Madeline Donahue





my Time in wassaic


I spent two memorable weeks at Wassaic. My daughter, Twyla, two years old at the time, joined me for the residency. We stayed at the School House. I worked in the front yard and on the porch while my daughter played and made artwork of her own. We were lucky to have an incredible group of artists with us. Wassaic is such a special place.




with Joe Brommel, May 2019

You’re featured in this year's Every Woman Biennial, aka the Whitney Houston Biennial. Can you tell me a little bit about your work in that show?

My work in the show deals with the post-partum body and with the intensity and absurdity of the relationship between mother and child. The ceramic sculpture deals with the first part, and the painting shows the relationship between mother and child — and they're both comical, bright, and colorful.

In many of your paintings, the subjects in them seem to be interacting directly with the boundaries of the frame, to the point where they don’t even really feel contained by that frame, whereas the ceramics feel to me like what happens when the people in the paintings find a way to wriggle their way out of that frame. How do you think of the frame of a painting?

I felt a boredom in repetition of composition in other paintings. I look at a lot of paintings, thinking about what I do and don’t like about them, and pull my compositions from there. I’m thinking of claustrophobia — but comical claustrophobia. I like to fill the space of a canvas and really think about how to bring limbs and body parts together so it makes almost a bouquet of a relationship.

I'm trying to express the feeling of a totally immersive relationship by overlapping and not necessarily sticking to realistic shapes. Changing the shapes of limbs and features so that they fill the space rather than sit in the space. Being stuffed inside rather than finding enough space.

And how do you view the interplay between painting and ceramics in your practice?

I think about it technically rather than compositionally, I guess.

Ceramics is very painterly for me, because I do everything with a slab. I roll out a slab, I draw on top of it, and then I cut the pieces up and paste them together. So it's almost like layering paint, but there's a freedom with ceramics that I don't necessarily have with painting. I've been painting for a really long time and ceramics is kind of new to me, so there's this clumsiness with the ceramics that I think ends up pulling something different out of the work than the paintings do. And I think that relationship is really great, because once I started making the ceramic work, I started seeing the painting differently.

And I have the ability to really play with form in a different way with ceramics. Ceramics have limitations. You have to let pieces dry to be able to build structure, and if you're not careful things can fall apart. So it's this balancing act between throwing stuff together, seeing what sticks, seeing what falls apart, and then seeing how that relates to a painting later.

What have you been working on in Wassaic, then?

In Wassaic I have made a few ceramic pieces, which have been really great. I've been doing a lot of drawing here. My practice is drawing, painting, ceramics. And drawing is where I start — I'll have a flash of an idea, get it down on paper in a quick sketch, and then maybe go back and rework those drawings to get them to a place that I feel comfortable, or get them to a place where I feel like I'm putting the message together in the right way.

I have my two-year-old daughter here. I've been doing a lot of drawing. I’m also playing with clay and not taking it too seriously. Because it's hard to to push ceramic work in two weeks. So I've been playing a lot here. Which seems appropriate when you're with a two-year-old.

And I think it's an appropriate space in general to play in. Has your relationship to your work and your process changed at all since being here?

Yeah, I think so. I'm typically pretty organized and efficient. I go into the studio and I just start working immediately. I don't think much about anything else. And while I've been here with my daughter, I haven't had that time because I'm also taking care of her. So it's really forced me to take a deep breath and relax. It's been really nice that my entire day is taking care of her and making work.

You were talking earlier about how starting work with ceramics has allowed you to pull something different from the subjects you’re working with and helped you see the paintings that you're doing differently. Can you talk a little bit more about both of those?

Yeah, so when I started painting, I was obsessed with photography. I painted from photographs, and I was really obsessed with creating perfect depictions. I'd have an idea in my head, and I really wanted to get that idea out precisely.

I got tired of that, so now my practice is all about having fun in the studio. Just really enjoying the paint, really enjoying the clay. The ceramic work has helped me — it's been more of a separation from the photograph. I can literally just slap two pieces of clay together and make a form. Being able to do something like that three-dimensionally definitely translates to two-dimensional work. I think about the freedom I have with ceramics, and then put that same energy into the paint.

For example, there's a sculpture at the Whitney Houston Biennial called Sweater Weather. I drew it first, but it really was a three-dimensional form — the drawing was kind of floating in space, and it felt a little unfinished. I did a painting of it, and the painting was also like painting a sculpture onto a canvas. And then I made that piece and it just worked as a three-dimensional form. Having those different venues gives me space to make mistakes, and also to get to a place where I'm really happy with the work. I'm really interested in the idea of failure, and just making a ton of work and not worrying about whether or not it's perfect.

I like that. Questioning what the work wants to be, in a way.

Yeah. And say I'm working with clay first, and I start with an idea and it doesn't go anywhere — I'll just scrap it. If I make a drawing, and I love the drawing, I'll keep working through the drawing in other ways, like with paint and with ceramics.

I try not to put too much weight on anything and just really enjoy what I'm doing. And having multiple materials gives me  something else to go to.

Can you say more about that transition from a precision-based practice to a more playful practice?

It was years of torture. [Laughs]. I remember spending, you know, a month or two months on a painting, and just thinking, “this is not worth it, what's happening here?”

To get out of that, I made a decision to stop using reference materials. For two years I just painted outside, and I just painted people. I did plein air-style exercises, and I thought of my practice as more of an exercise. I didn't really think about what I was doing. I just wanted to paint, I wanted to use my brain differently. So I only painted things that were sitting in front of me. And that really helped me almost trust my hands again, in a different way.

I decided to trust my skills. If I want to draw a bird, I know what a bird looks like. It doesn't have to be perfect. And that's been really fun.

Trusting your own experience, rather than trying to mediate all those experiences through some platonic ideal of “this is what a bird is.”

Right! I kind of think of each piece as a joke. So it doesn't matter so much what it looks like, it matters that you get the punchline, or that you laugh, or that you have some kind of emotional experience while you're looking at it.

I had this art teacher in high school who always said, “don't freak out over the eyelashes.” Meaning, just get it done. Don't draw every single eyelash of a person, just do it.

Can you say a little bit more about the role of humor in your work? I love the sentiment that “each piece is a joke.”

My experience of motherhood has just been a comedy, so it's natural that the work is humorous.


I like to fill the space of a canvas and really think about how to bring limbs and body parts together so it makes almost a bouquet of a relationship.
— Madeline Donahue

Photo by Corey Towers