Marissa Quinn Talks Symbolism, the Natural World and Trusting Your Intuition

The artist is known for her unique and thoughtful style.

Marissa Quinn looks at the world with a keen eye. An artist, ocean-dweller and proponent of environmental responsibility, Quinn expresses her worldview through her detailed and dynamic work. She challenges our perception of the natural world, of the roles we play and what art means to us.

Photo: Courtesy of Marissa Quinn

Quinn has become relatively well-known in the Southern California communities in which she spent her formative years - she’s done murals for local businesses, has created collaborations with brands in the area including Sun Bum, Volcom Women’s, Vuori and Vionic, and is easily recognizable in the lineup. She’s also partnered with a host of non-profits, working to spread her message of conservation and environmental awareness.

Quinn has faced challenges in her personal and professional life, and has continually turned to art as a way to make it through. This started young for her, right after beginning school. “Looking back I think of that memory as the first time, instinctively and without knowing what I was doing, I used art as a coping and healing mechanism.”

As she’s evolved as a person, Quinn’s work has evolved with her. Seeing her illustrations in person can be described as a divine experience; her work challenges our everyday perceptions of life. Quinn has worked for years at removing the influences society exerts on us all to conform.

“I feel like I was spoon-fed a lot of my thoughts from birth, spoon-fed religion, spoon-fed this is what you should look like as a woman, this is what you wear to school, this is what you do on Sundays – go to church.” Through her work, Quinn seeks to transgress that pressure and discover what truly moves her.

Photo: Courtesy of Renata Amazonas

We sat down with Quinn to talk about her work and its connection to the natural world, and with that, how it influences every aspect of her life.

Interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You’ve always been inspired by the natural world, but when did it really start to make an impact on your work?

It all started with the sunflowers and honey bees in undergrad. That was my first exploration into using animals as spirit, and symbolically try to unpack what was going on in my spiritual world. That's when I discovered honey bees as a symbol of the divine feminine, something that had been pushed out of my life, my whole existence. You know, growing up in that Christian, private environment, where God is a man, God is a warrior, God is all the things I don't like or personally relate to, I found honey bees as this expression of feminine strength: ruled by a queen, a hive mentality. There are all these writings of old mystics that were women, who had dreams of honey bees as god. I was going off all of that. That's where honey bees started.

“Heartbeats of Great Mother” - Marissa Quinn

Not to go too far off on a bee tangent, but bees sustain life. They are the life force of the planet, just like women are for our species. There's a lot of commonality there.

All of these connections started happening for me, and then the bees started turning into an ecological situation, especially when I was researching them; this was around 2007, when their decline really started happening, and I thought to myself, ‘Shit! I'm onto something here.’ I was exploring Sunflowers as a symbol of peace, because globally, they were used during the Cold War as a symbol of the effort to get countries to stop using and producing nuclear weapons. There were some activists that went around – you'll have to look this up – and they basically planted sunflowers on the fields outside of different nuclear plants as a symbol of turning away from [war] and [of] peace. So that's why sunflowers and honey bees in particular are in just about everything I do. From there I went into graduate school, and found pen and ink, was mentored by an illustrator and found my love for all things endangered.

Your style is really unique - you do a really interesting thing where you combine different bodies and beings – what is the process like of starting one of your pieces? How do you choose what to do?

It was definitely systemized at first, now it's not. In undergrad, I started creating a journal of visual language for myself, so I would literally write down throughout my day: 'Oh, I was drawn to that succulent’, or ‘I was drawn to rose gold,’ or ‘I was drawn to yellow,' and then I would translate that, what I observed and loved. In my work, I would use that for the feeling of calm, and I would use it as a dictionary. For example, if I wrote down honey bee in my sketchbook, I would write down ‘divine feminine equals the force of life that connects all of us,’ and then I would have a selection of things to pull from if I was stuck with a piece. Now, it's very intuitive.

You know what those things mean to you. So now looking at a piece, one can unpack what you're saying, if they had access to the legend of your dictionary.

Yeah.

That's amazing.

