Local artist explores new medium in latest exhibit
At the start of the pandemic, local artist Maggie Smith channeled her fear of the unknown into abstract paintings, and now that collection has been turned into a new exhibit at W Gallery.
“In the Time of Covid” features 17 watercolors that incorporate a printmaking technique known as soft engraving, in which designs are etched into the paper when it is wet.
Smith — who had always been intrigued by abstract art but had never tried it before — decided to explore a new medium when the pandemic hit in 2020. Primarily a printmaker, she began working with watercolors. Beginning with wet paper, she put down one color and let it find its way around the paper; then she would layer on more and more.
“I love the transparency of watercolors,” Smith said. “Overlaying many layers was random and almost cathartic during a chaotic time when we had no idea where we were heading. There is chaos in abstract art, too.”
Once the color was on the paper, Smith used a sharp tool to etch designs into the wet paper, which is then filled with the pigment. In some paintings, the designs are barely visible, and in others, they are a focal point.
Each painting features a depiction of people or animals, which Smith said shows up often in her work.
“Animals have been a theme throughout my whole career,” she explained. “When I started doing these abstracts, I initially felt like something was missing, and then I realized that there should be animals in there. They kind of act as a counterpoint to the abstract chaos.”
One of her paintings, “Dogs in the Time of Covid,” shows Smith’s dog who died from cancer during the pandemic. He is pictured with her friend and former studio-mate Susan Schiesser’s dog, which Schiesser gave to Smith shortly before she too died from cancer.
“That painting gave me closure,” Smith said.
Other paintings depict animals like elephants, racoons, cats and swans. Smith often did not start with a plan but put animals into the paintings according to what she saw within the colors and the shapes that they created. For example, in one painting, she saw a ball of yarn and added cats. In another, she saw a tree and added raccoons to it.
“Refugees in the Time of Covid” depicts a concern that has been close to her heart.
“Immigration and refugees have long been a concern to me,” she explained. “There are people out there who are struggling and even more so during the pandemic.”
Using a blind contour process, she used soft engraving to create the background etchings of refugees and then painted an immigrant family in the front of the piece.
Most of the paintings in the show are framed without glass in the style of an oil painting — instead they are coated with a finish and put into a frame as is. It’s a technique that creates an intimacy and an immediacy that is often missed when there is glass on top of a picture, said W Gallery owner Katherine Kiefer.
“The glass acts as a barrier and protects the art, but sometimes, it keeps us from experiencing it in its true depth,” Kiefer said. “There’s an intimacy that you get when you view a piece of art that is exposed; it enhances the visual impact.”
Kiefer said that W Gallery, which is a small, intimate space, is the perfect venue for this type of work.
“The paintings require introspection and study to really try to get to the root of what Maggie is trying to communicate,” she said. “They’re wonderfully beautiful and complex.”
The exhibit will open during First Friday Artwalk from 5-8 p.m. Jan. 7 and hang in the gallery through January and February. During the artwalk, two guests are invited in at a time, and in the coming weeks, the exhibit can be viewed by appointment only. To schedule an appointment, please call 970-879-7026.
What: “In the Time of Covid” by Maggie Smith
When: 5-8 p.m. Friday, Jan. 7; exhibit will hang through January and February,Where: W Gallery; 115 9th St.
Please note: Masks are required to enter, and two guests will be allowed in at a time
Sophie Dingle is a contributing writer for the Steamboat Pilot & Today. She can be reached through the editor.
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