Feeling and Memory :: Boston-Based Artist Keith Maddy

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Thursday October 31, 2019

Gentle blues and reds stand out against warm, calming tones while striking shapes nestle within loops and arcs and lattices, looking like the products of impeccably-drawn line work. But these artworks are not produced using pen and ink; nor do brushes and paints figure into their creation; and, as easy as it might be to revert to 21st century options like a computer and high-quality printer, Boston-based artist Keith Maddy won't settle for anything that's not palpable in a tactile, as well as visual, sense.

Maddy works in collage, carefully cutting and assembling each element of his complex and meticulously-created works. The rhythms he establishes are soothing, even as the visual journeys his work take one on are compelling. Maddy often uses vintage children's books as source material, and everything about the images he selects — from the specific hues and saturations of the colors to their surface-level themes to the deeper meanings he arrives at through shape and context — rings with a kind of visceral comfort. It's a sense of familiarity that persists even with his most abstract pieces. It feels homey, comfortable — and comforting. In a world brimming over with confrontation, Maddy succeeds in offering happiness, security, and solace.

Maddy was recently part of an exhibit in London that also featured a "People's Choice" contest — a contest that the people who saw and appreciated his work responded to. EDGE, having seen Maddy's work at exhibitions around Boston, took the opportunity to interview him about the exhibition, his inclusion in upcoming showings in Boston and New York, and the key ingredients to his creations: Play, joy, and lots of patient, dedicated work.

EDGE: You have exhibited extensively around the country and internationally but right now you are part of an exhibit at the Cynthia Corbett Gallery in London. What can you tell me about that?

Keith Maddy: This was a great opportunity. It was one of many that I thought I would throw my hat in the ring and apply to. The exhibit was specifically asking artists to relate their work to an art historical context and they were looking for a really wide range of mediums, styles. Currently I am working in collage/works on paper and I submitted my entry discussing the history of collage from Victorian craft and how it was introduced into painting by Picasso and his contemporaries, and the many ways it has since, and continues to be, a major art form. I don't know what I was thinking [would happen] if I got in. I had been rejected from several local and New York City events, but lo and behold, I got in as a finalist — one of 18 out of 500.

EDGE: That's a big, exciting thing that there is actually a contest involved with this — it's not just an exhibition.

Keith Maddy: Yes, and they have several awards in different categories hand-selected by a panel of esteemed judges. One of the awards is a "People's Choice" award that people vote for online, which I won! It's relatively short as exhibitions go — it's only a week long, but they keep the work for six months and do a lot of networking to promote the work at various viewing opportunities and art fairs for further potential sales.

EDGE: Do you have other work up currently at galleries in the Boston area?

Keith Maddy: I do not have anything up currently. I am working toward a solo exhibit at Howard Yezersky Gallery in May of 2020. I am also preparing for Fenway Open Studios, Nov. 9/10, when my studio will be open to the public!

EDGE The sense I get from your work is one of nostalgia, perhaps for childhood. That comes across in large part thanks to the motifs and source materials you use — including children's books from the 1950s and '60s.

Keith Maddy: Definitely, there is a certain sense of nostalgia that comes from a sense of comfort for me, in a certain color palette, texture or material. My work has always been collage-based; the foundation of my work always starting with something else — a vintage textile, or a vintage reproduction of an oil painting, one of those old flea market or thrift store finds, that I would work on top of. [The sense of the past] always permeated through the work, and I think people always felt it. But the current work that I'm doing — the collage work, and specifically cutting out of vintage children's books and books from the '30s — '50s, there is a certain quality of innocence, I guess, that I'm trying to recapture — that playfulness of childhood and memory.

EDGE: Each of your works is so elaborate and meticulously done, and cut out very, very carefully. Someone looking at your work might not even know that what you're doing in cutting out these images that you're blending together, because they don't look at all cut; they are not at all sloppy; they look drawn or printed onto the paper. How many hours does that take you?

[Laughter]

Keith Maddy: Oh! Well, first I want to say I'm glad you said they almost look drawn. Collage does not have its own category, often. "Works on Paper" is what the terminology is for collage when you're applying for grants. I've won a couple of fellowships from the Mass Cultural Council in the Drawing and Printmaking category.

I've approached a lot of my collage as drawing, in a sense, because from the very abstract, which cutouts become so layered it's like a scribble that you see things inside of and poking out, and teasing at your memory, or teasing at recognition. My current work is evolving more, now, as I'm opening up that scribble where things are very clear and it's almost a kind of storytelling because they are, like you said, specifically cut out inside and outside; it's just a line drawing of the image.

To answer your question, sometimes I'm in the studio for eight hours and all I'll do is cut. I may be looking for a particular shape or image that will fit into a current piece that I'm working on and I think I may have found it — I go and I spend an hour cutting it out — and it doesn't work. And then that piece becomes part of my inventory.

EDGE: Waste not, want not!

Keith Maddy: Absolutely! So I have files of birds, children, shapes, etc.

EDGE: You're describing a labor-intensive process. Is it hard on you physically? Do you suffer stress or pain in your hands, or your neck, lower back, or other places that might get overused?

Keith Maddy: Not really. I try to get up and move around, stretch out, but sometimes neck and low back stiffen up a little bit. Eyes are a big factor; they get tired more than anything else after a long day!

