For MTG art legend Mark Poole, his family has never strayed far from his canvas.
There are few names among the pantheon of original Magic: The Gathering artists who inspire more devotion than Mark Poole. As one of the first group of illustrators to establish the visual look of MTG, Mark was responsible for a number of powerful cards that continue to be sought-after to this day: Ancestral Recall, Balance, and Birds of Paradise to name just a few. Nearly 25 years later, Mark still occasionally contributes to the game while pursuing an active commercial and gallery career.
To be sure, dozens of articles have been written over the years about Mark’s history with and contributions to Magic. As his gallery work has gained more attention, he’s also gotten recognition for exhibits at IX and Krab Jab Studio on the East and West Coasts, respectively.
What’s less well-known is the role that Mark’s family has played not only in his personal work but, really, throughout his entire career. From childhood memories to collaborations with his own kids, Mark’s work has — and continues to be — a family affair.
Growing up in the Big Empty
There’s plenty of natural light streaming through the floor-to-ceiling windows as Mark stands next to his display wall. It’s just before 10 a.m., and at this time of day there’s really no need for the modular track lighting that hangs above his space like a colony of bulbous, albino bats.
Dressed in a blazer and t-shirt, shaved head gleaming, Mark makes it a point to talk to every passerby, his southern drawl warm and welcoming as people ask, perhaps, about a lighting choice or a detail in one of the paintings. Among the framed images are a masked warrior with his wolf companion, a girl trailed by two hyenas in the shadow of a warped tree, and lots of landscapes featuring broken gears.
Mark points to a detail in one of his personal paintings. (Photo by Patrick Scalisi)
“I’ve been drawing landscapes since I was a kid,” Mark says of his mechanically inspired series. “My first stuff was landscapes — a barn in a field, an older house in a field. The wonderment of imagining who lived there.”
These childhood reveries from around the age of 10 to 12 set the foundation for Mark’s artistic vision, a foundation he continues to build upon today. Together they belong to a group of memories that offer an insight into the birth of an artist: Mark’s mother taking painting classes when he was a child, him reading science fiction in his spare time, and family car rides through Texas to visit relatives in North Carolina. As it turned out, all of these ingredients came together to form the storytelling recipe that Mark has always liked to portray in his work.
“I vaguely remember as a child, somewhere in Texas as we were driving there was this vista, this landscape,” Mark recalls. “It was up a mound, and in the middle of it was these steps. Two floors of steps that led to nothing. So something was there a long time ago that had been torn down. But my mind was like, ‘What is that?’ Was it like a magical place that disappeared? Was it a landing pad for some secret thing?”
Infused with years of inspiration and encouragement, Mark went on to study illustration, fine art, and business at the University of South Carolina. After leaving school, he began to do graphic design work and highly detailed nature paintings. He also got married and started a family, and his career might have been wildly different if he hadn’t gone to his first sci-fi and fantasy convention in 1991.
“I didn’t know nothing about [conventions],” Mark says. “I was living in the Deep South. I just wanted to draw comics and D&D, but there were no outlets for that.”
Mark goes on to explain that his early convention experiences changed everything. He began to network. He found a mentor. Most importantly, he realized that people were making a living doing genre work. Within just a few years, Magic: The Gathering came calling.
Mark says it was challenging to transition from the highly detailed nature work he was doing to working on something that would appear on such a small canvas, i.e. a collectible trading card. (Image © Wizards of the Coast)
And here’s where his family enters the story again. At a live roundtable discussion in 2015, Mark recounted that he often took as many assignments as possible in the early days of MTG in order to support his family. After Mark’s wife became a stay-at-home mom, his artwork became an even more important source of income.
Still, having both parents at home turned out to be a boon for the Poole family. Being able to work from home formed a bond that Mark says he “wouldn’t change for nothing in the world.” It also provided him with ready-to-use models at a moment’s notice.
Living out in the country, Mark explained that he couldn’t just go out and hire a model whenever he needed someone to pose for a painting. Instead, he “grew his own models” and used his kids as reference figures. For a lot of his commercial work, if there’s a young person in the painting, chances are good it was one of Mark’s children.
“I don’t know what I’m gonna do when they move on!” Mark exclaims with a laugh.
Always Turning Gears
The closeness to his family that started with Mark’s early commercial work continues today in his gallery paintings. In particular, Mark often partners with his daughter, model Kyrian Grae Poole, when composing his personal artwork.
Because she often modeled for his paintings, Kyrian became comfortable in front of a camera at a young age. Mark explains that this poise has helped her land modeling jobs throughout her own career.
The muse that Mark has found in Kyrian speaks volumes about their strong bond. She often accompanies him to art shows and appears as the central figure in many of his paintings, especially the “gears” series. These images came about both from Mark’s love of landscapes and from a question: A gear is made for one purpose — to fit into another gear. What is the gear’s purpose, then, if it’s broken?
The painting “Omens” is just one from which Mark drew inspiration from his daughter, model Kyrian. (Image courtesy of Mark Poole)
“This implied story gives you a sense of something that was there before,” Mark says. “What was there before? Why was it there?”
Much like the broken stairs that he saw as a child, Mark wants to construct a narrative between the seen and the unseen. He wants people to interpret the image through their own filter, to consider how everything is connected — old and new, light and dark.
“It’s not dragons and wizards,” Mark continues. “It’s not an ultra-realistic city street. It’s real people in a real environment, but the environment is slightly in between the real and the not. I try to stay on that slight edge.”
Another thing that viewers note is that Mark’s work strays from the hyper-masculine images that are so common in fantasy and sci-fi art. Mark acknowledges that those images are fun and have their place within the genre, but he prefers to be a bit more subdued.
“It’s not quite feminine, but I think it’s not quite what someone expects,” he says.
As for the immediate future, Mark hopes to continue doing what he’s always done: making great art with his family by his side. He continues to contribute to Magic, including the card Mardu Shadowspear from Fate Reforged and — no surprise here — a cycle of basic lands for Commander 2016, all of them beautiful landscapes that represent the five colors of mana. He’s recently become a staple at Magic tournaments, as well, attending about 10 grand prix events each year.
So how does one summarize such a family-centric career?
“It’s been a wonderful experience,” Mark says.
Mark Poole is straight upmone I the nicest artist in the MTG game. He is always patient with customers and willi to talk shop about anything from inspiration to techniques. Some other artists treat us players like a burden to be endured. Mr. Poole is a class act and an amazing artist!
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