The Love List

est. 2006

Maggie Mathews' Art: Water, Shells and Bones

ART, JUNE15, PEOPLEJess Graves
Mathews' Buckhead studio is littered with natural elements, art books and inspiration.

Mathews' Buckhead studio is littered with natural elements, art books and inspiration.

Words: Katherine Michalak | Photos: Caroline Fontenot

Atlanta-bred abstract painter Maggie Mathews calls the beaches of St. George Island her muse. We caught up with her on the eve of her first solo exhibition.


I met with Maggie Mathews at the studio space she’s recently moved into, where she’s still getting settled. 

“Sorry, I’m realizing I haven’t cleared off places to sit,” she chuckles, moving a box from a chair and dragging over a stool. 

She’s relaxed and casual, not an ounce of pretense or staunch formality. Soon we’re rambling on as though we’ve been hanging out for years. We sip coffee as she tells me about her upcoming show, pointing to the stacks of canvases leaning against walls behind her waiting to be hung together at this important debut. She tells me that all her previous work -- the private commissions, the marketplaces and pop-up shops, the independent projects -- has been preparing her for this show. 

 “Everything up to now has been research.” She says.

Atlanta-bred abstract painter Maggie Mathews.

Atlanta-bred abstract painter Maggie Mathews.

There’s never been a time in Mathews’ life when making art was not her singular focus. As she rattles off the list of creative forces perched in her family tree, she unwittingly gives further credence to the age-old nature/nurture discussion. Raised in the family furniture business, hanging around the “office” resulted in absorbing the interplay of line, form, color and pattern. A treasured aunt paints, her father draws and sketches, and both her parents greatly encourage artistic expression. So, for Mathews, becoming a painter felt less like establishing an occupation and more like speaking in her native tongue. 

She grew up in Atlanta, her childhood home resting on the banks of the Chattahoochee, which offered up a watery playground replete with active wildlife. Regular trips to St. George Island, Florida intensified her fascination with shoreline ecosystems, an appeal that developed into a lifelong artistic symbiosis. As a school girl, Mathews painted sections of Lilly Pulitzer patterns she liked, delighting in the color. College brought intensive study and further technique development.

Mathews remains mesmerized by masters such as Georgia O. Keefe, Joan Mitchell, Cy Twombley, Willem de Kooning and David Hockney; she’s also counts Betty Anglin Smith and Jim Draper among her influences and is energized with inspiration by her contemporaries -- from colleagues like Sally King Benedict to local Atlanta street artists. 

Mathews' painted champagne bottles have become a hot commodity among her collectors.

Mathews' painted champagne bottles have become a hot commodity among her collectors.

She also enjoys writing and interior design, yet continually returns to her brushes for deepest expression. Mathews started out her professional career painting landscapes, mostly coastal, before moving into full exploration of abstracts. Her pieces range in size, from small accent canvases to wall-sized panels and mural projects; she loves to paint large-scale, or as she says “really stretch and extend my arms” giving an inherent physicality to those works.

Maggie admits to pressuring herself for (perceived) success right out of her college art study, approaching her work from a perfectionist standpoint and becoming increasingly frustrated. She over-conceptualized as she struggled with what her art “should/could/would be about” and searched for powerful themes. In short, she was thinking too much. Once she began to relax and acknowledge the images that had always been floating about in her head, she moved into her comfort zone. 

Maggie concedes, “I started to respect it... respect that painting to feel good is enough.” 

New works in various stages of completion are stacked high in Mathews' studio.

New works in various stages of completion are stacked high in Mathews' studio.

That’s when she caught her current and found her muse. Water, shells, bone -- these are Maggie’s calling cards, the motifs of each simultaneously juxtaposing and mimicking each other in a confluence of texture. Maggie walked me through a few paintings as examples, basically giving me a guided tour inside her mind, and within moments the patterns lodged in my brain as well -- tides and driftwood, oysters and cow skulls, turtles and insect exoskeletons dancing around in kaleidoscope transitions. 

We’ve talked for over an hour before I mention that I brought a whole list of interview questions along with me and had yet to look at them. Mathews smiles and tells me to get them out.

I’ve already learned so much about her, but I pick one question from my notes to ask: “Mark Twain said,’The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.’ When did you discover your artistic birthday?” 

Maggie ponders the question for a long minute then declares, “Probably now, I think. Now it’s all starting to feel right, starting to make sense to me.” 

Mathews largely works in acrylic, but dabbles in watercolor and pastels as well.

Mathews largely works in acrylic, but dabbles in watercolor and pastels as well.