Contemporary Conversations: Marguerite Edwards

June 1, 2021

Above: Artist Marguerite Edwards

The Artist

If you’ve been to one of Alabama’s judicial buildings, there is a chance you’ve seen a portrait by Marguerite Edwards. An artist from Montgomery Alabama, Marguerite Edwards is the featured artist in the 44th Montgomery Art Guild Museum Exhibition. She has been celebrated for her depictions of fifteen Alabama Supreme Court Justices and seven Appellate Court Judges. Edwards grew up surrounded by artists; her grandfather Frank Spangler Sr. (“Spang”) was a political cartoonist for the Montgomery Advertiser during the 1940s and her parents were both artists. Encouraged by her family, Edwards began drawing at a young age. Even in her early childhood she “loved to draw faces and people, dancing girls and all that”. Edwards describes how art was a part of her childhood: 

My mother, she saved everything, had some drawings from when I was a little girl. She taught me my first lesson…My mother saved a letter from a teacher…that said “your daughter is disrupting class with her drawing”, and…I was in the 3rd grade or something. But I was shy and I sat in the back of the classroom and I would just draw and I’d find heads hanging over my shoulder watching, so the teacher didn’t like that.

Edwards studied at Birmingham-Southern College, and later the Art Students League in New York City. She describes how her early studies in college were “abstract and nonobjective”, and even though “[she] loved it” Edwards “[wanted] to do people…[wanted] to do realism”. Thus, she began studying at the Art Students League. Edwards says that the Art Students League was where she started portrait painting. 

While at the Art Students League, Edwards studied under David Lascelles, who she lists as one of her influences. Edwards is also influenced by John Singer Sargent, Bill Draper, a friend of her father’s who was the “only artist that painted John Kennedy in person”, and Robert Henri, her mother’s favorite artist. “Just people like that,” she says, “all portrait painters, not all the same style, but they all just had something that spoke to me.” Edwards describes how these artists have influenced her:

I think one thing they all have in common is, well, it’s like Bill Draper said when I was in his class: “Start with a broom and end with a feather”. He’d start in big shapes and that’s the way I like to work. …Even with landscapes, you have to find light and dark patterns, simplified, and I like lots of paint on my brush to where you can see the brushstrokes. Now I notice in the art magazines that it’s almost reverting back to what they would call photorealism. That was a big style back years ago. Now they’ll have pages where they’ll show you step-by-step, and it could be a landscape or a portrait, where the artist is working from a photograph. So I’m seeing all these complicated steps and then at the end of it, I can’t tell the photograph from the painting! And I’m thinking “well why’d you bother” y’know? There’s no part of the artist in there, no accidents. Accidents are important and if the accident looks good, leave it alone and if it doesn’t, try to clean it up and it’s loose. I like the looseness of Sargent and getting back to him, this tells you a lot about the way I think, and I’ve tried to copy this from Sargent is painting pearls. So you stand back in the gallery and look at a Sargent painting from a distance and you think you can just walk up and pick those pearls up off the canvas. But you walk up real close and they disappear, it’s just two globs of paint. They don’t make any sense really close up. If you paint like that really loose and strong, it shows up from a distance. And I want my painting to show up from across the room so you don’t have to get way up close to see all the little details. That’s just me and that’s one thing that all these artists have in common. Henri, Sargent, Draper, Lascelles, Cassatt. I could go on and on. They make strong brushstrokes and they use a lot of paint and they don’t get to the detail until the very end. Start with the shapes and contrast, and I love dark and light patterns. A portrait should have one light coming from the side, for me anyway.

Sabeth, 1997, pastel on paper, 17 3/4 x 10 3/16 inches, Lent by the artist
JD Law "David", 2017, pastel on paper, 24 x 19 5/8 inches, Lent by the artist

The Process

Edwards creates stunning landscapes and still lifes as well as portraits. The MUSES Teen Council had the opportunity to ask about her artistic process and inspirations. 

What medium do you enjoy working with most?

Edwards: The two that I love, that I do all the time, [are] oil and pastel, separately. But, I have done sculpting, and I have done watercolor. I love watercolor! If I did 500 watercolors, I might come out with one really good one, so I travel with them. But, it’s totally opposite to oil. With watercolor, you start light and then go dark. With oil, you start dark and then go light. And, I have done etching. I went to AUM years ago to take an etching course because I don’t like technical things because I know nothing about it, and I just need to learn it! Just to learn it, but I know I’ll hate it. So I go in, and I take the class, and I get hooked. So, then the next…time I signed up again to take another class. I go in a third time, and [the instructor] said, “What are you doing here?” And I said, “Y’know, I’m just here”, and he said, “Well, don’t pay, just tell them you’re my assistant.” But then, you can’t do it all day since there’s not enough hours in a day. And, I always tell whenever I talk to my friends and teachers, “A lot of people say ‘Well, I have a hard time getting started, and I just keep putting it off.’” And I say, “Girl, get your paintbrush dirty. Just stick it in a pile of paint and go about your day. To know that you gotta clean that brush-up. You might as well go ahead and do something, and then once you start one thing, you just keep on going!”

