Artist in Focus: Mark Collins


Mark Collins’ piece titled “Two in the Afternoon”

Mark Collins was never the type of kid to carry a sketchbook everywhere, constantly drawing. “I wasn’t one of those kids that was constantly drawing since I was two or something,” Collins said. He liked art, but never saw himself as a professional artist. In eighth grade, however, his art teacher praised an oil painting of a waterfall he had made. The teacher then hung up Collins’ painting in the art department. She kept the painting up at the school for years, and brought it home with her when she retired. The teacher’s praise was the push Collins needed to pursue art. “That gave me confidence,” Collins said, “that was the first person who said ‘hey, I think you’ve got something.’”

Teaching art at OPRF since 1997, Collins hopes he may be that first encouraging voice for young artists. He teaches AP Art History, Advanced Studio 2D, Painting, Drawing, and Art Foundations. Collins aims to encourage a lifelong love of art in students, just like his middle school teacher did for him. “I think art’s something that, whenever you pick it up, if you enjoy it, it stays with you. It’s with you in everything you do.”

Although Collins gained immense confidence in his art as a teenager, he considers his first sold painting at age 21 to mark the beginning of his career as an artist. “It’s an honor to be called an artist,” Collins said earnestly. “I think it implies that you’ve explored not only a wide range of mediums and artistic styles, you’ve done a lot of art, and you’ve demonstrated an interest in the whole creative process.”

That first purchased painting was a landscape of the Potomac River. Much like the waterfall painting from middle school, it was colorful and abstract, without straying from its subject. Since, Collins has continued to improve his painting skills, but he notices similarities. “It’s fun to see how in some ways what I’m painting now links up with what I was doing then, in my early 20’s,” Collins said.

When he sold his first painting, Collins felt he had begun to connect with a wider audience. He still looks forward to the moments at art shows when people are drawn to his paintings. “What makes that so rewarding is that they somehow see the world that I do. It’s not everybody, but it does happen,” he said.

I always thought it would be fun to teach, and I always knew it was going to be art”

— Mark Collins

The world Collins sees is shown in his landscape and figure paintings. He describes his own art as minimalist and stark. “There’s a little bit of loneliness to it,” he said.“I don’t know why that is. The artwork I’ve always really liked has an intensity to it. A little bit says a lot. It leaves a lot to the imagination of the viewer.”

His artistic influences are evident in his artwork. He considers realist Edward Hopper, sixteenth century Italian artist Caravaggio, and abstract expressionist Richard Diebenkorn to be influences, among others. Collins said the first painting he was attracted to was a landscape by one of the Hudson River School Painters. “I think I was probably struck by the intensity of the light and the openness of the land,” he said. “It still reminds me of the area I grew up in, upstate New York.”

Looking at Collins’ art on the walls of his classroom, a viewer may not realize how much of it is based off his travels. As he listed the places he has traveled for art, including Japan and throughout Europe, he noted how prevalent art was in his experience on each trip. “I lived in Spain for a year and went to a lot of museums and I painted a lot while I was there,” he said.

Although art is an incredibly important part of Collins’ life, so is teaching. The two have been connected for him since he first got into art. “I always thought it would be fun to teach,” he said, “and I always knew it was going to be art.”

What Collins did not anticipate when he began teaching was that he would learn, too. “If you are asking someone to do a landscape painting, you need to be able to explain all of the components and steps and challenges,” he said. “If you’ve made the art that you’re asking other people to do, I think it makes you much more capable of conveying that information.” Because he explains to students how to make art every day, he has to understand his own creative process and reflect on it.

Interactions with students are a big part of why Collins loves teaching. “No matter how old the teacher gets, the students are always the same age,” he said. “In any school, there’s energy there. There’s the excitement that youth bring to learning and to life.”

Collins enjoys bringing his own energy to the classroom. There is always music playing in his room and students working on projects. Supplies are always available for students to use.

He thinks a good teacher should enjoy being in front of students. “I enjoy that kind of dramatic quality of teaching,” he said. “Students can show quickly that their mind can wander to other things so fast nowadays. There’s so much stimulation that you have to find ways to keep them engaged, and one of those is being a little bit of an actor.”

The most rewarding point of Collins’ job is seeing students begin to appreciate what he has taught them. “In many ways teaching, at least the teaching of art, is as much about the future as it is about the present,” he said. “A lot of what someone learns they don’t really appreciate at the moment they are taught it, at least deeply, until time has passed. When a student in the present says ‘thank you’ or ‘yes, I understand what you are saying,’ that makes me happy.”

Collins wants to be remembered as having zeal for making and teaching visual art. He imagines students experiencing art the way he does, as a lifelong love. “I hope that students, whether now or later in life, will look back and say, ‘that guy really enjoyed what he does,’” he said thoughtfully.