The DART Interview: Marcellus Hall

By Peggy Roalf   Thursday March 7, 2019

Peggy Roalf: Which came first the pen or the brush? 

Marcellus Hall: I would say the pen came first. In grade school I loved Mad Magazine. I bought quill pens and ink and emulated the art of Jack Davis, Mort Drucker, Paul Coker Jr, etcetera. Later, watercolor illustrations by Arnold Roth, James McMullan, and George Grosz had me under their spell, as well as the pen line of Al Hirschfeld. For a long time I was intimidated by watercolor. I couldn’t understand it. Years of experimentation, however, earned me an acceptable level of confidence.

PR: How did you decide on art as your métier? 

MH: With me it was a foregone conclusion. And I was lucky to have supportive parents and teachers who allowed me to plow ahead. From the get-go I was the guy who drew well in school. I even attracted attention for my drawings in kindergarten. One year there was a talent show and I was asked to stand in front of a school assembly and draw on a giant pad of paper. 

PR: Your work is vividly based on the built environment and the people who inhabit it. When did you realize that this was your strong suit?

MH: There was not a moment when I knew my “strong suit.” But I never tired of observing and drawing faces. I loved how with just a few lines you could depict completely different personalities. I’ve always been fascinated by the ebb and flow of people in a city. My dad drew farms and animals with me when I was young, but I was attracted to the city. It might have had something to do with the narrative aspect and the stories that make up people’s lives. 

PR: What is your favorite way of taking a break when on a deadline? 

MH: Any number of things can constitute a break. It’s imperative for me to step away and do the dishes, for example, or walk around outside. Coming back to my drawing desk with fresh eyes is a critical part of my process.

PR: With several books behind you, could you tell our readers why making and publishing books is important to you?

MH: There is something precious for me about a bound volume whose story unfolds page by page, whether it be literary or artistic. The sequential momentum is a narrative structure in and of itself. And storytelling gives structure to the chaos. 

When I first moved to the city, fresh out of art school, I made photocopied booklets of drawings and writings, which I stapled together and gave away. They were modeled on those tiny religious tract booklets that you sometimes see. Later I got bolder and made larger booklets. I was inspired by the lyrics of Mark E. Smith [The Fall], the writings of John Lennon (In his own Write and A Spaniard in the Works), and the montage drawings of 1920s Berlin by George Grosz. I was fascinated by the random absurdity of urban life and wanted to depict it. 

PR: I noticed that in addition to illustration assignments you’ve been moving into doing commissioned portraits of people and their pets.How did that originate and how is it going?

MH: To be honest, those kinds of commissions come to me by default. I don’t particularly love this kind of work but it supplements my income. It is sporadic and occasionally enjoyable.

PR: As a regular sketchbook keeper, have you had any “dream jobs” that have originated from this practice? 

MH: This doesn’t quite qualify as a “dream job,” but I was pleased last year to parlay travel sketches into an assignment. I was in Korea for the first time and a friend of a friend invited me to the Pyong Chang Winter Olympics. I immediately contacted The New Yorker, telling them I had my sketchbook and was en route to the Olympics. They expressed interest and the result was that thirteen of my sketches and a narrative I wrote were printed on the magazine’s website. 

Several years ago I was invited to an international chef symposium of sorts where chefs gathered in the Yucatán to learn about and sample the cuisine. My assignment was to chronicle the event, which lasted about a week. I made dozens of drawings and wrote a narrative, both of which were posted on the website (cookitraw). It wasn’t a paying job, but I got a free trip to Mexico.

PR: As well as being in demand for your illustration work, your career in music is amazing. Please tell our readers where this originated and how you have managed to keep both tracks going

MH: For a long time people were baffled by the fact that both art and music were equally important to me. They would pose a hypothetical mandate that I choose one, but I couldn’t. I began to make lists of artists who did more than one thing in order to justify myself. Did you know that Victor Hugo was an amazing watercolorist? And that Woody Guthrie wrote and illustrated books? 

I’m not sure where my interest in music originated, but I see all of the arts as inter-related and I engage with the same formal aspects in 2D art as I do with music. I only started learning guitar in college, but I had been writing lyrics and messing around with harmonica before then. When I finally got to art school, the sky, I felt, was the limit and I could pursue anything that interested me. Sometimes I suspect that music attracted me because in visual art there is no applause. 

I have been lucky to be able to keep both balls in the air, falling back on music when illustration gets slow and vice versa. It was always helpful to me for some reason to define myself in opposition to my other self. The two roles play off of each other.

PR: The next time you take a major break from studio work, where are you headed?

MH: I don’t have any major breaks planned at the moment. In fact I just took a break, traveling to Oaxaca, Mexico for a few weeks and the main impetus was simply to escape February in New York.

PR: So what events do you have coming up?

MH: On March 15th I’m slated to play a song or two at a comedy show featuring David Cross and Bob Odenkirk (both of "Mr. Show") at the Bell House, in Brooklyn. 

Bob Odenkirk ("Better Call Saul," "Breaking Bad") incidentally has expressed support over the years for both my music and art. He wrote a blurb for my graphic novel "Kaleidoscope City" and used one of my songs in a film he wrote and directed in 2017.

Speaking of patrons, Isaac Brock of "Modest Mouse" released on his label Glacial Pace an album of my music, which included a booklet of my drawings and lyrics in 2011.

My music is on YouTube and Spotify under “Marcellus Hall,“ “Railroad Jerk,” and “White Hassle.“ My most recent solo albums with "The Hostages" are available on

On April 6-7 I’ll be at MOCCA selling my books and music! 

There are no exhibitions planned, but I am always open to opportunities to show my work. In December I exhibited at a comic book store gallery (Mundo Fantasma) in Porto, Portugal. I showed street drawings and original art from my graphic novel, Kaleidoscope City, published last year by Bittersweet dart-interview

Marcellus Hall is a NYC-based illustrator and musician. His art has appeared in The New YorkerThe Wall Street JournalThe Atlantic, and Time, as well as in American Illustration, the Society of Illustrators, and  Communication Arts annuals. His first cover for The New Yorker was published in 2005. His graphic narrative, Kaleidoscope City, was published in 2018 (Bittersweet Editions). Hall has illustrated nine children’s books, including the self-penned Everyone Sleeps (Penguin 2013). As a musician Hall has recorded and performed with bands Railroad Jerk (Matador Records) and White Hassle (Matador, Orange Recordings, Fargo). He continues to make music under his own name. A solo album, The First Line, was released in 2011 (Glacial Pace Recordings). A second solo album, Afterglow, was released via Bandcamp in 2013. New material is being recorded with current band The Following Guests. MP031019
Instagram: @marcellus_hall