Mark Carson English Pictured with Current Work, Knoxville, March 2019
Mark Carson English, an artist of international caliber, has returned to Knoxville after a circuitous journey that leaves him questioning if he has a home, though this is clearly his hometown an he’s quite fond of it. Born in McMinnville, his father, who was a banker, brought the family to Knoxville when Mark was very young.
He was exposed to art early. His father was an art collector who brought an artist up from Florida and young Mark (he was eight-to-ten-years-old) hung out with him and watched what the artist did and how he did it. It was around this time that he started painting.
He attended Cedar Bluff and Farragut schools and says he was a misfit. He liked science, math, fashion and football. He was 6’5″ in seventh grade. At 13 he got his first job collecting golf balls on a driving range. He built and flew model airplanes, took tumbling lessons and skateboarded. He was good at basketball, but he preferred to dress like Howard Cosell and interview his teammates at the pizza parlor. He liked to breakdance.
In the midst of it all, he painted. An art teacher at Cedar Bluff Middle School made sure he had art supplies. He had his first art show in high school. “I knew I had the talent, but I hid it because it wasn’t very accepted.” After high school he dabbled in college, worked for his father and “didn’t do anything I didn’t want to do. I partied.
By age twenty-two he had three daughters and began to realize he had to make a commitment to something. In the mid-nineties he moved to Franklin, Tennessee. Knoxville didn’t seem to be embracing original art and Tim Downey, a friend in Chattanooga, suggested Franklin as a place that was about to experience great growth. He leased a small downtown building and opened a gallery and studio, with a home upstairs.
Located across from the theater, he opened on a Friday and had protesters from the local Methodist Church by Saturday. His work which was primarily expressionistic at the time, included two nudes prominently displayed in the front window. Offense was taken. Within a week he’d sold five paintings to people who thought the protests were ridiculous.
He remained in Franklin for a dozen years, but was driven out by the increasing price of real estate. He relocated in 2008 to Edgehill Village, just a block off music row in Nashville and next to a very popular eating and drinking establishment called Taco Mamacita’s. The space had no heat, no air, 70 foot ceilings and a great studio place. It was perfectly illegal, but they leased it to him.
This proved to be a great location for making connections. He met Luke Bryan, Billy Gibbons, Bill Clinton, Kenny Chesney and more. He was painting large abstracts and selling them all over the country. He’d been doing well in Franklin, but the new spot was even better. His reach changed from visitors from five states to selling paintings in L.A., Paris and New York. In subsequent years, he’s sold paintings to Carlos Santana (Dylan Portrait) and Billy Gibbons (Elvis Portrait) and many others.
“I sold a lot of $50 and $100 portraits early on, did pet portraits and started sculpting.” The early hard work paid off and he adds, “I still have over 2,000 clients in Nashville.” By 2009 he’d caught the attention of the New York art world and was invited to the 2009 New York Art Expo. He took twenty-five paintings. “I took what I thought would sell, cows, flowers. Not one sold.
“I figured out what sells: expressionists, paintings with a soulful meaning — what I love to paint! I went back the next year and sold everything.” At that second exhibition, he also caught the attention of CNN and Architectural Digest and began getting corporate commissions. Architectural Digest invited him to be one of their ten artists at “Made.”
A private showing of Rodin sculptures at Kenny Chesney’s home was opened to eight artists to bring their sculptures and he was included. He disregarded directions and also brought paintings all of which sold. A painting of the Moulin Rouge was purchased by a person from New York City with connections to the New York Jazz Festival. The gentleman asked if he painted “jazz.” He didn’t so, of course, he said, “Yes!”
The requirements included a large painting of Charles Mingus (8’X10′) for the stage backdrop, as well as other jazz luminaries. The three week festival was held at the Caramoor Center for Music and Arts which features a 5,000 seat amphitheatre. His art was on shirts and other objects. All pieces sold and he gained five corporate commissions.
Despite the success, he spent the next three years feeling adrift. He painted, sculpted, drank and generally felt miserable. He had great friends scattered around the country, but no place felt like home. The recession dried up the art business in the south, but New York was going well. He’d been living there during the summer and moved there for a time.
“I’ve always felt at home there,” but he really felt he wasn’t living anywhere. “My heart is in my studio. Knoxville will always be ‘home,’ but I feel more at home in New York with people who are supportive.” He still maintains a studio there for barter and has a home base in Nashville.
“Knoxville has a slower pace. The Old City has evolved to a point that makes me feel like I’m in a New York neighborhood. People have done a very good job with revitalization. I like music and I like the people who are coming to Big Ears to listen. They are real, they like the arts, and appreciate originality. Big Ears is what I consider the epitome. It is unexpected.”
He wanted to do something special in connection with Big Ears because he feels his people are coming to town. “I couldn’t care less if they buy a painting, they will appreciate it. They are the kind of people I would have hung out with. Not everyone likes this kind of music, but I love the direction Knoxville is going. I came back to hang out and loved it.”
In addition to the gallery at 130 W. Jackson, you can find his work at the Art Galleria on Kingston Pike, as well as on his Instagram account. In honor of Big Ears, the gallery will have extended hours Friday through Sunday and a special reception will be held Saturday from 5:00 PM to 9:00 PM with hors d’ oeuvres and live music by JJ Murphy, featuring visuals by Lindsay Garland, Stacy Busch and Sarah Gallina. Of their piece, JJ says, “A Notion of Mercy pairs live music with cinematic visuals to create a unique approach to modern storytelling.”