Artist Margaret Withers is recognized for her works on paper which are a mix of narrative, abstract and modern surrealism. Her paintings explore conflicting ideas of joy and melancholy, as well as community and aloneness.
She’s exhibited her work in group and solo shows in the United States, and internationally in Brussels, Australia, Berlin, China, Vienna, and Russia. She lives and paints in Manhattan, New York.
Joyce Brown: In 2011 you changed your life so that art would be your primary focus; what were you doing before and what change did you make?
Margaret Withers: When I lived in Denver, I worked for the defense contractor, Boeing. I was doing computer programming related to configuration management. I eventually moved to New York to work for SAIC doing the same type of work. Part of my decision to move to New York was because of my art. I wanted to try to get to another level, and I figured New York was the best place for that to happen. At the same time, I had this idea, this dream, that I would just get discovered. I used to imagine that someone would just wander into my studio and fall in love with my art, and that's all I needed to do. Of course, that didn't happen. I call it the Peggy Guggenheim syndrome.
It was in 2011 that I decided to make my art a priority...almost like a religion. I started questioning all of my decisions. I’d ask myself, ‘is it good for my art?’ before every choice I made, even down to buying a dress I’d ask, ‘well, is it good for my art?’ It was a way for me to focus on what I wanted to achieve by removing distractions.
I also switched to a job that’s only 35 hours a week so that my studio work could be a full time endeavor and I decided that I had to dedicate at least 20 hours a week to promoting myself and getting my art out there. That was an essential component that made a difference, because I had been operating under the false assumption that someone would just discover me.
Joyce: Your paintings have intriguing titles and narratives. Do you have a background in poetry?
Margaret: My degree is in English literature. I had always been a big fiction reader, but then when I hit my 40s, I started reading more poetry. Poetry began to seem more available, or maybe I just became more open to it. I love poetry, and it’s mostly what I read now.
When I’ve finished a painting, I look for an essential element and think of a word for it. Sometimes I’ll research the word and see where it takes me. Lots of viewers expect titles to offer meaning to the paintings, but my titles usually don't inform the paintings at all, so it brings the viewers back to the painting. I love when people read my titles and do a double-take back to the painting for a deeper look.
Joyce: Your paintings are much more than paint on a canvas; how would you describe what you do?
Margaret: I describe them as curious landscapes or fragmentary narrative landscapes. Maybe even anti-stories or haiku...There’s a flash of action or an idea, but the narrative isn’t apparent at all.
Joyce: I love the watery, organic, and mechanical elements in your Adrift series. What are you trying to convey in these paintings?
Margaret: It’s probably the most accessible "narrative" that I've ever done in a series. You can't help but ask questions: What are these people doing here? Why are they on that log? What's going on? People start projecting their story into what's going on. It's a Beckett kind of thing where they're waiting, they're there, something is going to occur, or maybe it's already happened. It’s a statement that people just return to who they are. Some extraordinary or weird things might have happened to us, but eventually, we return to our same emotional or base personality state.
It's like people who win the lottery. They might have a bump up in their happiness, but they usually return to whatever state of emotions they were in before they won the lottery. So in this series there are these people and they could be the only people left in the world, now they're just existing and they still have their drama that they're living out in their heads.
Joyce: Your work as an artist touches many genres; what is your conceptual photography project about?
Margaret: Every summer I try to do a genre or medium that I haven't explored. I couldn't think of anything to do, but then, I decided to do a conceptual art project with photography. I had to go home to Texas to help my mom after she had knee surgery, and I wanted to do the photography while I was there.
I'd become familiar with Walter Benjamin and his idea of time. His idea is that you can take moments of the past and blast them out of sequence and change your perception of the past. I was thinking of him, and how I could work with his idea for a photography project.
For me, it did alter my perception of the past. Each photograph has four different layers of exposures, and some of them have images of me as a kid that are buried in them so you might not notice me at first. It was an emotional experience for me, but the outcome is peaceful.
Before painting, I did photography. I used to do infrared, black and white, and Kodachrome night shots. I had a darkroom and everything. It was fun to return to it for a little while.
Joyce: What inspires and motivates you to create art?
Margaret: If you slow down how you see things to where you’re almost in a meditative state, then you can find inspiration in anything. You can look at things differently as if you're seeing them for the first time. There's inspiration in that slowed-down space. I’m not even sure if that explains it...
There's so much that can shut down inspiration. There's depression, fear, complacency, all that stuff can just shut you down. We need to make an effort, especially as we get older, to take notice of the wonders around us.
Joyce: What other work is on your horizon?
Margaret: I have a solo show coming up in Houston in August, and it's going to be a continuation of the Adrift series. I want to create some little companion pieces to describe the people in the paintings. I’m thinking about doing a scrapbooking kind of thing for each little person. I think that would be fun. Or, I might do an oil portrait of each character. I haven't quite decided yet, but something along those lines will be integrated with Adrift.