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Art AND: Magnolia Laurie

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Magnolia Laurie plays with the hypothetical. The painter and educator explains she’s producing possible solutions in the form of pictorial space. “I don’t know a whole lot about geology,” she says, “but my drawings are all about this sort of imagining of it.” Laurie loves duality, the collision of two elements that can mean two separate things. The “fusion or the hybridity that is pretty natural with a collage, where you’re sort of forcing relationships between different things,” comes across naturally in her language of layering different oil paints or ink in her works. 

Much of Laurie’s recent work references landscapes, seen and unseen, imaginary but close to realism in their depiction of extreme foreground and deep background. Laurie plays with borders and fences, flat spaces and wide-open ones that look like anywhere and nowhere at once. Looking at her paintings, I think of landscapes I’ve seen with my eyes—volcanic flats in Hawai’i, pictures of the surface of the moon, the great meadow of Yosemite at twilight—and places I’ve only pictured with my mind, influenced by news, literature, or songs—mega dumps in China, my ancestor’s homestead in Virginia, and the open ocean off of Iceland. I think Laurie would welcome these interpretations, both because her influences are so vast—such as adaptive survival structures in the arctic circle and the jungles of Puerto Rico where she spent her formative years before high school—and because she’s a deep believer in the power of personal perspective.

Regarding her own vantage point, Laurie describes herself as “a watcher,” having grown up removed from mainland American culture in Puerto Rico with her mother and five siblings while struggling to survive poverty. Her upbringing made her deeply respectful of adaptation and survival. Growing up as a white person in the predominately Hispanic and Caribbean community of Puerto Rico made Laurie feel like an outsider even in the place she felt most at home. It also instilled in her a love of making things and problem-solving, and a respect for the slow passage of time. 

Magnolia Laurie, in the wake of dead ice, 2019, ink on paper, 64 x 42.5 inches. Photo by Joseph Hyde

Her current painting practice is slow but steady; she produces fewer than fifteen paintings a year. “I’m happiest when I’m making work day in and day out,” she says. “So [on] weekends and school breaks, I’m very happy to just spend my days in the studio.” Laurie is grateful for the opportunity to teach college students, an experience that reminds her to continue to try new things in her own studio practice. Her teaching demos recently inspired her to begin working with Sumi-e ink again because she got excited about the expressive nature of the ink she was showing her students.

In addition to studio art and teaching at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Laurie also teaches professional practices in which she advises her students to “think about what they want” from a career in the arts, beginning with defining what success would look like for themselves. For someone looking at a career in the arts, there are numerous options, she says, “so knowing what you feel like is ‘success’ is going to be a big part of that choice of knowing what you need to be comfortable and content with life.” Laurie believes that many students earn an art degree without knowing all the different ways that their knowledge base can be applied, so part of her work as an educator is helping her students chart their own paths forward after graduation.

Masked up and sitting eight feet apart, Laurie and I talked about what they don’t teach you in art school, how she found and started working with her New York gallery, and more.

SUBJECT: Magnolia Laurie, 45
WEARING: Black jeans, black and white sweater, black sneakers… pretty incognito, but I’m around a lot of black charcoal and ink on a daily basis.
PLACE: Hampden, Baltimore

Suzy Kopf: What is the most important book (or books) you’ve read or are reading? 

Magnolia Laurie: This is so hard. There are so many. But these are some of the books that have had a direct impact on my work in the last few years: 

The Faraway Nearby, Rebecca Solnit
A Paradise Built in Hell: The extraordinary communities that arise in disaster, Rebecca Solnit
To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf
Island Zombie, Roni Horn
One Hundred Names for Love, Diane Ackerman
Gratitude, Oliver Sacks
After Nature, Jedediah Purdy
Questions of Travel, Lavinia Greenlaw
The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben
The Land of Open Graves, Jason De Leon
The Life of Lines, Tim Ingold

Podcast listening:

This American Life
RadioLab
Planet Money
Throughline
New Yorker Fiction
The Memory Palace
99% Invisible

Recent and current reading:

The Bridge of Beyond, Simone Schwarz-Bart
The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin
Ninth Street Women, Mary Gabriel

What was the worst career or life advice you’ve ever received? What is the best? 

