"I am writing to you because I think you might be interested in the work I do. I have been painting the everyday landscapes of Chicago for over a decade. The images are from our daily lives - nothing iconic or idealized, but where the City's infrastructure and Nature's insistence meet. I paint by bridges, on Goose Island, next to 90/94 - that kind of view." I received this message from Chicago artist Megan Williamson, in answer to my open invitation to all Chicagoans to 'Tell me your story'.
Meet Chicago artist Megan Williamson:
Megan, when did you know you wanted to be an artist?
I have drawn for as long as I can remember. I am a visual learner. If I could draw it – a frog dissection, geometric form or a timeline – I remember it, clearly. So making images has always been with me. I got a BA in art in college. I studied broadly, but I found that no matter the subject, I related to it/learned it through image. I never had a clear road map on how one became an artist, but I kept making art. I kept going to the studio. I have had a lot of jobs in my life to pay the bills – but I’ve only had one career. After awhile, paintings started paying the bills too.
Why landscape painting?
I love being out in the world. Landscape painting is a good balance to studio work. In the studio the still life sits in a specific relation to the easel, which is in a specific place in the room. When I am outside I am inside the subject matter – it surrounds me, 360 degrees. I have the challenges and the pleasures of the weather, the wind and what ever animal or human wanders over my way. There are a lot more things beyond my control when I am outside. I like that. Chicago in particular is an endlessly fascinating subject for me. The intersection of the infrastructure and nature is full of compositional potential and unexpected views. The name of the show "We Live Here" comes from that. It is a declaration – look, we live here.
The Medium: For me, oil painting is the most beautiful thing I have ever worked with. I use Old Holland paint – expensive but worth it because of the incredible quality. When oil paint dries, the bits of pigment are suspended and refract the light like nothing else.
Who are some of your favorite artists?
Giotto, Henri Matisse, Willem DeKooning, Jackson Pollock, Nell Blaine, Fairfield Porter.
What inspires your art?
I am inspired by both seeing the landscapes I pass through and knowing how to use the language of painting to explore and create in response to it all. Past masters, peers and teaching others also inspire me.
What do you like about being an artist?
I love what I do. I expect to be making art for the rest of my life. It is the closest I come to meditation and it allows me to really look and be present in the world. As an artist, I have met people from many countries and socioeconomic groups. I have worked with teenagers on the south side and dined with royalty. I love that art transcends so many boundaries – and I get to go with it.
What is the most challenging thing about being an artist?
Writing about it (!) It doesn’t pay well. There is so much rejection. The strange juxtaposition of doing something so close to my heart and taking it out to the marketplace. The US gives so little support to individual artists, both financially but also as a respected career. When I was younger, I had to call myself an artist rather than a painter because so often people assumed I was a house painter. That’s one of the (many) reasons I liked working in Italy, an artist having a place in society wasn’t questioned, and is valued.
Could you describe the process of completing a piece?
I commit to canvas what is before me because there is something that I want to see. I often say that I see a painting in a still life or landscape, I just don’t know what it will look like until I paint it. As I respond to what I look at, I translate it on to a 2 dimensional plane. I get lost in the looking at my subject and my canvas – back and forth like a tennis match. I make marks all over as I work, rarely finishing any one part before another.
How would you describe your art in one or two sentences?
I paint from observation (landscape and still life) going in and out of abstraction and figuration. The color in my paintings is strong and is how I anchor my work.
As an artist how do you recharge?
“The desire to write grows with writing” is a favorite quote of mine (Erasmus 15th C. philosopher). 9 times out of 10, just being in the studio will get me interested in something and when I am interested I am engaged and when I am engaged I am working. That being said, travel and the company of artist friends are also great restorers.
If you could tell a crowd of people about art, what would you say?
Looking at the depth, diversity and robustness of a society’s Art is a good way to gauge its health. It is like democracy needing a free press – the quality of it speaks to the health of our society.
I paint where I am. Mostly I am in Chicago, so I paint here. I am a landscape painter and always looking for new places to work. In the city I am drawn to sites where nature and infrastructure bump up against each other in curious and (what I see as) paintable ways.
Over my ten years of landscape painting in Chicago I have developed a very particular way of seeing it. I know about the undersides of bridges, where to look for pocket parks and how to work alongside expressway off-ramps. I have found a jewel of a green space surrounded by skyscrapers and where an old quarry has been turned into a park.
I have developed a fondness for brick smokestacks, cell phone towers and chimneys because of their compositional potential. I recognize the kinds of trees that thrive here – some by their common name (gingko, oak, linden) others by the names I have given them (wallpaper, garbage, lollipop). Through trial and error I have learned how to address the urban obstacles of parking, access and safety. I also have learned what to do if a flock of Canadian geese get aggressive (bark at them). By working right in them, I have felt quite connected to landscapes of Chicago.
Once I paint a place I never forget it. Seeing it again is always paired with the memory of the painting I did there. The site has become a private landmark for me. I have spent time in it and because of the nature of the places I choose, it is unlikely that anyone else has painted my view. In this way, in a city of millions I can lay claim to some amazing real estate. As a painter, I have found that connecting to a landscape is important to me.
Now that you've met the artist, come share her vision of your city, Chicago. See it like you have never done before; beauty where you may not have imagined. Look again.
Megan Williamson's "We Live Here" exhibit of paintings & drawings will be at the Bette Cerf Hill Gallery for only three days: Friday, December 6, 6:00 p.m. until 9:00 p.m., Saturday, December 7, 12:00 p.m. until 5:00 p.m. and Sunday, December 8, 12:00 p.m. until 4:00 p.m. (bagels and an artist talk at 12:30 p.m. on Sunday).