WTP Artist: Maggie Evans

WTP Artist: Maggie Evans

“I am more interested in a vague,
slightly psychological impression of reality.”

Interview by Jennifer Nelson, WTP Feature Writer

Jennifer Nelson

Maggie Evans is fascinated by how people aspire to be individuals, but also part of a group. The artist, who’s based in Savannah, Georgia, examines this concept of collective behavior through her drawings, installments, and paintings. Her work has been included in more than fifty national and international juried exhibitions, and featured in ten solo exhibitions. She has attended artist residencies at the Vermont Studio Center, the Hambidge Center for the Arts, and Central Trak. In 2011, she earned a scholarship from the Chinese government to develop her artwork at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou. Maggie has exhibited and lectured at Indiana-Purdue University and the SCAD Museum of Art in Savannah. She teaches part-time at the Savannah College of Art and Design. She’s also a jazz singer and bassist, who recently released an album with her husband and jazz guitarist, Jackson Evans. She earned a BFA in illustration from Utah State University and MFA in painting from the Savannah College of Art and Design. She was born in Denton, Texas.

Nelson: Throughout your various series, there is an interesting dichotomy at work—an extraordinary precision as well as a blurring of the lines, quite literally, especially in your Bar Scene series. Can you elaborate on the technique used to create these images as well as why you included people in earlier works, but not later ones?

Evans: In all of my work I am searching for a place that is informed by reality but pushes slightly past the literal. I am not going for surrealism, I want it to be closer to reality than that. I am more interested in a vague, slightly psychological impression of reality.

When I first began making serious work, I was very interested in people and their specific social patterns and interactions. I began the Bar Scenes series during graduate school while I was playing bass regularly with a blues band throughout Georgia and South Carolina. We played certain types of bars that had an unpretentious grittiness to them and I found it fascinating to watch the uninhibited interactions of the clientele. My view from the bandstand also offered a unique perspective where I was slightly detached from the scene but still able to observe all the different narratives as they unfolded throughout the evening. When I began working with this imagery in my work, I was still trying to find my voice. I first tried to paint the scenes in full color with oil paints. After attempting a number of these I found that the medium was too slick and shiny for the gritty environment, and the color made the work too literal and more illustrative than I was searching for. I had always liked charcoal drawing but I also liked the large scale of the paintings. So, I began using a very durable printmaking paper, Rives BFK. I soaked the paper and stretched it over stretcher bars as one would a painting and when the paper dried I had a beautiful, strong surface to work on with charcoal. I also let go of the color at this point—as I mentioned, it was just too literal. I wanted the pieces to invoke a vague feeling of a familiar place or memory.

Maggie Evans, Proposition in a Bar, 2006. Charcoal on paper, 38″ x 60″

For this work I was initially working from photographic reference but it was limiting my process, not letting me dig past the surface imagery into the emotional, psychological content of the people and the bars. At one point (as the result of a professor’s recommendation) I tried a drawing out of my head without using any reference and the result was very liberating. I think that was when I began blurring some of the objects and allowing for some vagueness in the piece to focus more on the feeling of the space and the environment rather than just documenting the events of the night.

As I continued working this series I eventually made a drawing of an empty bar with no people. I thought it would be less interesting without the people but it introduced a whole new concept and emotion. From there, I began drawing more empty bars, leaving out more and more information with each piece. I began using pastel rather than charcoal for darker, richer values and really dialed my process. As the rooms transitioned from bars to vague, empty spaces, my work morphed into the Psychological Interiors series and became about something completely different.

Nelson: This dichotomy is perhaps especially pronounced in your other two series Psychological Interiors and Collective Behavior—respectively, as to their subjects of chairs and buildings that demand an attention to the linear. To me, these drawings are a social commentary in which you explore themes of loneliness, political power, and conformity as shown by the titles of your work. Can you elaborate on this, as well as your choice to execute these drawings in the more forgiving of pastel and charcoal, than perhaps graphite?

Evans: I have always had a fascination with humans moving as a mass—mobs that grow out of control, massive crowds that become their own organism even to the point where people are trampled as a result—and also how humans are so ready to conform to a group. There is a paradox in that—we all want to feel like individuals and establish our own identities yet we also have a deep, intrinsic need to be part of a group. It is unnerving and fascinating how easily this need to belong can be exploited—people are so willing to abandon individual thought. When I began working with these concepts in my work it was from a more vague, universal perspective, but this past year they have become jarringly relevant to our current political climate.

