Art from the Heart

By Glynis M. Belec in Arts & Music, Community, People

When Mark Douglas Mullen speaks about his art, his passion for the craft percolates. As this 22 year old Arthur resident shares the stories behind his creations, it becomes apparent that his unique gift arises from somewhere deep within his soul.

I first met Mark when I was seeking an illustrator for a children’s book. I hadn’t spoken to him previously but I had seen some of his work on his social media page and on his website and then I couldn’t wait to meet him.  He was a little cautious when we first shook hands, but that wasn’t an unusual coping mechanism for someone with Asperger Syndrome – a diagnosis now considered one of the autism spectrum disorders.

“I never thought it was a big deal,” says Mark about his Asperger diagnosis, “although, I didn’t have many friends during my elementary years.”

He would rather not spend time thinking about how he was bullied in school because he was different.

Mark’s mother, Kristina Tooney, confirms that having the Asperger diagnosis was not a big deal for Mark.

“That’s who he was from the beginning,” Kristina says.  “I think it was a big deal for the rest of the family because we had to figure things out as we went.”

From the beginning Kristina describes Mark as being an incredible child and she noticed that even at an early age he was able to do complicated tasks. His younger brother, ‘Buzzy’, who is now in the armed forces, was his constant companion. “Buzzy and Mark were inseparable,” says Kristina.

Mark’s parents created a drawing wall in the kitchen for him. It was then they began to notice the incredible detail he would put into even a simple drawing. “He was able to colour in books as quickly as he could pick up a crayon,” Kristina says. “I have his first drawing he did at almost 3 years of age and it’s clearly a dog. He has always had difficulty finding the right words to describe something. So we would tell him to draw it for us.”

Mark still communicates through his art. He has also learned practical communication skills, through the determination of his family who sought out the best help possible for him, including a move to Las Vegas for eight years. Kristina was once told by a teacher to focus on what Mark excels in and to forget about everything else. So she did.

“We continued to keep him focussed on art, whether it be through gifts, extracurricular activities, or just everyday life,” says Kristina. Mark was enrolled in a special school for art in Las Vegas and then he returned to Canada in 2004 and later, completed high School in the Huron Heights art programme in Newmarket.  Following that, he attended a private art college for two years in Toronto, but he ended up not completing the program because he felt the demands from some of the instructors stifled him artistically.

While Mark was living in Toronto, he lost weight and became very ill. Eventually he was diagnosed with Chron’s disease and colitis, which is not uncommon for those dealing with Asperger Syndrome. After some soul searching and decision-making, he decided it was time to head out of the city. Meanwhile his mother and step-father, Mike, had taken up residence in Arthur, Ontario so Mark packed his bags and his art supplies and headed home.

When I ask Mark what he likes about living in small town Arthur, he is quick to say how he feels a sense of belonging. “I really like meeting new people and getting to know the residents here,” Mark says. His part time job at Union Burger in Arthur helps get him out in the community and it also helps pay for his art supplies.

Because of Mark’s Asperger diagnosis, social interactions can sometimes still be stressful for him, but he continues to make good friends in the community and surrounding area. Once he gets over the initial awkwardness of that first meeting, he is happy to talk about his passion for art to anyone who cares to listen.

Kristina cannot wait to see where her firstborn son’s talent will take him. “An Aspie’s mind looks at the world so differently and I’m always surprised at the depth of his thoughts and detail of how he sees and perceives the world.  I can’t wait to watch his journey explode.”

And exploding he is. Mark even had the opportunity to meet actor Charlie Hunnam while he was on the set filming Pacific Run. Before he knew it, Mark had created portraits of Hunnam’s co-stars in Sons of Anarchy. Each of the stars signed the pictures and Mark was able to auction them off. It becomes clear that his biggest art influence is his fascination with movies and actors. “I’m motivated a lot by movie & TV characters.” Mark’s eyes sparkle as he shares the details of some of the drawings he has done in the past.

He has created some remarkable drawings using photo-realism, including the Duck Dynasty characters and Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons) from the television show The Big Bang Theory. Although his photorealism is extraordinary, he is daring lately to step into the interesting world of book illustration.

The first book he illustrated for my Angel Hope Publishing company, Hopeful Homer, presented a bit of a learning curve. However, the team dynamics were amazing, and I was very happy with Mark’s final results. Now Mark is working on another book for Angel Hope Publishing – Nana Murray has a Farm written by Clifford author Connie Murray.

“I found it very exciting to illustrate my first book, Hopeful Homer. I never thought I would ever do that!”

Not only is Mark stepping a little out of his comfort zone with book illustration, he is also pursuing  a dream he had in high school – to create a comic strip using a character he generated called Aspie Andy. And this will not be a single process. Mark is taking his dream one step further and is now working on a graphic novel, Aspie Andy, which will be a story based on his own life with some exaggeration.

“Andy is me,” Mark quips, “with a little bit of an alternate universe tossed in for good measure.” It’s obvious how passionate he is to work on the graphic novel. “I already have the pictures in my mind.”

Kristina looks back at the years of struggle and the times of sheer joy and happiness and she loves to talk about the difference Mark has made in her life. “Mark continues to grow and find himself,” she says. “I think I`ve probably grown more than he has because he has taught me some huge lessons, the least of which is patience.”

I talked to Mark about how his mind works when he prepares to do a drawing. At first he tells me that he plans a little and does rough sketches. But he also indicates sometimes he has a clear picture in his mind about what to draw and he just picks up his pencil and proceeds. Other times he loves to have a photograph beside him so he can grasp every minute detail.  “It depends what the piece is.” Mark shrugs as he tries to figure out how to explain his unique approach.

Mark loves to talk about his passion to create pictures from cartoon characters. When he is not ‘on assignment’ he loves to dabble with mixed media painting. He is particularly proud of his interpretation of the Disney character Elsa as a real person in his painting Winter’s Magic. “I always wondered what these cartoon characters might look like as real people.”

Mark tries to explain why he has a need to interpret cartoon characters as real. His conclusion? “The simple things are more complicated. I find creating detail easier. Simple characters are more difficult for me to capture.”

Mark’s journey is just beginning. Doors are opening and he is focussing on how to best use his gifts, which is a blessing to his family. Parents want their children to be happy and to one day settle down, perhaps get married and have children of their own. Mark’s mom is no different. “I’d like to see him raising a family with a wonderful wife who appreciates who he is,” Kristina says.

Although this determined mother wasn’t prepared for the amount of work, worry and heartache, she admits that she wouldn’t have had it any other way.

“Everyone should have a Mark in their lives,” Kristina says.

Mark smiles and when I ask him why he creates, he doesn’t hesitate to tell me, “Art is what I was destined to do.”