An interview by Helen Ferulli:
Alan Magee, in his studio in Cushing Maine August 19, 2002
from a series of interviews of visual artists on childhood recollections
I had two older brothers, one was 14 years older, the other 12 years older than I. A younger brother came along when I was about 9 years old. One older brother, Bob, had a natural ability to draw. I remember being thrilled by some sketchbook pages of movie posters that he drew in ballpoint pen, including one for James Whale’s Frankenstein. Richard, the oldest, did an anatomy project in school that was a kind of catalyst for me. I was around five. He made several drawings of the human skeleton with each of the bones identified. Those drawings sparked a fascination with anatomy—with bones and structure—that continues for me to this day.
My maternal grandfather was a farmer who would have liked to be an artist, but his responsibilities as a farm boy, and later as professional farmer, kept him from fulfilling this ambition. He went to the Museum School in Philadelphia for a short time. (That school became the Philadelphia College of Art, and is now The University of the Arts). He could draw very well, and his two children inherited this natural ability. My mother was extraordinarily talented; her childhood drawings still amaze me.
I would sometimes sit on my grandfather’s lap while he drew for me. I remember sitting on his knee, very near the end of his life, as he tried to draw a donkey, an animal that was very familiar to him. Even as a little kid, I could see that something was not going to go right with his proportions. He finally reached an impasse with the drawing. He could see that he wasn’t going to be able to bring it around and said “I guess I just can’t do it anymore.” I felt very badly for him. He had been a skillful draftsman.
No one, before me, became a professional artist in my family, though every one on my mother’s side had an unusual degree of natural ability. I often visit art schools now—for exhibitions or lectures—and I get a good look at how well, or poorly, kids in those early years draw. This gives me some perspective on the skillful and confident drawings my mother made, without any instruction, as a young girl.
My mother loved, above all else, drawing a human figure or face. She has some serious memory problems at this stage of her life. Now my communication with her is sometimes limited to drawings, but she’s still very keen on what makes a good picture and what doesn’t, even if she’s lost on most everything else. Her favorite subject was the human face, and she still gets very excited by the faces I draw for her. No matter how outlandish, distorted or strange these scribbled faces of mine may be she is always able to rise to them and to recognize something of human experience in them. I brought her a number of surreal, dark monotype faces in the 1990s expecting them to be too frightening for her, but she was clearly animated by them.
Recently, when she was looking at a reproduction of one of my large paintings of stones she said, “Poor Alan, not a single person in that whole painting.”
My family was supportive, but didn’t know exactly how to guide me. I was passionately interested in visual art but they had no direct experience of art education or of the lives of professional artists. The remarkable thing was that they never discouraged me—never planted a negative or cautionary thought—though they certainly must have had some idea of the difficulties ahead.
My mother was actually discouraged in her drawing as a child. Her mother was religious and looked on her interest in art as an exercise of vanity, so her scraps of paper with drawings were destroyed quite intentionally—taken away because they would feed a tendency my grandmother didn’t want to encourage. Her drawings were used as kindling in the kitchen cookstove. My mother was determined not to repeat her mother’s mistakes, and made every effort to see that I had paper to draw on (typewriter paper and, even better, white shirt cardboards). I remember her sending me to the nearby five-and-ten when hardly more than a toddler; I was to ask for “good quality coloring pencils”.
I was born in Newtown PA, and was fortunate in that the region was full of art and artists. There was access for a young person, a doorway of sorts, into art. And there were good art classes in my high school. We were introduced, briefly, to art history and the interested, engaged students were encouraged in their work.
But the young find their way to what they need in a great variety of ways. It doesn’t necessarily have to be through direct guidance. In remote places, the official world of art and culture is simply too distant, but there are other things a gifted child can find: examples of high craft—examples as accessible as the design of an automobile or a motorcycle, the art direction of a film, a book cover, or an inventive window display, and you just look, and learn, from those.
