TAC Member Highlight Interview: William Marvin

“Instructions for living a life,” writes the poet Mary Oliver, “Pay attention. / Be astonished. / Tell about it.” If we measure success by these instructions, William Marvin, The Art Center’s current Member Highlight, has triumphed.

Artist William Marvin in his studio.
Photo courtesy of William Marvin.

As an artist, Marvin’s business is paying attention to the natural world. During our conversation, he gestures to a tree

that’s visible through the window behind me, “I’m looking out the window right here and I see this collection of branches and the negative spaces in between. There’s always something interesting in nature. You could make a painting out of that. That’s my world.”

This ability to spot potential paintings all around him stems from Marvin’s childhood. As he and his siblings walked to school, Marvin would stop to frame pictures in his head, fascinated by the clouds overhead: “I knew from the time I was very small, seven or eight years old, that I was going to be an artist. I came from a large family. There were six boys, a year apart. Then the rest came along, and there were ten of us altogether. I would walk to school with them, and I was always looking at the clouds. For whatever reason, I was framing pictures as I walked along. I would ask my brothers, ‘Did you see you see that tree or this?’ and they thought I was crazy. So I was the oddball in the family. But it’s something that I’ve always been aware of, that I was sensitive to the outdoors. And I still am, it hasn’t changed.”

Growing up in a small Wisconsin town with a population of 1,500, his family relocated to Escondido, California, where the student body population of his high school was 1,500 alone. The scope of the city’s diversity shifted Marvin’s perspective: “All of a sudden my world just opened up. That was the best thing that could have happened to me.” One of Marvin’s high school teachers encouraged him to pursue a degree at ArtCenter College of Design, one of the world’s finest design institutions. Unable to afford the cost of tuition, Marvin joined the Air Force instead.

After serving for four years, Marvin reconnected with a friend, Jack Durk, who worked in the art department at China Lake, a Naval Air Weapons Station north of Los Angeles. When he was young, Marvin’s father would tell him what surely sounds like a familiar refrain to most artistically inclined children: “You can’t make a living as an artist. Get a job, get something that’s solid so you can make money.” Yet here was Durk, a working artist, offering to help Marvin build a portfolio of illustrations. Taking Durk up on his offer, Marvin spent two months learning to draw “jets shooting off missiles, that kind of stuff.” After he was able to get into civil service as a GS-7, Marvin began to work at China Lake as well.

Marvin loved the natural setting surrounding China Lake: “It was up in the high desert, close to the Sierras and Mount Whitney. We would go camping and hiking all the time.” But after six years, Marvin’s boss, China Lake’s art director, told him, “Bill, if you don’t get out of here, this is all you’re ever gonna do. So you’ve got to stop and go to school.” Marvin took this advice to heart, deciding to cash out his savings and enroll at ArtCenter.

His college experience was everything he had hoped for: “It’s like going from a small town to a bigger town and getting exposed to what graphic design is, then going from technical manuals and things like that to design in art school. Learning how to draw and how to paint, and learning about color. That just opened up my world again.” When he graduated from ArtCenter, Marvin attempted to find work in Los Angeles but found that the only available careers were in the tourism and film industries. So on the advice of his former boss at China Lake, Marvin headed east for Chicago.

With only two phone numbers at his disposal, Marvin interviewed for jobs at studios around the city. Though one of the interviewers couldn’t hire him, he directed him to other studios, encouraging him to keep looking. After two weeks of interviews, Marvin found a permanent position. There, Marvin was given the opportunity to design high school textbooks for Science Research Associates: “They gave me this project and I found that I really liked doing it. I could do the illustrations plus I could arrange everything on the page. I could put the type where I wanted to. And I found that my strength was in design. It wasn’t illustration, it was design. So from then on, I became a designer. I went from one studio to another and stayed in Chicago for years. I designed annual reports and brochures and corporate identity, all that kind of stuff.”

When computers became the main tool of graphic designers, Marvin found himself losing interest in the business: “I’m used to thinking and designing with a pencil. I didn’t like doing it with a computer. I could do it, but I didn’t like it.” In order to ensure that he could continue designing in the way he like, Marvin started his own business. But after working on his own for a number of years, Marvin decided it was time for another career pivot. This time, Marvin moved from graphic design to landscape design.

While that may seem like a tremendous change to some, Marvin makes a sound case for the jobs’ similarities: “It was a natural thing for me to do because design is shapes and sizes and textures.” Working for a season at Lurvey is Des Plaines, Marvin charmed customers with his sketchpad: “I would take a sketchpad with me and customers would come in and talk to me about their front yard or their porch or their patio area in the back. I would give them a sketch to show them what they could do with it. Then I sold the plants to fit the sketch and gave them the sketch, so they were really happy.”

Top: “Summer Splash,” Bottom: “Morning Sounds.”

While now mostly retired—he still designs landscapes but doesn’t do installations—Marvin is now able to fully dedicate himself to painting. Working in the tradition of the Barbizon School of early French Impressionists, Marvin paints landscapes en plein air, a practice he began in 1996: “It was just a natural environment for me. To actually sit there on the side of a river and the birds are singing and you’re just concentrating on trying to capture the feeling. I was in heaven. So this is what I do full-time now.”

As part of our Member Highlight program, Marvin’s series Feathered Friends is now featured in The Art Center’s gift shop. As the series title suggests, these paintings are renderings of birds of all kinds—peaceful mourning doves and playful goldfinches alike. On his inspiration for this series, Marvin writes: “I’ve always been aware of birds and really appreciate their design, plumage, and interactions with their fellow birds. They are fascinating to watch because their behavior in many ways mimics human beings.  Survival, pecking order, feathers as camouflage, or as a mating attraction are all interesting factors.  As an artist, I am attracted to their plumage and love portraying birds in their natural environment.  The variety in shapes and sizes promises a lifetime of exploring and study.”

In addition to paintings and prints of his work, The Art Center is also selling copies of Marvin’s book Grace Notes: Reflections on Everyday Wonders. This collection of paintings and personal stories chronicles Marvin’s adventures in painting accompanied by his English Black Lab, Rocky.


Marvin’s work will be for sale in The Art Center gift shop for the next two months. If you are interested in viewing or purchasing a print or painting from the Feathered Friends series, please visit us between 10 AM and 4 PM, Monday through Saturday. Visit Marvin’s website to learn more about his work.

Are you a current TAC member interested in being featured as a future member highlight? To apply, please fill out the Member Highlight Application, found here, and email it to staylor@theartcenterhp.org or bring it to The Art Center office.

Not yet a member, but want to participate? Sign up for a TAC Membership here!