Introducing Maddie Rhondeau, Charlottesville, VA Collagist
/DRI:M/ARTZ: You hail from the Charlottesville, Virginia area. It is a beautiful region of the country and I could see myself living there. It reminds me of Burlington, Vermont but with a more temperate climate! What’s the art & cultural scene like? Is there a community of collage artists?
Maddie Rhondeau: I’ve grown up in the Charlottesville, VA area for most of my life! It really is a beautiful place and I would say fairly diverse in the kinds of art you find here. I wouldn’t say there’s necessarily a big community of collage artists out here specifically, but there is certainly a community of artists, and that diversity in material types informes that idea of community. Two of my close friends both work in the literal and interpretive ideas of collage, so they are the two amigas that I lean on when I need some critique! Charlottesville is very close to DC and Richmond, so you can even see that community extending into a broader environment between those two cities. Of course, there is also Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, VA, so there’s a wealth of artistic talent embedded right next door to Cville.
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From the Series Fairies Are Real
No Dummies, 2020 / Untitled, 2020 / The Patron Fairy of Pandemics, 2020 / Untitled, 2020
DA: Did you have an artistic background growing up? How much of it is what you’ve been taught? What have you learned on your own and what tools have guided you?
MR: I took art classes all through my childhood and into high school. There was a definite love of art and art making from an early age. I went to the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia to study Historic Preservation and Urban Design, but ended up taking art classes and getting a double major in Studio Art. While I do have a formal arts education in terms of having a BA in art from a four year college, I think that my real education in art began when I become a member at the McGuffey Art Center in Charlottesville, Virginia. Being in close proximity to so many practicing, professional artists, it was one thing to learn about how to be an artist in school, as opposed to learning from people who had 30, 40, sometimes 50 years of experience around me. I’ve learned so much from the artists that are here, it has almost been like getting a mini-Masters. Everything from art technique, color theory, professional practices, pricing my art. I am so grateful to the McGuffey members that have been willing to share their collective knowledge with me!
DA: In your BIO you had a residency at the Maple Terrace in Bushwick, Brooklyn, NY. What was it like working in the Big Apple compared to Charlottesville? Have you ever felt the pull to trade out the country life for the bustle of the city?
MR: I did! And let me just say, it was very different. In every way. For starters, there is so much art to consume around you. Whether that be going to studio visits, visiting museums and galleries, and just talking with other artists about their work, I am so grateful that I had that experience to compare to my life here. While it did show me that there are certain things I’m missing out on by not being in a big city, I actually wouldn’t trade my little country life for the bustle of the city. I like being able to make my work without a thousand eyes on it before it’s ready. I think there are a lot of distractions to living in New York, as well. There’s a competitiveness there that I don’t think I’m cut out to live in, and I like the quiet of my life.
Fairies Don't Believe in "Celebrations of Life", 2020
DA: Charlottesville must have a plethora of used bookshops, antique stores, and second-hand shops to add to your collection of ephemera. Do you have a favorite source material and where do you find it?
MR: We do! Honestly, the majority of the materials I use are given to me. I have a bunch of hookups at local thrift stores and the managers will set aside magazines for me. Actually, one of my old studio mates manages one of those thrift stores (shoutout to Uplift Thrift on Harris Street!) and she gives me lots of great magazines. The other place that I like to go is the Green Valley Book Fair outside of Harrisonburg. People from all over the mid-Atlantic visit it. It has great bargains! I buy a lot of nature books and photography books there that I wouldn’t be able to otherwise afford. The rest are magazine subscriptions that mysteriously arrive at my house and things my friends and family collect for me. I’m a bit of a hoarder, so I never say no.
DA: On that note, tell us about your studio and workspace. How do you organize your materials? Do you find that you can work better in one environment over the other? If something isn’t working in one do you ever change things up?
MR: I do all of my collaging at home. It’s less dusty there than at my studio in the city of Charlottesville. The short answer of how I organize my materials is a lot of plastic bags, flat file drawers, and chaotically organized heaps of clippings on the floor. I work better in collage at my home studio because of the sheer amount of space I can spread out. My studio in town is set up to paint, but doesn’t have a ton of tablespace. There have been times where I try to bring collage to be with my paintings in town, but I always end up painting. Same with bringing paintings home, I almost always end up collaging. I have a very binary way of working in this manner.
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Maddie's Workspace, Cuts & Process Shots, & Self-Portrait
DA: Please tell us about your collaging technique. How do you go about creating your figurative collages? What substrates do you use? What is your preferred adhesive? I understand you also make your own frames, a skill I should probably learn myself. I’m sure it’s more cost effective!
