Nazli Nahidi, Mural Routes Program Assistant, interviewed artist Marg Cresswell in May, 2019.
Marg is an award-winning muralist who spent her final year of study in Florence, Italy. She graduated from the Ontario College of Art in 1994 and worked as a muralist for several art studios in Toronto, including for muralist Frank Stella. In 1997 she interned at C international art magazine which led to her work as Administrator at Toronto’s Lonsdale Gallery. After requests for commissions, she opened her own studio, Murals By Marg, in 2001. Over the last 24 years she has painted numerous public and private commissions. In 2007 she was invited to exhibit her large-scale work at the Biennial in Florence Italy. Since 2014 she has painted over a dozen public murals for StART (Street Art Toronto) and the Bell Box Murals Program. She has been shortlisted for both Metrolinx and StART UP mural projects. In 2017 she was awarded a Certificate of Recognition from the House of Commons for her mural in Richmond Hill as part of Canada’s 150th Anniversary. Today she continues to paint commissions that inspire the viewers in homes, businesses and communities throughout the GTA.
Fun Fact: Marg has painted more than 1750 murals!
Interview with Marg Cresswell
I imagine that being a seasoned artist and muralist has allowed you many experiences that emerging artists have not been through. Can you tell us about the changes you’ve seen in the industry or field?
Having been an artist my entire life, my years of experience working with all types of paint has afforded me the opportunity to witness and take part in many changes in the art/paint/mural industry. I am a firm believer in “you get what you pay for” and that goes double for paints and primers. The biggest change over the years has been in commercial paint production. The changeover from the production and use of oil- based to water-based paints. In the past there were great options for working on projects when you had the choice of oil or water. The main benefits stemming from the fact that oil paint continues to harden over time, while water-based paint, which incorporates a plastic resin such as acrylic or vinyl, remains flexible. When working on different surfaces you must be knowledgeable about the different types of paints and primers that can be used and how to use them. There is nothing better than hands-on experience when it comes to paint and primers, but you can also gain knowledge from reading the TDS for each product that you use. Technical Data and Safety Sheets are easily available online and can give you a head start on getting to know the paint or primer you are using and how to use them correctly.
What was your first Mural that you worked on, and can you tell us a bit about it?
The first murals that I worked on were for Frank Stella’s studio in Toronto. It was an experience that changed my career path. I had begun working on larger paintings while studying in Italy, but large-scale works were still intimidating. I was hired by Cindy Scaife (look her up-her work is amazing!) and the Stella team to work on the production of several of his murals. I learned mural production at that time and producing large scale works of art is an art unto itself! Today you can see some of the murals that were produced by the studio at the Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto.
How do you navigate being an artist and business owner, and having financial stability?
There are many rewards to being my own boss, but there are also many risks and challenges too. Some of these are universal, small business risks, while others pertain only to the art field. Although there is no way to avoid all of them, there are ways to minimize their impact. As a self-employed artist, I get to make all sorts of choices for myself and as to how to run my mural business. This includes just about everything from deciding which services I offer, to setting my own schedule and dress code, and yes, even who I work for. Self-employment also means I get to set the rates for my artwork. Of course, not all challenges are equal, and as an artist I may not encounter them all.
What are some common obstacles or challenges that you do encounter being self-employed?
Here are 4 of the more common challenges of being self-employed I have faced:
Money and no guaranteed income – When you work for someone else, you’re guaranteed a paycheck each month. When you work for yourself, not so much. As such, one of the bigger risks of being self-employed is not knowing how much money you’ll take home. Write your business plan every year or two. Planning projects 4-6 months in advance helps take the guessing out of income planning.
Multi-tasking duties – “I went to art school, not math school,” I often tell this, jokingly, to clients. But as a business owner I need to take care of all aspects of my business and as a sole proprietor doubly so. Managing the bookkeeping, client relations, scheduling, office supplies, art supplies, education and even cleaning is a lot to do. In other words, there’s a lot to learn. Even if you don’t do it all yourself, you need to learn how to manage it all and understand all the different moving parts. Time management is essential, breaking up my time in terms of minutes on a task is a great way to get a lot done in a day.