I'm almost tempted to print something like that, eventually, at some point. But then it kind of takes away from the magic, because people don't ask questions if they have it all laid out in front of them.

“Drink the Moon’s Reflection” - Marissa Quinn

It would be really impressive to see if people could experience it for themselves, and find those things within your work that you're trying to convey, without you leading them there at all.

Oh, it happens; and it's the best. Especially when people do it at shows, and I'm like 'You got that?' They're my people. That's cool.

It's so interesting how varied the ways we see the world are. How we each unpack things and process them. Switching gears: I wanted to ask, which of your projects has stood out the most to you, in terms of being the most impactful or memorable?

I love that. I do always go back to that undergrad show, with the bees and the sunflowers. That was when I did my very first installation, which has nothing to do with the drawing I do now. I had all of my paintings up on the wall, and then in the center of the gallery, I had 400 sunflower faces that were all in rows, and they were all facing a light source, and then I collected different honey bees and beekeeping equipment, and installed them on my paintings. I took beekeeping classes in order to understand what I was doing. That whole year was fascinating, because I was driving from class to beekeeping class in the hills of Pasadena, to learn from these old beekeepers, and they were giving me equipment and books, and then I was running back to class, drawing something real quick for an assignment I had to do, and then hopping right back into drawing 400 flowers that were in my studio space.

“Something Different” - Marissa Quinn

You’ve expressed your deep connection with the ocean before, in your formative years and beyond. Were you still connected to the ocean during all of this work?

The entire time I was in school, I was not in the ocean at all. I was in L.A., it was 7 years of school, I never visited the ocean. A dip here and there, but yeah.

Was that a challenge for you?

I didn't even realize. It was crazy; I was off. Even though I was having all of this breakthrough in my work, something wasn't right. I had a crazy amount of anxiety; I broke up with my guy, who I was with for four and a half years, and then life just fell apart right after I graduated. I moved back down to my hometown of San Diego, and the ocean started healing me and it was like – I say to people, and it's really cheesy and I get emotional – but I feel like the ocean saved my life. I was in such a bad spot with anxiety, I wasn't eating, I was really thin, I couldn't keep weight on my body; it was all heartbreak and anxiety-induced. I just kept going with the art, kept going where I was with that, kept that consistent, and then just ocean every day. One day at a time. And now I'm way better.

How old were you when that was happening?

25. I moved home – heartbroken, a mess – cleaned myself up for like 6 months, maybe a year, and then took off for a road trip by myself. I traveled from the border of Mexico to the border of Canada and back by myself, and I'm still writing that book right now. That whole thing was my breakthrough feeling – being near the ocean, exploring how the water works with the whole entire coastline, all the way up to Canada.

Photo: Courtesy of Marissa Quinn

Were you creating during that time? Do you have a lot of the work from that period?

Yeah. All of that is going into the book, and hopefully that book will be released in 2 months. That's what I'm working on. It was supposed to be this whole eco, save-the-planet thing, and then it totally did a 180, and now it's all about me overcoming stuff.

So it's illustrations and writing?

Yeah. It's very visual.

Photo: Courtesy of Marissa Quinn

How did it feel going on that journey by yourself?

Everyone will tell you to not do it by yourself, but if your intuition is saying do something by yourself, do it. I didn't even take photos on my trip, because my van – which I still drive – was so shitty. It wasn’t even about that. You just gotta go.

Sure, there’s danger everywhere, and there were definitely moments on that trip where I realized: I am in the middle of freaking nowhere on the Oregon coast, or the northernmost part of Washington. You have to be really careful there. I would always pitch two tents on my site, wherever I camped, and I would sleep in the van and have two tents pitched. Just to make it look like there were people with me, even though I was by myself. Things like that, where I kind of had to, or else, you know. You just get that little voice in you, your intuition, that you have to listen to.

Photo: Courtesy of Marissa Quinn

What's next for you besides the book?

This is the weirdest thing – this year has been so different for me. I have not scheduled out this year, which is different. I'm experiencing a tiny bit of burnout, and I'm kind of ready to go inward. The only thing I had planned was going to Maui in May to finish my book. Other than that, things are pretty open.

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