One of the things that I love about S. Main Trolley Night is that you never know who or what you may come across. With all of the art galleries and boutiques open, you’re sure to discover a new clothing or jewelry line, find a new treasure for home, or meet a local artist.
Such was the case in January when Crazy Beautiful opened their Pop-Up Shop and decided to showcase local artists’ work throughout the store. A two-level building with a narrow spiral staircase, I was extremely nervous to go upstairs (bc I’m TERRIFIED of heights). I’m SOOO glad that I did. Had I not, I would’ve missed out on some yummy cupcakes from The Ladybugg Bakery & Cafe and not met Maggie Russell, a fantastic local artist that uses charcoal as her chosen medium.
I’m in no way an art aficionado, but I’ve always believed that it should speak to you on some level. Sometimes a pretty picture is just that, but other times, it touches you in a way that you can’t really explain. Maggie’s work did just that for me so I decided to reach out to her to learn a little more about her work, her process, and share some of her pieces with you.
Tell us a little bit about yourself: What got you interested in art? Did you study it in school and/or are you self-taught?
I’m not sure I can remember when I began to draw but I have spent my life looking. When I was still very young, my father propped me up on his shoulder and pointed at the sunset from our living room window and said “Look at that. Do you see that? There’s purple, red, pink, orange.” My eyes were opened. My primary language is looking and it started on that day with my dad. The way the light shines through trees and makes odd patterns of light on the ground or the way oil floats on top of a puddle in a quiet parking lot… these details remind me of how precious life is.
For a long time, I wanted to translate the beautiful things that I saw into drawings and paintings. I’d sit at the kitchen table, armed with this monstrosity of a Crayola box with a determination to capture the true beauty in the world around me… but it never went off as planned and I was always disappointed. Somewhere along the way, I learned how to draw from a place within… and I stopped being disappointed in the outcome. I learned to respect my ability to create regardless of how it looked. I think letting go of expectations of a perfect outcome gave me the ability to continue drawing into my teenage years…
At some point, I committed my life to art. I have a BA from Hendrix College in Conway, AR and an MFA from The Memphis College of Art. I also spent time studying in New York during a summer in undergrad. In Malcom Gladwell’s The Outliers, Gladwell mentions that in order for someone to become an “expert” at something, they must dedicate 10,000 hours to practicing it. Well, I took piano for a month when I was ten but I got bored with the jumpy sounds of beginners melodies…and I tried ballet when I was four but I couldn’t do the splits so I quit after a week… But I never stopped drawing… I think I’ve got 10,000 hours of that under my belt. But I didn’t practice to become good, I practiced because making art is and has always been a sort of compulsion.
Can you remember one of the first things you created? What makes it memorable?
When I was three or four, my parents, aunts and uncles got this idea that all of the grandkids should make a painting for our grandparents. So, they put a big canvas on the back patio, dipped our hands in paint, and we covered the canvas with our hand-prints. I also remember my typically type-a mom letting me finger paint in the backyard. I think having the freedom to be so connected to paint without concern for making a mess gave me the fearlessness I needed to be a soulful artist. I have no idea where the hand print painting is now and I’m pretty sure my finger painting endeavors ended in a big glob of muddy paint in the middle of the paper but it didn’t matter how it looked… it mattered that I was encouraged to fearlessly make a mess.
Where do you gather most of the inspiration for your work?
I think I have a sort of internal thesaurus… but it’s image based. So, I’m always collecting little snapshots of my surroundings in my head. Like, the other day I was standing behind this man in line at the gas station and he had on this perfectly starched white button down shirt… and I just started thinking about what all of that is about…the uniformity, the societal expectations that are all pressed into that perfectly ironed shirt… the fact that all business men probably have a perfectly starched white shirt in their closet. And while there is something very rigid about the whole thing, it’s also very lovely the way the fabric creases and pleats in the back and is sort of translucent in some areas. Later that day, I began drawing a very serious young boy hunched over, staring intently at the camera, trying to be a man.
When I first saw your pieces at Crazy Beautiful’s Popup Shop I was blown away. I love how they were tied into fashion but I found it equally interesting that many of the pieces were created from old photographs that you’d found. How did that start?
I’ve always felt a sort of nostalgia for a time that is not my own. I think this is because I grew up listening to my parents’ Ella Fitzgerald albums and watching black and white movies. So, I’m just naturally drawn to old things.
But there’s also this element of mystery in an old photograph that captivates me. When I stare at the subject, it’s like staring at a ghost and I always ask myself “Who was this person?” When I’m drawing from the photo, I’m trying to solve the mystery. I usually find that something about myself is revealed in the process of drawing the person as well.
What, in your opinion, is the hardest step in your creative process?
The hardest part is simply showing up and doing the work. The internal struggle is a lot like the one I have when trying to gather the motivation to go to the gym – haha – but once I show up and do the workout, I am comforted in knowing that I am being a good steward of my body… or in art’s case, my gifts.
Do you have any other interesting hobbies or maybe a fun story about an experience involving your artwork?
Is eating a hobby? Kidding. I love traveling and exploring great outdoors… I just got a big ol’ 12ft kayak and we will soon go on great adventures, the kayak and me. I have also decided to take guitar lessons. I want to cover Rihanna and win the hearts of many.
Visit www.mrussellart.com to shop and learn more about Maggie. If you’re in Memphis, Maggie’s artwork will be on display at Langford Market until March 18th, culminating with an event that night to benefit LeBonheur Children’s Hospital. Can’t make it to that? Her work will be on display during Broad Avenue’s Spring Artwalk at West Memorial on April 4th, and she has an art opening at RS Antiques + Art on April 11th.