Marketing and sales – People can only choose to use your services if they know you exist. As a business owner, again, it’s up to you. Social media can only get you so far, you need to know your market and how to access them. Writing a business plan helps you learn all the ins and outs of marketing and sales. It is not an easy task but an essential step for every small business owner.
Motivation – While some risks faced by small businesses are concrete, as an artist, I have faced abstract ones too. For example, the challenge of motivating myself may be easy when business is booming, but it also applies when things are feeling a little slow. Knowing what I do and why helps to motivate me. Personally, I like watching paint dry – it always has a story to tell. So, my daily motivation is to paint anything and paint every day. An artist grows most tired while standing still.
Do you have a favourite project of yours that stands out for you, and why?
Each new project that I work on is my favourite! Each new project is a new challenge and bring new possibilities, I hope to inspire the viewers of my work. Working on Bell Boxes or StART’s Outside the Box programs are always great fun. I like working on these art projects as they bring me into contact with the community and hopefully inspire some people along the way. I have so very many great memories of painting in the community, but one stands out to this day. A couple of summers ago I was painting a utility box on Yonge street and a young boy stopped on his way home from school to talk. Often people start by asking if you are, indeed, an artist and if you are, in fact, allowed to be painting on public property. But this youngster made it a firm statement: “You Are An Artist!” I had to chuckle a little at his statement. He then proceeded to tell me how much he loved drawing and wanted to be an artist too. As our conversation continued over the next hour, he locked up his bike and dug his own artwork out of his backpack to show me and ask my opinion. We talked about the pros and cons of Anime and cartoon drawing, painting and art history. He talked about how he hoped to go to a high school next year that focused on art. He inquired where I had studied. I told him about studying at the Ontario College of Art and spending my final year in Florence, Italy. “You can make a living as an artist!” he said, when he learned that I was being paid to paint the box. He inquired about painting his own box and how he dreamed of painting like I was, one day. He talked about his parents, his brother and the art that he sends to his grandmother, who lives in another province. He asked many questions about my art and how I became an artist. He asked if I thought he could be one too. I assured him he certainly could!
Work hard and practice, “10,000 hours,” I said. Several times he would pack up to leave but then think of another question to ask me. As it was getting to dinner time, I began packing up to head home myself, when he hesitantly asked me one last question, “Did you have a plan B?” he asked. “My parents always ask what my plan B is… if I want to be an artist. My brother wants to be a doctor, but they never ask him if he has a plan B. I just wondered what your plan B was?”
Working in and on community projects has so many advantages that even the act of painting on the street can inspire, and inspiration is my favourite part of any project. I have never had a plan B.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
Watching paint dry! I will still be painting, no question about it.
What advice would you give to emerging artists regarding commercial jobs?
Working on different projects on a regular basis over the years, I have gained a wealth of experience through triumph and failure, but I have also learned the value of quality work. A good painter must consider a lot more than the look of a freshly painted surface. Quality begins with what is not seen – thoroughly preparing and properly priming a surface. No paint job stands the test of time without these steps and surface preparation takes time and effort. Being someone that still does most of the work by hand with brushes, I understand the desire to minimize time and effort.
But from my perspective and experience, I would rather take the time to prepare a surface properly, then return to repair peeling, cracking or blistering paint. I think the most important aspect of my work today resides in its archival quality. I have work that has been installed for over 20 years and still looks great and is standing the test of time. Also, ask for help when you need it and never stop learning. No one can be prepared for when things go wrong but you must be able to solve many unexpected problems. Learn from mistakes and next time you can anticipate what may go wrong. Fall seven times, get up eight.
What is the value for you in having a Mural Routes membership?
Getting the inside scoop on upcoming calls is number one! And I highly recommend attending the Mural Routes Symposium. You never know who you are going to meet and what you might learn! They are held approximately every 2 years and yet most muralists find the cost prohibitive, but it would not be if you planned for it. The cost should be included in your marketing budget. Planning to set aside a monthly amount over a two-year period is easier than waiting until the last minute to purchase a pass. The same rule applies to art fairs and exhibitions – this is where having your business plan written helps you to reach your goals.
Check out more of Marg Cresswell’s work: