Maggie Davis- Artist Q&A
On a sunny afternoon, we entered the studio of Maggie Davis at the Goat Farms in Atlanta. We arrived with genuine curiosity to learn more about the ingenuis painter and find out where she has been hiding.
The walls are adorned with abstract paintings currently in progress. The room is filled with completed canvases stacked against the wall and larger pieces rolled up together in the corners. Sleeping on the floor is Maggie's studio mate, a black-haired standard poodle.
Maggie’s paintings are purely abstract. The paintings invite the viewer in to contemplate color, shape, and space while allowing their mind to explore ideas. Upon meeting Maggie and being introduced to her work, we were surprised to learn that the skilled painter had only recently made her public debut. After retiring from a career as a teacher was when Maggie made the transition to full-time artist.
With Maggie, we discussed her approach to her work and how life experiences have influenced her practice. The artist also shared with us life growing up outside of New York City and the cultural and political impacts of both the 1960’s and present day.
RIGBY INK- I read that you grew up on Eastern Long Island and that during that time you were exposed to many of the artists in New York. Can you talk about that?
MAGGIE DAVIS- I was still in high school maybe even younger than that. There was a TV program called “You Asked For It.” A viewer writes in and says that they’ve heard of this artist who makes really expensive paintings and the only thing that he does is drip paint. So they go out and do a TV special and sure enough, there is Jackson Pollack who is dripping paints on the barn of his house in the Springs. I looked at that said, “oh yeah” I was enthralled. I thought that was incredibly exciting. Then later when Warhol started doing screen prints of Campbell's soup cans, that was the one that really hit me.
I was in the supermarket with my mother and I looked at the soup cans and I said, “of course this is art.” Where that was coming from I had no idea. I was really tuned in to the ways things look, to the visual. The vitality of art was in the air and even though I was in a middle-class environment I was picking up the energy and finding it as an opportunity for freedom.
RIGBY INK- What happened with all of that excitement in the 1960’s?
MD- My family moved to Miami and I followed them in 1967. I finished my BFA in Miami and then went to graduate school in Tampa where I got an MFA in painting. I worked in a museum for four years and then I eventually started teaching. That seemed to be the career of choice. I was teaching in Miami in a magnet arts program and in the summers would go to a residency in a program in Atlanta where I met many of the Atlanta artists.
RIGBY INK -I know you moved here in 1998 for a teaching position. What was the Atlanta art scene like 20 years ago?
MD- The city had a strong community of artists who knew each other and were supporting one another, which is still true today. I knew many of the artists through my time in the Hamidge center.
It has been incredible to watch the artists and the general community take on the arts in the last five years. There is a lot of support for emerging and seasoned artists. The Creatives Project, Dashboard, WonderRoot’s Hughley Artist Fellowship (formerly known as the Walthall Artist Fellowship) all support fresh creative ideas in Atlanta. The Hudgens Prize, The Working Artist Project (MOCA GA) are both opportunities for seasoned artists to receive recognition.
RIGBY INK- I read that you used to sign your name M. Davis to mask the fact that you were female back in the 1960’s. What do think about what is happening now in the feminist movement?
MD- The #metoo movement is probably the most significant wave, a tsunami within the context of feminism. It represents something that has been denied for centuries. For women to stand up against sexual abuse is courageous. I think it’s rare for somebody to have not experienced any kind of discrimination. When you think about what the first wave feminist did in the 1970’s, they made noise, they demanded things, and they were rebel-rousers.
I took on the feminist movement while working in the art department of Florida International University. We had feminists artist from New York City in residence and they galvanized in the women artists department. I always identified believing that I had the right to whatever anybody else had. I just believed it. I think that the traditional idea of the feminist movement will be altered by the #metoo movement because this is very specific about gender. It’s specific about the harassment of women, both subtle ways, and unsubtle ways. It’s a wake-up call to every man in this country. The #metoo movement has taken feminist out of the context of shrillness that was always associated with the feminist movement. Now we have celebrities saying, “yeah, me too” and they look much more palatable than women burning their bras. The feminist movement was criticized by black women who were not included. This #metoo movement can break down some of these barriers.
"I took on the possibility that the viewer might be part of the process"
RIGBY INK- Coming back to your work you emphasize your connection to your viewers. Why is that important to you?
MD- In the process of constructing paintings, I took on the possibility that the viewer might be part of the process. Painters don’t usually talk about this. When I did the work for Sandler Hudson The Fourth Wall, I was inspired by Anton Chekhov, The Cherry Orchard. He created characters that basically did not communicate. He had a play about the failure of communication and in the play, everybody is talking about something else. That got me very excited and that's how I found a structure I could do that with.
The viewer is right behind me when I’m making my work because I’m talking to the viewer. That the viewer has an experience is what my obligation is. It’s not for me, it is for the person that's going to look at this work. As artists, we aren’t to taught to think about who we are talking to when we are painting. Being a painter is a very hermetic world. I wanted to open that world up. I wanted to find a process that would create that possibility. I was pulling that out of Chekhov, not by his writing, but how he broke the rules of theater. It was recognizing this structure would attract the viewer to the work yet create an uncertainty about what is being seen.
RIGBY INK- You’ve been working as an artist for 40 years. How do you get to this place?
MD- You don’t stop. Even if you don’t have a studio, you don’t stop working. Having a full-time job makes it very difficult. It’s hard to create continuity and not get pulled away. Once I retired I was really able to fall into a place and it still took three years.
RIGBY INK- To what do you attribute your recent success?
MD- Between 2009 and 2014 I was working toward the understanding of figure and ground relationship in painting. I was working on small canvases 14x11 and was very close to moving to increase the scale of my work. Happily, in 2014 a studio at the Goat Farm opened up and I was able to stretch the scale of my work.
There are many artists working here day and night. Their doors are closed and they are engrossed in their work. The creative energy that exists at the farm has had a powerful influence on my own commitment to being an artist. Here I am with my tribe.
After moving into the Goat Farm I could start to take what I had learned from those five years of figure and ground and begin to figure out what it was that I wanted to express. I finished three paintings and posted them online before the first open studio we did here at the Goat Farms in 2015. Sandler Hudson Gallery saw the work online, contacted me, and offered to represent my work. The December 2016 solo exhibition garnered publicity and I finally felt like I was out of hiding.
RIGBY INK- What is next for you? What is in your future?
MD- I’m pretty committed to doing this work. Recently I was away from the studio for five days and when I returned everything just kind of popped on a large painting I’m working on. I found the things I needed to do to that painting to get it finished. It has become clear to me that the content is confined by size. I need to work twice as big because I want to match the moment that we are living in.
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Words: Rigby Wrights
Artwork: Maggie Davis