Five-Dots is a Cincinnati-based online publication that hopes to open a conversation between artists/craftsman and the public about their work, process, ideas, concerns about their community and workspace.
Made in Cincinnati vendor and fine artist Megan Bickel helms this project with partner and photographer Cassandra Zetta. They release a new interview with a local creative, artist or maker regularly on their site including — this interview with artist Margaret Cleary.
Margaret Cleary is an artist and musician working out of Cincinnati, OH. Her studio is based out of Wave Pool in Camp Washington. She is currently a singer and guitarist in the local band MARR.
Maggie Cleary strives to be uncomfortably vulnerable. Through art and music she tries to hold herself emotionally accountable. She always asks the question: "Why do I do the things I do?" By questioning her own actions, she is opening up the inevitable search for the inception of the cyclical patterns that humans invent and dutifully carry out. The more humans understand their actions and themselves, the more they gain agency. Her work also references the human body being that is a physical vessel for one's perception of the world. Looking closely at the comparison between skin and plastic she seeks to question real vs. fake. Through sound and music performance, video projection, fiber sculpture, and installation, and acrylic paint, she evokes work that is self-reflexive and referential to the unique experience of perception. Using a broad range of mediums affords her freedom in her exploration in authenticity, vulnerability, and the ongoing quest to understanding “why?”
F-D: How long have you been in this studio?
Margaret Cleary: About a year and a half. I originally shared this space with another person.
F-D: How? This space is so tiny.
MC: I originally was only in this corner here. I was making tiny things and I just needed like, a table. My old studio mate did a lot of air brush painting. Our work was really interesting together. At the time we were both painting, but he was attempting to make realistic paintings that recalled those edited on Photoshop utilizing an airbrush gun. He is a 3D modeler, and so he is interested in the gradient elements that can occur within editing software, but he was also trying to edit that and bring a physicality to the work.
F-D: When you moved in here, did you have an idea for how you wanted to lay it out or did it develop organically?
MC: It definitely developed organically. At first with it being a shared space it was extremely divided, you know the whole, don’t bleed into his space, he can’t bleed into mine sort of thing. But after he left it felt really bare and I didn’t really know what to do with myself for a while. And then all of the sudden it just occurred to me to go crazy. I had all of this space to myself, you know? What was I doing? So I did some things to make it more applicable to me and my work space. I’ve always tried to [divide my space by activity]. I just felt like all of the different activities needed to be separate. Maybe it relates to messiness. It's just as important for me to have a space as it is for me to have all of these non sensical elements such as a crazy red plastic chair and a mannequin with barbed wire. No one sees it, but. . .
F-D: Has the location of the studio influenced your work in any way?
MC: Maybe not it being in Camp Washington, which is a little sad. Perhaps it should affect me a little bit more. But I do interact within Wave Pool, and they are really good about integrating the community, it’s something that is really important to them. If there is an opening or a fundraiser or something, it isn’t just the art community that’s here, they’re really good about going out and asking people to come in and check out the art and grab a bite to eat. So that is nice. There is also events and stuff going on. So it’s easy to stay motivated because I feel like I’m a part of the art community. Even if I am just in my studio making fur babies.
F-D: Can you describe a typical day for yourself in the studio?
MC: I’m a prototyping specialist at Haney PRC. I work there until 5 Monday through Friday. I try to get in here about 3 times a week. I live not far from here and so that helps. But with Marr, my band, this unfortunately takes the back burner quite a bit.
F-D: How would you describe your subject matter or the content of your work?
MC: I always work in a form of self portraiture. I have always been obsessed with my own skin-- or maybe just the idea of being human-- we're just stacks of flesh walking around-- with ailments and [imperfections]. When I was younger I had bad skin, and I was really obsessed with making it perfect. [Retrospectively] I was just having a reaction to being a young girl who sees images of beautiful skin everywhere and wondering why I couldn’t obtain that. That is why I like working with plastic or acrylic or faux fur. Everything is so symbolic of human elements, but remains so obviously artificial. It’s kind of an age old idea.
F-D: Yes, but I think that reaching out and utilizing plastic as a form of understanding that issue is an interesting way of understanding that phenomenon.
