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Drawn to the Art

Mark Ponder’s pencil-on-paper work reveals the ‘non-normative’ side of life.

Mark Ponder (Photo by Alex Rosa for OutSmart magazine)

The curious machinations of queer artist Mark Ponder’s mind are on full display this month at Bill Arning Exhibitions in Montrose. Titled Non-Normative, the exhibit showcases 32 hyper-realistic and introspective graphite-on-paper drawings that have coursed through Ponder’s imagination in recent years.

“These drawings are emotional journaling, so to speak. ‘Non-normative’ is a word that my therapist taught me. It’s a word that gave me empowerment with feeling weird and not normal,” Ponder says. “The drawings were created over three years. They’re more or less like meditations. I’m basically reflecting and processing things, and then my hands just kind of stayed busy with the pencil during the thought process.”

Ponder describes this collection as a way of getting ideas off of his chest. “By drawing, I can acknowledge my inner thoughts and write it down. And once I do that, the idea is no longer in my head, and then I can revisit that idea from a more objective point of view.”

Images of wrestlers, fun-house mirrors, and a cheer team are all part of the collection—one that art curator Bill Arning is more than excited to show.

“I’ve been a fan of Mark Ponder, and over the years I’ve bought a lot of his pieces from shows. He’s such a unique art maker, and he is focused on autobiographical drawings that have a lot of dark under- belly—psychological overtones of these things that he uncovered from his sex life and psychotherapy. They are absolutely fascinating to me, and I really cannot think of another artist who’s quite as dedicated to that way of working. He plumbs his interior depths in a way that is funny, surreal— sometimes laugh-out-loud funny. But then, we also start looking at his take on gender roles, who he is, and what his process is. It’s a gallows humor,” Arning muses.

Non-normative, graphite on paper. 9 x 12, 2022

Three years might seem like a long time to create a show, but not when you learn that a few of the drawings took him 150 hours to create. For Ponder, a teacher at Kinder High School for the Performing Arts, it was something that helped him get through the brunt of the pandemic by staying focused on his own journey of self-discovery.

“You’ll see cartoons, karate, cheerleading, sister dynamics, and family memories. The collection is like a web that has a linear narrative,” Ponder says.

One obvious star in the collection is a series of mirrors. “I was discussing the concept of reflection, and having a warped reality and reflection of myself. I’ve drawn reflections of mirrors, as well as fun-house-mirror reflections of people,” he adds. “There was a part of me that was latching on to an image that made sense to me as I was processing this conversation of, ‘Is your reality real, or is it work? Do you have blinders on if you don’t say it?’ It became a symbol that I sat with for a couple of months for each drawing.”

Ponder started creating art professionally just over a decade ago, but his artistic gene has been expressing itself since he was a child. He studied graphic design at Lamar University in Beaumont before earning a master’s degree in studio arts from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois.

Escaping from Port Arthur, Texas, the small town where Ponder grew up, was some- what liberating for him. “I needed to get an education outside of that little insular bubble. Carbondale is a super-progressive college city—as in, the city hosted topless parades!” Ponder notes. “And the art was a lot more nutritious. They would have lots of discussions about ‘Why do you do this in the first place? Why are you going to commit 30 years of your life to this?’ Those kinds of conversations get you to connect with yourself and your inspiration.”

It’s that kind of forward thinking that convinced Arning to showcase Ponder’s work in Houston. “I really love artists who are not afraid to offend people. A lot of the galleries in this city try to [avoid art] that could upset someone. I’m the opposite. I love upsetting people, and Ponder is the type of artist that I love to support. Commercial galleries tend to be wary of drawings, because you can never sell a large drawing for as much money as a large painting. Painting is just a more lucrative form. But [my clients] are likely to get fully behind Ponder’s work because it is such an authentic expression of his unique sensibility.”

It begs the age-old question: Can shocking images rise to the level of thought-provoking art? Arning argues that Ponder’s drawings can.

“Thought provoking? Definitely. Shocking? Occasionally,” Arning concludes. “I don’t think people would describe them as ‘shocking’ as much as ‘visually aggressive.’”

What: Non-Normative – pencil-on-paper drawing exhibit by artist Mark Ponder

Where: Bill Arning Exhibitions, 604 West Alabama
When: Nov. 12–Dec. 18, Thursdays thru Sundays noon–6 p.m.


Sam Byrd

Sam Byrd is a freelance contributor to Outsmart who loves to take in all of Houston’s sights, sounds, food and fun. He also loves helping others to discover Houston’s rich culture. Speaking of Houston, he's never heard a Whitney Houston song he didn't like.
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