Commander Mark is still drawing after all these years

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Though the medium may have changed, artist and educator Mark Kistler is still drawing and teaching young audiences with as much verve as 40 years ago. 

In livestreams he releases on YouTube, Kistler teaches exercises from his many art books and interacts with viewers. With his big white beard, he laughs when recalling how recently, one asked in his chat, “Why is Santa Claus teaching drawing?”

Kistler draws.

A lot.

“Drawing is joyful. Drawing is inspiring; fun, humorous, relaxing, therapeutic. It helps you become a better thinker and problem solver,” says Kistler, who reveals the livestreams were born out of a previous attempt to draw once every day for 200 days.

“I passionately believe drawing is a critical thinking skill for young people,” he says. “It’s an important tool to learn and it’s going to make them happier on top of that.”

On Jan. 27 and Feb. 3, the Little Theatre will screen “The Secret Cities of Mark Kistler”, followed by a virtual Q&A with Kistler and director Jason Corgan Brown after the first showing.

The documentary, which debuted at Comic Con 2023, tells the story behind Kistler’s TV programming career teaching art to young audiences. Kistler hosted “The Secret City,” “Draw Squad,” and “Imagination Station” in the 1980s and ’90s. 

Some shows featured his “Commander Mark” persona, which, truth be told, was mostly just Kistler’s own personality. He recalls, when still constructing the show, that someone panned him for being a “terrible actor.”

“And I was not an actor, I was a teacher,” he remarks. “Of course, I was playing a character (as Commander Mark). But in my head, I was just Mark, teaching my class. It was just very natural.”

Perhaps it was that genuine nature, in the face of youth programming that can come off as disingenuous, that connected with young audiences. In his shows, Kistler’s soft-spoken but energetic commentary was a combination of Bob Ross and Mr. Rogers, creating a safe and encouraging environment with phrases like “Dream it. Draw it. Do it.” or “I’m having an art attack!” or “Draw everyday.”

To both foster creativity and stave off frustration, Kistler learned and honed those teaching techniques at his first job, a 10-person drawing class after school, at the age of 15.

Inspired by that experience in education, Kistler set a personal goal to teach 1 million children how to draw. Between his TV shows and efforts at school assemblies and educational events, he has well surpassed that goal.

Even with that accomplishment, he livestreams lessons because it still brings him joy.

“It’s validating too, to see someone access that joy,” Kistler says. 

His current livestreams bear a striking resemblance to his previous shows. While they might have included zany characters, guest experts (such as a NASA engineer), mailed-in fan art, and classic art pieces, at the center of it all was simply Kistler, a pencil, some paper, and a lot of enthusiasm.

“If you can write your name, then you can draw,” he says. “All it takes is a few moments of crazy courage.”

That approach created accessibility, not only based on skill, but also resources. Kistler pushed for a show about drawing, rather than painting, as one of his first show producers originally intended. 

“Not everyone has paint. But everyone has a piece of paper and a pencil,” he says.

Jacob Schermerhorn is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer and data journalist. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected]

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