Myra Cargo ::: Painter ::: Brooklyn
Myra is a dear friend from my college days in Athens, Georgia. Together, with Britt Bass, we made up a sort of trio, often gathering to talk about painting, side projects, and what it means to have a creative life. To me, Myra is the quintessential modern-day painter. Her tiny East Village apartment doubles as a studio and is overflowing with in-progresses canvases, paint, brushes, and art books. We often talk about her painting career, so I took this opportunity to cover some topics we don't usually get to: tools, process, inspiration, and exhibition.
I've always had a fascination with works in progress. I like to know how things are made - what they looked like before they became the final product. This is especially true of art: I'm very often drawn to sketches & rough drafts rather than the finished painting. With that in mind, you can imagine that Myra's apartment is something similar to utopia for me. So my first request was for her to tell me about her tools. She says that like many artists, most of her materials come from Blick or the nearest art supply store. But one thing she is very keen on is recycling. Her studio is littered with small bits of paper (palette paper, I later learn) filled with color & shape experiments. She says that painting on something that has already been used gives her a certain freedom: she feels that because it has already served a purpose, her experimentation or use of the material can be more playful, more creative. In addition, the palette paper allows the paint to sit atop the material, rather than being absorbed. This quality is very similar to painting on hardwood, which is what she uses for most of her final paintings. She says she likes watercolor paper, but it's absorption of the paint is not as honest a representation of how the paint will look on wood.
Currently, Myra is working on a painting series where she creates work that represents the life story of one person who she intensely interviews & involves in the painting process. Unlike any of her previous undertakings, in this project she invites her subjects to partake in the creation process. She even allows the person to choose their own color palette - a striking departure from the typically insular nature of abstract painting. They choose one color to represent each of the following: mother, father, childhood, adolescence, college, and present day. First, Myra paints the base (childhood), applying the colors the person chose in a way that reflects their account of that period in their life. The other life stages are painted in layers according to their chronological order. During this time, Myra also listens to the music of each era of their lives and even reads things that were influential for their growth during different seasons. But for Myra, the most substantial part of the process by far is prayer. Myra explains: "God really directs and guides what I paint and how I paint it. I know that's strange to explain but that is the truth of my process. The paintings come into being after about 50 hours of prayer for each one. I pray for the person whose portrait I am doing, everything they told me, and I pray that I will be able to see them as God does, with His eyes, and interpret their story with through Him as well."
Usually abstract artists are untethered by their concepts or inspiration, but this project has been one of the hardest, she says, because she is letting people into the 'conceptual birthing process' & feeling the pressure of representing their experiences. An honest portrayal is definitely an immense task. Fortunately, she's had some recent small wins. For the portrait of her friend, Keeley Manca, a NYC-based actress & model, she found herself intuitively using the color for her friend's mother over & over in different layers. When she told this to Keeley, she responded, overwhelmed: her mother has been her hero, role model, and above all - a constant in her life. Myra, more than any artist I know, draws a distinct connection between colors & emotions. This project is a perfect example of her talent for creating an abstract representation of very real personal experiences.
Myra's artistic inspiration has been fairly unwavering. She has long been obsessed with the strange and beautiful elements of nature. Recently, she traveled through California and spent a few days alone in the desert. She says it was hugely rich experience -- that she walked around by herself, allowing her eyes to soak up everything she saw. She took over 900 photos in the span of a few days, simply trying to document those rare moments of inspiration from nature that she is deprived of in New York City.
She admits that living in the city is really hard. Surrounded by buildings, she finds inspiration in shadows from buildings or reflections of light. She is adamant that you can find beauty anywhere. In a city without many raw landforms or biodiversity, she seeks out light & water, two natural elements that are still largely accessible in a concrete jungle. She knows that she does not want to stay in New York - it simply could never be a true home for her. But like many who come to NYC to pursue their career, she has a clear idea of what she wants to gain from her time here. Our conversation slowly devolves into chatting about New York City. It's a funny thing, really, and we laughed about how no one does this in, say, Denver. New York seems to have its own distinct identity. I digress.
Appropriately, our last topic was about showing her final work. Traditionally, she says she's preferred small group shows with 2-3 artists who share responsibilities & the pressure of setting up a good show. She also likes the idea of going to a show for one artist & then being able to discover other artists' work. But with 3 solo shows in the next couple months, she says she's had to alter her view. Preparing for the shows has forced her to focus on the quality & cohesiveness of her collected works. A solo show is weighty, she says. The narrative has to be substantial and cohesive. For Myra, it’s the next frontier to conquer.
Below are photos from Myra's apartment, including paint & materials, a vintage lamp, and her grandmother's red purse.