Margaret Ann Withers‘ drawings and paintings burst with energetic gestures, exuberant colors, and bio-morphic shapes. Altogether these elements fuse into imaginative landscapes resembling a child’s play in Surreal terrains. The artist shares with Art Spiel her ideas, process, and current projects.
AS: Tell me a bit about your background – what brought you to art?
Margaret Ann Withers: Growing up I had very little supervision and because of that I lived a lot in my imagination. I would create little plays for myself or make mud creatures that I would move about. In my teens I got into photography. Later, in college I moved into doing night shots with Kodachrome 64 slide film and I also shot a lot of infrared film that I developed in my dark room. I stayed with photography through my 20’s, when I also started making porcelain items and abstract stained glass. I started painting in my early 30’s after going to Paris and getting inspired by paintings by Miro and Kandinsky.
You mentioned that you work in series – what can you tell me about your process?
Margaret Ann Withers: I’ve been working on my “electric::current::amp” and “tumbling house” series since 2011. Every couple of months I like to take a break from working on it and jump back into one of my other series, which are in different mediums and have different ‘themes’. When I bounce between series it feels like something expands in me, or maybe something loosens. Either way, it keeps things fresh for me. I work on my ceramic sculptures, my little “lachelmachles”, all the time, primarily because I don’t have my own kiln, I have to schedule time to go work in the pottery lab.
I was introduced to your work through Instagram, mostly your paintings on paper. Let’s take a relatively recent example like, “rolled-up under giggling waves,” and its associated text.
Margaret Ann Withers: I went to Guadeloupe last year and one day I tried to snorkel in some raucous waves. It was a bad idea. I got knocked down, lost a flipper, inundated by sand and yelled at for being reckless. The whole incident made me laugh. It was just so funny to me at the time, the power of the big ocean and my little tossed around self. This was in my head when I started this painting – the desire to capture that Carribean blue and that feeling of mortality, of being this small insignificant human and the freedom that can come from that realization. I usually have some little story in my head that propels me as I paint. Then, when I’m done, I go back and write a story about the people in the tiny tumbling houses.
You also paint on linen. Is there a difference in process between painting on linen and painting on paper? If so, how do you see it?
Margaret Ann Withers: Yes, very different. I’m baffled why I can’t do the same work on linen that I do on paper. Because I couldn’t transfer my “electric::current::amp” or “tumbling house” series from paper to linen, I came up with my “Adrift” series. I think series has some of my best work because it captures how I feel living in our society, in my own skin, in our environment, and economy. I started it while I was on residency at Vermont Studio Center and continued it while on residency at Mass MoCA. I’m working on the idea of merging this series with my little clay sculptures.
You also work with ceramics. Tell me about that and how do you see the relationship between your dimensional and 2-d work?
Margaret Ann Withers: I started back with the ceramics after a 15 year hiatus because I wanted to make my “electric::current::amp” paintings with the mouths and eyes into something 3 dimensional. I made up the German word “lächelmachle”, roughly to mean little laughing world. It’s probably not a good word for marketing as it doesn’t quite roll off the tongue.
On your website you title all your work as “Curious Landscapes.” Landscape has a rich history in art. What does it mean to you?
Margaret Ann Withers: I think of landscapes as my perception of the world, something that is fluid and morphing, almost vibrating with life. We could both look out at a field of corn and not see or feel the same thing. It’s curious to me how people perceive what’s around them, or even what they don’t see, what they filter out. When you’re a kid you don’t have this clear idea of reality and self – I’ve heard it described as if you’re on LSD – kids just see and perceive at a different level than adults. I would give anything to see with my four- year- old eyes. What would that look and feel like?
Tell me a bit about your digital art project “Transliteration,” which was featured at the NYC Poetry Festival 2014 on Governors Island.
Margaret Ann Withers: I normally do a special summer series where I try to explore some medium or style that I’m not familiar with. Being a very tactile person, I wanted to try a digital art project. In my “Transliteration” project I decided to rework each US state seal. For the graphic I “flew” a crop duster in the Google Earth app and took a picture of each state’s landscape. I then took the motto of each state and using Google Translate I sequentially translated the motto through the five most prevalent spoken languages in the given state. I got some weird results. For example, California’s motto is, “I have found it”, after translating it through the state’s top five languages and back to English, it became, “I saw it”. Unfortunately, now that Google translate uses AI learning, you can’t do this anymore and get the same odd results. I also used Google NGRAMs to track the popularity of the motto.
This leads me to language. You referred to your complex relationship with language in your work (Moma.co.uk) – Can you tell me more about that?
Margaret Ann Withers: I think because of my childhood I’ve always felt like I lack the words to really function well in our society. Making things has always felt like a language that I’ve worked out. I know how to use it to say what I think and feel. Some people hear it and understand, and some don’t, that’s just life.