The snow globes that Walter Martin creates with his partner, Paloma Muñoz, aren’t the tchotchkes of your childhood. Instead, each hints at a surreal story:
Men on stilts trudge through marshland that could almost pass for the Great Dismal Swamp. Children leap from a hulking iceberg. Grandmothers carry assault weapons through an icy forest, prepared to exact revenge on Flannery O’Connor-style misfits. The moments are frozen, but barely. It’s as if someone stumbled upon a post-apocalyptic crime scene, snapped pictures and left the prints behind. Each is tinged with strangeness that makes you wonder: What happened here?
If the scenes make viewers uncomfortable, that’s fine with Martin, a Norfolk native who works most of the year from his house and studio in rural Pennsylvania. For 20 years, Martin and Muñoz have collaborated on art that perplexes and confounds, traveling from their bucolic studio space to urban destinations, including New York and Madrid, her home. They draw inspiration from the usual places – current events, literature, movies, dreams – but they want their art to feel “unfinished,” open to the happy accidents that materialize during their slow-moving creative process. While the actual construction of each piece could be completed in about seven hours, that timeline doesn’t reflect the weeks spent brainstorming, ruminating and revising.
“The point is to create a paradox, not a parable,” writes Martin via email. “You need to get some distance on the work and allow it to inform you before you finish it. If you know where you are going when you begin something, it’s probably because you have already been there. So why bother?”
Themes emerge in their work: extreme weather and its powerful effect on people, the eerie feeling of isolation in a crowd, the sometimes jarring juxtaposition of the modern world’s menacing dangers (“terror alerts, fake WMDs … Orwellian-inspired doublespeak,” he writes) against more timeless images of nature.
At least some of those ideas seem to have taken hold early. As a teenager, Martin retreated from his classes at Granby High to paint for hours at home in Lochhaven. He recalls a growing fascination with weather, including the “dicey” climate of
“I always liked a good snowstorm, and so many of my best memories revolve around those occasions,” he writes, adding, “The water is the thing in Norfolk and Virginia Beach. Everything that comes out of it, everything that you can do on it, or in it, is special.”
After an undergraduate degree in English literature at ODU, Martin earned a Master of Fine Arts degree from VCU. Upon graduating in 1980, he traded Virginia for New York and soon began to show his work nationally and internationally.
Today he approaches new projects with an unfailing belief that answers to hard questions posed by life and art often spring from unexpected places.
“(As an artist), you may arrive at a point where you have an intriguing but seemingly unfinishable thing,” he writes. “A key element may still be missing and there is nothing to do but just leave it and let it sit for a while – weeks, months, maybe longer. Forget it. Then something strange and wonderful can happen, an accident of misperception … that little glance sideways at something ordinary that for an instant morphs into something other.”
He and Muñoz routinely “huddle and confer” and “pitch each other new ideas” while tinkering and refining the works-in-progress that fill their studio space. (Typically, he builds the sets and she photographs them.) They punctuate their work hours with excursions outdoors, good books and coffee, and their diverse interests help them stay at work even if the stubborn muse goes hiding. When they hit a creative wall, they adjust and turn their attention elsewhere.
“There are so many unfinished parts, loose ends and pieces of the puzzle lying around the studio waiting to assume their final form,” Martin writes. “The process is slow, but since we have so many things sort of incubating something is bound to mature on a regular basis. You have to wait for the surprise or it’s not really finished.”
Last fall, the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art showcased a collection of the couple’s globes and panoramic photos. Curator Heather Hakimzadeh was attracted to the “layered and topical” elements of the work. Even though the work is complicated, the scenes felt effortless, like fables handed down through generations.
“Everyone could look at the scenes and find a story,” she says. “It’s art that invites looking, and when you’re invited to look, you’re invited to contemplate.”
Martin says he and Muñoz may explore animation in the future, but the dramatic moments captured in the globes still fascinate them and suggest a larger riddle of human experience.
“Things are changing everywhere in unexpected ways,” he says.
Indeed, in the fields outside his studio, deer that once plagued the area are falling prey to a new predator, part coyote, part wolf. Even as Martin and Muñoz freeze the world, it moves along, morphing, always, into something else.