The new counterculture lives in the middle.

Visual artist Marlos E’van on creativity and personal connection

Marlos E'van occupies his creative zone while holding the yellow and black Third Man Photo Studio x Retrospekt Polaroid camera used for his book, Sweetheart Party. Photo by Chad Crawford

If you had a copy of artist Marlos E’van’s book, Sweetheart Party, you probably wouldn’t be doom-scrolling on your handheld device. Instead, this pocket-sized collection of intimate and mysterious Polaroids published by Third Man Books would be your latest obsession. It’s a curiosity that’s filled with pictures of people you might not know but somehow feel like you remember — people at parties, a funeral, or art shows. People in pandemic masks and winter coats who look posed yet natural, candid, and somehow sculptural. There are photos of artwork, pieces that reference comics, cartoons, and superheroes painted in thick, strong lines and chunks of color. Perhaps the most powerful among all the photos is a series E’van shot at their grandfather’s funeral, pictures of the mourners, yes, but also of the mourned resting peacefully in an open casket, and finally, a newly closed grave.

I had a dream right before the funeral, and I got to the funeral, and that exact same scene happened. All the colors were in the dream, and I locked it in,” E’van says. “It was rough. Being behind the camera really helped me get through it.” 

“Talk about a work ethic. That’s where it started for me, with him,” E’van recalls. “I spent summers with my grandparents in the country. I’d get up with him at 4 a.m. to work with him in the fields. And we had to feed chickens and hogs. I never forgot that, and I wanted to honor him.”

For those who have yet to know E’van’s work, Sweetheart Party serves as an introduction in microcosm to a personal aesthetic that informs art-making inspired by relationships with family, friends, and creative colleagues. Other influences include Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, Andy Warhol, Edward Hopper, vintage B-movies, Afro-futurism, traveling circuses, superheroes, science fiction, and a fascination with persona and character. 

Marlos E’van
“Sweetheart Party”
Third Man Books

This April, E’van returned to canvas after a good spell away from painting. In previous months, attention had been focused on multimedia projects, music, sculpture, and film, as well as creating art events with collaborators. Now, in a departure from all that comes a very new and personal work — a family portrait commissioned by their cousin Jerry Friley. “This piece is just me getting my feet wet again with painting because the last couple of months, I’ve been away doing everything else,” E’van says.

And the piece is, well, different. It’s a family portrait of his cousin Jerry, Jerry’s wife, and their two grown children, seated around a dining room table on what could be a holiday or special family gathering. The figures are signature E’van — bright caricatures, a bit cartoonish, painted with oils and airbrushed on cotton fabric. And then there’s crayon. “It took me all week on the figures, and today I was thinking about what I want for the background. … I could make it look like the inside of a house, but then I grabbed these crayons,” E’van explains, gesturing toward the canvas, with its abstract background of jagged, multicolored lines. The result is a portrait that suggests a kind of world-building, with characters who are people, yes, but also mystical beings beyond time and ordinary space, spiritual elders in their own fabulous world of color and shape. It is a tender portrait of peaceful, content people, and at the same time, it feels a bit like iconography.

“This piece is close to my heart,” E’van explains. “My cousin is almost ground zero for me and art. He is older than me, and he and his sisters used to babysit me. When he was a teenager, his mom let him do a Charlotte Hornets painting on the wall in his room, a mural. That was the first time I saw an artist live and direct. And I’ll never forget it. From that moment, I was like, this is what I want to do. I was probably eight or nine at the time. And the painting is special to me because I’m reflecting on the idea of family unity. The kids can grow up and move away, but no matter how far out you go in the world, you’ve always got a place to come back to.”

Clown Family/ repacking (2023)
Oil paint, acrylic, airbrush, fabric, plastic, tape, canvas
39 x 40 inches

Perhaps inspired by cousin Jerry, E’van’s first mural on the wall of the teacher’s lounge at his school used the novel media of blue shaving gel. It was not a commissioned work. “Yeah, I got in a little trouble for that. I was constantly drawing as a kid, and one day, the opportunity of an unattended space kind of presented itself,” they confess. “I guess that was the beginning of the street artist in me.”

How does E’van get work from the imagination to canvas? “If I don’t do a pre-sketch and I just jump into it, I might hang a piece of canvas or fabric up and just sit with it for a couple days. I might just sit here working on the computer, emails, and stuff and periodically just turn around and look and see what the light’s doing, how’s it hitting off the different planes and changes. Some of my work has been informed by that, and I just start to see images before I make a sketch or even do anything on the piece,” they explain. Creating an emotional connection with the viewer is what’s important.

As a new graduate from Watkins College of Art, Design, and Film (now part of Belmont University) in 2016, E’van initially gained recognition as a painter, muralist, and queer graffiti-style street artist in the spirit of Jacques Basquiat. The work evolved as a variety of mediums were explored — painting, filmmaking, performance, sculpture, installation, photography — while creating pieces that examine American history, slavery, racism, cultural erasure, violence, loss, exploitation, community, celebration, ceremony, and ritual, among other themes. In contrast to the Friley family portrait, these works aren’t always so peaceful and contented.

