GRACE BONNEY, "Megan Williamson + Best of the Web", DESIGN SPONGE, FEBRUARY 2015

Megan Williamson is a Chicago-based painter whose work reminds me of my favorite Fauvist painters combined with a nod to contemporary pattern and textile design. I love the way she uses bold brushstrokes, big swaths of saturated color and works in bits of pattern here and there. (Her work has even been turned into wallpaper!) I thought it would be a beautiful way to end the week, surrounded by so much color and life. 

FEATURE -- JANE HOLAHAN, "Landscape show 'Seven on Site' opens at Pennsylvania College of Art & Design", LANCASTER ONLINE, MARCH 2015

   We live in hectic times, rushing around, barely noticing the world around us.

Take a breath. Go see “Seven on Site,” opening Friday at Pennsylvania College of Art & Design.

Seven contemporary landscape artists are featured in the show. Each one offers paintings that ask you to stop and take a look.

“They live in different parts of the country, and they don’t paint together, but they all place value on a slow way of seeing as they respond to nature directly,” says Heidi Leitzke, gallery director at PCA&D. Each paints en plein air, a French term that means in the open air, or specifically, outdoors. The painters are Martha Armstrong, Sasha Chermayeff, Jane Culp, Judy Koon, Ro Lohin, Lynette Lombard and Megan Williamson.

“Their range of painting styles is pretty diverse,” Leitzke says. “What’s nice is, you can see a variety of approaches, but they still have the same concerns. Take the time to slow down and look. I personally find their work really compelling.”

Not necessarily pastoral

“Landscape is not a hot subject,” says Williamson, who lives and works in Chicago. “But it has certainly stood the test of time, and if you can bring a meditative experience to someone, that is a good thing.” But if you’re picturing an artist in a field daubing paint on a canvas while bees buzz nearby and water laps at the shore, think again. Williamson paints urban, even industrialized scenes. “A beautiful place can be two steps from wherever you are. I keep seeing places and thinking that there is a painting there. Light hitting a Coke bottle can be beautiful.” One of her works features a mountain of salt used to clear roads of ice and snow. “Someone who saw that painting said ,‘I always thought that salt pile was beautiful.’ Another painting, of the Cal Sag canal, is a really industrialized site. The water is polluted, but it is beautiful too.” En plein aire painting is not for the faint of heart. “I compare it to camping,” Williamson says. “You’ve got to bring all your supplies, and something won’t work, so you’ll have to make do.” She sometimes paints near highways and in the midst of industrial areas, but she also enjoys city gardens. “I drive around a lot in my car, looking for things, seeing how beautiful everything is, seeing the fluidness of the movement around me.” 

Coming together

In 2008, Williamson brought five artists together in a show called “Five in the Field” in Chelsea, New York. And then in 2013, “Seven on Site” was shown in North Hampton, Massachusetts. (“I like alliteration,” she says with a laugh.) The 2013 exhibit featured new work, and each of the seven artists brought three to five paintings to the show.

Koon painted a series of beach scenes in Ireland that show the expansiveness and loneliness of the shore. Lohin works in a more abstract style, her canvas a frenzy of color and shape, a suggestion of the lushness of a garden, a backyard. Armstrong includes several paintings she did at Lake Gretna that offer a serene feeling in a canvas of shapes. Lombard works in a more abstract style, her colors whirling in motion. Culp explores mountains and their hard, yet earthy colors and shapes. And Chermayeff’s distinct style results in work oozing with paint and brushstrokes, offering different landscapes in what seems like different worlds. Although these seven women don’t paint together, they admire one other’s work. “Maybe we are a mutual admiration society,” Williamson says with a laugh. “Artists spend a lot of time alone with their dogs and (with) landscape painting, even more so, ” Williamson says. “So it’s good to get a response, to see each other’s work.”

A panel discussion and reception will be held March 26, featuring Martha Armstrong, Judy Koon, Ro Lohin and Megan Williamson. It will be moderated by Jennifer Samet, a New York based art historian, curator and writer. 


Megan, when did you know you wanted to be an artist?

I have drawn for as long as I can remember. I am a visual learner. If I could draw it - a frog dissection, geometric form or a timeline - I remember it, clearly. So making images has always been with me. I got a BA in art in college. I studied broadly, but I found that no matter the subject, I related to it/learned it through image. I never had a clear road map on how one became an artist, but I kept making art. I kept going to the studio. I have had a lot of jobs in my life to pay the bills - but I've only had one career. After a while, paintings started paying the bills too.

