Interview and Essay by Adam Boehmer
Photographs by Joel Kvernmo and Sierra Stinson
The earthquake was cream-colored and we felt buoyant in its heave. Maggie’s eyes met mine and the 5.0 held us breathless for a few seconds as her house felt made of driftwood, absorbing the force before settling back into its sparse charm. Full of peace and a sense of adventure, we immediately wanted it to return. Later on she would say, “Wasn’t that earthquake beautiful?”
Welcome to the world of the artist Maggie Carson Romano.
Last spring I visited her Culver City home and studio in Los Angeles for a week, hoping to observe first-hand her process of charging simple materials with concepts so well-honed the objects and installations become needed, missed, connected to the modern person’s sense of aesthetic and survival.
Simply put, her work is transformative: to the materials and to the viewer. An antique misery whip is rendered useless but gorgeous by being dipped upside down in the rubberized white material intended only for the tool’s handles. The missing leg of a seaside motel’s bedside table is healed with sand cast solid from just outside the motel room’s door. Long-standing cracks of a neighborhood’s worn street are filled with 24k gold leaf. Maggie’s work is both heavy and uplifting, and her intimate process often leads to a public shift of consciousness.
“Especially on windy days, it feels like a box kite,” Maggie says about her home and backyard studio, connected by a huge swath of almost-white concrete that has become an exposed part of her studio practice. “I’ve been exploring the strength and fragility of concrete,” she says, as she lays organic clippings from trees and flowers next to long, erratic fractures in the driveway, photographing them for studies. “The tossed-away fragments echo the cracks. I love when two opposite things echo and mimic each other, their differing states of growth and decay, but also their common fragility.”
Walking with Maggie in her neighborhood is an exercise in acute beauty. The tectonic plates of the sidewalk, the subtle shift of off-white tints of paint on nearby buildings, sunbeams over the old industry of Culver City all become impetus for aesthetic discussion, or simply just appreciation.
What is inspiring you to create these days?
MCR: My days are currently filled with surfing and flower arranging, and while disparate in many ways, they are both solitary activities amidst two of natures most fascinating elements, and in opposite scales. The power of the ocean has cast a significant spell over me and occupies an enormous amount of my headspace. After surfing in the morning, whenever I close my eyes later in the day I see the swell of a wave building behind my eyelids, but never breaking.
The work I am making now stems directly from consistent experiences of that infinite immensity. When I am not in the ocean I am working with flowers under the influence of their delicate and fragile beauty. In my floral studio I am constantly concerned with controlling the climate. The wrong temperature or humidity can be catastrophic to the work at hand. I powerlessly watched some beautiful lilacs perish in a heatwave in April and there was nothing to be done about it.
So the balance between control and a powerlessness is something that I wrestle with on a daily basis. Finding this paradoxical balance has been at the core of my studio practice since the beginning and is intrinsically tied to many themes present in my work. There is often times an element of meticulous control responding to an element of reckless chaos in my work, and at the center I usually find a sensitive subject hanging in delicate balance.
In the past, Maggie has also integrated technology into her work in surprising but calibrated ways, building responsive systems of decay in contained environments. In her piece, “What made the wound, wound the thread” a heavy rubber balloon breathes in and out from a helium tank, responding to the noises inside a gallery space by filling with both gas and saltwater, dripping the water onto a foundation of concrete, which frosts over time with crystalline salt.
Talk with me about your past use and current connection to technology:
MCR: I grew up in a house full of gadgets and from a very young age have had a sense of wonder around the usefulness of new technology and how it can be applied outside of it’s intended purpose. I have always been interested in how the tools we make mimic our own human design, sensors mimic our own responsiveness, cameras mimic our vision, etc. Technology that allows us to explore and understand our world beyond our own human ability fascinates me. I allow technology into my work when it allows me to accomplish something I couldn’t do without it, and it’s inclusion must be both pragmatic and elegant.
Another facet is that I have always been intimidated by technology and it takes an enormous amount of willpower to circumvent what would otherwise be a crippling anxiety that I have surrounding complex systems. There have been years of my practice when I have abandoned technology altogether and resorted to solely working with physical materials, but it always returns.
Maggie is sitting on the stitched-together concrete planes of her driveway, half in sunlight, half in the shadow of her studio, delicately applying gold leaf down the central vein of a straw-colored tumbleweed. “This is such an intricate process, and this bush is so thorny!” We both laugh. She tells me this piece is about untethering, which is inherent in the essential archetype of the tumbleweed. She’s realized she’s been unanchoring her work incrementally since she graduated from University of Washington with her MFA and moved to New York City.
Untangling from past systems, allowing more poetic assessment of her pieces and process, Maggie is moving forward into a spaciousness and simplicity, echoed by her California environment, which involves an intense connection to nature, movement and the ocean.