The worst: “You should move to New York. You can’t have a career here in Baltimore.” To be fair, the person giving this advice lived in New York and much of their career was shaped by connections there. So they were speaking from personal experience, and I think they meant well. I just knew I could not afford New York at that point. After grad school, I had a lot of student loans and no back-up support system. I felt that had I moved under those circumstances, the need to pay rent might edge out my need to create. So I stayed in Baltimore, and I’m glad I did.

The best: “Show up and do the work, even if you scrape it all off at the end of the day.” In The Faraway Nearby, Rebecca Solnit writes: “The whiteness of the page before it is written on and after it is erased is and is not the same white, and the silence before a word is spoken and after is and is not the same silence.” Sometimes you can’t see your progress or impact, but it doesn’t mean that it’s not there. I’ve learned to trust myself, even in those doubt-filled transition points. 

If you couldn’t live in Baltimore, where in the world would you want to live and why? 

It is hard to imagine this at the moment; so much of my work and life are connected to this area. But I am drawn to remote and dramatic landscapes and love looking out onto large bodies of water. So in my alternative life, I might spend more time in Iceland or the northern coast of Scotland. I’d spend more time traveling in general. 

 

Magnolia Laurie, evolving from one to the next, shaped by wind and water, 2019, ink on paper, 64 x 42.5 inches. Photo by Joseph Hyde
I am often trying to surprise myself and then respond. When I have too much control, the painting lacks tension. 
Magnolia Laurie

How would you describe your relationship with failure? Is there any advice you give to young people about dealing with the disappointment that is a natural part of a creative career?

In my studio practice, I somewhat embrace failure. So many of my favorite moments in my paintings have come from accidents, mistakes, and failed attempts at something else. That sounds like I’m terribly unskilled, but what I mean is that I am often trying to surprise myself and then respond. When I have too much control, the painting lacks tension. 

On the more administrative side of art-making, there is another kind of failure. All those applications which inevitably lead to some ratio of acceptance and rejection. No matter how much you accept this as part of the process, I think there is always a little bruising and perhaps a sense of failure that you have to juggle and try to balance out. 

For my students, I often compare failure to the trial and error of scientific experiments. I have many metaphors: the drafts of a paper, the aches and pains of a dancer or an athlete training their muscles. I try to stress that all the real work in art-making is in the practice and the learning from those little failures along the way. 

Have you always been an artist? How did you know? Was there ever another career path you considered or were encouraged to pursue?

I have always loved the act of making something and often tried to invent my own way to do it. (I’ve created so many sad sewing projects as a result of the second part. Patterns and recipes are good, but I’m strangely rebellious in this area. I irritate myself sometimes, but I’m also intensely proud of my successful adaptations and inventions.) So I would say I’ve always had the temperament to be an artist. I grew up in a creative household, with lots of homemade gifts and innovative solutions to life. But books were my primary access to art before high school and I was a junior in college before I started to consider art-making as a central part of my life. The creative desire has always been there, but the notion of being an artist came much later. 

I think it was my sophomore or junior year in college when I finally realized that I could respond to research through painting. I found a way to connect my two favorite places on campus, the library and the studio, and that’s what started to really excite me.

What material do you use so much you should buy stock in it? 

Looking around at the paints, solvents, and mediums in my studio, probably Gamblin. 

What mundane thing do you hope you’re remembered for? 

Hmm, I make a very good cup of coffee? But actually, I grew up around a lot of great cooks and food has often been a form of creativity, ingenuity, and love in my family. I would not say I am an elaborate cook, but I enjoy the alchemy and the ritual of a meal as a way to make people feel welcome and cared for. It feels silly in contrast to all the loss and pain in the last several months, but one of the things I miss the most with the pandemic is having friends over for dinner and conversation. Between teaching and the studio, I have weeks and sometimes months where I’m pretty caught up in my day-to-day progress in each and so I love the chance to sit down and share a meal with people and talk. That feels so far away right now. 

I try to teach my students to see doubt and pause as a natural part of creativity and to recognize it as a form of reflection.
Magnolia Laurie

What do you predict is going to be the next big trend and when are we all going to catch on to it? 

Voting. And greater attention to elections on all levels.