Why landscape painting?

I love being out in the world. Landscape painting is a good balance to studio work. In the studio the still life sits in a specific relation to the easel, which is in a specific place in the room. When I am outside I am inside the subject matter - it surrounds me, 360 degrees. I have the challenges and the pleasures of the weather, the wind and what ever animal or human wanders over my way. There are a lot more things beyond my control when I am outside. I like that. Chicago in particular is an endlessly fascinating subject for me. The intersection of the infrastructure and nature is full of compositional potential and unexpected views. The name of the show "We Live Here" comes from that. It is a declaration - look, we live here.

The Medium: For me, oil painting is the most beautiful thing I have ever worked with. I use Old Holland paint - expensive but worth it because of the incredible quality. When oil paint dries, the bits of pigment are suspended and refract the light like nothing else.

Who are some of your favorite artists?

Giotto, Henri Matisse, Willem DeKooning, Jackson Pollock, Nell Blaine, Fairfield Porter.

What inspires your art?

I am inspired by both seeing the landscapes I pass through and knowing how to use the language of painting to explore and create in response to it all. Past masters, peers and teaching others also inspire me.

What do you like about being an artist?

I love what I do. I expect to be making art for the rest of my life. It is the closest I come to meditation and it allows me to really look and be present in the world. As an artist, I have met people from many countries and socioeconomic groups. I have worked with teenagers on the south side and dined with royalty. I love that art transcends so many boundaries - and I get to go with it.

What is the most challenging thing about being an artist?

Writing about it (!) It doesn't pay well. There is so much rejection. The strange juxtaposition of doing something so close to my heart and taking it out to the marketplace. The US gives so little support to individual artists, both financially but also as a respected career. When I was younger, I had to call myself an artist rather than a painter because so often people assumed I was a house painter. That's one of the (many) reasons I liked working in Italy, an artist having a place in society wasn't questioned, and is valued.

Could you describe the process of completing a piece?

I commit to canvas what is before me because there is something that I want to see. I often say that I see a painting in a still life or landscape, I just don't know what it will look like until I paint it. As I respond to what I look at, I translate it on to a 2 dimensional plane. I get lost in the looking at my subject and my canvas - back and forth like a tennis match. I make marks all over as I work, rarely finishing any one part before another.

How would you describe your art in one or two sentences?

I paint from observation (landscape and still life) going in and out of abstraction and figuration. The color in my paintings is strong and is how I anchor my work.

As an artist how do you recharge?

"The desire to write grows with writing" is a favorite quote of mine (Erasmus 15th C. philosopher). 9 times out of 10, just being in the studio will get me interested in something and when I am interested I am engaged and when I am engaged I am working. That being said, travel and the company of artist friends are also great restorers.

If you could tell a crowd of people about art, what would you say?

Looking at the depth, diversity and robustness of a society's Art is a good way to gauge its health. It is like democracy needing a free press - the quality of it speaks to the health of our society.


As its name suggests, "Seven on Site," the exhibit at the Oxbow Gallery in Northampton through June 30, shows the works of seven artists, all who painted outside within view of the scenes captured on canvas. The pieces encompass a wide range of territory, both in terms of the terrain they cover and their compositional attributes.

The exhibit features works depicting vistas in this country and Europe by artists from across the United States, including Hatfield artist Martha Armstrong, whose artwork has been in numerous shows at the Oxbow. Other artists whose paintings are on view are: Lynette Lombard, Sasha Chermayeff, Ro Lohin, Judy Koon, Jane Culp and Megan Williamson.

While all the pieces fall under the heading of figurative art, some are largely abstract, using landscape as a jumping-off point for the exploration of color, line and form. Others make more faithful representations of the scenes they depict. What ties them together is the immediacy that comes from their on-site creation. The pieces share the sensation of what it was like for the respective artists to be there, looking on that day, at that time, in that weather.

In her work, Williamson explores a landscape where nature and man intersect. In "Strange Brew," she juxtaposes buildings and railroad cars, the geometric shapes of the urban landscape, against the less-defined forms of the tree foliage in the foreground. Williamson paints the industrial structures in solid colors, with red, blue, beige and lime-green rectangles pieced together like a patchwork quilt. The effect is to flatten the space, pushing the man-made shapes uncomfortably close to the freer natural forms, forcing them into an uneasy partnership. She enhances that feeling by sandwiching the objects between a wedge of blue sky at the top of the canvas and the strip of water at the bottom.

