Margaret Withers is a warm, friendly and clearly gifted artist who I met on social media. Her work really has a fluid, organic quality that I love. We talked about Margaret’s work, life and what she thinks it’ll take to get more people inspired by contemporary art.
MICHAEL: Hi Margaret, It looks like you’ve conquered numerous genres with your work. However, I think I see a common thread. Is it a fascination with the organic or perhaps organisms? I’m sensing a “living fluidity” in your work. I don’t know. How do you see it?
MARGARET: Hi Michael, thank you for saying that, but I feel more like an explorer than a conqueror. I’m not fascinated with organic shapes or forms by themselves. I’ve tried to paint straight up abstract, but somehow the painting just feels incomplete to me. I’m not sure if this feeling of incompleteness stems from a lack of belief that the painting can stand on its own and that it’s interesting (to me) or if it’s from my own need to create a story and puzzle out of my cast of characters.
Even my earlier work, that at first glance, looks like only organic shapes, in reality isn’t. In those paintings, I made clay heads, cast them in bronze, set them in boxes and then pushed those boxes into the canvas. Or I just attached the clay heads directly to the canvas. The clay heads evolved into an oddly looking ‘chicken guy’, who then morphed into my 135 ‘guy’, which then evolved into a mouth with eyes, and now with my new time::second series (on canvas), he’s in the house or completely absent; on my works on paper he still around. It’s an odd evolution of a character that I still haven’t figured out. But this character is only half of the story because I also greatly enjoy playing with the physics of paint and the principles of color and texture. The color and texture can certainly be seen as a ‘living fluidity’ and in that regard, I do try to capture an internal earth or space.
MICHAEL: The narratives that you build through a series of paintings … Isn’t that why it’s a shame that whole series don’t get sold as a group? Or does it not matter? Is the series more about what will continue to inspire you to paint?
MARGARET: Context is very important with my work, but it’s okay if they don’t sell as a group because the narrative isn’t a continuation, but more of an anti-story or a lightning strike across an implied narrative. I want the work to stand on its own. Series inspire me because new forms evolve out of the repetition and new questions arise. In my new series, the question was, how do I continue with this one idea that I have of ‘landscape icons as character’ (the houses and telephone poles), in a way that doesn’t imply a narrative, but instead implies a feeling of a common or shared memory? The switch back to oil paint also came about because I needed to work in a slow, meditative form in order to slow some anxiety.
MICHAEL: While you’re involved in the process of painting or creating art, what’s going through your mind? Is the process intellectual, emotional or more spiritual?
MARGARET: It’s a spiritual process. My mind is blank when I get into the flow.
MICHAEL: Isn’t it interesting that – for you anyway – a spiritual process creates something that is material? What’s that about?
MARGARET: I have a long, checkered history of faith and religion and it has certainly shaped who I am. But sadly, my faith left me about ten years ago because of my inability to handle the culminating cognitive dissonance. Having said that, I think that my art making sublimated my faith or maybe it’s a different way of searching for some sort of truth. I don’t know. Either way, spirituality remained. I see imagination as a natural state or language that all people are born with, but by degree – lose at some point, and I think the act of creating (in whatever way that manifests itself) is the closest we get to experiencing God even if we don’t believe in a God.
MICHAEL: Did you not attend art school? How did you become an artist? What’s your first memory of connecting with art? Are there other artists in your family?
MARGARET: My parents grew up in the Depression and were both extremely pragmatic, so they raised us to be pragmatic and they made it clear to us that we would be financially on our own once we turned 18. My dad wanted to be a journalist after the Korean war, but instead ended up in accounting and my mom was a teacher. After he died, I found out that he had been writing fiction in his spare time. My sister wanted to be an artist but instead got an MBA.
Pragmatism always won in our family. I was an English major and in a round about way, I went into technology (programming). I always made things. When I was really young, I did a lot of clay building and also made odd looking ceramic things and cardboard structures and I had a very active imagination, so I constantly played a lot of pretend games. In college and for a long time afterward, I did hand-built pottery and black and white infrared photography (and darkroom work) and Kodachrome night shots.
My first memory of connecting with art is of a painting my parents had of an abandoned house and well in west Texas. I would stare at this for hours trying to figure out what happened to the people. But what got me painting was when I saw for the first time at a museum a Kandinsky painting. The painting was so beautiful it made me weep. Up to then, I just hadn’t encountered any paintings that had that affect on me. So I stopped doing photography and started painting. This happened when I was 33; when I was around 36, I took one semester of grad school classes at CU Boulder, but decided that school wasn’t for me and instead I started plans to move to either NY or LA in lieu of art school. I moved to NYC in 2006, but I don’t think I became truly serious about my art career until 2010.
MICHAEL: What did becoming “serious” about your art career mean for you? What was the difference?
MARGARET: I’ve been very serious about my art practice or making art, since at least 2000, but I was reluctant to call myself an artist. Instead, I was a programmer who also painted. As such, I wasn’t good at managing my art or doing the necessary administrative work. I suffered from the “Peggy Guggenheim Syndrome” which is the belief that all you need is someone like Peggy to walk into your studio, see your art, instantly fall in love and then you would never have to work at the distasteful business of managing your art anymore, because she would handle it all for you. All you need is a Peggy. I realized there was no Peggy.
MICHAEL: That’s funny and sad at the same time – for a variety of reasons.
MARGARET: No magical happenstance occurrence in a bar with a great collector was going to occur and if I wanted my art to get out there, then I had to create the audience and the context for it and no one was going to call me an artist if I couldn’t call myself an artist. I needed to identify 100% with being an artist.
