Combining her fine art training with her love of textiles, Margot Lovinger creates figurative fiber art with layers that evoke the subtle translucency of Old Masters’ paintings. With careful planning and meticulous execution Margot achieves a high level of realism in her art quilts.
How did you find yourself on an artist’s path? Always there? Lightbulb moment? Dragged kicking and screaming? Evolving?
I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t somewhere on this path. Even as a small child, I absolutely loved to draw, and I was good at it. I wasn’t very confident socially, but I remember making friends by sitting down somewhere public to draw, like the school bus or the cafeteria, and letting kids watch over my shoulders.
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As I grew up, my parents strongly encouraged my interest. They enrolled me in Saturday classes at local community art centers and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. I started drawing from the figure when I was about 15 years old, and it has remained my favorite subject ever since.
By the time I was graduating from high school, I had no doubt I would attend an art school next. Wanting to experience the excitement of a larger city, I moved from Boston to New York in 1989 and began attending Parsons School of Design. I spent two years there before family circumstances necessitated my return to Boston. I transferred to the School of the Museum of Fine Arts to finish my degree.
Though I certainly hadn’t planned it that way, spending my first two years in the Fine Arts department at Parsons, and my second two years at the Museum School, felt like just the right combination. Parsons was extremely demanding of their students. I learned there how to work in many different media, and how to push myself. I had to be disciplined about getting the work done. Plus humility. Never-ending lessons in humility.
When I transferred to the Museum School, I discovered that they had a totally different approach to grading and assignments, and all my proficiency and work ethic didn’t count for much. At this school, they wanted to know what I thought. They pushed me to look for a deeper meaning in my work, to use it as a means of communication and connection.
Since art school, making art has always been a part of the background or foreground of my life. Sometimes I’ve had jobs working in the arts; sometimes I’ve had a regular day job and made art in my off-hours. Currently, I am centering working as an artist, while also raising a kid and working a volunteer job.
With your fine art background, how did you come to use fabric as your medium?
During my years in art school, I experimented with a lot of different media – including textiles. That did not go over particularly well at Parsons, which was the first (but not the last!) place I encountered the word “feminine” being used as a pejorative term in an art critique.
Later, at the museum school, I used fabrics and embroidery to powerful effect in some mixed media pieces. I learned to sew over summers in high school, and usually made most of my own clothes. I started using some of those skills to create sculptural art. These were elaborate garments that seemed ready for use in a ritual. And story quilts that required the viewer to interact with the quilt in order to reveal the full narrative. Some of the pieces were more successful than others, but my use of fabric as an art medium was being well received by my new professors and peers so far.
However, another goal continued to elude me. In my heart, I had always imagined myself becoming a figure painter. I absolutely loved looking at figure painting, but I just wasn’t very good at it. I had been taking painting classes for years at this point, but my paintings were mostly awkward and lifeless. My painting teachers did not encourage me to keep going. It felt like something I had to give up on.
After graduation, it quickly became clear that I had far fewer options for art-making in my 600 sq.ft., 3rd floor apartment than I had had in an art school full of tools and equipment. Though my final review board at graduation featured work in stained glass, cast glass, wood sculpture, carved stone, story quilts, sculptural garments, clay sculpture, and a lot of mixed media work, I was quickly reduced to few choices, and found myself turning to fabrics again and again.
Eventually, my long-held dream to be a figure painter and my growing interest in making art from fabrics came together. I started making the first of the hand-sewn figurative fabric pieces that evolved into what I still do today.
Has your work always celebrated the human form?
My fabric work has always been about the human form. I’ve tried to branch out into landscapes and still lifes, but I’m only pretending to be interested. My real passion has always been for the figure.
However, fabric is not the only medium I create in. I also paint murals and cars. In that case my work is much more about pattern and color, and rarely involves the figure.
As your “paint” palette, what do you look for when you acquire fabric? Do different types of fabric serve different purposes in your compositions?
When I’m looking for fabrics for a piece I’m working on, I start out by looking for my base fabrics. These are usually patterned cottons, silks, satins and brocades. They will comprise the main colors and shapes of the composition and form the base layer, including a solid colored cotton where the skin will be. Usually, I temporarily fuse this base layer to muslin, then stitch it all down later.
When I have filled in all the main shapes and colors of the base layer, I start looking for sheer fabrics. With those I’ll be doing all the shading, tinting, and creating definition and depth. Most of these sheer fabrics are nylon tulle, which is the extremely fine mesh netting often used for bridal veils. It comes in a couple dozen colors, some of which change seasonally. I can combine them in different orders to create a huge range of colors. I buy yards upon yards of any colors I consider hard to find (avocado green, you say?), and other colors I consider essentials in my palette (couldn’t do what I do without plum!), so ultimately I have a massive amount of tulle in a whole spectrum of colors already in my studio.
When you begin to create, do you visualize the finished piece? Or does the work evolve?
I usually have a very clear picture of what a piece is ultimately going to look like; only very rarely does that picture turn out not to be accurate. So much planning goes into every aspect of each piece, I tend to know exactly how the final work will look before I ever pick up my scissors.
My sketchbook has approximations and pattern pieces and drawings and maps. An outside observer would get some sense of what to expect, but inside my head, it’s crystal clear.
Your transitions from one color to another are both subtle and distinct. How are you able to achieve such a painterly effect with hand-cut fabric?
