Investigating the Multitude of the Self. Studio Visit with Artist, Margaret Flatley.
From sculpting with clay to making life-sized candles to tracing her own form onto giant canvases, artist Margaret Flatley’s methods are as meandering and compelling as the conversation I was delighted to have with her over a green tea last week. At her Kreuzberg studio on (if my memory serves) a classically drizzly Berlin morning, Margaret was kind enough to show me around both her studio and her mind as we discussed her openness to exploring new methodologies, her relationship to photography, and her conceptually-guided approach to practice.
We talked first about Margaret’s compulsion to explore beyond her roots.
“I grew up in Canada but left when I was 17 to go to University and I haven’t moved back. I’m the first generation to be born in Canada so maybe that’s why there wasn’t a depth of connection to the country… Since quite young, I craved a change of environment.”
I was curious how she sought out this change of environment.
“I went to France for a year… I was in the south of France, learning French and studying art history. That’s where everything started to take hold… I made a very strong connection with someone who’s still a close friend and mentor to this day. She was an academic — already writing her PhD at the time — and she invited me into her world. Through her, I was surrounded by all sorts of people, which gave me access to this different framing of how life could be. How I could live a life outside of the one I was… After I went back and finished my degree in the US, I moved to New York to recreate something like that for myself.”
I wondered what she found there.
“In New York, I began working in fashion right away. I started working in a showroom that quickly transitioned into working for a menswear brand. This happened within the first three and a half years. And then I went to Stockholm and was working for Acne.”
Margaret’s work today is fairly distant from the fashion world. I was interested what guided her away.
“I thought fashion would be a great way I could be creative and employed. But it wasn’t the right fit for me… I was also more in a management capacity than in design, which was great, but I wasn’t creating something myself.”
We talked then of our mutual connection, Yasmin, through whom I met Margaret when I previously visited their shared studio last summer for an interview about Yasmin’s fascinating work with hempcrete. Margaret and I talked about what it was like to work together with Yasmin after they first met at Acne Studios all those years ago.
“Yasmin and I had this very capable working relationship where we could sort of predict each other’s needs and fill in where we each needed help. We left Acne just a few months apart from each other. We didn’t know what at the time, but we wanted to start something that was our own.”
They may have decided that the fashion world in Stockholm wasn’t for them, however, the fluid artistic relationship they forged in Sweden stayed very much alive when they subsequently moved to Berlin together.
“We were very close friends and so we shared an apartment. The essence of her practice developed in her room and my practice in my room, and the kitchen was this place of exchange. We were constantly sharing references, readings, research, etc — it was just a really creative moment. Our methodologies and practices are so different, and yet they circle each other. And so it’s just this very creative realm we have. We’re so, so lucky.”
It was through her photography of Yasmin’s sculptural work that I first became aware of Margaret as an artist. I wondered if it was the discipline of photography that made Margaret herself aware of her artistic proclivities.
“I started with photography primarily. I was working a lot with Yasmin, taking pictures for her and experimenting. It was just me getting into my creativity, but then [photography] very quickly became a method for me to work conceptually. Now, that’s almost entirely what I do. “
I was then curious as to Margaret’s current relationship with photography.
“I mean, I still take pictures sometimes, but I’ve almost entirely left the camera to go into my conceptual work… I have a more complicated relationship with photos these days because of everything being oversaturated in the world of images. And maybe I don’t know exactly how I want to continue in that realm… I still love being behind the camera and this connection with the person you’re photographing. There’s a lot of appeal for me there.”
“Instagram definitely complicated my relationship with my photos because I work a lot with bodies in my concepts — which comes with nudity — but Instagram doesn’t allow for nudity, and I never felt comfortable putting my images out there when they were censored because it wasn’t true to the image I was creating… And so I guess I started looking for other ways in which I could work with those same ideas.”
Speaking of Instagram, and the oversaturated world of images, I noted how elusive and ambiguous Margaret’s online presence felt; bordering on mysterious. I wanted to investigate why.
“My relationship with my online presence is tumultuous. With branding, with my relationship to selling, or with putting any front out there for what I’m doing. It’s complicated. It’s something I play with, in my mind. Why I can’t be open online when my work is so deeply open… But I am also in the midst of this large project that I’ve been working on for two years, and so I think there’s also this feeling of ‘it’s not ready to be shared’.”
We then talked of this idea of sharing work, and what it means to her.
“Sharing work can often be a really fulfilling moment. It’s always when you release it and it’s not yours anymore that you get perspective from other people that you didn’t have before. And you can maybe learn something about what you were doing that you didn’t even realise yourself.”
“When you’re making art, you’re trying to get in touch with something that isn’t verbal. If I could speak it, then that would probably be the method I would use. But it’s something more intuitive. And when you have this intuitive thing, then connection is something you want from sharing.”
Are there any particular feelings you seek to elicit from viewers of her work? I asked.
“No, definitely not. I would be interested in any way that somebody feels. The idea is not that I can elicit a certain response. The diversity of responses is what’s interesting, I think… What always really tickled me was that someone could be talking about something so specific in their art and yet it was so commonly understood by different individuals in their own worlds. Their own realms. And so it becomes this thing bigger than the person who makes it or receives it. It becomes a vehicle for exchange.”
Through this interview series, we’ve spoken to many designers and artists who identify themselves as ‘material-driven’. Margaret’s concept-guided practice, though, feels almost antithetical to this label. I wondered how working so conceptually influences her process.
“More than towards any process or material, I’m very idea-motivated. I don’t have a craft specific to my work; I’m not a painter, I’m not a ceramicist. My conceptual part would be the craft, I guess. There’s some struggle in the sense that you never feel like you’re an expert in anything — but that’s also really motivating. And so there’s this duality, and I’m constantly trying to learn new methodologies in order to build the ideas in my mind.”
I was then interested to learn about some of these methodologies, and if there were any in particular she favours above others.
“Right now I’m also making some candles. Life-sized candles, for one of my pieces. I’ve also been working a lot with canvases. Not directly as a painter, but more conceptual canvases… The one that really draws me, though, is working with clay. It’s so tactile. And a lot of my work is about connection with physicality. Where the line is between the ‘self’ and the physical — if there is one. Working with clay brings me into my own physicality — which is amazing… I also like the metaphor that you can put something through fire and it becomes stronger. That’s how I feel about life - You put yourself through fire and it is how you gain your strength and your insight. And there’s something parallel in the work with clay.”
Before parting, I wanted to learn more about this expansive, two-year project that Margaret teased earlier.
“It’s called 19 Women. It’s 19 pieces that are all conceptual… The 19 women are like 19 versions of me… Within everybody, there’s a multitude of selves. You can say archetypes, or you can say versions of you that come into being and then fade as you grow and change. I can’t know them all, it’s just this idea that they’re all within my reach. And so each of these 19 pieces, is a vehicle to investigate this multitude of the self.”
Thanks so much to Margaret. You can find her links below.
Words & Photography by Ewan Waddell.