Seven on Site features an informal association of landscape painters who live and paint across the country. The seven - Martha Armstrong (Hatfield, MA); Sasha Chermayeff (Hudson Valley); Jane Culp (California); Judy Koon (Chicago); Ro Lohin (Long Island); Lynette Lombard (Galesburg, IL); and Megan Williamson (Chicago) - joined forces to show together out of a shared commitment to painting on site. Their unconventional works emphasize expressive form and brushwork over changes in light effects, weather, and time of day, the more traditional concerns of plein air painting. These seven artists may paint some or most or all of a landscape outdoors, but none produces a direct transcription of nature. While grounded in reality, each interprets distinctively.


To say someone paints en plein air, a French term for "in the open air," is to conjure up an artist seated at an easel outdoors, under an umbrella, depicting specific landscape features more or less faithfully. This held true for much of the 19th century, when the practice originated, but today's artists have expanded the concept. The range of contemporary approaches to plein air painting can be seen in the exhibition Seven on Site, on view until the end of June at the Oxbow Gallery in Northampton, Massachusetts.

Seven on Site features an informal association of landscape painters who live and paint across the country. The seven - Martha Armstrong (Hatfield, MA); Sasha Chermayeff (Hudson Valley); Jane Culp (California); Judy Koon (Chicago); Ro Lohin (Long Island); Lynette Lombard (Galesburg, IL); and Megan Williamson (Chicago) - joined forces to show together out of a shared commitment to painting on site. Their unconventional works emphasize expressive form and brushwork over changes in light effects, weather, and time of day, the more traditional concerns of plein air painting. These seven artists may paint some or most or all of a landscape outdoors, but none produces a direct transcription of nature. While grounded in reality, each interprets distinctively.

Williamson, on the other hand, pulls her forms to the picture surface, like the other artists in the exhibition. Her buildings and trees make a foreground screen, as in Landscape with Fences. Bright colors create a sense of movement, as does varied and lively brushwork.

Martha Hoppin is an independent curator of American art.


Please give our readers a little bit of information about yourself (upbringing, education, location, news, etc.):

I grew up in a big family in an unincorporated village north of Chicago. The suburbs eventually reached and went past us, but we always had gravel roads, well water, no streetlights and no commercial development. I attended Catholic grade school. No art classes until high school and college where I couldn't get enough of them. I received my BA in art from Knox College and then attended the New York Studio School for two years.

Many of us don't grow up with painting and art as part of our daily life, especially many of us away from the coasts and our routes into the fine arts are circuitous. Was that your experience? How and when did you say, 'I'm going to do this?'

I always loved to draw. Looking back I understand that it was one of my tools for learning. If I could draw it (biology, geometry etc.), I could learn it.

When I was 19 I thought that I should try to be an artist when I was young, because if it didn't work out I'd still have time for another career (excellent 19 year-old logic). So far, I'm still trying. I always say I've had a lot of jobs (waiter, chauffeur, working for photographers, etc.) but I have only had one career.

Talk about your creative mulch - that is your daily inspirations, 'fine' art & not fine art:

My mentor Nic Carone told me what his teacher told him, "Neglect nothing." My inspiration comes from such a variety of things and places it doesn't make sense to start a list. I do listen to certain music in the studio. I get taken with the structure of it and at any given time am playing a few CDs over and over. Also, I look at a lot of art in person - from museums to friends' studios.

Tell us about one useful thing you were taught or told.

A line doesn't make space, it divides it.



Once, not so many years ago, Megan Williamson painted the Umbrian countryside: the rolling hills, the Italian sky that goes forever, the knotted olive trees all in a row.

Summer after summer, she settled there in the Italian countryside. Far, far, from the Chicago she called home, she managed every summer to teach, to paint, to breathe in the very air that fed her painter's soul.

Then her husband was injured by a hit-and-run driver. With a crushed disc at the base of his neck, her husband was headed for spinal cord surgery, months of rehab and going nowhere. Williamson, too, was grounded; getting back to Umbria was not in the picture.

So, driving down Ashland Avenue one summer afternoon, the painter of abstract landscapes looked up and saw the unlikeliest of landscapes: a pocket park and dog run wedged in along Cortland Street and Ashland Avenue, just under the fumes of the Kennedy Expressway.

Not exactly a vision to write home about.

Somehow, though, Williamson was stirred to come back with her French easel and her paints and her brushes.

