New York Artist Maggie Ellis on the Two Crucial Ingredients for Her Pandemic Paintings: Q-Tips and Weed

The artist welcomed us into her Bronx studio.

Maggie Ellis, 2021. Photography by Elizabeth Brooks.

People watching is a particular urban pleasure and, in our current world, a strange form of intimacy. Atlanta-raised artist Maggie Ellis finds inspiration in these public encounters. For the past several years, she has spent her days wandering the streets around her upper Manhattan apartment and her Bronx studio observing the characters and scenarios unfolding around her.

Working from memory, Ellis transmits these idiosyncratic vignettes into energetic, intensely colorful canvases marked by an almost Weimar comedic absurdity. Last fall, her second solo exhibition “Strange Strangers” at Charles Moffett presented 13 large-scale paintings that captured the oddities of early pandemic life—a couple, blue with cold, seated with lattes at an outdoor cafe; a man drinking red wine in a tent on the street; groups of people outdoor dining—which already have the feel of a bygone era.

Recently, Ellis gave us a glimpse of her studio and what’s she’s working on now.

What are the most indispensable items in your studio and why?

Q-Tips. I use them constantly for touching up small details and wiping away mistakes. Rags aren’t very precise, but a Q-Tip will always get the job done. My studio floor is always littered with them. Another item is the door-sized glass palette that I found in the garbage a few years ago. I always wished for a palette big enough to hold several feet of mixed paint. The biggest game-changer has been natural light from my windows. There’s something about the power of actual daylight that allows me to see a much wider range of color.

Is there a picture you can send of your work in progress?  

A work in progress in Maggie Ellis's studio. Courtesy of the artist and Charles Moffett Gallery.

A work in progress in Maggie Ellis’s studio. Courtesy of the artist and Charles Moffett Gallery.

What is the studio task on your agenda tomorrow that you are most looking forward to?

I’m looking forward to making some new color palettes. I’m coming off a show, so I’m trying to get reoriented in the studio. It helps to draw a lot and focus on preparing new surfaces. I like to sit on the studio floor with my colored pencils surrounded by my drawings and new canvases and think about new color palettes for future paintings. 

What kind of atmosphere do you prefer when you work? Do you listen to music or podcasts, or do you prefer silence? Why?

I like a quiet atmosphere with my headphones on while I’m working. Most days I listen to a curated playlist that I associate with a painting workflow. It depends on the season, my emotional state, or the time of day. I have a David Lynch-inspired playlist for when I need to get serious and focus. I have a country playlist for sunny summer days. There’s a lot. I’ve been working on these playlists for the last seven years, so at this point, there’s a ton of variety for the studio. But if I’m bored while preparing canvases or washing brushes and I need some encouragement (and to be scared awake), I listen to my favorite scary podcast, Spooked.

Maggie Ellis, 2021. Photography by Elizabeth Brooks.

Maggie Ellis, 2021. Photography by Elizabeth Brooks.

What trait do you most admire in a work of art? What trait do you most despise?

The trait I most admire in a work of art would be shamelessness. When I can find moments in a work where I feel like the artist really let themselves go—that’s something I’m curious about and want to see. To talk about a trait that I despise is difficult to answer. I don’t like to have any rules about what works and what doesn’t. Art is fluid, so it’s hard for me to pin anything down because I’m always surprised by what I thought I disliked before. My early art education was very academic, so deep down I have these old preconceived notions about “good” painting, “bad” painting, and I’m still dismantling that for myself.

What snack food could your studio not function without?

I don’t snack much in the studio. I actually find it distracting. If I’m being honest, weed is my snack. It keeps me going. But if I happen to bring an actual snack, it’s probably Skittles or trail mix.

Who are your favorite artists, curators, or other thinkers to follow on social media right now?

I always like to see Celeste Dupuy-Spencer’s paintings, works-in-progress, and occasional reading recommendations on Instagram. Peter Shear’s account is great—he consistently posts paintings by many artists and most of the time they are paintings I’ve never seen before—like the B-Sides from all of these great painters. I love looking at the What Is New York account too. It’s always cracking me up and I like seeing this massive collection of ridiculous NYC sightings. I also follow a lot of underwater and scuba-related Instagrams: Oceans Nation, Girls That Scuba. I love diving and even if I don’t get to do it very often, I crave seeing the underwater world.

Photography by Elizabeth Brooks.

Photography by Elizabeth Brooks.

When you feel stuck in the studio, what do you do to get un-stuck?

If I’m stuck, I’ll either meditate or go on a walk. But if I’m really stuck, I stay away from the studio. Looking at the paintings for too long can drive me crazy, so I just need to be outside and remove myself from the problem. Sometimes I have to stay and fight it out in the painting, but there’s a limit to that. Drawing at home is a great way to pull me out of being stuck and remind myself not to take things so seriously. I’ve learned that with painting I can’t force it into existence because, for me, it’s something that’s felt.

What is the last exhibition you saw that made an impression on you?

The early Alice Neel paintings recently on view at David Zwirner were so raw. There was a portrait of a woman with this gaunt, shadowy face, dark circles under her eyes, and a tiny green hat. The wall text was a quote from Neel describing the moment when she saw this woman while walking with her children in 1943. She painted her from memory and finished it while her kids were sleeping. “It has no technique, none of the shibboleths of studied artistry. It’s just pure expression,” she wrote. I also have to mention Dawn Clements’s retrospective at Mana Contemporary in New Jersey. Her massive, powerful drawings completely blew me away.

If you had to put together a mood board, what would be on it right now?

Film stills from Rear Window, 18th-century fashion caricatures, Rugrats, and street photographs by Vivian Maier. The entire film About Endlessness directed by Roy Andersson would fill up the rest of my mood board.

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