For several decades Susan Maakestad has painted abstracted landscapes empty of human activity but filled with brilliant color and recollected light. Her honors include a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, an ArtsAccelerator Grant from ArtsMemphis and direct purchase awards from the UrbanArt Commission in Memphis. In late 2021 she completed a large scale public art commission at Memphis International Airport. She has been a fellow at the MacDowell Colony and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Her work has been included in “New American Paintings” and has been exhibited nationally. Public collections include the Tennessee State Museum, Memphis Brooks Museum of Art and the City of Memphis. She earned an MFA from The University of Iowa and a B.A magna cum laude and M.A. from Central Washington University. Maakestad was Professor of Art at Memphis College of Art from 1997-2020.
I have been painting the urban environment in an abstract manner for twenty years. Early on I painted empty sidewalks and parking lots, transforming the mundane urban landscape with diffuse atmosphere and exaggerated color. In 2009, I began referencing midwestern internet traffic cameras as the basis for increasingly abstracted images. What interested me most were the undifferentiated stretches of the urban Midwest and the mercurial weather conditions. In my paintings, the empty vistas and changing light evoke a degree of wistful contemplation. I am influenced by 19th century American landscape painting and by the Buddhist concept of groundlessness. The tension between abstraction and illusionism in my work generates something familiar and yet unknown, of this world and yet also otherworldly.
1. What are 1-3 books that have influenced your life?
A Field Guide to the Birds East of the Rockies by Roger Tory Peterson, 4th edition. This book opened up a new world to me which has enthralled me for over three decades.
2. What are you currently working on?
Variations on some of my watercolors that are based on an 1825 painting by John Constable. The painting features an enormous cloud that attracted me like a magnet. Trying to figure out how to use that cloud and sky in a cohesive composition of my own has been a challenge.
3. How has failure set you up for later success? What was your favorite failure?
4. What is your most unusual habit?
I often pick up my phone during the day to see what kind of plane is flying overhead and where it is going. This habit started when I downloaded the Flight Radar 24 app during the worst of the pandemic.
5. If you could have any painter, living or dead paint your portrait who would it be and why?
Lucian Freud. I’ve always been a big fan. His figures look like living breathing beings.
6. What is the most indispensable item in your studio/workspace/office? What is your studio like? Could you share an image?
My studio lights by ProtoLite. A friend manufactured them. I’m sharing an image of my old studio because I haven’t gotten my new space arranged the way I’d like.
7. When you feel overwhelmed or uninspired what do you do? What do you do to get out of a funk? What questions do you ask yourself?
When I feel uninspired I look at paintings from art history in books and in person, too, when I’m able. They make me feel a connection to the past and to all living artists in a way that feels very meaningful.
When it comes to getting out of a painting rut I ask myself “what is the most problematic thing you could do to this painting” and I do it.
8. Who/What influences your work?
Nature, especially the sky and light. Plus art history.
9. Do you collect anything?
Paintings in a square format. It wasn’t intentional but once I saw the pattern emerging I decided that’s what I’d collect. It helps narrow the choices. I also collect field guides and books on birds.
10. What words of advice would you give to your younger self?
Stop worrying and enjoy your life. Everything’s going to turn out fine.
11. In the last five years what new belief, or habit has most improved your life or studio practice?
It’s o.k. to dig deep into a theme to the point of “painting the same painting over and over again”, as I like to say. I know that variation on a theme is common but I had never considered how narrowly one could interpret that practice.
12. Share an inspiring image.
A view from my old studio window.
Susan Maakestad is a part of our current group exhibition: NEAR & FAR LIGHT on ARTSY
James May Gallery Dousman, WI 262-753-3130
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