Gregory Martens, TCD’s Artist of the Month
Gregory Martens, TCD’s February Artist of the Month, dropped out of art school at UWM in 1980.
He had a family to support, so he became a salesman of wholesale leather goods. That put him on the road too much, so in 1995 he bought a shoe repair shop on 68th Street in Wauwatosa. The business went well, until 2005. His back hurt; he figured it was all that bending over his workbench.
It was bone cancer, myeloma, in his spine. Martens’ doctors gave him a year to live. The cancer and the treatment for it — hip reconstruction, two marrow transplants, two spine surgeries, and more — put him in a wheelchair. He couldn’t work. The medical bills piled up. Martens, his wife, Sharon, and their three children faced financial disaster. They lost their business and the house, but not to foreclosure. Martens credits the owners of the businesses on that little 68th Street commercial strip, at Wells Street, for throwing fund-raisers to help him hang on until he could sell his assets.
“Our church, our business neighbors, our customers all helped,” Martens said, in an interview Monday. “We were part of the community. We were the shoemakers. I want to repay them, somehow, some way. It’s important to learn to let people help you when you need help. Still, we lost everything and then some. We live in an apartment in ‘Tosa. My dear wife kept her job at a dentist’s office in Oak Creek.”
Martens, 52, had held art in the back of his mind through all those years on the road selling leather and at his cobblers’ bench.
So Martens enrolled in the department of art and design at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in the fall of 2006. Late in that year, much to his doctors’ amazement, his cancer went into 100% remission. And so far, so good.
“I didn’t know what else to do but finish,” Martens said. “Staying busy and having goals were essential. It’s important to be something other than just a patient. I went from a wheelchair to a walker to a cane, and then to just walking. The harder I worked at art, the better I seemed to get. ”
Martens originally thought he would go into film. But his oldest daughter, Anna, now 30, makes prints and thought print-making would suit him. So Martens took a print class, and that was that. He graduated summa cum laude with a BFA in print-making in 2009 and will complete his MFA this spring.
He has aggressively entered juried shows all over the country. Last year, his work got into 17 of them.
“It’s going great,” he said. “It’s ridiculous. I enter these shows to see if I have what it takes to be an artist. Acceptance seconds the work. They’re strangers. They’re not just friends saying, ‘Oh, you poor little sick guy, that’s nice art.'”
He’s been teaching as a graduate student and will likely continue as an adjunct. In an unlikely turn of events, he was the team captain of a UWM snow-sculpting entry in a competition in Harbin, China, around the holidays. They came back with a first-place award.
“Put a big asterisk on that,” Martens said. “The communist Chinese are so diplomatic. I think eight teams got first place.”
Look for his latest work in the UWM MFA group show in the Inova Art Center gallery as of April 13. You can preview the Apocalypse Series, to be shown in its entirety in April, in the TCD window in the Plankinton Arcade at the Grand Avenue. Apocalypse Nightshift II shows workers in a bomb factory calmly carrying on as the night sky explodes with apocalyptic symbols.
“I’ve moved on to dark humor from just dark,” Martens quipped.
Self-Portrait as Cancer (chapter 8 ), shows a skeletal, even mummified face obscure by a jittery scrawl, an example of “just dark.” It’s in our TCD office.
“I kept using all this dark imagery — dead dogs, skeletons,” he said. “I tried to stop, but I couldn’t. So I did a series of 13 prints to show the narrative arc of the cancer. That self-portrait, number 8, is the absolute low point, the complete loss of identity. In number 13, I’m in remission. I’m in my studio — defiant and making art.”
All images courtesy of the artist.