What’s a favorite local restaurant and what is your go-to order? 

There’s really too many to name, we have a lot of wonderful places in this city. I hope we are able to support them all and help keep them going throughout all of this. We had a CSA from a local farmer, so we did a lot of home cooking. But we did celebrate the completion of my tenure packet with a great outdoor meal at Woodberry Kitchen, and we’ve had some regular take-out from neighborhood places such as Ekiben and Bodhi Corner

You’ve enjoyed the somewhat traditional career route for painters: graduating from an MFA program, teaching, and showing with a New York gallery, frosch & portmann. What has working with your gallery since 2012 been like for you?

It’s funny because I feel like I’ve been on a pretty wandering path. But in hindsight, I’ve also been lucky with the people that I’ve worked with. Most of them have been really interested in the artwork and very thoughtful in showing it. I haven’t worked with a big gallery. My experience has often been with small galleries with a very personal vision. For example, I know that Eva (frosch) really loves the gallery’s actual space, the act of hanging the work, and the transformation of the space with each new exhibition. It is a creative and collaborative process that she and hp (portmann) are very committed to, which is something I really value in our relationship. My aesthetic and the gallery’s aesthetic work well together, and I love that I can trust that. I’ve never experienced any tension about what pieces were going to be shown or how. I’ve been given a lot of freedom in terms of what work to show.

I first saw frosch & portmann at an art fair in Miami. I remember being drawn to the aesthetic of their booth and feeling that a lot of care was taken to make the work look its best. I wrote down the name thinking I would look them up when I was in NY. I wasn’t thinking about approaching them about my work. A few months later, Michael Burmeister, a friend from grad school, was walking around lower Manhattan looking at shows and sent me a text to check out this space. We talked about the gallery a bit and he said I should just send them an email. I was hesitant, but he encouraged me, noting that there was really no harm in reaching out. So I sent an email with my website and they got back to me about a studio visit a few weeks later. It can feel intimidating to ask people to look at your work, but if you are polite and make it easy, why not reach out? That being said, I often explore galleries when I’m traveling and wonder if and how my work would resonate in different areas. I’ve noticed far more “no submission” statements on gallery websites, so this is perhaps an out-of-date idea. Instagram has the capacity to be a new form of “word of mouth,” which has its pros and cons. I would far rather see all this work in person, but I’m introduced to a lot of work that I may have never seen in person.  

When I teach professional practices, there are times I have to pause and admit to my students that these are situations, roles, and ways of working that are constantly changing. I’m not sure there is ever a clear way things are done; it’s a continually moving target. Often, it comes down to a lot of hard work and some luck. For me, it’s about persistence, a question of how to keep making work, and how to keep showing it. I’ve become more comfortable with gradual growth and seeing progress even in the pauses. I try to teach my students to see doubt and pause as a natural part of creativity and to recognize it as a form of reflection. Rejection and failure are the same, they will be a part of this process. They can be insightful, tangential, frustrating, and even a little heartbreaking, but they are not endpoints. 

Do you have what might be described as an unusual hobby? What do you do just for fun? How did you get into that?

I either have a lot of hobbies or no hobbies. Time always feels like a negotiation. For a few years, my husband Nicholas and I made these holiday animations that we would send out to friends and family. We started doing them as a way to test the waters of collaboration without either one of us feeling too much ownership or protection. We haven’t had the time in the last couple of years, but I’m thinking this winter could be a good time to delve into making a new one. 

Do you have a daily “uniform” or specific favorite piece of clothing?

Now I do. I have about ten masks that I rotate through the week. 

If you had unlimited funding and time, describe the project you’d make or the show you would curate.

I have a lot of ideas that expand beyond my current skill set, particularly when it comes to sculptural elements. I’ve long wanted to work with and learn from a master woodworker to elaborate on the wooden support stands that I’ve shown some of my paintings on. I also have some ideas for cast glass and concrete that I’m eager to explore. These are related to my Again and Again series so the cast forms echo some of the shapes in the large ink drawings. So I’d expand the materials and scale of my own work and spend a lot more time doing field research. 

What are the last three emojis you used?

Crossed fingers, celebration, worried face

What advice do you have for someone who wants to get involved in the Baltimore art scene?