I do want to keep the imagery in my work vague and universal, however. That is why the chair form that I settled on is simplified and uniform, the rooms are not specific enough to know exactly what sort of room they are, and the buildings are not specific to any particular location. I think this vagueness allows for a broader, more universal interpretation—it reinforces the idea that social hierarchies and power dynamics are not specific to any culture or location. These are intrinsic human traits that have always and will continue to manifest themselves. The vagueness also allows viewers to interpret my work using their own personal experiences as basis for understanding.

Maggie Evans in her studio

For Psychological Interiors the charcoal/pastel combination was just the perfect medium. It is very malleable—I prefer to work out my compositions directly on the final piece and search out the imagery as the piece develops rather than making preliminary sketches. This medium allows me to easily change and shift things around as I work. It also allows for some very dark values that enable me to create a beautiful sense of light in each piece. Additionally, working the pastel into the surface of the Rives BFK creates a beautiful, velvet-y texture that adds to the richness of each piece.

My artistic process in building up each piece is a combination of very careful, precise measurements and a very organic, intuitive approach. I want my pieces to make sense, but at the same time, I am not overly concerned with too much pre-planning or establishing a specific light source. My compositions and the sense of light in my work are created very intuitively and organically—I just keep working them until they feel right. But at the same time I have a need to make my work very precise and accurately measured. I think the accurate symmetry and precision pushes the work into a more unsettling, less realistic realm, particularly in the Collective Behavior series.

Nelson: Can you comment on your choice to move to oils for your Collective Behavior series?

Evans: The choice to move to oils was actually a physical necessity rather than an artistic decision. The technique I developed for my drawings involved scrubbing the pastel into the paper using a small, folded piece of paper towel, and unfortunately this method of working lead to chronic tendinosis in both of my arms and wrists. For almost two years I couldn’t work—couldn’t even hold a pencil. Finally, after a lot of physical therapy I was able to get back to my studio. I found that the motion and application of painting was more gentle and forgiving than my drawing technique. I slowly discovered a way of painting that worked for me. I do like painting and I think the painting medium is best media for the series of buildings. But I love the raw immediacy of drawing—it is the medium that has always felt most natural to me. Unfortunately, I’m still struggling with the repetitive motion injury and still can’t physically draw the way I used to. Hopefully I will be able to come back to it in the future.

Nelson: Six years ago, you spent ten months in Hangzhou, China, to develop your artwork. How did this experience impact your work, including your graphite-pencil drawings on rice paper, and your installations featuring dozens of carefully arranged tiny, plastic chairs?

Evans: Living in China allowed me very unique perspective on humanity. I was living in a completely different world, interacting with and navigating a completely different culture on a daily basis. I was able view a whole culture from an outside perspective, and this experience forced me to constantly question my own cultural perspectives. I discovered many universal similarities but also realized how limited and ethnocentric one can be in their perspective of the world—things that you take for granted as a universal truth might be completely up-ended in another culture. It was a very eye-opening experience and I think it definitely influenced my thinking of humans as a whole rather than individuals.

More specifically, I also became fascinated with Maoist communism and its lingering effects on the current culture. I began reading as many memoirs and biographies from that era that I could find and began observing daily life in terms of this history. It was very interesting to observe how modern Chinese move and interact and how the Maoist-era mentality still heavily influences this culture. This fascination is certainly apparent in my current work.

Living in China, I was sorting through a lot of new experiences. The residency came about after I had not made work for almost two years because of the previously mentioned arm injury. I wasn’t sure where to start, I wasn’t sure what I would be able to make, so I decided to keep everything as simple as possible—pencil and paper. I loved the aesthetic of rice paper—it felt kind of historical as well as a reference to Asian culture, and it was readily accessible. I used the imagery of the chairs as a way to look at the culture as a whole, without specificity. In my drawings the viewer is set apart from the chairs, they are seen from above or from a distance, and I think this viewpoint reinforces the outsider’s perspective I had of a different culture.

After making ten graphite drawings I found that I loved the compositions but they were just too physically intense and laborious for me to continue drawing. I thought it would be interesting to actually make little chairs that I could use to create different compositions—bringing the chairs into real life, but keeping them small so the viewer was still given a broad, outside perspective. After returning to the United States I began working with a colleague who specialized in sculpture and digital fabrication. We designed molds for the chairs and I spent a year and a half casting, finishing, and painting around three hundred miniature urethane plastic chairs.

Maggie Evans, in front of her painting Status

Nelson: You’re also a singer and bassist. How did you transition to visual artist, and what influence has your career as a musician had on your art?

