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.
CS: How did your creative ideas about “the mark” come about?
MD: I can say it’s been about “the mark” for a very long time, probably since the ’80s. Even earlier, as an 8th grader, I was having a very primary experience. When you start with a blank surface and then put a mark on it, you are now in a conversation with whatever it is you’ve done there—now there’s this incredibly dynamic, fluid, mutable process. But at some point in the earlier days, the work became driven by the search for an idea. What happens today in the studio is that I have much more experience with all the properties of paint; I know about color and texture. So now, I’m not looking specifically for an idea or a narrative, I’m looking to create an experience for the viewer that will take them into their own search for meaning. All artists say that! But my commitment is to make this work as intriguing as possible, but also provide no answers so that the search is a visual, phenomenal experience, so the viewer gets to have a parallel experience of comprehension that I do as the artist.
CS: Describe what “the mark” means to you.
MD: The mark is an impulse that we all have, it is essential because it’s an emanation of our existence, it’s as essential to us as the breath and the heartbeat, and that’s where it comes from. In ancient cultures, the evidence of expression comes from lines, marks, the drumbeat, vocalizations, the very primal heart and breath and pulse. These are the roots of mark-making. They are an unmitigated impulse. We have no control over our breath and heartbeat, we don’t even volunteer to do it. The mark for a painter is connected to that history of affirming one’s presence, and the space in between the marks—the space in between the heartbeat, the space in between the breath—has a palpability that we have a tendency to overlook in terms of its importance. Making a mark on that canvas starts a conversation, and it also creates the space between the heartbeats. It’s the space between each breath where life exists.
CS: Isn’t the space between the breaths where nothingness exists, where death is?
MD: I would argue that nothingness is something, and without it you don’t have the thing. In the physical body, if there’s not another heartbeat, then the last thing that happened was the space in between, which is where I think our hope comes from. Because the body as a biologically involuntary mechanism ceases to exist without the breath and the heartbeat but it exists in the space between the two. When death comes, the body is no longer, but the nothingness is. And the nothingness has a presence. The presence of absence is no less important than the presence of the breath and the heartbeat.
CS: So as an abstract painter, are you trying to give shape and color to the “something of nothingness”?
MD: Giotto and Piero della Francesca were not abstract painters but they had this wonderful play of flat and spatial, and great wonderful edges where one color hits another color. They played with how a shape is defined, and that’s what I focus on in these paintings. The marks go down and then I come back in and say okay, how can these marks exist unto themselves? My overall agenda is to subvert how we read things spatially. I like to see and play with where the thing is versus not the thing, and how to keep that fluctuating and imprecise so that I really don’t quite know where these things are. Are they coming up out of the ground or going into it? Contradictions. I use the idea of convention and subversion; there is a convention about color, about paint, about shape. I subvert it.
CS: So your paintings are purely abstract in the sense that there isn’t a story or a narrative behind them?
MD: I am connected to the idea of marks and the space in between as a different kind of narrative. Normally we think about narrative as a story, with a beginning, middle, and end. End is important, resolution is important, but I am expressing an abstract narrative that doesn’t have a traditional beginning, middle, and end. “Journey” implies something linear, especially because our experiences are driven by time because we live by the clock, but in fact our experiences in the phenomenal world—through our senses—are not linear; things come at us from all kinds of directions, visually, auditorially, sensorially and so on. We make linear stories so that we can understand our experiences, but in this work I’m arguing that the narrative is more like a lightning strike, where the electricity travels out from a center and hits everything in its proximity. It’s like the center of a flower, like a chrysanthemum, where everything is moving out from that center. It’s how when we walk into a room we unconsciously orient ourselves by scanning the spatial environment so we don’t trip and fall. It’s an automatic response. Our understanding is formed in these micro experiences and what happens in our consciousness is we immediately become involved in naming. My works are made before the naming happens, before the narrative can be constructed in a linear fashion.
CS: That sounds very primal.
MD: When I think about the world we are in right now, I try to imagine what it was like when we didn’t have any of this “stuff,” when it was just your wits and your skill to get by. People survived, we are testimony to that survival, but now we have what we refer to as conveniences. I wouldn’t want to give up air conditioning to live in a cave, but as an artist I curry that sense of instinctiveness. I don’t want to lose it. Wrapped up in this is the idea that we can think forward and we know that there’s a tomorrow, where perhaps a Neanderthal was not as conscious of that. So the endeavor to make something that speaks to a particular moment, through my lens, also has something to do with tomorrow. I’m making visual evidence of what I wrestle with at this time in history, trying to push through to both cultural content and the trajectory of the history of painting, to channel some of the complexity of our social lives, our phenomenal lives, into an experience for the viewer that will make them more conscious.
CS: Do you like to work large or small, on canvas or paper?
MD: Paper is quick, canvas more laborious. I’ve worked on paper all my life. My earlier work is mostly derived from experiences in nature, and nature is still always an operant in my work. Those earlier works were not figurative painting in the sense of the body as a figure, but figurative in the sense of having a figure. The mark is a figure, a thing, but thingness is not concrete in these paintings; it is used to diffuse and create layers. I was working in the vertical format with very tall works on paper and lots of marks. They were very minimalist paintings. Then I went back down to the 14-by-11-inch scale and it felt better. It was doing something I wanted it to do. I could see the language I was looking for, and that language has evolved into an incredible play, where forms spatially are on the surface and lead the eye in or push the eye out. On a small scale, the operation is fairly simple, I make a mark and then I look for the negative space, in looking for the negative space I try to capture the energy of the original mark as an entity unto itself. In my later paintings, the mark has really asserted itself. The earlier works were more ephemeral.
