Babysitter, waitress, shampoo girl, assistant to a lumberjack, Subway sandwich artist, flower-shop assistant—these jobs and many more have worked their way into Maggie Crowley’s art practice. With a traditional painting background, Crowley creates in a multidisciplinary fashion with residual traces of these former work routines layered into her work.
Crowley’s time in hair salons seems to be the most edifying. Some years ago, when searching for a canvas surface to paint on, Crowley wanted something that reminded her of those salons, from the capes to the theatricality of hairdressers and even to hair itself. She started working on ripstop fabric, then discovered silk, its fragile yet strong nature making it the ideal surface for her.
Painting on unstretched silk is now integral to Crowley’s work. She specifically favors the slubs and subtle sheen of silk shantung. She searches at a local textile outlet for pure silk yardage, which is increasingly difficult to find.
“Silk is a 3D material,” Crowley says. “It has body and the qualities of human hair. Whatever I do to the silk, I still want the silk to seem like silk.”
Crowley will wash, steam, iron and sew the silk to prepare her canvases. Each of these processes changes the drape and luster of the silk, ultimately making it more like hair. Most of her large paintings are exhibited unstretched, just as she painted them, but she does stretch small works on a frame. It’s critical to her that the silk retains its wrinkles regardless of how it is exhibited—the substrate’s physicality is a crucial component of her works.
Crowley’s paintings are expressive, with a loose style that incorporates both abstract expressionism and imagery that speak to the artist’s lived experience and those near and dear to her.
As the daughter of two working-class parents, a creative career often seemed inaccessible to Crowley. But she has painted her whole life, spending every spare minute she could between jobs and school in an art studio. Crowley says that inquiry and research go hand in hand with her art practice. That juxtaposition between intellectualism and blue-collar labor is a rich source of inspiration.
Crowley often turns to objects indicative of class and labor, representing different forms of value—a welding hat and a watch given to her grandfather from his factory union have made their way into recent works. These objects keep her up at night as she thinks through their meaning. Crowley believes the materials and objects of blue-collar jobs are worth interrogating and celebrating. Objects, like a work truck, can be vessels for information.
“I think about the composition of a work truck as portraiture,” Crowley says. “The personality, skill and preferences of a worker are translated through the way a work truck is assembled. It’s a form of transubstantiation. You can get a sense of the height and strength of the worker and type of work being done by the tools or equipment and where they are placed; if the bed is used for collecting scrap or if it’s neatly arranged and organized for quick and easy access. Some work trucks are adorned with different ornament and decorations, usually found objects. If a work truck has a water cooler on it you know it’s with someone all day long when it’s hot out, and in that way is more like an imperative resource and less like a form of transportation.”
Textiles, clothing and other worn objects are also ubiquitous sources of inspiration. These include hats, blankets, towels, a knee brace and a work jacket, all found in her studio, as Crowley was trained to paint from life during her undergraduate studies at Illinois State University.
Along with painting, Crowley works with papier-mâché to create objects for private exploration. This part of her practice is personal, a way to spend more time with things that fascinate her. Her studio in Mana Contemporary is filled with them, her paintings and also welded works.
During the height of the pandemic, Crowley learned to weld from her father. It was a COVID-safe activity they could do together outside while wearing welding helmets.
In her most recent solo exhibit at Devening Projects, “Comb,” Crowley exhibited welded works with paintings for the first time. These included the sculptures of a comb and hanger made from welded threaded rods and steel support structures for her paintings. Three of her large paintings were suspended from or draped on non-traditional metal frames. The contract between welded metal and pure silk speaks directly to Crowley’s interest in probing value and class.
Complementing her studio work, Crowley also is behind an artist-run gallery, Produce Model in Pilsen, which features underrepresented and emerging artists. The space has nurtured community and served as a launchpad for multiple artists since 2015, when Crowley co-founded it with a friend.
Crowley spent years hustling, often working multiple jobs while making art. Now she’s able to devote more time to artmaking and finds the change profound. With more time, she can dig deeper into each series. In 2021, she was awarded a CUE Art Foundation Artist Empowerment Award and an Individual Artists Support grant from the Illinois Arts Council Agency. The following year the city of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events recognized her with an Individual Art Grant.
“Everything is coming to a point in my practice—the materials and imagery,” Crowley says. “Mentally, I’m ready to take the reins as a professional artist.” (Jacqueline WayneGuite)