In the Studio with John Martinek

In the Studio with John Martinek


Iowa Artisans Gallery recently visited with John in his studio, which is in his home that he shares with fellow artist Greta Songe and their 3-and-a-half-year-old son Emmett.

John is a renaissance man. His day job is carpentry, making cabinets. He paints early in the mornings, to get the most out of a day. He is a featured political cartoonist in The Little Village.  His studio includes a printing press and a racing bike for training.

 (Emmett pointing at Learning to Walk – acrylic on panel from 1998)

IAG- Can you tell us about your beginnings as an artist? What motivated you?


John- It all began in childhood with drawing and painting as a form of play and a way to make things happen in two dimensions.  It was an extension of real world play, of bringing characters and objects into another space and to make them do things and create stories. My brother and I spent hours drawing scenarios to show each other and to make each other laugh.  At that time, I wasn’t thinking about the purpose of it all other than that it was interesting and fun.  The drawing or painting itself was not important or valuable.

At the most fundamental level, it comes from a biological need to create and communicate with other humans.  I have always been a very visual thinker, and drawing is a way for me to map things out and analyze them in sort of an architectural way.  I was motivated further by the fact that I was singled out as someone who was good at art.  Other children and adults told me I was good at art, so that started to form part of my identity as an artist.

Later, when I was in college and started to study art more seriously and from an academic standpoint, it was because I was exploring my interests and abilities and returned to that desire to learn and create this way.  Also it was a social thing, a way to define this part of who you are and who you want to be, and to experience this exploration with others.  It helped me to figure things out and share my ideas.  It was always unlikely that I would get up and give speeches or debate…but art was a way to communicate that fit me well.  In addition to that I have always been a “maker”.  My other career is as a cabinetmaker and finish carpenter which is also very visual.  I need to be making things with my hands to be satisfied.

IAG- On top of having a great website full of work from over the last 25 years, he also has a great Blog. I included his most recent post.




 Hemorrhage - Acrylic on Wood Panel - 36" x 44" - 2016


The painting Hemorrhage is an homage to the American obsession with oil - the unending hunt for new sources within the earth, the unquenchable thirst for more, and the combustion and consumption that powers our culture and politics.


The top of the painting is inspired by the Lakeview Gusher which occurred in Kern County, California from March 1910 to September 1911.  This oil well created the largest accidental spill in history and released 9 million barrels of oil into the landscape.  The oil wells at the top of the drawing represent the “blowout” events where an uncontrolled release of oil occurs, hemorrhaging out over the earth and spraying up into the sky.  Beneath this landscape, the nation’s capitol building convulses and churns amidst the oil well structures and spray.


The black paint flows down the panel and envelopes the figures of Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Lincoln at the bottom. On Mount Rushmore, these figures symbolize the struggle for independence, territorial expansion, permanent union, equality, and industrial growth of the nation.  Hemorrhage represents the uncontrolled darkness flowing over the principles of liberty and freedom as inspired by environmental catastrophe.  This darkness and fire represent the erosion and destruction of our democracy in an unending quest for growth and power.


This painting was completed using mostly liquid and high flow acrylic paints.  Initially, I completed a light under drawing using pencil and acrylic washes.  From there, layers of liquid and semi transparent paint were glazed on, gradually building up the darker areas.  White glazes were added here and there to clarify and adjust the value structure.  Some texture was spayed on with a bottle of diluted black paint. Some texture was created by rubbing and dry brushing the paint into the panel and working it back and forth as it quickly dried. Some was created using thick paint applied with a palette knife.



Preliminary Drawing on the Panel




My studio assistant working on the bottom of the painting. 

Posted 2nd January 2017 by John Martinek


IAG- You seem to have achieved a balance in your life between work as an artist and other endeavors, as well as family life. How have you accomplished this?


John-Mainly by paring things down to the bare essentials and keeping a fairly tight schedule during our weeks. We have full time jobs, so apart from that we have family time, cooking, cleaning, exercise, and art.  All of these feed into the core essentials of what’s important to maintain our quality of life at home.  I didn’t make any art for the entire first year of my son’s life because of the shock and awe from the schedule change of raising an infant.   Once I finally adapted, I decided that I should just get up and work in the studio in the mornings, so I typically work from 5-6:15 am.   Greta and I have to work back and forth to trade off on who does what and when.  Fortunately we both care about a lot of the same things so we have some balance and overlap. However, it’s not without the constant feeling that you can’t waste any time and that you have to optimize the day to get all the things done you think you should be doing.  Also, I became a first time parent at age 46 so for many years I didn’t spend a lot of time around children.  It has been great to get back in touch with that part of the human experience through my relationship with my son.  It brings you back to being able to re-live many experiences that you forgot about or assumed you’d never have again.  It could be something as simple as playing on the swings at a park, or in a sandbox, or simply playing with no other purpose in mind.


We also have a lot of other interests, but those have been dialed back considerably, at least for now.  I am interested in competitive cycling and triathlons.  I still do some races but far less and my conditioning is at a lower level than before.  Home maintenance and deep cleaning has definitely suffered.  We have a garden but can’t spend as much time working in it as we’d like to, so we make up for it by going to the Saturday morning Iowa City Farmer’s Market.  I try to keep up on current events but we have magazine subscriptions that mostly go unread.  Reading mostly involves children’s books, which actually have had an interesting influence on my work.   Nights out on the town are rare, fairly early bedtimes, no TV at all, and the last full movie I saw was Frozen.  We both like to travel (abroad) but have mainly limited our adventures to destinations that are less than a one day drive in a minivan.  Also I am on the board of directors at the Iowa Children’s Museum and that has been a great experience in terms of both contributing some of my unique skills and being exposed to new experiences, ideas, and growth.


