Magnolia Laurie has been in Baltimore for more than fifteen years, in that time she has watched how nature ebbs and flows with the city and the larger changing environment. Laurie has a degree in Critical Social Thought as well as an MFA in Fine Arts, and is a keen observer of the world around her. Early life in Puerto Rico planted a deep idea in Laurie that nature is paramount. The ways humans push against and attempt to control the natural world have become central themes in her artwork. Travel to places like Iceland, and across the United States for residencies, have offered dynamic ways to think about the role of humans on this planet. You can see Magnolia’s work on view in New York this September with Frosch and Co for Art on Paper and in Charlotte, North Carolina, also in September, at George Gallery. In July I sat down with Magnolia in her Baltimore studio to talk about a new body of work, her influences, and studio routines.
Interview between Amy Boone-McCreesh and Magnolia Laurie
Amy: How do you structure your life as an artist – what is your studio practice like?
Magnolia: I think that changes a lot. I’ve just had this sabbatical year, which has meant that I have a lot more control over my time, and it has meant that I could come in and spend full long days here. I’m a good morning worker, so I try to get here early. Once I get going, I can just keep working easily. So I’ve been trying to get here by 10:00 at the latest and I tend to work till about 6-7pm. That can be interrupted with whatever we need to do at home and I’ve had a couple of residencies, but in general, that’s been my schedule. Ideally, I would love to get here by 7:00 AM. That’s more common for me at residencies, but that rarely happens here at home. And when I’m teaching, my daily practice is much more piecemeal.
In a broader sense, in terms of how I’ve structured my creative life, I think what I have now is the result of a long journey of making adjustments over time. But I did choose to go to graduate school. Once I had finished graduate school, I did pursue teaching jobs and continued to develop my personal practice alongside my teaching. I initially stayed in Baltimore partly because I knew I couldn’t afford to return to New York and wasn’t sure where else I would go. So I think a lot of it has just been trying to juggle financial need with time, measuring how much time I can have for my studio and still sustain myself and pay rent. Teaching has worked for me. You do have these intense times, which pulls you away from the studio, but then you’ve got these breaks and you can get back in the studio. So during the school year, there’s a lot of ebb and flow where I start out strong and I’m pretty regular in the studio and as the semester amps up and the school and the students need me more, I start putting the studio on the back burner. And then towards the end things are wrapping up and the ball’s in their court and the students have to sort of do what they’re going to do and I start being able to pull more time back into my schedule for my studio. Then there’s a break and then I’m in the studio as much as I can be.
Do you have any routines or rituals in the studio? Do you listen to music or watch anything?
I do find that I need something to insulate myself a little to get going. I think it might just be a habit that I started in grad school, but it helps me to listen to something and despite being alone in here, I do strangely tend to listen to music or podcasts with headphones. Sometimes it’s just about centering myself and getting me to stop thinking about whatever I was thinking about before I came to the studio. So it’s more about putting something over my ears to kind of isolate myself, because I’ll often realize that the podcast or the music has ended and I’ve just been working for the last hour with these silly headphones on. It’s mostly something to close out the world and make me a little bit more internal.
Landscapes and human built spaces both seem important in your work- are there any places that have deeply influenced you or any spaces you’ve been thinking a lot about recently?
Yes, landscape is a significant element in my work. I’ve been working within this framework of landscape since 2006. Initially, I was much more interested in these makeshift structures. So I was looking to architecture and nomadic structures. I was interested in the instinct to build, and the idea of shelter. These structures were an indirect way to talk about how we live, how we prop ourselves up emotionally, how we’re vulnerable to the world or to each other. And so these structures were really a way of talking about humanity and trying to find a way to metaphorically suggest what was impacting us and how we were impacting each other. But those structures were set in the landscape and I often created these desolate landscapes or there’d be some impending weather…settings that made the structure more vulnerable. I was using the landscape to make these structures more evocative. And then as I continued to work with this, the types of structures changed, different languages and marks would come in, and I would tap into different ideas and each body of work would have a slight adjustment, sometimes carrying a language from before into new things.
Traveling brought new language to the work too. In 2016 and 2017, I was able to travel to Iceland – I feel like I had been creating these imaginary Icelandic landscapes for a while. But actually going there was really thrilling and oddly enough I came back and I made work in response to that landscape, but I couldn’t find space for the structures. There was something about the landscape itself that was so captivating to me that I didn’t need the human-made or architectural element. So much about my experience in Iceland was recognizing how much the land pushed back against any efforts to settle and build. It felt like such a contrast to the United States where I feel that we are built on this ever expanding idea of conquest. So there is this idea that there’s always more land, we can develop it, we can change it. Whereas when you are in a place where the land just keeps erupting and disrupting infrastructure and says no, you will not, there is a different mindset about the land. I grew up with rainy seasons and hurricanes and a sense of living with and in adjustment to nature – to weather. So experiencing that fragility again shifted my work a bit. I did some work that explored borders and vantage points, creating these structures that were pretty minimal and just at the edges of the paintings. You would recognize that you were seeing past a fence or past a signpost but it might just read as a geometric structure that sort of intruded on your perspective. So, yes, I continue to wander around in the idea of landscape and explore what I can talk about through it. This last year, I’ve been thinking a lot about gardens and the ideas of cultivated natural spaces and wild natural spaces. I think you can’t spend a summer in Baltimore without recognizing the intense growth that comes from the heat and humidity. Because by mid July, the growth is just all over the place. If you are driving along route 83, you can look around and feel like the trees and vines are going to swallow up the highway. I think a lot about the idea of invasiveness, the persistence of growth, and the feebleness of our ability to control it really. It can spur an interesting sort of hope that nature will win in the end. This decision or urge to go into the garden was definitely led by a love of flora and a desire to work with color again. It feels indulgent, but I wanted to bring lushness and beauty into this work.