MR: I think if I were to break down my technique, it would revolve a lot around the light source in an image. There’s an aspect to my collages that I want them to appear seamless, or as if they are simply a single photograph. I like when all the lighting of the disparate images line up to create this organic, timeless image. It could be from the future, year 3000, or the 1940s. I love that. I glue everything on watercolor paper. I’ve used so many different types of adhesive but I always come back to the Scotch permanent glue stick. I like being able to put things down and pull them off to move them around if I need to. Also, I like that glue sticks aren’t super messy and liquidy. I do make my own painting frames, which has saved me in the long run. Where that money bug gets you is in the matting. So expensive! No wonder artists all over never get anything framed! If you hear of better alternatives to framing, let me know. I’ll be all over it.
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From the Series Fairies Are Real, 2021
DA: Have you ever ruined a collage in the making?
MR: Oh my gosh, yes. All the time. It happens all the time. There’s one in particular, it has the Hollywood sign hovering over this fairy figure. All the elements I separately really like. When I put them together it was just a nightmare. The colors are so primary and garish, the lighting is off, things are cramped together. It’s wild, and not in a good way.
DA: We had the opportunity to get to know one another through the Collage Curating Workshop hosted by Kolaj Institute. I was blown away by your portfolio and knew instantly that I wanted to curate your work. You are a painter by trade but in 2020 you started creating collages. What led you to cut&paste? What similarities does collage share with painting? If you had to choose one medium over the other what would it be and why?
MR: Well thank you! That means a lot considering I also wanted you to curate my work! Honestly? Sometimes I don’t know if I should consider myself a collage artist. When I first started to cut and paste, it really originated from a need that I was avoiding, which was creating preparatory work in advance of actually painting on canvas. I am a terrible drawer, and I hate sketching. Don’t have the patience for it. So, when the pandemic started and the shut down was imminent, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to get into my studio in town. We are a public building, so I didn’t have access for a few weeks. I had all these old magazines and postcards lying around my house and before I knew it, I had hundreds of images cut out and stored all around my house. There is something so satisfying about searching for the perfect image. For me at least, the similarities between collage and painting is that meshing of images to create one complete, cohesive picture. I can’t say that I could pick one over the other, because now collage is so important for the information that translates to my paintings.
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Happy Birthday, Kitten, 2019 / Beholden I, 2019 / Painting using Maddie's collage, No Dummies, as a reference (in progress)
DA: In the workshop we talked about the challenges of curating collage in a traditional gallery setting. One reason for this is because, more often than not, collage tends to be small-scaled. There’s also a bit of a stigma attached to the medium—the high vs low art debate. Tell us about your experience exhibiting your collages vs your paintings. Do you find that the two mediums are received differently when applying for exhibits? In your opinion, what can collagists do to elevate the medium?
MR: It really is so sad that collage is often treated like the little kid sister of the art world. One could argue that many of the paintings and art objects in some of the top galleries today are rooted in the idea of collage. I actually have a harder time exhibiting my paintings than I do my collages. Because my paintings are so large, certain galleries don’t have the physical space to exhibit them. Collage has been a great way to get my foot in the door of galleries and group shows. It is much easier for curators to take on something that is 8 x 8 inches rather than 80 x 80 inches! I do think that they are received differently. It’s a tough challenge, but one that I think artists need to think creatively on. If the galleries of today are looking for spectacle, and collage is your primary medium, that’s on the artist to figure out how to meet the gallery half way. I’m not saying change the entire vehicle of how you make work, but if your goal is to get a show in those spaces, you have to bend a little to what the gallery and its audience wants to see. If that means making the experience one of immense scale, something interactive or tactile, artists are the most resourceful. I know they can do it!
DA: You identity as a Feminist and Surrealist so it’s no surprise your collages feature mostly women. Can you talk about Surrealism, female identity/identifying, and how it figures into your work?
MR: Sure, my work is deeply rooted in my own life experience, and heavily influenced by my memory, observations, and imagination. I am looking for alternative narratives to the image and representations of women in Surrealism by exploring ideas of self and identity through the mythology of fairies. I want to push back against the pictorial and historical tradition of Surrealism and dismantle this perception of women as either objects and muses. All of this being infused with magic and folklore and the alchemization of experience and emotions into dark undertones.
Best Friends For Never, 2020
DA: Your collages are ripe with symbolism. Some are complex and carry dark undertones, others are fantastically playful and light. How do you go about starting a collage? Do you have a theme in mind or does the imagery at hand lead the narrative thread? Is there an overarching message you want to convey to your viewers through the imagery you use?
MR: There is no overarching theme necessarily, but I do search for “tipping points” in my collages. By that I mean, I want to create a tension or sense that something is about to happen in the scene. I don’t necessarily know what that is, it could be a number of things, but the tension has to be there. I look at a lot of my collages almost like film stills. Sometimes the stills are of more mundane scenes of a broader picture, other times we are in the midst of the action. I definitely am investigating the feminine psyche and mental health. Reading so much about Surrealism and the representation of women, it bothered me how so much of the dynamic, complexities of the feminine experience were reduced to either virtues or literal dismemberment. We’re so much more than that!