She painted the harsh urban landscape. Hardly Umbrian, it offered its own richness in color and texture and composition, the very things that had held her captive and captivated in Italy. But she got real tired of what comes to you when you're a painter in a park: pickup lines from guys who want to date you, parents who want you to teach their little darling how to work a brush, and, yes, dogs who lift their legs on your easel.

"Not all of which are bad things," says Williamson, 44, "but it is hard to concentrate".

"So I started looking for more private places where I could completely turn off my city radar and just concentrate on the painting. So I could really focus on the painting. Landscape painting, even if it's in the city, is pastoral. You have to be able to be open to what's out there."

Thus, the Umbrian landscape painter became the urban garden painter.

Williamson, whose 17 paintings from 14 city gardens are now showing at the Thomas Masters Gallery, 245 W. North Ave., through the end of September, found that one garden begat another.

She started with her yoga teacher's garden in Wicker Park. That led her to Rick Bayless' kitchen garden not too far away (because Bayless, chef/owner of Frontera Grill and Topolobampo, was a student of the same yoga teacher). A stroll through her own Wicker Park neighborhood led her to meet the Master Gardener of the 6,000-square-foot garden in Wicker Park. And he opened to her the gates of great gardens he knew sprinkled throughout the neighborhood.

She has painted, too, the riotous vegetable garden of a Filipino man on the far Northwest Side, where his exuberance erupts from the chain-link-and-sod monotony of row-after-row sameness along his street. She also has painted a garden under the rattling tracks of the CTA's Brown Line trains. And she's settled in with her French easel on an estate in Lake Forest.

No matter the garden, she says, there is always an intimacy. And a way of looking at a garden that might escape even the most fervent gardener. "With my brush in my hand, I sat down and really looked. I'm two steps back, I take in the whole city."

"I'd be standing there with my French easel and the gate would open. I'd get that big picture, seeing it for the first time, taking in the neighbors, taking in the city, and how everything talks to each other. I'm taking it all in, whereas a gardener builds it over time."

"A painter moves through space not just on the ground plane. You can kind of do this visual arabesque."

Doug Wood, the Master Gardener of Wicker Park and a former modern dance choreographer, welcomes Williamson into his garden for the fresh eye, the painter's eye, she brings along with her brushes.

"When you're in the garden every day, you don't see time changing," Wood says. "Artwork stops a moment. A gardener sets up parameters and then the garden keeps changing. A painting is even better than a photograph in that it's how someone sees what you're doing. It's an abstraction."

"Megan is a very brilliant person who can think across artistic lines."

Masters, the gallery owner who has shown Williamson's work for the last 10 years, says he was compelled by the idea "that she's revealing these urban sanctuaries, which are so much a part of people's salvation and endurance."

After 2 1/2 years of slipping practically unseen into so many gardens, Williamson has stumbled on this one certain truth: Gardens can be the great equalizer.

"I get to be in a really intimate space in someone's life. Give me a glass of wine and I might call it sacred. So many people just feel a need to grow, to be in the dirt -- no matter if they're under the 'L' tracks or in Lake Forest."


Megan Williamson's art practice has been one of careful choices. Her paintings and drawings belong to an enduring tradition of painterly inquiry. Limning the terrain between abstraction and observation, she works from the landscape or parts of extensive still lifes, choosing emergent forms for their dynamic connection to the flat space of the canvas. Many of her complex paintings resemble the interconnected and loaded surfaces of de Kooning's Excavation and Attic. Paced with unfamiliar amalgams of language, they can be seen as the equivalent of free association. Through rigor of drawing and clarity of color, Williamson creates a precise depth of field. The time the artist spends looking and making decisions, whether spontaneous or considered, as well as the time the viewer takes to look at the work - are an essential part of their existence.

In this series, unusual for the artist in the works' centralized compositions, Williamson closely investigates microcosms of form. The repetition and variation of fabric configurations provide her with an opportunity to create consistent, intricate explorations of the way space and matter intertwine. Each painting's resolution balances the laws of the physical world with the lawlessness of the imagination in a different way, sometimes accentuating the sensual aspects of paint, sometimes suggestive of mysterious worlds of color and shape.


At some point, an artist awakens to the intrigue of the nexus between object and environment. It is at this juncture that the line in their drawing becomes a kind of traveller, beginning a search that must arrive at no answers, only edges.

This is the objectivity that Rilke describes in Cezanne's self-portraits - "portraying himself... with the good faith and concern for the simple facts exhibited by a dog who sees himsef in the mirror and thinks: there's another dog."