I was fortunate that I never had to worry about my health. However, I was deaf for a number of years during elementary school, a result of tonsillitis. If a teacher spoke to me from behind I couldn’t hear her. Partly because of this I was considered absent-minded, and lost in my own inner world—and, deafness aside, this assessment was essentially true. I think I chose a certain measure of isolation for myself. Much later, my parents told me about how I used say to my playmates: “ I’m sorry, I have to go into the house and draw now.” I just found a way to the things I needed to do, and this must have appeared very odd to my friends.
I wish I could see again the little “studio” I used as a child. There was a little parlor or corridor off the front door of our home at 101 North State Street in Newtown, and my parents made this room into a little studio with a writing desk, colored pencils, crayons, and a parakeet, which I loved. That place was my refuge much as my studio is today. My parents must have recognized my need for this dedicated space—this reserve where all my drawing was done.
When I was just able to walk, I discovered the back side of our house in Newtown which was of Bucks County fieldstone. I loved looking at this laid-up field of brown stones. And I loved the little tool shed, which needed a coat of paint—the texture was just wonderful. Slate flagstones were stored in the yard behind our home. Those great stacks of slate stimulated my imagination, becoming at times an automobile, a spaceship, or a rock pile from a TV-western.
There were other things too—textural things: the bark of a Sycamore tree, the green grass of our backyard, and the wash flapping on the clothesline. (When I was just two I used the bottom step of the stairway as a drawing table. I remember my mother asking me what I was drawing. I had drawn a simple horizontal line with a row of shorter vertical lines hanging from it. She asked, “What is that?” I knew it was the backyard clothesline. That, apparently, was my first drawing. My mother saved it, and everything else that I drew. I still have that first drawing.
My work is divided into things that are highly representational and things that are drawn from the imagination. The realistic work has its roots in to those early sensory impressions that I mentioned. The fascination with textures—with steel, with metal surfaces, tools, stones, envelopes—started a very long time ago.
Looking over my childhood drawings, I see that the subjects that drew me then still fascinate me today. This convinces me that our preferences and our leanings from childhood remain compelling for us, and that our earliest choices measure our inclinations.
For example, an anatomical drawing that I made as a child of six contains a drawing of the pencil which I used to make that drawing. How did I know that it was significant to draw that pencil? I thought the idea of drawing my tools, my pencils, paint tubes, and brushes, was a recent thought—the self-aware, slightly ironic gesture of an older man. So I have to recognize that, even as a preschool child, I seemed to know—to recognize—what was my own.
During my high school years I was helped and encouraged by our art teacher, Isabel Westberg. Mrs. Westberg arranged a little workspace for me at the back of the art-room. Noticing my inclination for drawing faces, she gave me the assignment of drawing a portrait of every seventh-grade student in that high school. That was a brilliant way of offering help and encouragement without imposing any restrictions or rules. That practice gave me a solid foundation in drawing the human head before I entered art school.
My friends, also, recognized my ability to draw, and I was frequently recruited to draw a street-rod, letter a car, or paint a design on a sweatshirt. I became the court artist in this circle of eccentric young friends. During my junior or senior year of high school I was told about a boy from a neighboring school who made these wonderful, detailed, enamel paintings on cars—applying the paint with builder’s nails instead of brushes. His reputation spread beyond his school community. I would have loved to see how he did that.
So, there was this complete subculture of the young, created and defined by my friends. We knew whom we could depend on to play the piano or guitar, to draw, to fix an engine or build something out of wood.
Toward the end of high school I was guided toward art school by Mrs. Westberg. She encouraged me to apply to the Tyler school of Art in Philadelphia. Even as I embarked on that course of art education, I didn’t have a clear idea of how art school might lead to a career as a painter.
The Vietnam War was escalating in those years, and it became the central concern of all young men of my age. The overriding issues for eighteen-year-old boys were the war and the draft, and those realities made my attendance at art school seem, for me, somehow nebulous and tentative. My memories of those years are so colored by the war and sixties politics that I cannot seem to remember my art classes with anything like the clarity that I can recall an anti-war speech by Paul Goodman, or a song by Phil Ochs.
