Maggie Davis is arguably one of Atlanta’s hidden art treasures, a prolific and dedicated painter/activist/teacher who has quietly toiled in the city’s cultural scene for over 30 years. Now, she is having her moment in the spotlight. The decades of work at her easel have paid off with her first commercial representation at a major Atlanta gallery, Sandler Hudson, and her spacious new studio at the historic Goat Farm Arts Center has put her firmly at the center of the city’s creative community.
BURNAWAY visited Maggie in her Goat Farm studio on a stormy spring morning in May. The metal roof in the centuries-old building thrummed with the sound of a steady rain as Maggie, dressed in comfortable shoes and a paint-splattered apron, walked back and forth across the worn wooden floorboards and gestured at a painting or pulled an art book from a shelf as she talked. Her large, colorful abstract paintings leaned against the rough brick walls of her studio. Dozens of smaller works hung on a wall opposite the floor-to-ceiling windows.
Davis’s approach to her work is deeply thoughtful, intellectual, almost academic. Our conversation ranged from her coming of age during the feminist-art revolution of the 1970s to the inner pathways of her creative journey. We also discussed her ambivalence about the recent increased exposure for her work, and what that means to an artist who devoted herself to the studio while essentially putting aside the distractions of the market or careerism for the past several decades.
Caroline Stover: You’ve been an artist your entire life. Take us back to the early days.
Maggie Davis: I was always an artist. I can remember at the age of five, sitting on the floor in the kitchen with manila construction paper, drawing. My parents would refer to me as “the artist in the family” and that sounded good to me. I had a studio in the basement at my parent’s house. I worked with paper and pen and ink and paint, whatever I could do. All through school I was the one who drew things for people. Then when I was a freshman in high school, a teacher at Saturday painting classes taught me to just put the paint down and then imagine what was there, “what do you see?” That approach nurtures creativity, it allows you to be the maker of that thing instead of being the slave to something that you have imposed on yourself or has been imposed on you by some other kind of convention.
CS: Did you start out with formal training?
MD: When I graduated from high school, John Canaday had written a book on the history of early 20th-century modern art, and I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I ended up at Florida International University (FIU), this would have been 1973 to ’75, in the middle of the feminist art movement. We had a very progressive dean who brought feminist artists down from New York to be in residence in the art department. It blew the lid off me and the rest of the women. Jane Kaufman was there; she was one of the founding members of the feminist art movement in New York and one of the few women who had a solo show at the Whitney Museum. She arrived with all of the grandness of being a “New Yawker.” She was sleeping in the studios to save money. We’d show up in the morning and she’d be there brushing her teeth. It was wonderful, and she was the one who really lit the fire in the department. The students started consciousness-raising groups that went on the whole time I was there. Later I went to the University of South Florida in Tampa for my MFA. After that I came out of the chute ready to work as an artist, because I was so pissed off.
CS: Explain that. You were pissed off at the whole MFA process?
MD: I was a slightly older student, in my early 30s, and I had already been working on my own, so I think that was sort of a clash. As an artist I was intuitive, and intellectually I was heading in a direction that the Tampa MFA department wasn’t really geared for. I was doing landscape work that was rooted in a kind of impressionistic expressionist experience, very much involved in mark-making but tied to representation. All the other students were essentially photorealists. Also the feminist movement hadn’t arrived in Tampa, which was shocking to me. It wasn’t a good match.
CS: Was the feminist art movement important to you because women were finally getting recognition?
MD: We weren’t getting recognition, we were demanding it because it didn’t exist. It was the first time that women collectively began to voice their resistance and anger and frustration at an art world that was so patriarchal. I was aware of it from the first time I ever showed my work. I would sign my name M. Davis, because I knew that if I signed it as Maggie, the work would be identified as female and it would not have the same value.
CS: Was there enough support for female artists at that time to push past those barriers?
MD: By the time I graduated from high school in ’62 the messages were very clear to me, intuitively, that you got engaged and you got married. I said no, I want to be an artist, but there was no real external support for that. My parents knew I was an artist, but when it came time for me to answer that call, there was a conflict for them. They were lower middle class, and they wanted me to be an art teacher so I could support myself. So I studied art education for a year, it was a disaster, and then I carved my own way and found FIU.
CS: Who were your some of your early influences?
MD: Growing up, I lived on eastern Long Island. Jackson Pollock was out there, de Kooning was out there, all this stuff was happening with Warhol in New York. I remember seeing the TV program “You Asked for It,” where they answered people’s questions like, “I heard there’s this artist who splashes paint on canvas,” and they went out to Pollock’s studio and they photographed him dripping paint on canvas. I looked at that and said YES! And the same thing with Warhol, I remember seeing media coverage of the Campbell’s soup cans, and going to the supermarket afterwards and looking at those cans and thinking, why not? At the earliest age I understood that art could be much more than I ever thought it could be.[cont.]