Megan Williamson is on this quest. Her paintings and drawings are a kind of diary of these crossings and recrossings of her universe. The etched shadow of the Umbrian sun across the fulsome flora of olives, grapes and red soil; the spiny undulation of the line as it picks its way around the acid contours of a hammer's head; these are worlds created in the mind's eye, and duly recorded here.


There is a distinct sense of theatre when entering this northside gallery. The grey-green alcoves that comprise the space's insular rear "salons" evoke a time earlier in the century when Modernist painting was still considered scandalous. This environment is well-suited for viewing the paintings, drawings and prints of Megan Williamson collectively titled "Tools, Chaos and Order". An emerging artist who uses the vocabulary of Surrealists and Cubist-inspired abstraction to transform still lives of hand tools into gestural investigations of space, form, color, and light, Williamson assumes the difficult task of exploring a painting vocabulary whose established history leaves little margin for error. Her struggle to balance "chaos and order" in her work, while not retaining the societal provocation of previous eras, displays the continuing need for some painters to locate meaning in the slippery spaces between representation and abstraction, cognition and obfuscation.

The juxtaposition of Williamson's two groups of works - her black-and-white drawings and colorful oil paintings - reveals the crucial inconsistencies in her interpretation of positive and negative space, and scale, which determine her pieces' potential for richness. Surprisingly, it is her graphic, black-ink-brush drawings that dominated the exhibition. Completed in response to the paintings, these works on paper draw one into the interlocking masses of the brutish yet elegant forms of wrenches, clamps, welding goggles, trowels, saws and work gloves. Where the tools in Williamson's large paintings often appear too small and evenly staggered to create a dynamic push/pull between positive and negative spaces, the same objects fill her smaller compositions, dramatically transforming white paper into vibrating, seemingly spontaneous exchanges between solid and void.

It is, however, Williamson's ability to unexpectedly anthropomorphize singular industrial forms with a minimum number of decisive brush strokes that is the most poetic aspect of her work. A single trowel standing vertically becomes a lone sentinel through the spare and immediate delineation of its contour; the vacant lenses of doubled-over welding goggles become haunting eyes that resemble beacons engaged in an endless search. These quite simple drawings encapsulate the chaos and order with which Williamson wrestles. If her paintings can incorporate this power, she will only lengthen our engagement.


Whether in the form of painting or drawing, the art of Megan Williamson balances two worlds: the world of visible appearances and the world of invisible reflections. Grounded in a perception of natural forms, figures and objects, her work exceeds the region of sight, aiming toward depiction of the unseen and imaginary.

Trained as a figurative painter and coming out of the tradition of the New York School of painters, Williamson managed to incorporate both languages into her style: faithfulness to observation as well as to inner expression. Although her recent works recall the boldness of Beckmann's woodcuts, the brushstrokes and palette of de Kooning's canvases, and the calligraphy and gestural energy of Kline's and Motherwell's black-and-white paintings, they reveal a sensibility that is uniquely her own; they are restless and gutsy, aspiring to convey a feeling of the material world, but also human presence within it. In this respect, Williamson's work demonstrates that abstraction can indeed surpass formalism's sheer play with painterly marks by investigating what is painted and why. And it is this investigation of meaning through experimentation with pictorial forms that lies at the core of her working method. In the artist's own words, "The paintings begin with a close observation of the relationship of the objects to one another, only to continue searching the unseen relationships of those objects". The search in Williamson's paintings occurs through the drawings that she makes from her paintings in order to understand them and find the new solution for them that cannot be found from direct observation. However, although emerging in the middle of a series of paintings, sharing their themes, Williamson's drawings are to be considered finished pieces in their own right.

Executed in series, the artist's recent paintings and works on paper represent an extensive visual exploration of still lifes (Still Life: Mapping the Universe) on the one side and singular objects (Knife and Sheath; Door Knocker; Pair of Gloves; Electrical Clamps) on the other. While the still life paintings and drawings, which join odd objects together to discover new relationships among them, are imbued with formal density and inner tension, the single-object drawings are depicted as bold representations of isolated, solitary things. This concentration on a single shape as opposed to a crowded composition derives from the artist's need to differentiate oneness from undifferentiated wholeness, but also from her search for silence in noise and peace in crowds. And it is this need for re-ordering chaos that characterizes the best of Williamson's artwork. In this respect, her still lifes and single-object drawings exist in resonance with each other, similar to a resonance of physical-contemplative, tangible-intangible, and visible-invisible aspects of life.