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margaret's art
by arlene winkler

The road to Leicester is neither smooth nor easy, careening between tall peaks and fertile valleys, with long lonely stretches between trailers, houses and storage buildings of every age and description, parked with pickup trucks of similar provenance. It is an apt metaphor for the life of a Southern artist who drew her first breath in New York's Queens County, came of age in Macon, Georgia, and finally settled in the mountains of Western North Carolina when she was free to do so.

"After my parents divorced, we moved back down South to live with Mamma's people," Margaret opens. "I grew up in Macon, where it is truly too hot to live, but the music we heard on the radio was fabulous—Otis Redding, Little Richard, the Allman Brothers—I was fascinated. If I didn't tend towards hysteria when it was time to perform, I probably would have pursued a career in music.

I also considered a career in nursing, when my grandmother, whom I adored, became ill with cancer. But one day, when I was about fifteen, she called me into her room and asked me to make her two promises:

'Promise me that you will always use the gifts that God has given you.'

'Yes Ma’am.' I said.

'And that you will always take care of your mother.'

'Yes Ma’am,' I said—and she went into a coma and died."

"And I did," she tells me. "I took care of my mother, until she died of Alzheimer's about 6 years ago, and I have never stopped painting."

I look at the canvases lined up for my viewing, and I’m profoundly glad that she kept her word. There is a listening quality to the portraits, evoking the voices of her subjects who are, all of them, quite old. In fact, every sitting begins with a conversation, struck up by Margaret who usually needs help with something, ending up with permission to sketch and photograph them, while they do what they do.

"I am in love with old people," she says with a big grin. And the exquisite attention given to hands, and body language, bears witness to her feelings and her skill.

I see the influence of the Secessionists, Schiele, Klimt and Soutine, and strangely enough, Thomas Hart Benton in the transparency of her skin tones, the brilliant skies and an enviable confidence of line. Although she claims the thinly applied oil paint is a by-product of artistic poverty, it is clearly the perfect vehicle for the ephemeral nature of her subjects.

On another wall, there are variations on a lonely quintet of horses that graze on a narrow slope near her home, a trespassing cow, whose stupidity she has captured so perfectly it makes me laugh out loud, her dog in a calm moment, ensconced on her bed with her—all part of a new exploration on animals. Like the portraits, there is always an emotional undertone, which varies from lonely to laughable. But then I hear myself sighing as we look at her series on the death of her mother from Alzheimer’s, a progression from suffering to transcendence that is almost a metaphor for the disease in the way it pushes the line between figurative and abstraction. Indeed, since her first professional show in 1977, it is a line Margaret has crossed repeatedly, painting on surfaces ranging from 4 x 8 sheets of plywood, to framed canvases measuring 4" x 8” 

"Were there men who encouraged you?" I ask this daughter of strong Southern women. In answer, she shows me a carefully preserved portfolio of black and white photography—beautiful portraits from the 50’s and 60s.

"My father was a photographer and an artist, who struggled most of his life with manic depression. When my sister and I went to see him in New York, he'd give me paint and drawing materials, and encourage me. That, plus having a Jewish father and a Presbyterian mother, gave us a much broader perspective than most little girls in Macon, Georgia. However, it was my mother who had the courage to let me study art in college—although she did say, 'How will you earn a living?'

Like any successful artist—with a day job.

The answer to her mother's question turned out to be ten years of waiting tables, and nine years in retail, and living with a not very good rock band, that gave her a free room in exchange for house cleaning.

 

But Atlanta was a good place to be. Her art career was about to take off. It started when a good friend insisted on holding a show of her work in his dojo—at the same time as the well-known Inman Park Arts Festival. That, plus gallons of spinach dip and plenty of cheap wine brought the buyers in, and Margaret got picked up by her first gallery.

Tom Drum, the gallery owner, became known as the man who raised the art consciousness of Atlanta, by showing challenging, difficult work. For Margaret, it was the right time in the right gallery, in a vibrant city that was already home to a superb symphony and a highly visible theatre scene. With all the pieces falling into place, Margaret was free to join her husband, who was in Israel on business. But while they were gone, Tom Drum died.

"It turned out to be a very important time for me. I spent three months on my own in the Tel Aviv Hilton because John was so busy. I spread newspapers on the floor of our room and did a lot of paintings, I met remarkable people and learned a lot about my own country, and about Judaism and that part of my history. It changed my life."

It was a good thing, because once back in Atlanta the second promise came home to roost. She moved her mother up from Macon to supervise her care, while her sister was losing her battle with breast cancer. In addition, they had a friend living with them while he recovered from triple bypass surgery. "All this while John was getting his own business started, and I was working at Neiman Marcus…—and painting." She pauses for breath, "But when Mamma died, and I was no longer responsible for her care, we escaped. We sold our house and came to Asheville, sight unseen, on the advice of a friend."

"Let me guess ," I interrupt, 'You'll love it, it's so beautiful and artistic?'

"Word for word," she agrees. "Even though it meant John would have to commute——for four years as it turned out—it sounded right. We sold our tiny old house with a leaking roof and moved into a large new rental here, where everything worked.

"Just when I thought it couldn't get any better, I got my first clue about the art scene. I had finished the series of paintings about my mother's death, and I took it to Blue Spiral and 16 Patton—both of whom took one look at it and said 'No thanks.'

"And it surprised you?"

"There's always a lot to learn in a new community."

Making the art connection

In Leicester the couple found a hundred acres they could afford and they moved out of the rental house into a falling-down hunting shack and started to renovate. A month later when John had to go back to Atlanta, they still had no power. "I lived that way for 5 months, mostly on my own, with the help of a couple of Kerosene heaters and some wonderful neighbors. It was incredibly hard. But I loved being by myself, waking up in the mountains, walking our land."

I am reminded of another strong woman artist who liked living by herself. But Georgia O’Keefe's problems had to do with a different kind of energy.

"Once we finally had power," she continues, "I found the Artist's Roundtable on the Web and went to my first meeting."

"The problem with the Artists Roundtable," I grumble, "is that they don't know who they are; there are too many disciplines."

She disagrees. "That's the best thing about the group, that it's such a mix. Unlike a guild, for instance, where quilters speak only to other quilters, when we have "crits", we have the visual arts discussed by dancers and musicians. It gives you a totally different viewpoint. With the support of The Arts Council, I think the Roundtable can become what it should be—a real organization that helps its members and adds to the community."

"Does that mean you're staying?"

"There's no where else I want to go. I'm happier with my painting than I've been in years. I recently sold my first piece since moving here. Not in Asheville of course, but I have a lot of new work and I'll re-apply to Blue Spiral and 16 Patton."

If adversity builds character, then what she has just shown me is that it also enhances creativity—and I am truly humbled. For Margaret Katz Nodine, the sum total of loss, death and isolation is a celebration of what is, that is visible in every brushstroke.

 

Margaret Katz Nodine has been showing professionally since 1984. A graduate of University of Georgia, her work is in museums and private collections in Alabama, Georgia and most recently North Carolina.

 

Arlene Winkler is a financial writer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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