ST. ALBANS — In his St. Albans studio, sculptor Mark Prent grins as he wraps a doll-sized straightjacket around a clay figure.
Soon, the figure will be cast in silicone, clothed in a jacket, and placed inside a doctor’s bag.
“I think the idea of a doctor carrying his or her patient around is a humorous idea,” said Prent. “In a way, doctors are always carrying their patients around.”
The patient happens to wear his face, but that’s simply because not many people are willing to pose while a silicone mold is made of their head.
That others may not see the humor, perhaps imagining the doctor as a sadist experimenting on his or her tormented patient, or as a compassionate caregiver burdened by a patient who can’t be cured, or something else entirely, is part of the appeal for Prent.
“I like pieces that have open-ended interpretation,” he said. “I really learn a lot from people’s responses to what I make.”
The sculpture originated, as much of Prent’s work does, with an object, in this case the straightjacket. Then he had the idea of putting it in the medical bag.
As an art student at Concordia University he struggled in sculpture class when he found a WWI gas mask in a secondhand shop. He used it as a mold to create a sculpture. “I could have an image that wasn’t super realistic, but not so abstract you couldn’t relate to it,” Prent said. The combination excited him.
He’s been exploring the relationship between objects and the human figure ever since.
There is humor – sometimes even a hint of playfulness in his work – but Prent admits it’s a black humor.
When his work was first shown at a Toronto gallery in 1972 and 1974, there were protests, an order from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) to close the show, and a court case.
The gallery owner, Avrom Isaacs, refused to close the show, and the courts sided with Prent and Isaacs.
Among the pieces exhibited was life-sized figure of a man in an electric chair. It was a participatory sculpture, with viewers having the option of “electrocuting” the figure themselves.
Yet it wasn’t one of the pieces the RCMP found objectionable. For Prent, that’s a “wonderful example of … what we think is acceptable to us and what we think is not acceptable to us.”
After more than 40 years, he’s accustomed to strong reactions to his work.
“I’ve had people come to me and tell me when they saw my pieces tears rolled down their eyes, because it resonated for them,” he said.
His current work is less graphic than early work, less likely to feature blood or violence. But Prent points out that for some viewers, depending on their personal history, the patient in the doctor’s bag may be “equally tough.”
“I accept that people are going to have difficulty,” he said.
He’s also accustomed to people pondering the mind that could create such imagery, saying early in his interview with the Messenger, without prompting, “I sleep like a baby.”
That his art comes from his nightmares is a common assumption, but that isn’t the case.
From light into darkness
Prent, whose Polish family moved to Canada when he was an infant, is also not working through earlier trauma with his work. Indeed, it’s quite the opposite. He suspects it is the very ordinariness of his life which allows him to go to darker places in his work, suggesting it might not be so easy to go to those places if he had personal experience with that darkness.
During his ordinary childhood, Prent had a not-so-ordinary ability to draw super-realistic images. It was a talent that made him “a star” in his college printmaking class, or so he thought.
Then he sat for a one-on-one discussion with the professor. “If you continue doing these kinds of drawings, I’m going to have to fail you,” she told him. It was several minutes before he could ask “But why?”
She told him he couldn’t continue to come into the studio and do work without thinking about it.
“It changed my life,” said Prent. “That one sentence changed my whole life.”
“I used to do very beautiful work, classically beautiful. Stuff that could have sold anywhere in any conventional art gallery, but what would it have meant?” he asked.
“There are too many Norman Rockwell’s out there,” said Prent. Then after adding some comments about Rockwell’s importance, particularly his depictions of ordinary people, Prent revised his statement. “The problem is they’re not Norman Rockwell.”
“Our world is getting more and more difficult, more and more worrisome,” said Prent. “We can all do something in our own way. I can do something in my way, in sculpture.”
While Prent says he doesn’t know where his inspiration comes from, he is also clear that it is connected to his concerns about the pain and suffering human beings inflict on one another. “I’m very comfortable with people applying these kinds of issues to my work, as opposed to thinking it’s horror for horror’s sake,” he said.
Indeed, it’s clear from speaking with him, that Prent believes in a challenging world art must be equally challenging. It should not be, in his words, “too comfortable.”
Asked if there is compassion and sympathy in his work, Prent said simply, “Yes.”
That sympathy is clear when he speaks of research showing mental patients are often able to understand the world around them, but cannot communicate that understanding. “These kinds of things make you think about how much we have to care about those around us,” he said.
Prent is also at work on a piece made from a combination of a fish skeleton and shells. “The sea is just fascinating because of what you can find,” he said. “Between the forms and the color and what these things look like that come from the sea, it’s amazing.”
“I’ve added all kinds of things on to it that having nothing to do with the sea,” Prent said. Whether those things are part of the fish, live with it in a symbiotic relationship, or have turned its corpse into a home, that’s for the viewer to decide, as is what connection exists, if any, between Prent’s concerns about climate change and the work.
Prent himself backs away from explaining his work. “Art has a certain kind of magic to it and when you break that down you destroy the magic of it,” he said.
That desire to preserve, or perhaps discover, the magic, is also part of Prent’s process.
Although he has an idea about where his works are going, it’s an idea that is undergoing constant revision as he creates. “I’m much more interested in following the path of the unknown than the path of a fixed idea,” said Prent. If he has a new idea, he’ll make major changes mid-stream, even if it means destroying portions of the work that took hours to create.
“I love to listen to interviews with jazz musicians,” said Prent. “Every time they play something, they play it differently. That’s exactly what all my art is, improvisation.”
His improvisations have been exhibited in eight countries on three continents and have been the subject of three documentaries. He’s received numerous awards and grants, including a Guggenheim Fellowship.
Together with his wife, Sue, and the late art photographer David Saltmarche, a longtime friend, Prent has published a book featuring his work. The piece on the cover has since been sold – to Guillermo Tel Doro, director of “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “Pacific Rim.”
Critical attention doesn’t always pay the bills, however. So he teaches at Concordia University and fabricates work for a wide range of clients from fellow artists, most famously Yoko Ono, to a company needing to display an artificial heart.
Perhaps the strangest purchaser of his services was the RCMP. After finding a skull too fragile to use for reconstruction, an RCMP forensic scientist asked Prent to help him make a copy of it.
The work took roughly 12 hours, but when it was complete, the scientist was able to reconstruct the victim’s face using the copy. The victim was identified and the murderer caught.
The work earned Prent a badge from the RCMP, roughly 40 years after they’d tried to shut down his work.