EDGE: Given that images like the ones you're creating could be generated in a fraction of the time, and with much less work, by using a computer, what is it about this kind of physical media that attracts you?

Keith Maddy: That's a great question, and that was part of the point that I was making when I applied to this exhibition in London. In this day, in which things can be so easily manipulated on a computer, to have someone actually physically doing it — for one, the work is much more tactile; and when you see my work in person you get that sense. Sometimes, especially with the layered pieces, it's almost [a form of] sculpture. It's still relatively flat, but you can see that there are layers. Sometimes those layers are more built up, and sometimes there's just one layer. But for me, it's just the simplicity of doing something by hand. And again, perhaps that ties into the nostalgia of a simpler time, even though it's simpler now to work on a computer — but, you know, to work with your hands and be in our head in that place, and it doesn't involve technology. It's a very basic function.

And while I'm in the studio cutting for seven or eight hours, it's also a very Zen, or quiet, place to be. I'm not distracted by bells and whistle or pop-up [advertisements], or staring at the screen.

EDGE: So it's a bit of a refuge from technology — do you turn your cell phone off?

Keith Maddy: Well, the cell phone is in the studio, and if I get a call or something it has nothing to do with the work. And it's usually pretty quiet.

EDGE: Do you start out with a general idea for a piece, or even a detailed pre-visualization of some kind — a sketch or something? Or do you sit down with your tools and source materials and start discovering things, letting them come together, so to speak?

Keith Maddy: I think it's the latter. The materials and imagery often will guide me. I buy a lot of my materials now on eBay, because it takes a lot more time to scour flea markets and thrift stores and I don't always find what I need. For example, the foundation for the piece I've just finished is a tabletop Chinese folding screen that I bought on eBay. It had an image of birds on a branch that went across the screen and I just thought, "What a simple and beautiful image. It's serene, it's quiet, the composition is great." I thought, "I think I can work off of that; I can use that image and incorporate into a new image." It also starts to play with East and West, old and new, pulling disparate things together. Due to the success of that piece, I started to look for other screens or scrolls on eBay and am experimenting with and working on top of those.

EDGE: Do you ever worry that you may be destroying a vintage relic or a book that has now become rare?

Keith Maddy: Never. The way I look at it is, the materials I choose to work with are going to be discarded, and for that — to use another piece of my art vernacular — I am recycling, re-using and repurposing.

EDGE: And regenerating, really.

Keith Maddy: Absolutely; otherwise, it would be discarded. And if I come across a book that is exceptional and precious, I probably wouldn't cut it up.

[Laughter]

EDGE: Bibliophiles everywhere will rejoice to know that!

[Laughter]

EDGE: I really don't know why it is, but your work has always given me a kind of visceral delight. I wonder if you get that same kind of delight when you're creating this work.

Keith Maddy: Thank you for saying that — I really like that. And, absolutely, Absolutely! I get joy and play from my work and I think people see and sense that.

EDGE: Does being a gay man in some sense feed into your work? Does being gay illuminate, inspire, or give a certain point of view to your work?

Keith Maddy: I think that's a fair question, and the answer is I don't really know. That's a hard question for sure, because if I was a sensitive, playful, straight boy and grew up to be a sensitive, playful, straight man, would the work be the same? I don't know. On the one hand I would say absolutely, yes; but on the other hand, I really don't know.

And I don't think that my art is gay themed. There may be political innuendos with subtle references and things, but I never see it as overtly gay-oriented.

EDGE: You were talking a minute ago about holding on to elements you may have prepared but then realized they were not right for the piece at hand. But do you ever find that the whole piece somehow doesn't go where you wanted it to?

Keith Maddy: My work often is a struggle to know when it's finished, and sometimes it's just finding that one final line, or shape, or cutout to really pull the composition together. It's been quite some time since I've had a piece that I couldn't finish successfully in my own eyes.

EDGE: You said something about working with other materials — you mentioned fabric and talked about that Chinese screen. Did you ever work with paint, for instance, or some such other medium? Or have you really always been putting disparate pieces together to create a new visual work?

Keith Maddy: I guess both. In my previous body of work, as I had mentioned, I started from a pre-existing image or pattern, and that could have been from a textile, wallpaper, vintage lithograph — you know, one of those reproduction oil paintings that you might find at a flea market or a thrift store. With a textile, for example, I would mount it onto a board and sand it down with a super-fine sandpaper so it's smooth, and then I would start drawing on top of it. I would edit out what I didn't want by sanding, painting and drawing over using acrylics and graphite, and incorporate some of the original pattern or imagery into a new painting, abstract and unplanned, fluid and rather organic in the shapes and drawing I would use.

EDGE: Do you find as time goes on you explore certain visual themes or elements — like, have you had a "Yellow Period" or an "Oval Period?"

Keith Maddy: Not as far as color, maybe materials or style. I've started from very basic collage designs, which got me into Mass College of Art. While there, and for some time after, I would say my work was more mixed media, anything goes, then verging back into a more sophisticated collage which then developed into a cleaner mixed media painting period, and currently drawing and story telling thru cut lines. Nostalgia however, does permeate all of my work.


Keith Maddy's work will be on display at Fenway Studios Nov. 9 and 10.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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