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This article by Pat Summers was prepared for the March 14, 2001

edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Whistling While He Works

Maybe it’s the shapes in the paintings that attract:

softly amorphous, often suggesting landscape, but never saying it.

The colors would surely do it: prevailing blues and violets, as well

as oranges and greens — sea and earth tones. And those penetrating

yellows: here comes the sun. Or the textural variety could be the

draw: from rough and rutted to "implied," as the artist puts

it. And trust the artist, Micheal Madigan, to put it out there, with

insight and clarity.

To foster his intuitive painting process, which he wants to keep that

way, Madigan plays a "feadog" (Irish for whistle), during

his painting sessions. He has a number of whistles, ranging from about

10 inches to two feet long. "I try to play as much as possible

to keep the intellect at bay," he says. "That becomes an


part of the evolution of the work. I’ll stop working on a piece when

I realize that I’m thinking of the next thing that has to happen."

Madigan’s show "Aisling Gheal (Bright Vision)" opened earlier

this month at Morpeth Gallery, Hopewell, and runs through Sunday,

April 1. It warrants many long looks. The work of the last few years

and the result of frequent visits to Ireland, his non-objective


— on canvas, panel, and paper — represent "the effect

of memory and time on the way we form ideas in memory and the way

we surrender them as we age." With an artist-friend, Madigan makes

January trips to "ancient and sacred places" in Ireland.


sites we visit go from the Megalithic period, around 3800 B.C., up

through the 13th and 14th centuries — (what are now) old Celtic

church ruins on the same sites."

For him, the paintings embody the energy of those experiences. Each

piece is "a composite of four or five different experiences that

I had while at one site, or else an amalgam of a number of different

sites," he says. "The way we build memory is not of a specific

moment in time. We think we remember it that way, but it’s an amalgam

of ideas that mesh together." And, of his visits and the sites

themselves, Madigan says, "I believe in the linking between


memory and primordial memory, if you’re open to it. There’s a very

palpable sense of that in Ireland."

Not only is Ireland "a wellspring of powerful stuff," it is

also part of his cultural heritage. Half Irish, Madigan first visited

the country only a few years ago. Born in Altoona, Pennsylvania, and

now 43 years old, he was the last of six children, and the second

son, of a father who worked in coal-mining, then with the railroads,

and had a beautiful voice. His mother raised the family. The unusual

"Micheal" spelling of his first name is "a nod to his

ancestors," he explains.

With both a BFA and MA in fine arts from Indiana


of Pennsylvania, Madigan lives in Hamilton with his wife, Elaine,

and their two sons, Ceilidh ("Kaley"), 18, and Cianan


6. With one studio behind his home, where he now makes all his art

and gives private art lessons, and another soon to become available

in Trenton’s Urban Word area, Madigan calls himself "a one-man

operation." His teaching, both privately and at Artworks; his

travels, both for his own art and with Artworks students; his


work, including sculpture; and his self-marketing activities,


maintenance of a website ( — as

well as his own art-making — all compete for his attention. And,

presumably, his sleep time.

For Madigan, his paintings’ abstracted images suggest memories and

meanings. As for viewers, ideally, he says these pieces will function

differently for each one, depending on the many ways people might

relate to the images — through their color, or shape, or texture,

for instance. "We humans have narrative mind-sets. People will

try to identify something they recognize in the piece. That’s not

what I’m interested in, but I can’t fight it," he says.

"I understand the importance of giving people a little bit of

a flavor to enter into a piece, but giving them the whole bowl of

soup would be over-interpreting. They have to look. Hopefully, a work

will earn the time of the viewer. Then the underlying qualities of

the piece will become more evident. These are meant to be evocative

images, not narratives." Besides, he adds, in a down-to-earth

way that contrasts winningly with his more usual verbal side, "I

don’t have that linear a hold on the piece’s evolution myself."

Madigan looks the part: this artist who Ruth Morpeth says "has

to paint" has stopped by her gallery on West Broad Street,


to touch up one of his painted frames, nicked in transit. Bearded,

with curling brown hair, he wears jeans and a nubbly brown knitted

sweater, and he seems happy to talk about his work in general and

this exhibition in particular. If he’s intuitive while painting, he’s

also loquacious afterwards.

