Studio Visit with Magnolia Laurie by Jessica Childress

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Magnolia Laurie lives and works in Baltimore. She has received many awards, including a Hamiltonian Fellowship and has shown work in numerous solo and group exhibitions. Magnolia currently teaches as an adjunct professor at MICA, Goucher College, and American University.

For emerging artists, Magnolia serves as an example of someone that has worked hard to keep things happening for herself, remaining active in the Baltimore art scene and exhibiting nationally. Interviewing Magnolia I gained, not only, a great deal of personal insight into her work, but also a potential plan of action of how to approach life after graduation. I was most impressed by the depth of reflection and investigation imbued within her paintings and sculptures. As someone who moved frequently throughout their childhood and lived most of their life in New Orleans (a city somewhat equal in Baltimore’s identity as a ‘neglected’ part of the U.S.), I felt an immediate connection to Magnolia’s subject matter. Her work is multidimensional and deeply felt, channeling personal history while at the same time remaining open, in order to discuss greater concepts and issues. Her paintings are appealing on many levels; they are simultaneously quiet and energetic, direct and complex.

Jessica Childress: Can you give a bit of background info?

Magnolia Laurie: I grew up in Puerto Rico. I moved there from New York with my mother and siblings when I was 8. In Puerto Rico I was considered an American, but had no concept of what it meant to be an American, I was part of American culture but not directly connected to it. I would see American tourists in Puerto Rico but I didn’t feel connected to them in any way- I would see people in all white getting of a bus and think- ‘who are those people?’. They were very different from me. Because I was so young I had little understanding of the geographical closeness of the U.S. and Puerto Rico. I felt completely separated, like I was living on an island in the middle of nowhere. My concept of the world was developed by listening to the radio and reading. My family was poor, we moved a lot and created “home” in a number of places, some more precarious then others. I watched my mother. I noticed how she would repeatedly construct things in our houses, whenever we would move, for example, shelves built with a system of hanging ropes and boards. The construction was always built to suit our needs, and specific to her skill and size.

As a first year grad student I went to Turkey. One day when I was boarding a ferry I noticed a plank that had been haphazardly laid down to allow people to walk from the ferry onto the platform. In the U.S. this kind of temporary structure would have long ago been replaced with something more stable and engineered. I was fascinated by how, in Turkey, this temporary structure was made, suitably served its intended purpose, and was left alone. This bridge immediately reminded me of the way that my mother had built shelving in Puerto Rico. Both types of construction were so human and provisional; they were built for need, not aesthetic. What I became aware of in that moment of realization was profoundly important to me.

Eventually returned to the U.S. to go to high school. I have traveled a lot. I traveled to Switzerland after college. I moved to NY and had a desk job for awhile. I wanted to do something that was non art related and that would allow me to survive, have time to work, and be able to pay my rent in NY. Within a year I realized that I wasn’t suited for that job anymore. I was contacted by the high school I attended to teach art. I also worked for an art program for adults with developmental disabilities. This reassured me of the importance and worthwhile of painting and pursuing a career in the arts. It is easy to get absorbed with the art world and to loose sight of the meaning that making work has, because of that program I saw what a difference the process of creating had to people who were given little ownership over anything in their lives. They were able to build something that was theirs, and that validated their own self worth.

JC: What concepts drive your work?

ML: I think about structures as dwellings. Also, civil progress, adaptation, nomadic culture, and patterns in history. I have spent most of my life living transitionally. In grad school I made a lot of sculptures and installations. I realized that painting gave me the ability to better control structure. It gave me the ability to experiment with scale and color, in a more experimental way than sculpture allowed. I often look at navigational maps, images of geography, signs, disasters, longitudinal maps, maritime signals, flags and nautical code.

JC: In the upcoming show you exhibit sculpture alongside your paintings. What is the relationship between these two in your work?

ML: I don’t think there is a barrier between working in these two ways. The sculptures often inform the paintings and vice versa. The concepts that drive the work are the same. For me making sculptures is just another way of communicating the same ideas. Keeping experimentation alive in the studio is important for me. The piano piece that I’m working on now is connected to the concept of leisure time. Having leisure time is the American ideal, it equates success We work harder to have more leisure time. I had been reading Stienbeck’s America and Americans in which he talks about how what we do in this leisure time can either be constructive or destructive. Building is a creative process, but additionally, the act of building often leads to our own demise.

JC: What other artists do you look at?

ML: Luc Tuymans, Mama Anderson, Peter Doig, Francis Alys, Echo Eggebrecht, a lot of artists that have showed at David Zwirner gallery, Dana Schultz. Also, the writings of Gerhard Richter. I am also stimulated by stories and phenomena, navigation, and listening to a lot of NPR.

JC: Why did you attend MICA’s graduate program over others?

ML: I did the Post Bac program at SFAI. After that year and decided to defer so that I could apply to other schools but still have the option of returning if nothing panned out. I got into MICA, so I went. Before grad school I had had my belongings dispersed in different family members houses around the country. I made the decision to gather all of my possessions and move everything at once on a truck to move to Baltimore. When you travel into Baltimore you first go through these desolate, abandoned areas. So of course, I was surprised and unsure upon entering- and thinking to myself- ‘this looks like a ruin, what am I doing here?!’. I quickly grew to like it. I find what is left behind, the evidence of what the city once was, to be interesting. In a lot of areas Baltimore is really like a forgotten city.

JC: Why choose to live in Baltimore over New York?

ML: When I was deciding where to go after graduate school Baltimore and New York were the two places that I felt most connected to- in terms of the actual place and the people there. The ease of city was important. The significant thing about Baltimore is the ability I have to live and actually thrive, within modest means. I am able to support myself with teaching jobs and I can still have a studio space, as well as a separate living space. I have the space in Baltimore that I couldn’t have in New York. The affordability of survival here allows me to work. I have a supportive community of artists here as well. I ended up getting the residency at the Creative Alliance after grad school so I stayed here and slowly my life here started to build.

JC: How does working at MICA affect your ability to work in the studio- is balancing your painting career and your teaching career a difficulty? Aside from MICA, where else do you teach?

ML: Balancing those two is always a struggle but I find time to get in the studio. I usually try to get in the studio on whatever days I’m not as busy, or I come in after teaching. I don’t have set, specific days to come in, it varies. I usually teach an Abstract Drawing class at MICA, right now I’m teaching that and a professional practices class. I teach beginning drawing and painting classes at Goucher or American University.

JC: What advice do you have for emerging artists?

ML: Retain a network of friends. Apply to shows. Put you work out there, use registries if you do not have your own website, a lot of my connections have been made through the Baker Artist Awards and the Washington Project of the Arts. Find a way to live in a city that gives you time and space to make your work and maintain your sense of community. Set up deadlines for yourself by applying to shows. I can work without deadlines but it is helpful to have a deadline and something to work towards. Realize what is conducive to you making good work, whether it is through a pressured environment, or having no pressure, no deadlines. Recognize the people and places conducive to you making good work. Keep working, even when you are unsure and maybe downtrodden about the work, have confidence in your ability to work through problems. Maintain your career as an artist.

Magnolia’s studio:
new, unfinished painting on it’s side
Assemblage of Piano parts
piles of Piano parts
Collage as reference material + collection of books
Interviewer Jessica Childress is a painter and printmaker currently living in Baltimore, Maryland.  She grew up in New Orleans, Louisiana.  In 2009 she moved to Baltimore to pursue a BFA from Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA).

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