What are your biggest inspirations for your artwork?

Edwards: It’s just a hodgepodge of everything…I watched my grandfather do cartoons, I watched my mother paint…but I think it goes back to how I was taught to paint. I always honed in on the teacher who painted like I wanted to paint. [With] landscapes, it’s the same as setting up a still life or painting a face, you’re looking for patterns or shapes, contrast. I’m big on contrast. The way I like to paint with a lot of paint in light and dark patterns is almost to the point where it can be crude looking. But if I start cleaning it up too much I lose what I wanted to do…So I guess the point is that wherever I go I’m looking out my window for light and dark patterns. You have to have those patterns otherwise it’ll look like everything’s the same.

How do you decide what locations to paint?

Edwards: There are two answers to that. Usually, when I paint outside, I’m with a group or a class that I’m taking. Otherwise, I’ll be driving down the road, and I’ll see something, and I’ll either pull over, or if I’m lucky, somebody else is driving, and I can take a photograph of it. And, I’ve done that a lot. Sunsets, that kind of thing, they don’t last long. But the thing about painting outside is the light changes every 15 minutes. To go outside and paint something, it’s tough. You can start out there and work for a while but then use photographs as a reference to finish it. Or, maybe go out another day at the same time of day if the clouds aren’t there or they’re the same and then you can finish it.

Do you take your own photographs to use as reference photos for your landscapes?

Edwards: I definitely take my own photos. I am so picky about that because I know exactly what I want. A good example is a painting of this woman that will be in my Guild show, and it’s a large, huge painting, and she is in a big, red dress laying on the sofa. I saw that painting and thought, who can I sketch? I keep seeing this painting in my mind. So, the point is every time the subject [gets] up, the folds of those clothes are going to change, and you’ll never get them back. So, what I did with her dress…[was] to put two different pictures together to make the dress look much bigger than it really was. As far as the clothes go, the photographs can help, and I’m picky about lighting. I need shadows to show you the depth of something…When I pose someone, I’ll have a sidelight and on the shadow side. I’ll make a triangle of light…It gives you that three-dimensional feel, like how deep [their nose is]. If you’re looking straight at me, you can’t tell how long my nose is.

Do you alter the color scheme or palette when painting from real life or keep it as realistic as possible?

Edwards: I absolutely alter it. I wish you could see the trees out of my studio window. Every tree is the same color green. How boring. And if you see a landscape and everything is the same color green, if you look into the shadows at the bottom they kind of turn blue-purple. And sometimes you have to make it up and put the blue in there. Because, then on some of the leaves, if they’ve got yellow-green parts…, then you’ve got that yellow and that blue, complementary colors…And, that’s the thing with the color wheel. Try to use opposite colors. Try to do that kind of thing rather than just flat green.

Telluride, 2007, oil on linen 31 7/8 x 28 1/8 inches, Lent by the artist
Bridge to Culture, 2014, oil on canvas, 36 x 30 inches, Lent by the artist

The Legacy

During our conversation with Marguerite Edwards, she shared with the MUSES Council stories about her life, career, inspirations, and artistic process. We concluded with one final question: “Do you have any advice that you would share with younger artists?”

I just admire y’all so much because when I was in high school taking art, I can remember sitting on the floor with a friend of mine…We just weren’t paying attention to anything. But, the teachers now are just so good, and I go down that hallway where the student work is in the museum, and it’s just brilliant. I’m just bowled over. And, I have to say this. When I was coming along and my career got started, it was word-of-mouth. And then it just snowballed. I mean I’ve had the most wonderful career. You know Frank Johnson, [the] federal judge, who kept Wallace from standing in the school outside of the university, the one who stopped that…came over and posed for me. …I have been so lucky doing people like that. I was in the right place at the right time. The art around in high school and even college is exceptional. But, I was in the right place at the right time. But nowadays, there are a lot of good artists. It’s very competitive out there. Just hang in there. Just work. I took classes under a lot of different people. …Any time you can find a good teacher, [even if] you’ve got to go out of town, just do it.

Marguerite Edwards often describes how other artists, including her family, have influenced her. From art lessons with family members to studying under artists in college and taking classes encompassing a wide variety of styles, Edwards emphasizes the importance of learning from other artists in one’s own artistic development. However, her own unique style is also evident in every piece she creates. When an artist looks at the world around them and asks, “How can I exaggerate it?” That’s what makes art,” Edwards says. “Because it’s your signature, what you put into it.”

Dominoes at C.C. Bess, 2016, oil on canvas, 22 3/16 x 28 inches, Lent by the artist

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