Maggie Nowinski -Drawing (un)limited

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Maggie Nowinski, Be Spilled, My Heart, 2021 detail installation view with artist for scale, wHoles are acrylic and India ink on canvas, double sided, installation approximately 20’x30’x10’

About a decade ago, Maggie Nowinski shifted her focus from site specific project-based installation to her studio as the primary site of her work. She made this shift after realizing that her connection to the work had become too fragmented. She needed her studio work to become more accessible and her creativity more meditative. Since drawing has always been at the core of her work, focusing on drawing with limited materials and themes, enabled her to process a lot of the ideas she had been working through in her large-scale installations. “I was craving a way to immediately access creativity, to be in a place where if I had an hour I could walk into my studio and pick up where I’d left off on a drawing,” she says.

Tell me about yourself and what brought you to art.

As a child I was always drawing, making forts, and collecting things. I grew up in two households, and I have vivid memories of going into NYC to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art with my mother and the Hartford Atheneum with my father. I always brought a bag of necessities with me wherever I went which, of course, included drawing and coloring supplies. In high school I spent much of my free time in the ceramics and photography studios. That said, when I started as an undergraduate at SUNY New Paltz, majoring in art did not occur to me. That first semester my roommate was an art major and I was intrigued by her assignments. I spent time in the art building and was inspired to make paintings on my own. That first summer break I took a drawing class at UMASS and discovered I had a knack for drawing from direct observation and with these drawings and my photographs and paintings I applied to be an art major. My BFA is in painting. When I think about what brought me to art – I think it was a way to self-soothe perhaps, to access a sense of both play and control through creativity. There was a kind of magic in in making one’s own mark, in finding a sense of self and place in art making.

Looking at your work from about a decade ago, it seems you were focusing on material-based installations at times involving video, performance and other media, altogether referencing environmental concerns. For instance, Swallowed and Streaming the 25th Hour. What would you like to share about these projects?

Materials have often taken a lead in how I approach projects, especially in installation-based works, even now that I’ve shifted to a drawing-based practice. For example, Swallowed (2009-11) began with a preoccupation with water bottles in my visual field. When I walked into a room, or along a sidewalk, I became acutely aware of plastic bottled water. They became a menace difficult to ignore. At first, I started photographing them (with my Motorola razor flip phone); then, I started collecting the bottles, asking how water, so elemental or “pure”, could be commodified and along with this commodification bring so much damage? I’d collect bottles everywhere I could—festivals, the dump, classroom waste baskets—and people would collect them for me as well. I started stringing them like beads on wire, making long strands that reminded me of stretched out intestines or DNA strands. In video recordings, such as stop-motions of my physical encounters with the strands as they took over my studio, these objects came to life, like the tentacles of a great sea monster. The final installations included approximately 10,000 water bottles, over 300 photographs of “water bottles in their natural habitats”, a wall drawing and multiple video installations.

For Streaming the 25th Hour (2012) I became interested in the early photographic technique of making images called cyanotypes. I had been making automatic drawings and decided to bring the two together. I made drawings on transparency sheets and created cyanotype paper on semi-transparent acetates. At the time I was dealing with significant personal losses, trying to juggle teaching jobs at three institutions and make work. Life felt fragmented and full and I was unsure how to process my grief. It seemed like my peers and I were always saying there weren’t enough hours in the day and it was this notion that motivated me to bring various elements together. The exhibition was visually centered around large-scale cyanotype drawings sewn together suspended in the middle of the gallery.

Placed around the gallery were other small collections of found objects, sculptural elements, and a stack of 6 portable record players with bird calls and “sounds of nature” LP’s to be played individually or simultaneously to convey a sense of continuum from my studio practice into the gallery. The exhibition transformed and was transformative for me as well. During gallery hours, I developed self-imposed exercises as a way to access the “25th hour”, reflecting on the impossibility of finding that hour. The gallery became a place to heal, play, and process. I scheduled durational performances that took place in and near the gallery. At the start of my designated “duration”, I would write my exercises on the wall, set one or more of the many timers I had brought into the space and engage in structured improvisations. It was the most vulnerable I’ve felt about an exhibition because I wasn’t finished working through what I was getting at in the work. While this was an intentional aspect of the exhibition, it didn’t make it easy. Since then, any performative elements I’ve brought into my work have been more private, presented in video format or if in public, with my identity obscured.