MC: When I was younger my mother made me listen to this radio show called Ruby [a cyberpunk radio drama started in the early 1980’s] that talked about metaphysical issues and inception and other things while integrating common radio drama tropes. I think it seeped into my subconscious and that is how I began my obsession with plastic. All of the characters are cyborgs and there is one character that is fixated on creating the perfect woman. . . and he has a lot of ramblings about plastic, and those ramblings contain a lot of sexual undertones. For me, there isn't any [interest] in the sexuality of plastic, but his hunt for materials to make the perfect woman is somewhat relatable when you are a teen girl.
I’m also interested in how we are physically unable to look at and directly experience our own bodies because we can’t see a real image of them [ in reference to photography and mirror imaging]. I mean, think of all of the times that you have felt 10 pounds heavier within your body, when in fact you weren’t. So I think my next big project is going to discuss that idea.
F-D: What mediums do you work with?
MC: For a while I was painting with acrylic, for all of the same reasons that I like working with plastic. I had taken a little break from working after I graduated and I think I was just using it as a way to get back into working; it was something I was familiar with. Painting almost always ends up with me getting excited about whatever I am working on becoming a physical thing, beyond a painted interpretation. And then I end up assembling and working from there. I’m also working on some sound based projects, plastic of course, and fiber. The fiber has to be very artificial and chemically based in plastic. I want it to mimic the living in a very quasi way.
F-D: Do you think that you use painting as a form of sketching.
MC: Yea, because I don’t really draw as a form of planning.
F-D: Can you tell us more about this process and how it has evolved?
MC: I think I get really excited about certain projects and ideas and then it will kind of fizzle out. I just generally go until I lose interest or I find another medium that will be more communicative of my ideas. I think I am beginning to lean towards a more digital format-- digital, projection, and sound based projects.
F-D: So are you then still utilizing painting for these digital pieces?
MC: More so writing than painting. I think ideally down the line everything will merge together.
F-D: Do you have narratives in mind for each piece?
MC: I think it’s all based around perception and how I feel like I fit into my environment versus how I am actually fitting into my environment. I actually just completed a video project that I was working on for MARR. The album’s theme was "do you feel safe?". I projected waves onto my bed and then rolled within the sheets-- it was a pretty straight forward concept, beds statistically equal safety-- but what was interesting was what happened while editing the video. We had some really great glitches that occurred while editing. The glitches gave a sort of CMYK pixellated geometric image that is so categorized within technology failures. As you continue to watch the film two different patterns start to emerge: the rolling wave light pattern and the pixellated digital abstraction. I think the narrative was the [intentional pattern] and the accidental pattern.
F-D: Do you consider your work to be autobiographical at all; does personal history work its way into your art?
MC: Yes. Absolutely. I mean, my entire thesis work discussed the history between myself, my mother, and my grandmother. All three of us are artists, and my thesis revolved around me trying to figure out how I could be something new. How could I become a new version of the ‘mother’, ‘sister’, and ‘daughter’. As a side note; I’m really obsessed with faux fur because of the fakeness and the plasticity. A few months ago, I was thinking about this story of my Turkish Grandmother. When she was much younger, it was her job in the morning to go feed the silk worms in her attic. I was having this weird moment where I didn’t really know what I wanted to make, and I had this need for comfort and I was thinking a lot about the silk worms. I’m not the best seamstress, but I do enjoy working with fabric-- so I had my mother help me with the stitching , but we ended up making this lightweight faux fur body suit as a way to recall her past and to create something comforting and warm-- sort of like these old familial stories.
F-D: So what was your intention with the body suites? Was it performative?
MC: Yes, eventually I wanted to perform in it. I don’t necessarily have any of the sound piece worked on at the moment.
F-D: What influences outside the visual arts inspire and impact your approach to making work?
MC: Music, philosophy, and information. Sometimes I don't understand all of the philosophy that I read, but I contain a strong desire to understand it. So I’ll get parts of it, and then feel really good about myself.
F-D: What does having a physical space to make art in mean for your process, and how do you make your space work for you?
MC: If I didn’t have a space I don’t think that I would be making anything. Having this space forces me to keep up my practice. Maybe if I was able to have a designated space within my home it would work. But as of right now that isn’t possible. I also like my space to replicate what I am currently working on. I want to see bright colors and other things that influence me. I really needed to nest in here in order to make work.
Five-Dots interviews are co-published by Made in Cincinnati in an effort to expand awareness of local artists and their craft. Interviews by Megan Bickel. Photos by Cassandra Zetta.