With each exhibition, WheelHouse Art hosts an interview with featured artists live at the opening receptions. Madison Cawein was unable to travel to Louisville for the opening for his show, Cairo: Mother of the World, so we interviewed him remotely. Below is the conversation between Cawein and WheelHouse Art’s Daniel Pfalzgraf.
Daniel Pfalzgraf: These images came from the same trip you took that was a part of your 2009 Around the World exhibition at B. Deemer Gallery. What made you revisit these images 14 years later?
Madison Cawein: The years in between 2009 and now have changed my perspective. I was focused then on making images I could paint in smaller formats that would characterize and encapsulate the places we were visiting around the world then. Cairo was unlike any other place I had ever been, although there were some similarities with Oman. I always had more in mind for these images. I also intended to revisit these places physically. Apparently, when the water rises in the irrigation canals there is a mirror image below these palms. I would still like to see that.
DP: Do you see these images differently now than you did then?
MC: Herodotus said “You can’t step in the same river twice.” One difference is that I have a clearer idea about the significance and impact of these images. Part of making art for me is learning about the images that come through me.
DP: What is one of the biggest differences between Madison Cawein in 2009 versus Madison Cawein of 2023?
MC: I hope I have grown in the last decade or so. Certainly making photographs as art is new for me since then. I also realize how differently I see images as a painter compared to most photographers. I value different qualities, and place less emphasis on equipment and technique. I always told my photo students that it was possible to photograph anything that could be imagined within a short walk from wherever you found yourself. That is more true for me now than when I first said it. It all depends on being able to see the world as pure image.
DP: I believe this marks the thirtieth anniversary of your first solo exhibition at B. Deemer Gallery, which was in 1993. How much do you feel you’ve changed as an artist and as a person over the past 30 years?
MC: Around the turn of the century I shifted my emphasis. I used to see making art as equivalent in many ways to the oyster forming a pearl around the grain of sand. The parallel would be that for us that grain would be like a fist-size chunk of jagged glass. Making art could provide a temporary relief. Joseph Beuys’ advice to his students was “Show your wound.” I feel that many if not all my images before the shift were about triumph over adversity.
My emphasis now is on a different paradigm of making and seeing. I see art as a gift that moves through me to others. The images come as a gift, and if I can transmit them without distortion, they live in the world as gifts.
DP: Has your personal or spiritual outlook changed over the years, and has that changed how you view or create your own artwork?
MC: I aim for more acceptance of my situation in the world. My teacher told me “The two states God loves best are patience and gratitude.”
DP: Can you tell us any personal stories of your time while in Cairo or Egypt?
MC: There are so many! We were there just after President Obama’s inauguration which we saw on television in Oman. When we visited the pyramid at Dashur very early in the morning, the uniformed guard was riding a camel about a quarter mile away. When he saw us he wheeled around galloping toward us yelling and shaking his fist: “Obama! Obama! Obama!” I was so alarmed I couldn’t understand him and clutched our host’s arm, asking “What’s he saying? What’s he saying?” Our host said mildly, “I think he’s saying he likes your new president.”
I was volunteered to teach art to street kids at an NGO. I had three translators, and a wonderful time. One evening, no one could pick me up or drive me home so I took a cab. The directions in Arabic were given to the driver. We raced through the night with me having no way to communicate, no idea where we were going, or where in the world I was, or if I would ever arrive.
Another night for the lesson, I stopped at a street stall to buy roses for each student to draw. Of course they were intended to keep them. Three different students told me it was their mother’s birthday, and the rose would be their gift to her. I realized that these kids had probably never owned a rose before that night. The students brought me to tears almost every night I taught them. Unlike any other students I had taught, they were incredibly eager to learn, and very grateful for the opportunity.
DP: Can you share any thoughts or feelings you have of any of the specific photographs in this show? Or any stories surrounding any of these images in particular?
MC: I particularly love the images that are out of focus and under-exposed. One in particular reminds me of what I saw when fasting and meditating with eyes closed. I find it wonderfully restful and beautiful. The images from inside the tomb chamber at Dashur are dream-like and moving to me.
DP: Are there any details in any of these pieces that you would like viewers to pay attention to? What about those details that make them special for you?
MC: For me it is not so much the details as the impact of the images, and what they feel like to live with. I have lived with the Egyptian images for some years now. They stay with me.
DP: Or, is there anything specifically or generally that you hope viewers are able to take away with them after viewing these images?
MC: The world today with its digital interface is moving fast and training everyone to have short attention spans. The average time on one screen before clicking away is reported to be three seconds. Art is about a long attention span. Even if one doesn’t actually sit and contemplate, if an image is in your environment, it will be encountered many times, even if only briefly, over a span of time. The takeaway is what lasts, and that can only be experienced beyond the initial reaction over that span of time.
DP: How high does Egypt rank on your list of favorite or most impactful places you’ve ever visited?
