Artist Marischa Slusarski forged an extraordinary path to achieve her dream
By Bridgette M. Redman
When one is called to be an artist, it doesn’t matter what hurdles have to be jumped over or what prejudices have to be overcome. An artist finds the way to create what they are meant to create and become the artist they are meant to be.
Marina del Rey resident Marischa Slusarski knew from the time she was a young child that she wanted to be an artist. It didn’t matter that she came from a family of second-generation immigrants and was raised by strict, religious parents in a small suburb of Denver with no access to museums or other forms of art.
“I was really voraciously curious about art, drawing and painting at an early age, but I didn’t have a foundation to support or nurture that curiosity,” Slusarski said. “My parents didn’t understand and we had no access to contemporary art or fine art galleries or museums. They wanted me to paint pictures of the Rocky Mountains and landscapes.”
Instead, Slusarski drew half-human, half-rabbit creatures; biomorphic figures, and things that made her parents think she was insane.
When she went off to a small state college, she wasn’t allowed to be an art major because she had to get a job. However, in between her journalism classes, she haunted the arts department, creating as often as she could.
Some evenings she’d spend in print making shops.
“I had to chart my own course,” Slusarski said. “I was my own north star.”
Once she left college, Slusarski got a series of what she called “gold-bricking jobs” to support her painting. She would take jobs with no supervision where no one knew what she was doing.
“I would paint all night and then go to my office and fall asleep on the floor,” Slusarski said. “I was sticking it to the man for the right to be an artist. I was so determined to be a full-time artist.”
Along the way she would do things like work as a body painter in a Hollywood nightclub. She’d paint the women who danced on the lit cubes as well as the nightclub customers. She’d make turkey dogs out of a rice cooker and steamer and sell them for $5 a piece to supplement her tips.
Her first real show was at the food court in the Santa Monica mall.
“That was really weird,” Slusarski said. “My painting could be construed as somewhat disturbing. You’d be sitting there with your entire family eating a hot dog on a stick and looking at these weird paintings.”
A person who was influential in the art world — and who later became a major champion of her work — approached Slusarski’s and the first thing she asked was whether she’d been abused as a child.
Commissions launched next artistic phase
Soon, things started taking off for Slusarski’s art career. She caught the attention of people in the movie industry who bought her art. She was picked up by a gallery and a friend started acting as her European art consultant.
“I was doing the hybrid work,” Slusarski said. “They were representational animal portraits that were half-human and half-animal. They were amalgamations, deformed and conjoined.”
She was able to quit her gold-bricking jobs as commissions started to roll in.
“There were a lot of TV actors and famous people who wanted me to paint their special family dynamic as animals,” Slusarski said. “A kid would want to be a parrot or a mountain lion. One TV actor wanted me to paint him as a half tiger. I painted him as a tigerfish—that was really weird.”
Sometimes her clients got oddly specific. One woman commissioned Slusarski to paint her husband as a Chippendale beefcake with a wolf head, sitting in front of a lake while reading a book and catching a fly at the same time.
“Those commissions were really hard,” Slusarski said.
Life as a full-time artist came with adventures as well. Slusarski traveled the world looking for places to create. She described how she once got on a plane to Bangkok with no money. She had a friend there who had a great gallery and he was dubbed by a Bangkok magazine as artist of the year. She moved into his place and kept painting.
Once back home, Slusarski was able to break into the Venice arts scene by renting a studio in the Franklin building. In lieu of rent, she gave them one painting a year. She did that for nine years and it became her springboard into the Venice art scene.
In those days, there were very few women or BIPOC artists in the scene—and those that were often found themselves in danger from men who wanted to assault them. Slusarski bonded with the other women.
“We ruled Abbot Kinney — we just ruled it,” Slusarski said. “Abbot Kinney is great now, but in the olden days it was the wild, wild west. We were making headway while also navigating the art world. All of Venice had this edgy feeling. It was this incredible community atmosphere. We didn’t feel less than the male artist. It was really a very fertile time to be an artist.”
