Humans of TCGMC: Mark Carlson
JOSH: TODAY I’M ON LOCATION IN THE HOME OF MARK CARLSON. I RECENTLY ATTENDED A SMALL HALLOWEEN FÊTE HERE, AND I MUST SAY, THE DESIGN IS THE MOST DETAIL-ORIENTED THING I’VE EVER SEEN. IT’S LIKE A MUSEUM. THERE ARE ANTIQUE PHOTOS ON THE WALLS, FAKE RATS, A BOWL OF DOLL HEADS, AND MY PERSONAL FAVORITE, A BLACK-AND-WHITE PHOTO IN THE BATHROOM OF AN AUDIENCE AT A MOVIE THEATER WEARING MICKEY MOUSE MASKS. VERY DISTURBING. PLEASE TELL ME MORE ABOUT HOW YOU GET INSPIRED TO DECORATE YOUR HOME.
Mark: Halloween is one of my favorite holidays, and over the last 3 years, I’ve developed my own aesthetic. There’s a fine line of camp and creep – heavy on the creep. Right now, I am an interior designer. And I say “right now” because it wasn’t something I planned; it was an accident.
I dropped out of grad school, where I was studying public policy. I was studying social policy in relation to social equity as it pertains to age, gender, race, ability, orientation, and how organizations improve their social equity. I struggled with reading and writing in a way I did not anticipate, though, and through a connection at the University of Minnesota, I received pro bono cognitive testing at a special clinic. It turned out I have some cognitive differences that are generally unseen by everyone. I struggled so much that after two or three attempts, I couldn’t finish school. This was 2013 to 2015.
I was really depressed and, at times, suicidal. I couldn’t make work what, on the inside, I knew I was capable of; I felt like a total failure. At the time, my therapist had me work more intentionally on self-care and specifically doing things for myself. I remember being alone in my apartment, thinking, “Even my apartment is not for myself. Nothing I do is for myself. Why is my apartment the way it is? I don’t even like this. Why do I have this furniture or these colors?” Somewhere in my subconscious, I thought I should be thrifty or take hand-me-downs, even if I didn’t like them. For the first time, I thought, “What if I designed my place for me?”
I began a journey of discovering what inspires me. I thought about an old college theater from the 1890s that my siblings and I had performed in, and my favorite movie, The Sting, which is set in the 1930s, where nothing is pristine. I also thought of my grandfather’s study, which had agates and fossils. I spent a year working on my place. Six months in, I realized I was grieving – I was using design to grieve the years I spent hating myself for not understanding what was happening to me cognitively and running into so many obstacles.
Josh: WERE YOU DIAGNOSED WITH SOME SORT OF LEARNING DISABILITY, OR DYSLEXIA?
Mark: I struggle with information processing and prioritization. My brain views all information as having equal value, though I logically know that it doesn’t. I’m expending a lot of energy trying to sort it; it feels like I’m drinking from a fire hydrant. I get caught up in the small details, even though I’m a big-picture thinker.
Josh: BUT HERE’S THE THING: IT’S THAT ATTENTION TO SMALL DETAIL THAT’S MADE THIS PLACE SO FABULOUS. IT’S WHAT MAKES YOU GOOD AT WHAT YOU DO. IT’S A GIFT, IN A SENSE. BUT YOU WERE GRIEVING.
Mark: Yes. I felt I was stupid, lazy, and a bad person. Except I knew that I wasn’t stupid. I’m actually very smart, but I thought, “Things are not working, so it’s your fault.” Those were the tapes that ran through my mind for a long time. Design helped me start recognizing patterns in what I was drawn to…as well as start recognizing and changing my patterns of thinking.
After I moved from my old apartment and designed my next one, I realized the reason I do this is because it gives me energy to face the world. I need my home to make me happy and feel secure, so I have enough energy to face my struggles in the real world. This is my safe haven. It has to bring me joy.
I had a friend from grad school come over for a dinner party, and she decided that having that type of space was something she wanted for herself. Now I’m doing her entire house, top to bottom. I don’t just design – I tiled part of the bathroom a couple of days ago, and I do oil painting, I install chandeliers. I did the garden panels you saw on Facebook!
Josh: SO BASICALLY, YOU’RE BOBBY FROM QUEER EYE. FOR REAL! JONATHAN’S JUST LIKE, “GIRL!”, AND KARAMO’S LIKE, “FACE YOUR FEARS” AND TAN DOES… WHATEVER THAT FRENCH TUCK THING IS… BUT BOBBY’S TOO BUSY TO TALK TO THE CAMERA. DO YOU WORK EXCLUSIVELY FOR HER?
Mark: Yes. I don’t want to design for just anyone, but I also need part-time work to balance my life. I’ve had so much work to do on myself – mentally, emotionally – that I’ve needed time to seek out people to help me overcome my personal hurdles.
I have to come up with systems for myself, so I don’t reinvent the wheel every time. Some people develop their habits organically, but I have to go through each of the steps of my next day, otherwise it doesn’t go well. I have to plan it intentionally. I constantly have to ask myself, “How do I work with others, and with organizations, and still take care of myself?” That’s the point of all of this: to be my best self, and to bring my best self to my friends and family, the chorus, and to my community.
JOSH: THANK YOU, MARK. LAST QUESTION: OF ALL THESE OBJECTS, WHICH, AS MARIE KONDO MIGHT SAY, SPARKS THE MOST JOY FOR YOU?
Mark: My zebra-skin drum. It was given to me by my great aunt Alice, who was a world traveler, and the only other family member who I knew was queer. She was a lesbian, and a scientist in an era when that was just not a thing. She also has a building named after her at a college in Iowa. I wish I could’ve asked her about how she navigated traveling as a single female in other countries, and about how rich of a life she lived. Even though I decorate my place for Halloween, most of my possessions have a lot of meaning attached to them like the drum, and with them, I’m ready to face the world again.
Josh Elmore (he/him), singer and member of our small ensemble OutLoud!, created Humans of TCGMC in 2018. He graduated from Carleton College with a B.A. in Linguistics and has since worked in sales, higher education, and, most recently, as a bilingual insurance agent (Spanish). Endlessly curious, he has dabbled in improv theater, stand-up comedy, sword fighting, the cello, and modeling for fantasy-themed photo shoots.