MC: Egypt was one of my very favorites. I wanted to move there. The people were immensely kind and generous. I loved visiting the Fishawy Coffee Shop in the bazaar where Naguib Mahfouz sat to write his Nobel-Prize-winning novels every day. Our host said he often saw him on his way there early in the mornings. One of his novels, “Harafish” (The Poor), was set in an alley where we walked with our host’s wife. She told us that she had taken her husband there. He was Egyptian, but was educated in England. He had tripped during his visit and said “Oops!” She told us “You cannot say ‘oops’ here. It is too dangerous.”
We asked two taxi drivers about the dotted lines dividing three lanes of highway into the city with five streams of traffic. One said, “A good driver will center his car on the lines.” The other said, “They are just decoration.”
DP: Is there anything about Cairo that reminds you of your current or former homes in New Mexico and Kentucky?
MC: Really it was the differences that stood out.
DP: It seems a big aspect of the subject matter here reflect on the passage of time, and in a sense the recording or acknowledgement of time passed as represented by how civilization has touched the earth. You are also very in-tune with the natural world and endless timelessness of the universe. Do you have explicit, distinct perspectives with the human-made world versus the natural world?
MC: Not so much differences between natural and human-made as the differences between an ancient culture and ours, which seems so recent and transient by comparison.
DP: Do you feel there is a certain “present-ness” in the natural world that helps you to focus on the here and now, while the human-made world offers more reflection on changes over time? Or do both worlds offer the same opportunities for personal reflection? Or do you not even categorize the two worlds separately, but treat them both as all one of the same world?
MC: Wisdom is where you find it.
DP: Tell us more about your Civilization series of paintings.
Where were you, what was happening that inspired you to make these paintings?
MC: I actually encountered a short video segment of campfire in a bad post-apocalypse movie. I made several photos with long exposures to capture images that then didn’t really resemble what was onscreen at all. The desire to paint them was spontaneous. I expected to learn the meaning of the images in the process. That is still happening.
DP: These paintings show a lot of action, a lot of activity. They don’t seem like they depict particularly calm fires. What was going on with the fires while you were (I am assuming) photographing them for the source materials for these paintings? Were you or someone else actively agitating the fires, stirring them up for greater effect? Anything ritualistic or more meaningful behind the actions done in the creation of these images?
MC: The painting of these images was more about mark-making than rendering as such. I wanted to make them work as paintings. They are somewhat of a departure for me, although they are a bit like some paintings of water I have made in the past.
DP: Humans have been fascinated with fire probably since before we were even able to personal wield and manage it. There is a certain kind of connection we have when we sit around a fire today with humans who did the same tens of thousands of years ago. It can be quite a meditative act, sometimes even trance-inducing. Is there anything that you find yourself keying in on while watching a fire burn? Anything that you find your mind wandering to?
MC: Fractal images that change yet remain the same have always fascinated us, I think. Ocean waves, fire, trees in the wind. They can feel as if they are full of meaning that is uniquely available in contemplating them.
DP: Do you prefer spending your time around a fire with others sharing time socially, or do you prefer to spend the time quietly with your thoughts? Or something else altogether?
MC: I like being alone to be able to hear my own thoughts and be able to clarify my emotions without distraction. I like being with others for the sharing and learning.
DP: You know, this is the second show in a row of yours that prominently features fire in your work (the last being the candlelight of the Empyrean chandelier pieces). Have you explicitly noticed a personal attraction or fascination with fire before?
MC: The common element is light. Light is always attractive both visually and metaphorically.
DP: I remember years ago my son wanted his bedroom painted red, so I agreed to do a couple walls in a bright, firetruck red. After rolling out just a couple of small walls in red, I felt like I burned the retinas in my eyes. When I looked away my vision was completely singed in red, and it took a while to regain a full spectrum of color. Did you ever find yourself experiencing anything similar while focusing on painting these pieces?
MC: This palette is new for me. It was just suddenly very attractive to me to work with. Red can take over an image, like the “S” sound can dominate in poetry, so it is a technical challenge. I feel that as one element in an environment, it can be energizing and life-enhancing.
DP: How do you think these two bodies of work (the Civilization paintings and the Cairo photographs) relate with each other? Or do you see them as two completely and distinctly different series?
MC: They are distinct but resonate. They just felt right to me together. I think they speak to the passage of time and our mortality in a way that is not confrontational, but meaningful.
DP: Please feel free to share any other insights or information about your work that you think viewers may find interesting or learn from.
MC: The most important thing to me is always to take the time to look. Images have an immediate impact that is important, but there are many things that can only be seen over time. I sometimes feel I can sense when an image is going to be important for me, when it is going to continue to offer a kind of inner sustenance for life’s journey. I always hope that others will take the time to see if that is there for them too. The viewer completes the image. I see art as like a message in a bottle cast into the ocean of Time. Not all images arrive at the shore, but some will.