Painter skipped across the planet
Slusarski’s international adventures weren’t over yet. She moved to East London with a photographer she had met in Bangkok. They set up on Brick Lane, transforming one of her apartment bedrooms into a studio. They started creating large-scale photographs that became dioramas with filters, scrims, scaffolding and populated with taxidermy and sculpted troglodyte figures.
“We had them living in forests with sci-fi vegetables we’d get at the Bangladeshi market,” Slusarski said. “Anything we could find, we’d put in the photograph.”
It was a challenging city to be an artist, Slusarski said, both as an American and someone without a master’s degree in art. Eventually she was able to open a gallery in the basement of a hair salon. That lasted until she got kicked out of the country because she went in and out of London too much and never had a green card.
In late 2015, Slusarski and her husband traveled to Bhutan for a month. This time, both had work permits and she worked with the artist community there, giving them lectures.
“It was one of the most extraordinary experiences in my life,” Slusarski said. “It had been closed off to the public for a long time. Himalayan Buddhists live there who actually believe in flying tigers and mythical beasts..”
She continued traveling and continued making art. She had shows in Asia, Europe and cities around the United States.
“I just kept challenging the traditional boundaries of being an artist,” Slusarski said.
Her resume is sprinkled with eclectic jobs she did throughout her journey — from designing children’s toys and being a production designer for a horror movie in an abandoned Ohio amusement park to doing volunteer work teaching art to teenagers with mental health issues.
Adapting during the pandemic
Slusarski met her husband, Ricardo Angelo Mestres III, while selling art in Hollywood as he was the head of a major studio. However, when his daughter died of a brain tumor when he was 48, he quit and went back to medical school to become an emergency room doctor.
Now in his 60s, he didn’t sign up for a pandemic, Slusarski said. They were both afraid that he would die or that he would bring it home and she would die. She became very despondent and would lay around watching Netflix all day and eating the same flavor can of soup.
Slusarski realized she had to get a job. She was invited to teach a visual arts lab via Zoom and began hanging out with women who were doing textiles and abstract work using digital tools. It led her to asking herself what was stopping her from making abstract work, something that had long been a dream of hers.
“I don’t want to keep repeating myself,” Slusarski said. “I don’t want to replicate myself. I don’t want to build my brand. I don’t want to be famous. I want to be well regarded. Why not during the pandemic, as I’m teaching this class and getting ideas, do what I’ve always wanted to do? Do what I was curious about doing?”
She began experimenting with different tools, creating forms that looked like centipedes scampering under the deep sea. She’d put them on freezer paper and then collage them onto canvases. She pulled out some abstract paintings from storage that she had created and started using digital and analog methods to create layered paintings. One of her works had 37 layers.
“I wanted to do everything,” Slusarski said. “Spray paint, air compressor — there was no judgment or ego involved. I had a lot of time and a single-occupancy studio, so I didn’t have to worry about COVID-19. I just got to play with paint on a lot of canvasses. I went crazy making these paintings.”
She said everyone needs to figure out what they really want to do in this time and recognize that many people are having a really hard time.
“A lot of artists did really depressing political work and I wanted to do riotous, super colorful, super iridescent, almost holographic work,” Slusarski said. “They have sparkling layers that draw you in. If you look at my painting, there are these lofty layers of work that kind of go back and forth in layering. That was what I wanted to do. I wanted to make myself happy or I would just lay down again and eat split pea soup and watch Netflix.”
Future is hazy — but it will include art
Slusarski’s studio is located in El Segundo and she continues to be influenced by what she calls “the zany village that was Venice.” While she can’t predict what her future art is going to look like, she does plan to dally for a while in the abstract work.
“I haven’t saturated the process,” Slusarski said. “I haven’t become tired of it. I haven’t started to make commissions of abstract wolves sitting in chairs catching flies. I’m able to do what I want to do and if I’m able to do that,
I’ll continue to make these paintings. I know that for now, I’m really psyched and am having a blast.”
It’s a message she passes on to the younger artists whom she’s mentored and lectured.
“I think at the end of the day, I wouldn’t have done anything different,” Slusarski said. “We all become the artist we’re supposed to be. I don’t know if I would want to live if I couldn’t make art.”.