Flex Gallery and the Work of Madison May

by Zachary Johnson

In response to a lack of public art opportunities during winter, on January 11th, I launched Flex Gallery, a mobile public art space located on my left arm. For the project, I sent canvas armbands to six artists, requesting they turn them into artworks. Each artist works in a wide variety of media, and I provided them with no themes or limitations other than the dimensions of the band. For the past week and a half, I have been wearing the work of Madison May, a local printmaking and sculpture artist and recent graduate of Kendall College. I spoke with her last week to learn more about her work and her creative process.

Madison May, Untitled (Flex Gallery), Mixed media, 2017.

ZJ: How did you come to your current body of work?

Madison May (MM): When I was studying at Kendall for my BFA in printmaking, the first thing that I started making artwork about were all the houses I’d lived in. I’m twenty-two, and I’ve lived in nineteen houses, so moving was a really big thing for me. I started using that as a point of departure, looking at these places I’d lived in and the structures of the homes. And I didn’t not like that work I was making, but I didn’t feel it was totally true to what was really driving me to make artwork. So, I was talking with one of my professors one day and realized that what I was hiding underneath those houses was the trauma that happened to me within [them]. So, that was a big change in my artwork.

From that point, I was able to confront my personal trauma with abuse within my family, with my father. As soon as I was able to deal with all the crap that happened to me, I thought, “Ok, now I want to take all this shitty stuff that happened and use it towards a greater good.” So I was starting to notice that a lot of other people that I was talking to, specifically women in my community, were like, “hey, that happened to me.” or, “yeah, I have very similar experiences”. And I was really outraged. I mean, Grand Rapids is a really small community and for as much as I was showing my work, which was quite a lot, there were quite a bit of people [saying these things]. So, I thought, “this is really serious to me.” I took the rest of my BFA career to talk about that. And then after I graduated in May, I did an Art Prize piece that was specifically about collecting objects from women that were abused and transforming those.

So I’m kind of in the middle now. I don’t really have a clear trajectory. I’m back to looking at my houses again. I’m not entirely sure why. I’m still working with some of those stories of abuse, but I just needed a break; it was really emotionally heavy. Also I’m now looking at my family, looking at the relationships that existed within it and those structures.

Madison May, $65.00, Mixed media, 2016.

Zachary Johnson (ZJ): How did you evolve from printmaking to the mixed media you’re using today?

MM: I describe myself as a process junkie; I can’t stick with one thing. The reason that I was drawn to printmaking is because it’s so process-oriented. You’re not just working with a pencil on paper. You’re starting with pencil on paper, then you’re working with copper, you’re working with a stone and doing different things with acids and inks, so it’s very hands-on and process-based. The idea of multiples in printmaking was something that was really important to me, but that shifted when I was dealing with all of the traumatic artwork that I was making because they were singular objects that I didn’t want to reproduce; they held so much import on their own.

So, I’m also a sculptor. I love using plaster, steel, wood, and all of that. The proces depends on what I’m making. I started with plaster with the ArtPrize show for Brianna because I’d recently been working with it, and I liked how heavy it was. And I felt encasing the objects from victims of abuse in plaster was very metaphorical because of the feeling that the objects gave off on their own.

Madison May, Confronting the Cycle, Mixed media installation, 2016.

ZJ: You mean in making them heavier and more substantial?

MM: Yeah. Sinking them in a block of plaster, that’s pretty severe – making them something very permanent like that. So, I switch between starting with a material and figuring out what it means later to having a concept and carrying that out. And typically when I have an idea from the get-go, I work with it in print media because printmaking is very orderly. You have to have a plan as to what you’re going to do. The things I make sculpturally are a lot more experimental. They range a lot more in the materials I use.

Madison May, One/365, Mixed media monotype, 2015.

ZJ: So then where are you moving now, material-wise. Do you have anything new you’re exploring?

MM: I’m really excited. After I graduated, I needed a break from printmaking because I’d been doing it for four years, and I ended up graduating with a primarily sculpture-based show. But then I got hired back at Kendall (in the printmaking department) and really missed printmaking and had the ability to do it again.