CS: At the Goat Farm, your work is often seen at Open Studio events and now you are being represented by a gallery. What is it like for you, now that your work has a wider audience?
MD: What meant the most to me was a man who came to my studio and spent 15 minutes in front of a painting, then went away and came back again. I could see he was looking through every section of it. What meant the most was what was happening when he was scanning the painting, it was like “this person is having a conversation.” Over time, I’ve had interactions with people who look at the work and want a description of how the work is made, and once a man hugged me and said, “I’ve never understood abstract painting, thank you so much.” Then I had somebody else in here, and I must’ve said ten times: “I am not making things in these paintings.” And she would say, “I see a bird, I see a building.” I said, “NO! It’s not really there!”
CS: Isn’t it okay for people to “see” something in your work?
MD: People need to let go of their own need to identify. The original Adam has to name, to claim the world, it’s a very male propensity, to name and solve, name and solve. That is not what art should be about, I think art should be about something that makes you question and stimulates your thinking and sets you at unease about your conventions, it has a provocation about it. Painting always has something to say, I’m not talking about decorating walls here. The only way to push through what painting can do is to continuously try to find a new way for painting to speak about the moment we are in now. This is how I do it. I’m channeling a socio-environment of total chaos. Certainty is a falseness, and I think that uncertainty is a place where we breathe faster, we can have that adrenaline rush of flight or fight.
CS: Did it bother you that you weren’t represented by a gallery before now?
MD: Sometimes it would feel like, well, maybe I should do something about the work, but the effort felt too large. It wasn’t until I retired in 2011 that the fruits of all of that time that I invested in making work really could be harvested. But I was happy not to have anything to do with the marketplace. It allowed me a kind of freedom that you can only have without any attachment to the outside. So what happens in the studio is strictly coming from this authentic place, not influenced by color palettes, horizontal versus vertical, by anything that the market is being driven by. So then the gallery finds Maggie! At this point in my life I have to make that compromise. I have to be a grown up and learn how to deal with it, because if I don’t, this work is going to wind up being a digital memory and it will have no place in the world. It needs to find places. Right now there are only a couple of ways you can do that—art consultants can place work, galleries can do the same—so to some extent the work and the ideas are guaranteed some kind of preservation. But there’s no real guarantee. I think Atlanta is a very tough market for artists.
CS: Now that you are represented by a gallery, will you find it hard to let go of some of your work?
MD: No! I would let it go in a heartbeat, not because I want to make money, but because someone else gets to enjoy it. It’s not finished until somebody else gets to enjoy it. I’m involved in a focus group at Emory University’s rare book library collection. They are very interested in archiving the works of artists in Atlanta, in particular those from the 1960s. I’ve seen artists’ studios disassembled. My good friend and mentor died some years ago and her studio had to be dispersed. I have some of her work and her family kept some of the work, but it made me think about the preservation of one’s history, my history, anybody’s history. Many of my artist friends are older, and it’s a question for a lot of artists in Atlanta—what’s going to happen to the work? The marketplace helps to get your work preserved but it’s very fickle, and I think we have to do more than just wait on the market.
CS: Are the Atlanta galleries and museums doing a good job?
MD: Yes, Michael Rooks (curator of modern and contemporary art at the High Museum of Art) has been incredible for artists in this community. I have the highest respect for him. He has collected work for the museum, including works in the two big drawing round-ups. He’s in artists’ studios, he knows what’s going on. I think Sandler Hudson Gallery has done great by local artists, also Marcia Wood Gallery, Robin Bernat [Poem 88], but they are only a handful.
CS: How essential is it for artists to put themselves out there, in the community?
MD: The turnaround came for me when I moved to the Goat Farm and became part of the larger Atlanta art scene. It’s easier for people to see the work here. I bounced around a little bit with studio space before then. I was under the radar, my studio was in Smyrna. But I was still working toward something. I never lost that, ever. The other thing that brought me more into the community was several years ago I started writing art reviews [including for BURNAWAY]. I love writing about art and being able to articulate some of my thinking in relation to other artists’ work. I love interacting with artists, learning about their work, supporting them.
CS: What advice would you give to other artists?
MD: Continuity in the studio is essential to making a cohesive statement and to really understanding who you are in the work. You work to find your voice, your authentic voice, not the voice of your teachers, not the language of the art magazines, not the tropes of contemporary art that you see in museums and galleries but your own authentic voice, and if you can grab hold of that and remember that that is your core, then you can weather all of the storms that are going to come your way, the disappointments and the failures. And it’s not just the disappointments from not being able to get your work seen, it’s also the private failures in the studio. It takes tenacity to do this. It’s just plain hard work.
CS: What are the greatest rewards of being an artist?
MD: The rewards are enormous when somebody comes into your studio and has an authentic experience. But the first reward is that sense of feeling authentic, having a sense that what you’re doing has a history. The history of art is very important. I am part of that history. Cy Twombly, Kandinsky, they were my first teachers. I never painted like them, but I know those people because they were also painters and they are still hovering, I know their work and I’m deeply moved by it. The goal is to get past them to get to something that is authentic. It’s important for artists to know that. You don’t make art in a vacuum.
Caroline Stover is a resident of Atlanta and works in publishing.