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Maggie Nowinski, Swallowed, installation view, 2010-2011, dimensions variable, approx. 10,000 plastic water bottles, Motorola razor photos of water bottles in their natural habitats, intestinal quench, charcoal on paper drawing installation, videos on monitor/projection (photo John Polak)
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Maggie Nowinski, Streaming the 25th Hour, installation views. Pictured: Cyanotype tapestries, found ladder, collect wrapped rocks, exhibition process performance

antipyretic abductions is an ongoing series which began in late 2013. You say in a detailed and eloquent text on your website that these images refer to the body, medication, and a “make-believe internal landscape called organscapes”. How do you see its evolution from origin to present, and in what ways have you incorporated the drawings into multi-media installations?

Most significantly this series marks a shift in focus to drawing, but in the first few itérations I was still incorporating a variety of media. The series began with a simple observation. For a variety of reasons, I always had Advil in my pockets and the pills seemed often to be in my field of vision. At some I point noticed they would stain a surface when wet and I began to make drawings with the dye, moving the Advil across paper surfaces. Soon this morphed into more experiments and I made photographs and videos of pills expanding in test tubes and on paper as I added water with droppers. I incorporated different brands of ibuprofen, acetaminophen and other OTC NSAIDS to expand the color pallet. The first installation of this work, Antipyretic Abductions, was for The Lab, a show in an abandoned factory/warehouse building, curated by artist Kim Carlino. It included test tubes of the pills – colors ranging from red and orange to light blue or emerald green and petri dish-like experiments, which resembled cross-sections of geological samples. I inserted a video monitor inside a hole in the wall with closeups of the red pills in test tubes, swelling as they became more saturated, like a glimpse inside a living body.

For me, the most important work to come out of these installations were the on NSAID stained paper. Ink line drawings based on medical illustrations and photographs of organs that aid in digestion. After a few more installations from this series, I found making these drawings held my interest more than the experiments with pills and capsules, which started to feel like a gimmick. Looking at 19th century medical illustration books which often included their botanical remedies, I allowed the drawings to develop and morph. Soon, I cultivated the botanical aspects of the imagined specimens, and the direction was clear.

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Maggie Nowinski, Antipyretic Abductions series, 2014-2015, pen and ink and OTC NSAID stains on paper & detail of light box transparency installation, drawing and photographs of The OTC Petry’s on transparency
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Maggie Nowinski, Unlikely Harvest (Anthropocenic Specimen), 26”x40”, pen and ink on heavyweight Stonehenge, 2018 & a Somaflora Silhouette: Specimen I, 22” x 30”, pen and ink and gouache on heavyweight Arches, 2019/2020

In “524 (w)Holes” (2018), exhibited at Berkshire Art Museum, North Adams, MA, you created an immersive drawing installation. What is the genesis of this body of work and how do you see the relationship between drawing and installation? How did this change a few months later for the large-scale installation DRAWN wHOLE at Real Art Ways, Hartford CT

The (w)Holes began as a kind of meditation, a way to practice the repetitive linework I was using in my larger specimen drawings. The lines became more organic, fluid, and the more I drew, the process became seductive. They related to the larger drawings on a cellular level–each wHole, I imagined, was part of the cellular makeup of the specimens, drawing a simple form that could essentialize more complex structures in my larger drawings. Through them I could keep my hand engaged in and connected to this line work even when I couldn’t get into the studio. I was also tapping into earlier, forms I have drawn periodically over many years – nests, or pod-like structures, drawn in graphite or charcoal. I like that they are complete yet empty in the center, posing a paradox: a whole containing a central hole.

For the installation 524 (w)Holes at the Berkshire Museum of Art, I was offered a room for the installation. The museum is a multi-story repurposed building, a former annex to a large stone church and the room had distinctly non-contemporary architecture, a holding space for decades of history. Contemplating the space alone in the museum for over three days of installation, I adapted my initial plan for its structure. These wHole drawings were ink on Yupo paper ranging in size up to 18” wide, some in color, others grayscale. At the time I was 524 months old, and they embodied the idea of time lived, a collection of all that is imperfect throughout our lives, a sort of cellular map. The wHoles held personal significance, but once they began to interact with the space, they seemed to mingle with the lives of others. I imagined they were an index of exhales from those who had been there before. Cracks in the plaster walls and ceiling were an opportunity to integrate the drawings further into the site, inserting the little drawings into them, so they appeared to come out of them.