Normally, just show up and see the work. Volunteer at one of the artist-run spaces or art centers. Read BmoreArt. Join the mailing lists or follow the local galleries. 

Does your astrological sign match your personality? Is astrology just silly?

I just looked up a brief description of Sagittarius personality traits and I gotta say, not too bad. I can see some familiarity, though I am definitely not an extrovert. 

Magnolia Laurie, the questions arrived with smoke and ash, 2019, ink on paper, 63 x 42.5 inches. Photo by Joseph Hyde.
Magnolia Laurie, win or lose, it’s just a different rate of change, 2019, ink on paper, 71 x 42.5 inches. Photo by Joseph Hyde.

Who are your art heroes and what do you look to them for? Do you have anyone whose work you’ve always admired or whose career you’d like to emulate or just someone you think would be a cool person to have coffee with? Why are they the coolest?

Jacob Lawrence. I think I came across some postcards of his work when I was in high school and fell in love with his color, his rhythm, the power of his images, everything. I’ve made an effort to see his work in person whenever I could. In my early twenties I was making these little gouache-on-cardboard paintings. They were very much in admiration of Lawrence, maybe a little Matisse, Diebenkorn, and Uta Barth as well. 

In grad school, I spent a lot of time absorbing the work of Agnes Martin, Roni Horn, Mamma Andersson, Peter Doig, Richard Tuttle, Luc Tuymans, Jessica Stockholder, David Ireland, and Buckminster Fuller. 

Right now I’m pretty enamored with the work of Vija Celmins, Helen Frankenthaler, and Kathe Butterly. 

What would your teenage self think of you today? 

I think she’d be pretty impressed and surprised. At 14, I lived in northeastern Puerto Rico with my family. I wasn’t in school and took care of my siblings so my mom could work and keep a roof over our heads. I had no idea what my options were. I would sit on the beach and stare at the horizon line, just wondering about my future. There are definitely times when I’m overly focused on what I could and should be doing. We all do this, and this is where social media can be very challenging; it makes it all too easy to compare your life and career to others. It’s good to remember that 14-year-old, to see the progress and success I have created for myself. 

Did you have a formative and/or terrible first job? What was it?

I’ve had so many jobs over the years: nanny, waiter, prep cook, barista, sales assistant, receptionist, typist—that last one was particularly funny since I can’t touch type. I did it as a second job when I lived in New York right after undergrad. I would transcribe for four hours and charge for three because I was so slow. Right after grad school, I supplemented my adjunct teaching with short-term project jobs, I made architectural models for one company and did some set painting for Center Stage. But mostly, I’ve worked in art education. Just before going to grad school, I worked at an art center for adults with developmental disabilities. It was very moving work and something I might have stayed with longer if I hadn’t already set my mind on returning to school.

My very first college teaching experience was a great job, I was a sabbatical replacement for a semester. The students, the school, the classes were all wonderful… but my commute was ridiculous. My live/work studio was in the Creative Alliance here in Baltimore and the school was in Massachusetts! So I drove up on Sundays to teach two classes from 9-4 p.m. on Monday and Wednesday, and then drove back home after my last class. My life was very compartmentalized that semester. 

I do well with deadlines, so the momentum and arch of the semester is something I’ve come to really appreciate. It’s not unlike preparing a body of work for an exhibition, there’s a lot of unknowns that start to become familiar and then the momentum takes over and you can see the progress build in the work.

What have you learned recently that kind of blew your mind? Or if you haven’t learned anything recently that surprised you, what did you learn the hard way?

This last election surprised me; I was really startled to see how divided we are as a country. Honestly, this whole year blew my mind… and still is. I don’t know what to think about it. Sorry to end on such a dark note. 

On the more optimistic side, the last year has reminded me to love the little things, to savor small daily joys, and value any act of kindness. 

*****

This winter, Magnolia Laurie is in a couple of group exhibitions and fundraisers: 2021 ICA Flat File Exhibition (through December 31, 2020); MONO Practice’s MONO PLATFORM; and Creative Alliance’s It’s Pandemonium Fundraiser Exhibition.

 

 

Photos by Justin Tsucalas except where otherwise noted.

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