The unconventional process of creativity
Margaret Curtis, visual artist and painter
Erin Boggs Story
Few people know how far an artist will go to find the right tools to create their work. In fact, the tools and process themselves can be just as creative as the finished work.
When Margaret Curtis started out as a young painter in New York, her tools of choice were cake decorating tools. Recently, she also used cleaning gloves and a balloon to create ice shapes and study light. The result of this experience is his 2019 painting “The Ice Sculpture”.
Thanks to the use of unconventional tools, her finished work is not always what she originally had in mind when she started. In many cases, the process itself takes over and ultimately determines the finished part.
“I’ve painted enough to know that light reflection and shadows are often very counter-intuitive. I knew something as complex as an entire monster figure made out of ice would be a really complicated thing to paint. So I decided to build my own ice sculpture body model. I made a little red house out of construction paper, went out to my driveway and took a bunch of pictures. Time and time again the house is refracted through her body and I love that as a metaphor,” says Margaret. “It’s the image of a monstrous ice sculpture melting in the sun. Behind it is a small red ranch house. He is very attractive. It has all the reflections of the house all over its body and there is a mother and several children trying to stop it from melting, ”says Margaret.
When creating her art, Margaret says “I really think about how our psychology and our human minds create our family structures, our intimate relationships and our society as well.”
Raised in Tennessee, Margaret attended Duke University. She didn’t major in art, but finished all her course requirements early and did what she wanted in her senior year. “So I just started taking art classes. I absolutely loved it. From there I went to Atlanta College of Art because I knew I didn’t have enough portfolio or experience to apply for an MFA So I got my BFA in Atlanta and then in my early twenties I got a really wonderful scholarship to Yale Summer School of Art and Music in Connecticut which was extremely educational for me.The program was intense, but the teachers instilled valuable self-critical skills in it.
The program included 30 students from the United States and abroad. They brought in very important New York artists at the time, like Ross Bleckner and Louise Fishman, to critique the students’ work. Around this time, Margaret began to take herself a bit more seriously in terms of creating art. Today, she still maintains close friendships with some of her classmates in the program.
After the program ended, youthful idealism collided with reality.
“I had a lot of anger when I left. The program was very precise in its structure, and it was not nice. Criticism nowadays, even if it is difficult to hear, is formulated in a more constructive way. We all left kinda blindsided. I think their whole philosophy was to break us all down and rebuild us. I just moved to New York after that and said I was gonna give myself five, sink or swim. A lot of the work I was doing in the beginning was really a reaction to the Yale summer program. I was so mad and I just thought, what’s the most heinous thing I could do that would be completely contrary to what my teachers were trying to teach me, something they would never take seriously, so she started using cake decorating tools and created floral, frilly, and very decorative paintings.
Born of this rebellion, she quickly became the trendy young girl in New York for several years. She got her first big break in 1993 thanks to Marcia Tucker, the first female curator of the Whitney Museum of American Art, when Tucker opened her own museum.
An artist in any creative field often becomes one as a way to make sense of competing ideas in their mind and as a way to express their experiences, thoughts, and feelings. Often the finished work is quite disruptive or even controversial.
Margaret’s work covers many themes – vulnerability, anxiety, narcissism, tension, nature, climate change, current events, power dynamics between men and women, in society and our daily personal lives.
“Portrait of My Anxiety” (2021) is about someone who literally cares about worrying about the challenges and difficulties we all face in today’s world. “I try to keep my work complex and I try to keep it very open reading, because people bring their own experience into the viewing process and that’s great,” she says.
Margaret also says “I don’t really believe in style. My paintings will take any form necessary to express the idea I am trying to convey. Sometimes I use a realistic trompe l’oeil style and faux finish,” skills she developed during her first job in New York. “Some of them are much more expressionist. The ice sculpture is not at all what I thought it would look like in my mind, but through the process it created itself.
“There are a lot of misconceptions people have about the artistic process. They think you just painted out of your head. But our brains don’t really work that way. There are all kinds of things that happen when you really move past what your brain tells you you should see and start looking at what’s actually in front of you. This is where the magic lies. So you have to be engaged with the physical world in order to really understand that. I strongly believe that artists should give themselves as much information as possible about what they are working with,” says Margaret.
Even the paint itself can transform the appearance of the finished product. “I love painting and my work is very layered, almost geological. There is a lot of relief on the canvas. Cake decorating tools are used to spread thick drops of paint, and the paint is woven, like braided icing.
Margaret and her husband moved to Tryon from New York in 2008, to be closer to medical care for their eldest son. She says of Tryon, “It’s across the mountains I grew up in, in Tennessee, and it reminds me a lot of my hometown. We were impressed that a town of this size had a theater with a film company, a café, five bookstores at the time and a contemporary art space. Tryon has a lot of culture for a small place,” says Margaret.
After moving here and a six-year hiatus, she had to rebuild her career from the ground up. “Coming here and starting all over again, seeing that my work is still meaningful and the work is in demand, doing it twice, I feel so much more confident in what I’m doing now. I want the slow build, I don’t want the ‘hip thing’,” Margaret says.There are a number of artists working in the Tryon community and she really enjoys their company.
Recently, the Joan Mitchell Foundation awarded a scholarship to Margaret. Joan Mitchell was part of the first generation of abstractionists like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. She and other female abstract expressionist painters of this time were not taken seriously and she eventually moved to Paris. “She’s taken seriously now but, in her day, it was hard for them to get shows and hard for them to get decent, unbiased reviews,” Margaret says. The foundation that Mitchell created was specifically aimed at helping living and working artists overcome any barriers that prevent them from creating art, and generously supports those who are awarded. An artist must be nominated to apply. Margaret was nominated the first time around and didn’t get it, but was renamed this time around and selected. “I was thrilled to have someone at the national level put my name in the hat,” says Margaret.
As a result of this award, she is currently expanding her art studio and says emotionally it really helped unify her early career with her more recent work.
To see more works by Margaret Curtis, visit https://margaretcurtisart.com