Initially, every decision had to be followed with, ‘What is good for the art?’ If it was good for the art, it was done and if not, then it wasn’t done. Should I go out to dinner or finish a grant application? Should I buy this dress or use the money for framing? etc. And I had to commit to a minimum of 20 hours a week to doing the art management work.
Luckily, I have a lot of business experience, so I took all the principles and practices I learned from the corporate world and applied them to the my art business. Plus, I read a lot – your blog is very helpful – art/work by Bhandari, Brainard Carey’s book, art marketing, the business of art, how to make it as an artist, etc. What I realized is that I needed clear, concise goals, tunnel vision, commitment, a project plan and discipline. And my art practice should not suffer or be on the backburner. It still comes first – so balance and perspective have to be maintained.
I have no life. I go to bed normally around 8:45-9 pm so I can get up around 4am to work for 3 hours, then I go to my day job (only 35 hours a week), come home around 5pm and then back into the studio, but luckily, I also have a very understanding husband who takes the photos of my work, does my art handling and believes in me.
MICHAEL: You have a great life. You’re making things work for you which is great. What you just said should be required reading for all artists. You know, I think most artists take art seriously, but they don’t take the business of art seriously and then they blame more successful artists – who do – for being “sell outs.” Thoughts?
MARGARET: Selling out is wasting your creative energy on someone else’s commodity. Being a responsible caretaker of your own art is showing the utmost care and concern for your creative process by ensuring that what it produced will be around after you die, and isn’t that the ultimate goal? – to have your art live beyond you? Isn’t it all about the art?
MICHAEL: Given that, what do you think about the art world/art market and how they function today? What would you change if you could?
MARGARET: I think the art market is undergoing interesting changes, in part because the internet is decentralizing it at a rapid pace and art fairs are becoming the norm. It will be very interesting to see where it is ten years from now. How I deal with this is to just jump into everything, to be open to new ideas and to fight against becoming a curmudgeon, pining for the past. If could change the model, then I would create art collectives – where artists live and work for free in exchange for artwork that then freely goes back to the financial backers of the collective to do with what they want. It’s a pie in the sky idea with a lot of possible problems, but it sure would be great to be a part of a live/work artist collective.
MICHAEL: As a collector and patron, I love that idea. Hmm. You’re right about so many artists pining for the past. I’m actually in the process of writing an entire essay on that issue. What do you think it’ll take to get more people who are intimidated by contemporary art into it?
MARGARET: I hate to say this, but pricing – it won’t become a part of our culture until it’s truly affordable. Not just visual arts, but theater, opera, dance – when a ticket price drops down to the same price of a movie ticket (or less) then it truly becomes accessible. Websites that sell prints or digital editions or that set limits on prices of originals, or do rentals, or art subscription services – they’re all trying to target and create the ‘new’ art buyer. All of this helps to push art into our cultural consciousness which then inspires a lot of people to create their own art – which is also good, because that eases intimidation.
MICHAEL: Absolutely. Unfortunately, people equate affordability with “low end” and everyone wants to be “high end.” We need to do away with both of those classifications. Moving on, what does it feel like when you have finished a painting? Also, what does it feel like to have sold a painting? Are the feelings the same?
MARGARET: I had a studio fire when I lived in Denver that destroyed a lot of work and after that, mentally, I’m better at selling my art, but emotionally, it still makes me feel a little bit sad and lost. I work either on the floor or on a table, so when I’m done, I hang it up and this vertical change greatly shifts how I’ve been perceiving the painting. It always looks curious and foreign to me and hanging it gives it some space so I can then casually study it when I sit on the couch (my studio is in my loft). For about a week, I see if it has something to say and I tweak it. Basically, I give it a one-week relationship and after that, it comes down and goes in a box and I’m done with it. I know within the first couple of days of painting if I have something good and exciting going on. I trash about 10% of what I start and I do have paintings that after hanging for about a week still say nothing to me – at that point, I just take it down and box it to look at later.
MICHAEL: What’s the point of art? I mean, we don’t need it like we need air, food and water. Most people can’t afford art and couldn’t care less and wealthy people are buying Picasso, Rothko and Koons. What’s the point?
MARGARET: We need art to guard our culture against the destruction of humanism so the point is that it keeps us human. I wouldn’t say people care less – I would just say that what is considered ‘art’ is much broader than ‘fine art’. Look at all the visual stuff consumed in our country, look at the work areas of corporate America – calendars, posters, photos, action figures, and look at the rise of Pinterest, Instagram, Bored Panda, Tumblr, etc. We live in an ever expanding visual world and maybe even the most visual time of our history. I think that’s very exciting. The ‘fine arts’ haven’t figured out how they fit into this visual era and they haven’t caught up, but they’ll figure it out and they’ll survive.
MICHAEL: Finally Margaret, where do you hope to be with your work in the not so distant future?
MARGARET: What I love about painting is the discovery of how art progresses, so I hope to be farther along, closer to some truth and to have my current style tightened and expanded. I’m in a group show this summer at The Drawing Center where the phrase I was invited to respond to is warm::silence, and it’s been a lot of fun for me to figure out how to communicate that in my paintings. Out of this, I’ve also started working in 3-dimensional paper-fold art and I have some ideas for small sculptures that I hope to start working on.
MICHAEL: Thanks Margaret. This has been an enlightening and nourishing chat.
MARGARET: Thanks Michael for interviewing me – I can’t believe you got me to talk so much!
Interview by Art For All People® We Talk Contemporary Art March 2014