I was invited to have an exhibition at Real Art Ways in Hartford later that same year. The curator, David Borawski, familiar with my work, gave me free reign. In response to the white cube, clean architecture of the space and its high ceilings, I made large-scale wHoles on long rolls of canvas, and draped them into the space as though they were part of a larger continuum, or coming off of a conveyor belt. For this exhibition, wHOLE, I also adhered and drew wHoles directly onto the floor and walls.

Although I started drawing them in 2016, since these exhibitions, the wHoles have remained an integral part of my visual vocabulary as I’ve been invited to do a number of large scale installations with them. Responding to each site provides an opportunity to create a drawing in space and play with their dimensionality and scale.

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Maggie Nowinski, DRAWN wHOLE, 2019, detail/installation view, Real Art Ways, Hartford CT, acrylics and ink on canvas, Yupo and direct drawing on gallery floor/wall (photo/John Polak).

Let’s look at your current exhibition. What would you like to share about your body of work in this show and how do you see it ties to your previous work?

A Whole Recollection includes the Divoc Daily Drawings and Be Spilled, My Heart, a large-scale installation of wHoles. The Daily Drawings are organized chronologically in rows, like a calendar, with eight rows of drawings on two walls and nine on the last. To view them in order one starts at the very top left drawing on the first wall (3/13/2020) moving left to right, reading them, row by row and clockwise on three walls. This project began on 3/13/20 2020 and finished 3/14/21. The structure I imposed for the Daily Drawings allowed me to experiment. Each drawing measures 11” x 14” and is made with black and white media. With this in place, I decided anything could be a prompt. From the mundane, to the imagined to the botanical bursts of spring. Covid graphs, my grandmother, a photo or poem from a friend in lockdown abroad, another friends’ tonsilitis, Black Lives Matter, aerosol mist, notions of isolation and collectivity, of home.

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Maggie Nowinski, selection of drawings from Divoc Daily Drawings 3/13/2020 -3/14/2021, mixed media on Rives BFK 11”x14” each

Be Spilled, My Heart includes over 150 wHoles made with acrylic and India ink on double sided canvas ranging individually from 8” to 8’ in diameter. Upon entering, the 30’ feet tall wall provides a cathedral-like experience, Together they create a dimensional topography—growing upwards to the top of the 30’ wall and out onto the gallery floor. The installation leads the gaze upward to the top of the tall wall, offering a cathedral-like experience upon entering.

On your website you included two sections I have not encountered so far: Student Work and Teaching Philosophy. You are evidently an educator. What can you share about that part of your life and how do you see its impact on making art?

I’ve been an adjunct faculty instructor for over a decade and often an Artist-Mentor for a low residency MFA program. While there are many challenges to being an adjunct, overall teaching is quite rewarding. Lately I’m interested in how studio projects can link students to the present moment and one another. In drawing classes, I emphasize drawing as a record of presence in a time and space and students seem to really welcome that concept. Shedding preconceived notions about art – or what a drawing “should” look like can be revelatory as can be the connections and interactions that emerge between students. It can be so moving to witness the growth that happens – especially since so many people who think they “can’t draw”, realize that through time spent, they have a drawing language. To act as a facilitator to this, in some cases the only art class they will ever take, is a privilege. Teaching has allowed me to pursue studio projects freely, removing some of the pressure of having to sell work for my income. That said, I have just launched a commerce page on my website and am excited about some upcoming print, book arts and drawing limited releases coming up within the year!

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Maggie Nowinski, at DRAWN wHOLE 2019 (photo/John Polak).

Originally from NY, Maggie Nowinski is an interdisciplinary visual artist, arts educator and curator who lives and works in Easthampton Massachusetts. She received her BFA in painting from the State University of New York at New Paltz and her MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She is adjunct faculty at Westfield State University in Massachusetts, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and Manchester Community College in CT. She frequently exhibits throughout the Northeast though her work has been in numerous exhibitions nationally and collected internationally. Nowinski is the recipient of multiple awards and grants. Her current body of work is rooted in drawing and printmaking, though her artworks frequently take the format of installations, combining traditional and unusual media with performative processes.  Nowinski’s practice is embodied by an awareness of the conceptual and political inevitability inherent in art making. She is also fond of collaborations.