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From the Series Fairies Are Real, 2020-2021
DA: I’m drawn to your darker works. There is one particular collage that I find quite sinister. A floral branch is hanging upside down, dangling above a figure, who is naked, laying on a chair (or suspended?) under some weird contraption that you have configured—three menacing hands are positioned around the figure. Would you take a deep dive into this collage for us?
MR: You know honestly, this is probably my signature COVID collage. It was made right at the beginning of lockdown, and this sense of suspension and the overwhelming fear of touch and closeness and the lack of control we all felt—I think this collage pretty much sums it up. I didn’t title this work formally, but I think if I were to give it a name, it would be “Suspension of Disbelief”. At the beginning of the pandemic it was such a bizarre time. It almost doesn’t, and still continues to not, feel real.
DA: On that note, can you talk about the influences that have shaped your journey as an artist and your aesthetic? Would you share an experience or memory that stands out?
MR: Because I don’t live in a big city, reading and writing has been the greatest vehicle to inform my creative influences. One memory that I can think of in particular, was getting the opportunity to see Neo Rauch’s works in person at the Drawing Center in SOHO. He has always been one of my favorite artists, and to see his informal sketches and preparatory work was a real turning point for me in my artistic practice. What it basically taught me was that I needed to slow down and do the work. Meaning, instead of making 100 paintings a year, make 10 great paintings a year and be intentional.
DA: Would you indulge us (a second time) and elaborate on your collage "Pain/Pane"? You submitted it to the /DRI:M/SPACE open call, "Don’t Run from the Fire" for International Women’s Day. Can you tell us what this collage means to you and how it relates to the theme of pushing back against the patriarchy and challenging the status quo?
MR: This little collage has been a favorite of so many! It is only 4 x 4 inches as well, which may surprise people. It’s in reference to shattering the glass ceiling, and the physical breaking of gender boundaries and sexuality for women. As I get older, I’m becoming far more concerned with what women of my age are being presented with in regards to their outward appearance. There’s an insidiousness to the way that our society has shaped the feminine form and unfortunately I don’t think it will go away. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t challenge it.
DA: Share a film and book that has inspired you and why?
I tend to gravitate toward dark, psychological thrillers. This movie is dripping with atmosphere and every scene is so carefully thought out. I love the underlying references to mythology, the idea that all relationships are transactional and that these characters almost appear alien, or otherworldly, rather than human.
No one can generate, in painting, a visual atmosphere like Andrew Wyeth. I study his paintings in the hope that one day I can achieve that level of mastery in imitating the essence of nature, landscape, and the female form.
DA: We are 1/3 of the way through 2021 but the pandemic is still hanging over many of us, inhibiting our lives. I’m dying for a return to a normalcy. How has creativity in general helped you through the pandemic? What was your biggest challenge and what was your greatest accomplishment?
MR: I am so grateful to have a creative outlet to release all of my anxieties. I think my greatest challenge was not knowing what I didn’t yet know. That sense of anticipation can fill you with dread and the lack of clarity about what the future holds can be stifling. I think my biggest challenge was staying deliberate in my art practice. Making sure I was in my studio every day. My biggest accomplishment was the amount of work I produced during the lockdown.
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From the Series Faireality, 2021
DA: Last question! Do you have any big projects in the works that you would like to share with us? What can your fans look forward to this year and beyond?
MR: Yes! I will be expanding my arts practice to include an interactive and collapsible, sculptural installation in conjunction with an exhibition of paintings and collage to debut at Second Street Gallery in October of 2022. I will be taking old cabinets, drawers and doors to assemble my interpretation of an interactive, collapsible Wunderkammer. The outside will be hand painted with imagery found in both my paintings and collages. As a physical manifestation of my own protective brain, the Wunderkammer, or cabinet of curiosities, represents my internal world, fragments of memory, and visual associations that reflect self and identity found in my acrylic paintings. Ephemera and symbolic artifacts used in my collage imagery will occupy small drawers, and artifacts will be “collaged” and painted on the walls along with framed collages. The drawers are meant to be opened and closed by attendees. This aspect will be hands on and encouraged in order to mimic my own compulsions and resistances to touch. This interactive display speaks to the way in which we compartmentalize our memories but also communicate our own inner worlds to others.
Check out Maddie's tune recommendation "Neon Wound" by the Silversun Pickups. Enjoy!
Instagram | @merhondeau
Website | Madeleine Rhondea-Rhodes
Kickstarter | Building the Wunderkammer