernatural and mythological creatures and various pop icons. “I like stuff that is a little bit off,” he said, noting that a reporter for The Hilltop, Howard’s student newspaper, had called his work perverted.
Marlow describes his most striking piece in the show as a painting of Billie Holiday. However, in Marlow’s rendition, Billie Holiday’s decapitated head is suspended in mid air, dripping blood into the open mouth of a white man.
“I was trying to make a statement of how Billie Holiday was drained by society,” he said. “It was my monument to her.”
“I had decapitated Billie Holiday and fed her to the masses,” Marlow adds.
Marlow currently draws his inspiration from the world around him. Music is his main source, Marlow enjoys a wide variety of music including Renaissance and Baroque, Little Richard and Jimi Hendrix, early Michael Jackson and the music from the disco era.
“I love the ’70’s and ’80’s disco, Donna Summers … it takes me to another world,” he said.
Marlow, recently, has also gotten into rap.
“I didn’t think I liked rap, but Eminem helped introduce me to it…I think it is just a phenomenon of this white kid – he’s got his own cadence,” Marlow said. Then, laughing at the irony, “Now I’m listening to Snoop and Dr. Dre…it should be the other way around.”
Marlow depicts many music icons in his drawings, including Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson, Bob Marley and Eminem, among others.
“Oh, and television is an inspiration,” interjects Marlow regarding his influences.
“I can draw and listen to the TV. When folks say there is nothing in TV, I just don’t believe it…and I just have four channels.”
Currently, Marlow is working on a series of drawings depicting characters and scenes from Shakespeare’s A “Midsummer Night’s Dream.” He said that he wanted to do a “non-traditional casting” for Shakespeare in his work and often plays around with the races of his characters.
“(The other) night, when I got home, the guy on the radio said, ‘It’s a harvest moon tonight,’ and I thought, bam.” In the piece shown, Marlow depicts Titania as a lily-white fairy while giving Bottom distinct Black features. “Every time I finish one, I think of a new idea (for another piece).”
Marlow has saved all of his preliminary sketches in order to chart the development of the series.
Marlow also depicts the Shakespearean characters of Desdemona and Othello.
“What inspired me was Othello – one of the few African American characters in classic literature who was not a slave,” he said.
Marlow comments on the GW art community. “When I first came here, GW wasn’t finished building the Smith Hall of Art and students had to take classes at the Corcoran,” he said.
“I wish that they’d open up (Smith Hall of Art)…It always looks so locked,” said Marlow, who wishes to be able to see the latest works of the students. Marlow had his work exhibited in Gelman Library in 1998 for the March on Washington’s 35th Anniversary show titled, “Looking Back … Moving Forward.” His work is still exhibited there today. Marlow also developed the logo for the Africana Research Center, located on the second floor of Gelman Library.
For Marlow, though, the excitement in art is in the process of creation and what follows. He can create a sketch on a Wednesday, crumple it up and throw it in the trash and then return to it on a Friday and love it.
“I can do a piece and the exciting part is the doing it and after it’s done, I really don’t care what happens to it,” he said.
Marlow also mentioned that he prefers a more tactile approach to creating art.
“I can’t get into computer art because I can’t embrace it . I like to touch chalk and paint and smell it,” he said that computer art lacks a human quality. When Marlow goes shopping for art supplies, he said that he makes sure to touch the paper and pencils before deciding on what to buy.
For Marlow, art has been a lifelong passion. He enjoys a wide variety of artists and his work is an essential element to his sense of self.
“When I try to get into art for money, there’s something missing – I like doing stuff for myself,” Marlow said.