Madeleine and I meet at her studio at the Blue Silo near the Denver Coliseum. Her studio is an oasis of calm, wedged between the Burlingtion Northern tracks that weave through this neighborhood.
May I ask your age?
How long have you lived in Denver?
I moved here when I was 11.
Can you tell me a bit about your earlier years?
I was born in Oklahoma, in a town called Ardmore located in the south, central part of the state. When I was young this was a very small town. We lived in town, yet in a block or two you were in the country. The town was completely segregated.
Why do you mention that?
This is very important to me. As a child I was aware of a pervasive wrong - of a profound injustice. There was Jim Crow and "colored" water fountains. There was a railroad that bisected the town, white on one side and black on the other. And yet, I was raised by older African-American women who were my nannies.
Very recently it was suggested to me that my art is an art of integration. When I heard that I thought, 'Oh my, yes'. So much of the impulse of my art is to bring dissimilarities together. My (perhaps unconscious) objective is to build worlds of harmony through these paintings that offer close relationships of disparate colors.
When did art, and art making, become a part of your life?
One of my earliest memories (maybe I was 3 or 4...) is sitting on my mother's lap while she was drawing and cutting out homemade paper dolls. I thought to myself, 'This is what I want to do...'. Growing up in the town with its culture (or lack thereof) I felt lonely and a bit of an outsider. There was solace in making art, there was solace in making beautiful things in a world that seemed so distorted and cruel.
I had a predilection for art. When I was in school I was often the class artist. My grandmother paid for a series of private art lessons. After I moved to Denver I had more exposure to art. In the 9th grade I had private art instructor, Ms. Phyllis Morfitt, who was a practicing painter and introduced me to oils. At George Washington High School my art instructor was Ms. Edith Niblo.
Yes, she was an amazing teacher. When she moved to the Emily Griffith Opportunity School I took classes from her there. She showed me that making art is a spiritual path. Spirituality has always been important to me. Edith showed me that I can bring these two aspects of my life together. Edith emanated the spiritual, she was a true seeker.
After studying art at a junior college in southern Illinois I graduated from CU in Boulder, and I taught art at East High School. I had wanted to teach art, and, just like Edith, make a difference in young people’s lives. We lived in New York for three years in the early 1970s, where my husband David was studying medicine. When he finished, and he wanted to open a practice, we returned to Denver, and I reconnected with Edith, who was teaching at the Opportunity School. I continued to study with her there. Edith had said it was difficult to be a teacher and an artist, at least not to be a teacher the way she was a teacher. I was connected to her until her death in the '80s.
Can you elaborate on this relationship between your art and spirituality?
In my late teens and early twenties I studied Eastern spiritual practices. Several years after I married my husband, I became a practicing Catholic. I continue to evolve, but, in those years, I loved the liturgy, the music and the symbols. In my usual habit of integrating, I studied Eastern Orthodox iconography, and it seems everything I have done since has been an outgrowth of that experience of the Icon.
What do you mean by 'icon'?
An icon is a window into another world. The surface content of the icon is not important. Rather than serving as a “symbol”, it is called an “anagogue” which means it is not a metaphor or a sign describing a mystery, but “the thing itself”. Interesting, that this is used as a phrase by students of Zen, and the New York School of painters and composers like Stella, Rauschenberg and John Cage. It is the window you pass through - into the cosmos, and it is the cosmos. I view my paintings as icons deconstructed. The icon speaks of the three “Lights”. There is reflected light, derived from another source, such as the sun; created light, originating in the pure energy of the Big Bang and still emanating today; and uncreated light, which was the state before the birth of the universe, the source of it all. My linear paintings (composed of hundreds of adjacent vertical lines of color) can be seen as uncreated light - light before the Big Bang - made visible as the created light or colors, as it is refracted through the prism of creation. Goethe said color is "troubled light", that is, fragmented light. My paintings present that broken light.
Can you describe your artistic process?
The linear work arose from my meditative practice. The linear work is a record of my meditation. Each vertical stroke of color is a breath, each stroke a prayer. It is, simultaneously, the present moment, and it is eternity. I am in love with lines, with parallel lines. Behind the world of appearances is the world of reality. That is what I seek in my art.
Do you have any expectations of the viewer?
No expectations, but, after someone looks at my art it would be nice if they would see the world a bit differently. Maybe their perspective might shift. Maybe stereotypes would fall away and they would realize that transformations are possible - if they are open and willing.
Do you have any concluding thoughts?
For many years I thought of myself as undisciplined. I thought that perhaps I was a bad artist, or immature, because the focus of my work would shift, say from sculpture to painting. Only in the past few years have I become to see that this is not a simple vacillation. Rather, I have come to see this movement, this exploration, as a kind of "cross training". We work various sets of aesthetic muscles to create. This seems as good a process as working the same muscles all the time.
My impulse is to bring together, to integrate; this is fundamental to who I am as an artist and as a human being. I understand my place in the world and the thrust of my work.
On a bad day, when the certainty flags, I talk to Edith and everything is cool.