So I’ve been looking at ways of mixing my two practices, and there’s a specific process called collagraphy. Building the plates [for printing] out of sculptural materials and making multiples seemed like a good route to go. So I’m doing that right now. I have a show coming up at The Factory, February first, so I just wanted to make new work. I was tired of showing the same stuff. So right now I’m doing some collagraphs of the way that I remember the houses that I grew up in. So I went and found all of the houses that I lived in.

ZJ: Where are they?

MM: All around Grand Rapids. Some of them are in Forest Hills, some are in Wyoming, East Grand Rapids, a lot of them are up this way in the Northeast Side, Kentwood, Byron Center. I didn’t actually drive out there, though I have before. I did a lot of Google image searches and used Google Maps. And used those for a base of what the houses looked like. For example, one of the houses I’m doing right now, I  remember being really small, and it feeling very tall. So I’m making it super exaggerated and tall. So, they’re surreal in a way, but not fantasy, just exaggerated.

Madison May, Passing, Mixed media, 2016.

ZJ: So, more based in the inaccuracies of memory?

MM: Yeah. On top of that I’m working on a couple of other new prints as well which are going back to a couple of the processes like wood cut that I haven’t done in a really long time. I’m using my recent breakup as a point of departure for that.  I’m examining what happens when two people who’ve been together for three years decide not to be together, but they’re living in a home together. So there’s always the idea of a home for me. The home is constant.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about why I make work about the things I do. Now that I’m single and reflecting a lot, I’ve concluded that I make work about relationships because that’s something that’s really hard for me. We moved school districts six times. I never had the chance to learn how to make friends and make lasting relationships. I think that’s why I’m so interested in the dynamics of people.

ZJ: The armband you created and some of your other recent works incorporate grass seed. How did you get the idea to start working with it?

MM: I was in a collage class and everyone was doing works on paper. I thought, “I’m tired of paper. I’m tired of flat stuff. I’m over it.” I went back to this memory of having a pair of shoes that I’d outgrown and that we used as planters on our front porch. That was a thing in our neighborhood that people would do.

I had this pair of shoes and I was thinking a lot about materials. Instead of thinking about making imagery-based work I was thinking a lot about how materials can be metaphorical. So I recreated a pair of shoes thinking about how ironic it was that I was going through all of this really awful stuff at the time, and there was a lot of hurting and sadness and anger and pain and physical pain being caused in my family, and it reminded me a lot of this death inside of me. So, it was an homage to the shoes that I made [at the time], but also I started thinking about filling things with dirt and grass as a sort of little grave. Filling the object that had import and referenced that time reminded me a lot of a healing process. So the grass, with its lifespan, represents a lot of those things for me. I think it can be both hopeful and not because it ends up dying in the end. It’s metaphorical of a relationship starting and growing and dying and ending. Everything always comes full circle.

I think with the cheese cloth and suture [of the armband], it especially makes it resemble a wound. But also just looking at it, it really reminds me of a band-aid. I’ve never realized that. But this piece of fabric that has these bruise marks that I printed. It wraps around your arm, it looks like a band-aid. I’ve never really made something for someone to utilize, so it changes it in a really exciting way. I don’t know about your life and your pain, but it becomes yours because you’re wearing it.

Madison May, Wound Studies, Mixed media, 2016.

ZJ: How do you feel about being an artist in Grand Rapids?

MM: For right now, I love it. I have mixed feelings about it. I really love the Avenue for the Arts art scene. I did ArtPrize; it wasn’t a bad experience. It just wasn’t my thing. I feel kind of like I’m outgrowing the city a little bit. I know so many people, and that’s one of the reasons that my heart is here. I’ve always lived in the greater Grand Rapids area. So, it would be really hard to leave, but I’ve shown at every single gallery multiple times. It’s just getting to the point where maybe when I go to grad school, it’s not going to be here, you know?

But, I really like it. It’s grass roots. That’s one of the things I really appreciate about it. It’s a lot of people doing the ground work for this great thing that we’re all carrying. It’s incredible.

Madison May’s work will be on display in a solo exhibition at The Factory from February 1st. The Factory is located at 38 West Fulton Street, Suite 400, Grand Rapids, MI 49503.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Posts by Zachary Johnson are also available via instagram and tumblr under the name Vis Ed.

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