Evans: I have always loved both music and art. Growing up, I was a dedicated classical pianist, and my parents and much of my extended family are all musicians. At the same time, my grandfather was a prolific painter and also had a long career as an art professor. I spent a lot of time hanging out with him in his studio. When I got to college I was much more interested in pursuing art than music but I continued playing for fun. When I moved to Savannah for graduate school I found that I could make decent money freelancing as a bassist and that really became my main source of income. Out of necessity I started singing, took some voice lessons, and began taking that more seriously. After I graduated, I continued playing, playing with better and better musicians, continually improving, and it is a solid second career now. I really didn’t mean to become a full-time musician, but I love playing and it’s a part of who I am.

Besides the Bar Scenes series my music has not really had a literal effect on my art but it complements my experience in a very unique way. Painting and drawing is a very inward, personal process for me and I need hours alone in my studio to create. As a contrast, music is very outward, very social—I am interacting with other musicians, exposed in front of a live audience, creating my art in real time. And once you play those notes, they’re gone—whereas, when you are painting, everything is there on the canvas for you to refine or remove until you feel like it is complete and ready to show.

I have found that the social aspect of being a musician creates more opportunities for myself as an artist as well. My initial reason for going to China was for an artist residency, but my husband and I also ended up playing regularly the whole time we were there. Working as a musician really allowed me to access the culture in a very candid way that I could not have as an artist. We made friends with Chinese musicians who took us to local spots and invited us to their homes. We also became very good friends with other international musicians from Sweden, Venezuela, and Algeria, which just amplified our cultural experience.

During my artist residency we played a local jazz club six nights a week with a Chinese band. The following year a more established jazz club flew us back for a six-month residency playing seven nights a week with our own band. They also provided us apartments. We were in staying on the twenty-first floor and I loved the view—crazy, densely populated Chinese city. Every day before we had to play I would do a lot of sketches and small watercolors of the view from different floors of the apartment building. After we finished our gig and returned to the United States, I began using these sketches to create oil paintings. The first one I completed upon arriving home was “Status,” and I have continued to develop them since.

Nelson: How do you balance these artistic pursuits, as well as teaching at Savannah College of Art and Design?

Evans: Some times of the year are just very busy and as dry as it sounds, it’s all about prioritizing and compartmentalizing. My schedule at SCAD is pretty good—I usually teach full schedules in the fall and the winter and then I am able to hyper-focus on my artwork during the spring and summer. My artwork always comes first when I am not teaching, and I often schedule a month-long residency in the spring or summer to make sure I have some focused, full-immersion studio time. My schedule has become more intense this past year as I have been taking on even more gigs—since gigs can ebb and flow you get in the mindset of not saying no to anything, and this can get intense at times. And it’s important to learn new music and continue developing as a musician or the music suffers. So, that can be hard to juggle. Sometimes when I am working in my studio and I am in that mindset it is hard to transition out of that mode—it is easier to transition from teacher to musician, but creating art is so inward once I’m there I just want to keep going. I used to struggle between whether I should choose art or music. I didn’t think I could successfully pursue both passions, but I’ve come to understand that I love both art forms equally and to be true to myself, I need to do both.

Maggie Evans, The Administrators. Oil on canvas, 34″ x 56″

That said, it is essential for me that I keep my artwork a priority no matter what. Other musicians or venues will call and need me to play, the college will need me to teach, but making studio time happen is up to me.

Nelson: How has your MFA helped you in developing your artwork?

Evans: It was actually very crucial in my development. My undergrad set me up with some solid technical skills, but my MFA really taught me how to think like an artist: focus, develop conceptual content, and articulate my concepts and work.

From a professional perspective, my professors were extremely helpful in getting me started in the gallery world and helping me navigate and understand certain protocol and expectations. Everybody has a different artistic experience and different goals but for me the process of getting my MFA was a serious game changer.

Nelson: Which artists have inspired your visual artwork, and how?

Evans: I love Rembrandt for the lighting, love Edward Hopper for his compositions, mood, and lighting as well. I also love black and white photography, especially photographers that capture very unpretentious, raw, everyday moments. Dorothea Lange comes to mind but there are many others. I always love seeing drawings in person, almost any kind, and I love Georgia O’Keeffe for her attitude and initiative, as a young artist I found her very inspiring.

Nelson: Where do you see future artwork taking you?

Evans: I have no idea. After experimenting with installation I think I am really more of a 2-D artist, for me working in 3-D just feels like more work than creating art. I love drawing and I think I’ll come back to that at some point—I’m curious to see how long I work on the buildings, they can often feel a little tedious and the oil painting is a long process. But whatever medium or imagery I arrive at, I think I will continue working with my current themes for a while. The psychology of human nature is endlessly fascinating.

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