(works on progress – a water color study of the Old Capitol and a pen and ink drawing of “Drink Up!” for Little Village Magazine.)


IAG- You are also a political cartoonist. How did that come about?

John- I think that one branch of my brain and artwork has always been geared in that general direction.  Since 2015 editorial ideas have become an increasingly important part of my daily art practice.  I pay attention to the news and feel passionate about current events. I try to study a variety of sources which is an important part of being informed and participating in our democracy.  Ideas pop into my head, particularly when reading in-depth articles….but also just randomly throughout the day.  I immediately write them down on lists before I forget.  For these types of ideas, political cartoons seem to make the most sense vs making a painting about foreign trade policy, for example.  As an artist I try to stay open to many influences and allow myself to be pulled in different directions.  Editorial cartooning is a way to use my visual communication skills to synthesize what I am paying attention to and processing.  It helps keep the brain sharpened in a world full of anesthetic influences and distractions and is a chance to jump into the fray and push (and punch) back.  

I have always been attracted to the drawing style, satire, hyperbole and storytelling of political cartoons and comic strips like Bloom County, The Far Side, Mad Magazine and many others.  Going even further back artists like Goya, Daumier, and Thomas Nast are a few examples of influences.   I love drawing faces and heads because there’s a lot of structure to work with and the facets and angles feel architectural.   If you get it right it’s quite expressive and comes to life, and you have a reaction to that as well. In addition to the drawing side, text adds another dimension that is equally, if not more important.  I love to work in pen and ink and watercolor which feel intuitive and instinctual at this point.  I am interested in the “animal” like nature of humans and how we predictably succumb to our base instincts and weaknesses.  My goal is to draw out the things that drive us (and our leaders) on an emotional and evolutionary level.  It’s important to have a strong visceral relationship with the materials and use the brush marks, lines, dots and textures as notes to play the full song of the idea represented, and to find the humor, horror, and hope contained there.

In a sense, editorial cartooning is a return to the play of childhood drawing and trying to make people think and laugh at the content of what’s on the page.  The physical object is not that important because the “gallery” is in print media or online, which hopefully reaches a wide audience.  Iowa City’s Little Village has been featuring some of my work in a series titled Stress Fractures.


(Top: still life painting by Greta Songe, bottom: Dubuque Street Trees by John Martinek – acrylic on panel 2009.)


IAG- On your website John Martinek  you have your work in categories: Transformed Works, Observed Works and Editorial Illustration. Do you see one of these styles becoming dominant over the other?


 Not really.  All categories in art are somewhat arbitrary and more of a way to organize things to keep track of them.  Of course, a website requires some method of organization or navigation.  I have tried different things over the years, but the current iteration seems to make the most sense for now.  I would say the observational works are at the foundation of all of the other stuff.  I use observational drawing in everything that I do, but in some of the work it get’s transformed or collaged out of its original element and distorted into something else. In the editorial illustrations, I use observational drawing for the foundation as well. 

Part of the reason I work in a variety of styles is that as an artist and crafts person my tendency is to tighten up and zone in on the details and keep refining things.  Although this is one of my strengths, it is also a weakness and something that needs to be challenged and fought against.  It relates to our tendency as humans to find our comfort zone and settle in to a certain way of thinking, habit, or style.  Another part of my personality is deeply interested in exploration and opening myself up to new experiences, and honestly gets bored doing the same thing over and over.   Or perhaps I just lack a certain kind of discipline. 

I try to create a process where there is balance between the familiar and the bewildering which tends to thwart settling into a particular style.  In a way, the more you know the more you realize that you don’t really know much…because you become more aware of the vastness of what is possible, and then you are always tempted to try something new and keep pushing your work in different directions.     All of those possibilities are always beckoning and taunting you, and you wonder if you’d be better at something other than what you are doing. In addition to that impulse, we are restricted by abilities or circumstances or other factors.  The struggle to overcome these creates something that is interesting and rewarding.  This is something that seems inherent in human nature…the need to push against something and always some level of continual dissatisfaction.  I think that when an authentic struggle shows in the work it’s just as interesting as virtuosity. 

Also, I am easily influenced by the work of others.  If I go to an exhibition or art museum I want try to make a lot of the things I see.  They look fun and interesting.  I want to do so many different things that I am constantly in danger of becoming scattered.  Fortunately, I have enough experience to be able to bring myself back to base to focus and carry on with some basic established directions.  I guess the short answer is that I will try to keep evolving and growing and follow the path whatever direction it takes me but I expect that observational drawing will be in there somewhere no matter what.

Quarry – woodcut on paper from 2017.)

IAG- I like to ask artists where they see themselves in the next 5 to 10 years.  I have a feeling you have been thinking about this. What will you be doing?


John- Have none of the current work on my website anymore because it has all been replaced by better stuff! I would like to keep pushing things along, learning and evolving.   I have many projects in mind.  Some are in mid process and others are more conceptual and waiting to happen.   I have many lists of ideas that keep evolving and developing over time and with experience.  I will latch onto the ones that feel right and that draw me completely in.

Well – it would also be great if I could be earning (more of) a living from my art, if only because time is so short and then that’s your life. Being able to earn a living means being able to spend more time involved in the work.  I would like to spend more time paying attention to art and to become whatever that leads to.  I love carpentry as well but have been doing that for nearly 30 years now, so I would jump at the chance to try art full time.  I had a taste of that about 20 years ago when I was living in Turkey.  I was teaching but the load was easy to manage and there was lot of time left over for painting and drawing.  I made a lot of big leaps forward at that time and of course I was electrified by the experience of living there.  I would like to try that again here, to get into the flow and rhythm of working on art full time. 

IAG- We recently sold John’s painting Pullman Bar and Diner