New York based painter Margaret Withers on sharpening the skill of intuition, armchair science & owning our child-selves at play…

Margaret Withers Artist

Artist in front of painting “At least dance with me one more time” (2015).

Your paintings appear to depict a world where emotional & physical landscapes have equal footing – is it a balancing act or battle to depict the known with the unknown?

I think it’s more a balancing act. When I’m working on a series and it becomes predictable on what marks will come next then I tend to stop and move on to the next series. Jumping in and out of several ongoing series allows them to stay fresh and interesting to me, as they tend to inform and influence each other. I want the paintings to surpass me.

Margaret Withers - An everyman's flight from distraction

Margaret Withers – An everyman’s flight from distraction

Flashe, acrylic gouache and ink on Canvas, Plastic, Steel and Wood. 202 x 125 x 12cm (79.5 x 49.5 x 5in)

Do echoes of your rural upbringing in the American South reverberate in your work today?

Yes. There’s a texture in the culture and landscape of the south from which I can’t seem to escape the desire to feel, and conjure up in my work. I’m not a nostalgic person, but I think we all carry remnants of an historical imagination within us from our childhood. I like to think of it as a way of owning our child-selves at play. Tapping into that can be inspirational.

Margaret Withers - blinking xozodiacal dust from tired eyes

Margaret Withers – Blinking xozodiacal dust from tired eyes

2011. watercolor/ink/enamel on paper. 167 x 127cm (66 x 50in)

Can you talk about the use of symbols in your work such as the recurrent motif of eyes and mouths?

On a personal note – the genesis of me using eyes in my paintings came about because I used to get debilitating migraine headaches and one morning after a horrible 3 day migraine bender of narcotic induced sleep, I found that I had drawn an eye on my shower curtain with a sharpe pen. I’ve been trying to puzzle out that eye for some time now. In general, people’s mouths are very personal and emotionally revealing to me, so I find them interesting to use as a narrative trope. The eyes can seem impersonal and staring, and I depict them as free floating, able to turn any way – to see everything, so the mouth can be seen as a counterpart to this impersonal objective eye.

Margaret-Withers - Reading the Eternities

Margaret Withers – Reading the Eternities

2015. flashe paint, ink, acrylic gouache, wood, small people, telephone poles, truck. 202 x 124cm (79.5 x 49in)

The houses and telephone poles in my paintings are pictorial representations for habitation and human connection. The larger context being the complexity of the physical and emotional spaces in the dwellings and the physical, yet fading boundaries created by the telephone poles and lines that string between dwellings.

Your paintings are wonderfully titled. Transliteration Project saw you exploring language further – do words provide you a pathway into your paintings?

I have an interesting and complex relationship with language. I’m primarily book learned so I tend to mispronounce words, and I love to read, but I’m not a fact minder, instead I slip into the visuals that are created when I read and a good deal becomes subconscious knowledge. My titles play with this sophomoric sudo armchair science, and for example, instead of facts about the solar system, my titles reference the visuals that were created when I read about the solar system. So, reading about the mind’s neural networks will produce visuals, that will in return produce this tittle: I smell corn inside my thoughts and behind this stare, ideas are popping with sweet buttery goodness.

Margaret Withers - I Smell Corn

Margaret Withers – I smell corn inside my thoughts and behind this stare, ideas are popping with sweet buttery goodness

2015. Gouache, Ink, Watercolor, flashe and Tempera on Paper. 105 x 75cm (41.5 x 29.5in)

I also love writing titles because they can cause a u-turn back to the painting for the viewer who looked to the title to inform the painting.

Reading anything interesting right now?

A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories, by Lucia Berlin.

You described recent works as landscapes of your anti-story – can you elaborate on this & the importance of narrative in your paintings?

I want people to get just a glimpse of a story in my paintings. Just enough to make them curious, so that they naturally fill in a back story. In my new Adrift series, I’ve made it easy for the viewer to be curious and to create a story: Why are these people floating on a log? What is their relationship to each other? How does the large object floating above them tie into their past and into their future?

Margaret-Withers-California-Dreamin

Margaret Withers – California Dreamin’

2015. Flashe paint, ink, acrylic gouache on linen, driftwood, small people, car. 157 x 126 x 13cm (61.5 x 49.5 x 5in)

We all tell ourselves stories, if anything, just to define ourselves, and art can be instrumental in reshaping who we are by changing or adding to our personal narrative. Society greatly underestimates the power of art – it’s a sleeping giant in this regard.

In Artist Catalogue you talked about painting intuitively & intuition being the height of logic – can you expand on this?

I’ve always relied heavily on my intuition in life and I stumbled across a justification for this in reading about Albert Einstein, who believed strongly in intuition. “I very rarely think in words at all. A thought comes, and I may try to express it in words afterwards,” he wrote (Wertheimer, 1959, 213; Pais, 1982).

Margaret Withers - Compop

Margaret Withers – Compop

2011. Watercolor, ink and enamel on paper. 76 x 111cm (30 x 44in)

In painting, intuition needs the practicality of learned and repeated painterly skills as a backbone. And intuition itself is a skill that can be honed and sharpened by experience. But once you learn to trust your intuition then it will guard against the magic killing that can occur from assimilation and over intentionality from planned logical marks. In using intuition my conscience painting process is not impacted by my artistic rules or by how I frame my daily experience, those just become part a language that my intuition uses to solve painterly problems. Intuition leads process.

Which artists have had a big influence on your work?

Lee Bontecou, Helen Frankenthaler, Gerhard Richter, Janet Cardiff, Tatsuo Ikeda, Gert and Ewe Tobias to name a few, and the writer Lydia Davis and the poet Anne Carson.

Lee-Bontecou

Lee Bontecou – Untitled

1980-1998, Welded steel, porcelain, wire mesh, canvas, and wire. 213.4 x 243.8 x 182.9cm.

Any tips for artists selling & promoting their work?

Whatever it takes- get your work out in the public – you have to build context for your work and constantly remind people of who you are. Produce. Produce. Produce.

Margaret Withers - then leaving arriving, somewhere

Margaret Withers – Then leaving: arriving, somewhere

2015. flashe vinyl paint and ink on Belgium linen. 40.6 x 124.5cm (16 x 49in)

Thanks again to Margaret for giving us a peek behind the curtain of her creative process.

You can buy Margaret’s work at Arcilesi-Homberg Fine Art, Sergott Contemporary Art Alliance, William Baczek Fine Arts, C Emerson Fine Art & Pierogi Gallery.

Follow Margaret’s work at margaretwithers.com and on Facebook & Twitter.

If you enjoyed this then check out our other Artist Interviews.