Artist Statement


Drawing and Observation

Most of my pictures in one way or another are about the act of looking at things closely, particularly things that are small and intricate. I have an inter­est in science and natural history, and I try to approach my subjects in the manner of a naturalist, through research, reading, drawing, and fieldwork. As a draftsman I often follow the conventions of scientific illustration, where full chiaroscuro renderings are juxtaposed with schematic diagrams, cross-sections, or detailed enlargements. Sooner or later, however, scientific objectivity is abandoned in the interests of art making, and the image is transformed.  Preferring the act of sketching to the production of finished artworks, drawing for me is a means of investigating the structural complexity of objects. It’s also a contemplative process that offers a mental space necessary to patiently observe the intricacies of natural design, texture, and color.


Nature and Industry

Observing the effects of light and atmosphere on landscape is an endless source of inspiration to me as a visual artist, and I enjoy wandering in woods or along shorelines in search of interesting natural forms to draw or paint. I have lived most of my life in the rural-industrial coalfields of Appalachia, (just a few miles from the infamous slag heaps where director John Hillcoat filmed his post-apocalyptic movie, The Road.) The Monongahela River Valley has been ravaged by industry for over a hundred years. Here, the last lovely remnants of unspoiled nature are isolated between regions of bleakness and environmental trauma. While the elegance of nature’s designs generate ideas for art-making, it is the melancholy feeling associated with the loss of wild nature that compels me to make art. As an artist living at this particular time and place, I hope to document a small part of this terrain—its charms along with its post-industrial squalor–as well as a few of its rapidly diminishing native species.


Plant Forms, Flowforms, and Micro-Forms

 My watercolor paintings are part of an ongoing series of organic form studies that began with objects gathered along the beach one summer.  I was interested in the idea that all of this activity at the sea’s edge— the waves and swells and curling breakers, and the flow patterns in the sand and clouds— seemed perfectly expressed in the forms of these objects; as if the curves of shells or the bones of fish were a solidified form of a kind of liquid architecture derived from the movement of water. The cells, pods, and vessel shapes that occur throughout my work are essentially liquid droplet forms, and the curling leaf and petal structures assume the form of flowing liquids. As I studied flowform design, I began to find evidence of fluid structure in just about every natural object I encountered. This led to an investigation into crystal structures, radiolarians, diatoms, pollen grains, and other microscopic forms, which eventually revealed resemblances to mathematical models. It’s interesting to compare the construction of these microscopic spheres with their open-grid designs to the architectural space grids, towers, tanks, and liquid storage vessels of the urban-industrial environment. My work with vessel and gourd forms, raised in my garden on the banks of the Monongahela, grew out of a preoccupation with the idea that our experience of nature co-exists with an awareness of its chemical contaminants.


 Sophie’s Woods

My recent work is inspired by accounts of extinct birds, such as the Passenger Pigeon, whose vast populations once thrived within the oak, beech, and chestnut forests of Appalachia. I photographed tree carvings on a wooded hillside above the Monongahela River, in a place called Sophie’s Woods, where the bones of a young woman, long dead, lie in an unmarked grave. (Sophia Allegra eloped in 1766 with Albert Gallatin, against her mother’s wishes, and died 5 months later at the age of 23.) In the woods surrounding her grave site, decades of lovers have their carved names in the soft bark of the beech trees. I printed ink transfers of these bark carvings onto watercolor paintings of flowering trees. Then I drew images and collaged fragments from 19th Century natural history prints on the final layers.


Painting and Printmaking

A good bit of my work ends up as mixed-media monotypes. Painting on prints, and printing upon drawings and watercolors is my usual working method. I use a wide range of nontoxic print processes including relief, intaglio, stencil, transfer, and offset color-viscosity. Matrices are interchangeable, and images move from print to print. Some of my pictures have been reworked many times. Most did not evolve steadily from start to finish, but are instead a series of additions and erasures performed at intervals over a period of months or years.  The act of erasure and reprinting, and the residual images produced by many changes, attempt to create a passage through the space of the picture which suggests the ephemeral quality of natural forms.  Vaporous states, transitions from solid to liquid, and the accumulation and dispersion of particles, are impressions I try to convey through manipulations of ink and paint.

©2011 Maggy Aston