Jackie beheading Phalifon (2023)
Airbrush on 100% cotton
6ft x 4ft

Consider, for instance, “KKK Courtroom,” in which the judge, jury, and legal counsel — everyone except the defendant — appears in white robes and hoods. There is the aptly titled “Thomas Jefferson and Black Decendent,” or the painting of a chained and severed human leg and foot titled “Toby,” in reference to Alex Hayley’s book and TV mini-series about slavery, Roots. And then we find “Traffic Stop,” in which a white cop has stopped a black driver parked above the caption, “Oh, do I smell weed?” “Made in the USA” depicts police-involved gun violence, and “Always Kill What You Don’t Understand” shows a human gunning down a creaturely being (space alien?).

“It’s important to me to work with those themes to highlight stories that maybe are not so widely known or pushed aside, especially in times like this with all the erasure going on. It feels like we’re leaving something in the story out; there is a sense of urgency. Now I’m asking society to make it so I don’t have to make those types of paintings. We can see what happened in the past and what’s happening now, and we can learn from it, learn what we don’t want. From the perspective of history, what we’re living in now is supposed to be the future, and in the future, aren’t we all supposed to be living together on space stations and trying to have things like flying cars? We can’t do that stuff if we’re separated by hate.”

With that said, E’van doesn’t want to be regarded solely as a “political” artist but rather as someone who still has room for joy. Some of that joy gets channeled into playful work with clowns and funhouses. “My history with clowns goes back to being a kid and going to the circus. I think visually, with the clown’s space, it was Pee-wee Herman movies that inspired me. As a kid, I loved Pee-wee [Herman] movies,” E’van explains. On a visit to The Whitney in New York City in 2019, the artist was captivated by Edward Hopper’s painting “Soir Bleu,” a compelling and haunting picture depicting a clown seated at a café alongside other plain Parisian folk, typical café-goers. It’s all Hopper realism with a touch of the absurd. Upon returning to Nashville and a pandemic heating up, E’van went into deep work mode, putting together what was to be their first show at Red Arrow Gallery in East Nashville. 

“One of the themes in that show was paying homage to people I know,” E’van says. So I made this painting, my version of ‘Soir Bleu,’ and in the middle of it, I painted myself as a clown figure. I was surrounded at a dinner table with four of my closest collaborators at the time: Courtney Adair Johnson, David Anderson, Nuveen Barwari, and Brandon Donahue, all from Nashville.”

“That show opened at Red Arrow, and I had two other collaborators from LA that were living here at the time, Chris Wormald and Sisely Treasure, who both work in film. We were at the opening, and I said, ‘Yo, I’m interested in bringing this clown character to life. What do y’all think about that?’”

The collaborators thought it was a great idea. The pandemic slowed progress, but in 2023, they got busy shooting The Adventures of Nico the Clown, with E’van as the naïve, innocent Nico making his clowning way through a craven and cynical show-biz landscape. Shooting locations include Nashville, Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Las Vegas. E’van hopes the film will be released and screened in Nashville this fall.

“As I was working on this and doing research, I learned a lot about clowns and carnivals. Like people of color were largely left out of the conversation with clowns. All their roles were really reserved for cheap labor, scooping up elephant dung — things like that, but they were rarely the attraction themselves. I think through this performance, I’m in a kind of conversation with the people who wanted to do it before me but never could. I think that’s a huge inspiration for doing this,” E’van explains.

Alongside the film project, Red Arrow Gallery hosted the exhibition Nico’s Playhouse last fall, featuring clown-inspired sculptures, paintings, installations, and video clips. “It was the spectacle of spectacles,” E’van observes. “It’s something I think about more than any other show I’ve done. This was almost like a stage play. There’s a photo of me in that moment when I was on the backstairs at the gallery watching it all unfold, and it was extra fun. The people who didn’t know me didn’t know that I directed the event, and it was a perfect bird’s eye view, and all of a sudden, I pop up as this extra character.”

Moving through various cultural and personal obsessions, E’van’s creative focus has shifted. Right now, they’re really digging being a multi-media artist taking on new themes and approaches to the work. “I’ve been looking at my recent work, like the clowns, and I love my new work,” they observe when asked about leaving some of the more violent imagery behind. “Sometimes I wake up and I think, ‘should I do blood and guts today?’ I just wonder about that sometimes. I know that part of me isn’t over because things are still happening; it definitely isn’t over. But I guess I’m asking myself, is it cool to allow myself the space to make pieces like this (they gesture toward the family portrait). Am I taking a break from the violence right now? I think so.” One of E’van’s mentors, artist Derek Fordjour, encouraged them to be aware of low-hanging fruit when it comes to depicting violence, as it can be easy to press people’s buttons with those images. “It is easy, and that’s why I always want to be intentional about it,” E’van says.

E’van identifies as a non-binary, and as a queer artist of color, they are keenly aware of forces they could push against. But they are also completely at ease with their identity. Growing up outside of Biloxi, Mississippi, a port city, exposed them to diverse cultures and ways of being in the world, and they fondly recall a group of girls, friends from high school, who were open about exploring gender fluidity. “Never did it ever feel like something strange or foreign. For me it was like, this is natural. They showed me it’s okay to be who you are. The only idea that should really matter is how I treat people.” 

E’van indeed finds joy in creative expression. Their connections to family and friends are necessary to that joy, some of whom become creative collaborators. “I try to genuinely live as a happy person. My work can get dark, dark, but when I’m with people, I want to be happy. I want to have a good time; I want to hear about you and what you got going and share what I’m doing with you.”

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