Yes, what I’m trying to do is just that – use fabric in a painterly way.
In art history class (and I LOVED art history classes), I remember learning about the work of the great masters. Painters like Vermeer achieved such luminous depth in their paintings with a technique called glazing.
In oil painting, glazing was building up color and shadow in many thin transparent layers of oil and varnish with just a little pigment. I discovered that I could achieve a similar effect in fabric by using single layers of colored tulle; Tulle comes in many bright, deep colors, but a single layer makes a very subtle change in whatever it covers. So I devised this technique of using individual layers of several different colors to build depth and shadow in my portrait quilts; it is much the way glazing is used in oil painting.
Are there recurring themes in your work? Do you do series work?
I tend to create work in open-ended series, though not exclusively. I say “open ended” because I don’t think of many of them as necessarily complete, just paused momentarily. Each series is structured around a vague theme – some series are more about connection, some about absence, some about sensuality.
If there’s one thing that all of my pieces have in common, I’d say it is that I always have a sense of which of my influences is at the forefront while making a quilt. Some pieces are specifically an homage to another artist – like “Sleeping Muse”, which I created in response to Andrew Wyeth’s paintings of his model Helga. Others are less specific, but still show heavy influence; I’ve always thought of Demeter and Artemis as being shaped by the work of Waterhouse and Lepage and Millais.
How does your studio organization contribute to your work process?
I am not a terribly organized person, though I do need to have a clear worktable. The rest of the studio is a pleasant, colorful chaos (dotted with pets sleeping in patches of sunlight). But my main work table is sacrosanct. Side tables are covered in piles of fabrics in use, but tulle is bunched up and added to the huge storage bins under my work table, because tulle is virtually impossible to fold or keep smooth and organized, so why try? I mostly just struggle to keep it contained.
What are the indispensable tools and materials in your studio?
My number one tool is my worktable. I built it myself. It’s a two-part, 6‘ x 4‘ light box on wheels. I like to create a full-sized paper line drawing that essentially acts as a pattern for the piece. By putting this drawing underneath all my fabric on a light table, I can switch on the lights and still find the lines I intended to follow.
Second to that, I’m a little obsessive about my scissors, but who isn’t?
Do you use a sketchbook or journal? How does that help your work develop?
Yes, I make copious notes while I work. I make lists of fabrics I need to find, glue in photocopies of the source images I’m working from. There are maps of pattern pieces, filled in with colored pencils. Sometimes, when I am really in the flow of working on a piece, I get sloppy about record keeping.
If I’m being conscientious, I’ve written down a description of every type and color of fabric in the piece, and the order in which I have stitched it down. It’s good to be able to look back through my notes to see how I achieved a particular color. And it’s absolutely necessary to have accurate notes if I ever need to repair a piece later on.
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? If so, what kind?
It completely depends on what stage of working on the piece I’m in. If I’m in an early stage, where I’m still designing what the piece is going to look like, my studio is probably silent in my studio. Possibly I’ve put on some quiet background music without lyrics (or lyrics in another language). Then I’m not too distracted from my task, or influenced by the expression of others, but silence is likely.
If I’m cutting out fabric pieces, I need focus, but I’m not usually making a lot of big decisions. I’m mostly executing decisions I’ve already made, so I’ll likely have music on, something upbeat and loud.
But once I’m quilting, basically all decision-making has happened already; now I just have to endure the tedium that is hand quilting. So then I listen to audiobooks, something fast-paced or a mystery, which helps keep me in my seat quilting for longer stretches without getting so bored.
Tell us about a challenging piece. What were the obstacles and how did you get past them?
One of the toughest pieces I ever made was “Afternoon”. I wanted to give myself a challenge, and boy, did I ever!
Until attempting this piece, I had never worked with low contrast or a light palette, and I wanted to see if I could do it. The reason this posed such a challenge is that I typically use a lot of layers to define forms. In the darkest parts of a piece, there might be as many as 11 or 12 layers of fabric to create the color you see. In the lightest parts, maybe there are only 4 or 5 layers.
But with this piece I had set her up surrounded by white. So I had to figure out how to define the forms with far fewer layers. If I put too many layers of color on top of it, it would very quickly get muddy and dark.
Also, I wanted the whites to be distinct from each other, to represent different textures and slightly different shades. But I could only tint them with tulle a very little bit, or else they’d all turn into pastels. It forced me to completely re-think the way I was working; my work up until then had all been quite dark. It was a very useful exercise, and I liked the quilt that it turned into quite a bit.
What are you working on now?
At the moment, I am working on the largest piece I’ve ever done, about 32″ x 72“ I think. It’s a portrait of my daughter, Elliot, at age 10. She has always been a big fan of dress-up; I have loved watching her swish through the house in elaborate costumes with her friends.
In her portrait, she wears a floor length dress and a chiffon wrap. Her curly hair is up in a peacock feather scarf. And she is wearing many tangled strands of pearl necklaces and posing with a parasol. For this quilt, I’m very deliberately working in the style of Alfons Maria Mucha, a Czech artist of the Art Nouveau period, best known for his theatrical posters and advertisements for companies like Job cigarette papers and Moet et Chandon champagne. This quilt has been in progress for a long time (she’s 12 now); work has slowed down because of life circumstances. But I’m hoping to have it completed by the end of the summer.
Interview with Margot Lovinger posted May 2020
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