Recently you’ve been embracing a lot of color and density- how do these decisions serve your newest painting ideas?
These decisions were led by instinct. And I do tend to let instinct push me in new directions. There’s often some kind of gesture or color or form that keeps coming up and I start to look at it more closely and figure out what I want from it. There have been bodies of work that have been a little bit more shaped by a more overt question from the beginning, but this new work was definitely drawn from the need to have more color and saturation. I also knew I wanted a bigger space. There was a discomfort in working smaller, I felt really claustrophobic. Which is not usually true for me. I love a small intimate scale but I kept being like, “No, it’s too small, too small.” Yet I’m making work that the gestures start big and then as they start to finish up, there’s all these accumulated smaller marks that build. They’ve actually taken a lot longer. I’ve worked on them over months as opposed to maybe a few weeks.
I also wanted to explore landscape but not rely on the horizon line. So there’s a flatness to them. There is an interest in the idea of overgrowth and density and for them to feel really lush. And there was urge for vibrancy, I start them with these really hot colors, because I want that to be the base and then to be able to bury them in accumulated marks, but to have this persistent hot color still pierce through in little moments. I’m trying to create this tension between the initial structure that I lay down and the accumulation that I build up on top of it. I want them to feel immersive.
You have an ongoing series of ink on paper – can you talk about how this work started and how it fits into your studio practice overall?
I started to make these ink drawings in 2017. I was teaching a lot of ink work in my classes and I was talking about how dynamic it is and encouraging them to experiment with it and I think I convinced myself more than my students. I was experiencing a stuck moment in my painting studio. Actually it started here, when I moved to this studio. I think that has happened, when I shift spaces, I kind of get stuck or it takes a while to reorient myself to the space. So the ink work was a result of changing spaces and figuring out a way to work in this new space. I became really enamored with the ink. I was thinking about geology too, and I think of these as cross-sectional landscapes. They’re very vertical, they’re very layered. I also did a residency out in Oregon and had done a lot of reading about the geological formation out there, which I incorporated into these ink drawings. I loved that it was water and mineral and paper, the materials are so simple but so reactionary. And I’ve just continued to work with them. They are very different in that they tend to be much more neutral in color. So they function in a nice back and forth with the paintings. I think there’s days when I feel like I definitely want to just paint. And then there’s other days where I feel like I’m not sure about the ideas that are happening or I’m not sure about the next move. So then I turn to the ink drawings and allow myself to work in a different way. Sometimes I do the ink work at night because it’s not as affected by the light in the studio. When I do a residency, that’s my routine. I’ll work on paintings during the day and then when I go back in for a night session I’ll work on the ink drawings. They have a different energy, a different relationship to the body. I work sitting or on the floor, because they have to be flat while the ink is wet.
There’s also only so many moves I can make with these drawings, so they can feel like a puzzle or a game. I’m seeking a kind of balance between the negative position space and I want the emptiness, the white of the page, to have a presence, so there are some rules in my head that keep it challenging but fun to work out.
Are there any places or anything in your formative years that are still present in your visual memory?
I think there are a few places. Growing up in Puerto Rico is huge. I feel like I spent a lot of time just sitting on the beach staring at the horizon line and wondering about my future. The use of horizon line throughout so much of my work, is no doubt, related to how much time I spent staring at one as a child.
There’s something about the summertime in Baltimore that actually reminds me of Puerto Rico a lot. When it starts to get really overgrown and humid, I’m surprised by how much it reminds me of my childhood in the tropics. I think there are relationships to color and memory that are showing up in this new work. Those hot pinks and yellows, the inclination towards lushness and saturation, and maybe even the density of greenery, these are all things that feel so related to my childhood. But they feel like familiar strangers. These are very different from my other work, so it’s new and exciting…and a little scary.
Are you someone that’s influenced by reading, and if so, how does that reflect in your work?
Yes. My titles are important elements in the work. I want them to be their own interesting little poetic moment that augments the paintings. My hope is that the imagery in the painting will make you think about the words differently and the words will make you think about the painting differently. But I don’t want them necessarily to be the answer to each other. I have been listening a lot to the New Yorker Poetry. I listen to their fiction podcasts too, and The Slowdown. I like that I can paint while I’m listening and think about the words. I read a lot and jot down words and sentence fragments to come back to later. I’m usually reading a bunch of different things, some are quick reads and others are very, very slow. Landscape and Memory by Simon Schama, was one of those very slow reads this year. It was great, but just so dense with information that I had to digest it in little bits at a time. I have a lot of poetry books in the studio that I can open up to any page and pause with.. Maggie Nelson, Louise Glück, Ada Limon, Diane Seuss, Mary Olive are some of the poets I have in the studio.
Anything you have coming up you’d like to promote? I’ll have some ink drawings in Art on Paper with Frosch & Co, that will be Sept 7-10th in New York. I also have a solo show coming up, it opens September 15th. Its called in the weeds and it will be at The George Gallery in Charlotte, NC. This will be the first time I’m showing paintings and ink drawings together, I just shipped the last of the drawings down a few days ago. And then I’ll have a post-sabbatical show at the Winter Visual Art Center at Franklin Marshall College in October.