As students in the early sixties, we were encouraged to find our own way in art. It was a time when the notion of freedom reigned supreme in art schools and university art departments across the country. There was very little technical guidance in the schools I attended, but like-minded students were enormously helpful to each other. I was fortunate, in my last two years of college, to be surrounded by supremely talented students—and this, more than anything else—made the difference in my life.
Back before college, though I had many friends, I felt isolated. I had an older friend, Toby Mack, who worked with me on a farm in the summer months. An accomplished thinker and reader, he sensed my situation, and suggested that I would probably have to “stew in my own juices” for a few years. Then, with the beginning of college, he predicted that I would meet my contemporaries—that I would find friendships based on the things that interested me. He was right, of course. That was exactly how it happened.
Looking back, I believe I could have found much of what I was looking for in my high school and in my community. We were given Kafka and Sartré in English class, but I was oblivious to literature’s relevance to my life. I could not separate the world of books from the regimented world of high school. You can give Kafka to a restless student, but it will be of no use unless the student has grasped—or is helped to grasp—the radical nature of literature.
I see many correspondences between my childhood experiences and my work today. The thread of continuity is so strong that I have learned to trust it and to follow it. I have the sense that this work is one single sheet of fabric and it keeps folding and refolding in new and unexpected configurations. Looking through the childhood drawings my mother had saved I can see direct correspondences to my current work. The editor of a PBS documentary about my work found a picture of a little pile of bones—a rudimentary line drawing that I had made when I was five—and a recent drawing that was virtually the same piece as the earlier one. She worked these two images, past and present, into a lap dissolve in her film. When my wife, Monika, and I saw this clip for the first time we just laughed out loud. Neither of us had any idea that I had drawn this picture some forty years earlier, as a five-year-old.
This process is clearly at work within all of us. It checks and measures the authenticity of our choices and conclusions. It seems that we are of one material throughout life, no matter how experience might weather our surfaces. My earliest fascinations haven’t cooled down with age; they seem to grow hotter. You learn to go with these inclinations, but you can’t attend to them responsibly and at the same time be watchful of what other people are going to like or praise. You know only what belongs, irrevocably, to you. This is the process.
I love things that are beautiful, clearly seen and highly realized, but I value the realm of mystery even more than the beauty of appearances. Art, it seems to me, has to invite participants into another realm if it is going be of real value to them. Kafka used this wonderful term “going over,” where the world [in his stories] is depicted in its recognizable aspect—except that in one single and fundamental way the logic of reality is overthrown—is shown to be drastically altered. Going over. If you’re attempting to transport someone through the experience of art to somewhere new, the tactile affirmation of the real can make that experience more convincing.
My wife Monika has observed how rich much of the art writing was twenty years ago. You didn’t need to explain a subtle point to anyone, readers were expected to understand, and they did. The large art institutions of today seem to be immune to subtlety. When art dissents from this crude status quo it falls away from visibility; acts of dissent today are largely seen as failures to adapt to the mandates of fashion. Working within this cultural condition is the challenge. My hope is that art can continue to make a difference to individual lives, if not to the culture at large—and that work made in good faith will continue to find its way to people who need it.
Asking artists, or anyone else, about their childhoods—asking them to unearth the roots of their adult lives and work—is pertinent to all of us. As children, we are all wandering around, picking up the little pieces from the salvage yard that are precisely the right parts for what we are putting together with our lives—unaware of what we’re building. But we pick up what is beautiful to us, what is ours. Then, as adults, we see that we’ve assembled this machine—this incredibly intricate thing built piece by piece in innocence. But it couldn’t be that innocent—because every part we’ve picked up has a place in the machine and the utility and fit of each piece is perfect.
This, to me, is the miracle and the incredible lesson of childhood. My life has been a single window into that enormous mystery. We’re all participating in it.