"Evolve," "meld," and "images states" occur

often in Madigan’s discussion of his process. He takes a plethora

of photographs during trips to Ireland — not for graphic purposes,

but to serve as memory jogs, and he draws on them in a number of ways.

Some photos might remind him of the texture of rocks or the look of

weather conditions he encountered. He might simply flip through a

stack of photos to activate a memory sequence. "Archetypal kinds

of images appear over and over again," he says.

With idea enough to start on, Madigan considers the scale that will

best fit the idea. This can require first producing a "study


on paper. "On a smaller scale, I let the free-forming process

develop," he says. "When I increase the scale, the range of

mark-making and the complexity of technique involved change because

the larger scale is a different kind of interaction with the


By then, though, "I know where the major shape relationships are

going to be, and how to build the paint and color progressions to

arrive at that."

"On a larger scale, if a piece wants to go off in its own


I let that happen," he says — spontaneity cannot be denied.

"It’s kind of like playing a jazz riff: you know you have to be

at a certain point at a certain time, so there’s an orchestration

to it. What happens between those moments is still the art of creating

the work."

Some of the nearly 40 paintings on view at the Morpeth Gallery are

framed works on paper that began as studies, then took on a life of

their own. "They have to stand by themselves as finished


Madigan says, and for that reason, they don’t necessarily hang near

the larger, and different, versions. While some viewers may see the

relationship between the two sizes of an idea, that’s not important.

A triptych, or three-part work, represents Madigan’s memories of his

experience "up in the cairns (burial sites) in County Sligo and

Roscommon. It’s a complicated compositional arrangement," the

artist says, "to get these three things to work and dialogue


with one another." He recalls that doing small canvas studies

beforehand gave him a "kind of physical entree into it. Then when

I got into the larger works, I was freed from that and could be more

intuitive and experimental with color progressions or subtle glaze


Color. It’s awash in Madigan’s memory-laden, layered images. He uses

acrylic paints, "the perfect medium," exclusively in all his

abstract work. "The palette has become much more complex because

the ideas behind the pieces have required it," he says. His


abstract works were brighter — a viewer might have said


— because they were purely non-representational. Now, Madigan

is pulling colors, including earth tones, from actual memories, even

though those hues are deliberately dissociated from a descriptive

function. For instance, he might take a tiny detail from actual


and use it large in a work; similarly, he might juggle the occurrence

of both colors and textures for a personal conglomerate that still

triggers his own memory. He might literally see something in cool-bias

colors, and then, through the prism of his reactions and memories,

express it in warm-bias hues.

Madigan’s "Bright Vision" includes some new paintings on wood

panel. They look textured, but they’re smooth. "Texture,"

he explains, "can affect or even preclude strong chromatics,"

and for that reason, he may build up 10 or so layers, with a lot of

sanding between them, to create "implied texture." At other

times, he’ll want "the visceral quality of the texture" to

be part of the work. Combined with color and raking light, it lets

different memories come through.

His process, Madigan says, is "maybe 15 to 20 points of


One piece evolved over a year and a half, "going through many

different `image states,’ some of those destroying prior image


What can hold up the process he calls "a little battle of


he knows what has to happen next, but hesitates to move to the next

stage. "Beneath Amber Waters," the painting on the


show card, is an example of this. Reminding him of "many treks

and visits to coastal areas," the finished piece includes


to the effects of storms, a mussel shell, an old work boat of the

type commonly found there. Madigan calls responding to what the piece

may call for and having to let go of some elements "a wrestling

match." Finally, he says, the work arrived at this image state,

in which for him the ideas and memories have a palpable presence.

In alluding to his own memory sequence and suggesting what for

him a piece is about, Madigan’s titles bring his memory-melding

process almost full circle. Only frames, where they’re used at all,

remain. Past a certain size, the artist believes, "the work


itself without a frame." Other pieces are presented in frames

painted in a neutral shade for "the effect of gray stone."

The few gold leaf frames, for which Madigan credits Morpeth’s


eye," lend elegance to the works they surround. More than an art

dealer with a good eye, Morpeth is, in Madigan’s view, "a


He thinks she’s a risk-taker for showing abstract work in an area

that’s heavy with representational art. She aims high, he says; she’s

"a wonderful support." And, it should be noted here, Morpeth

Gallery has quickly become the opposite of the Arthurian "Siege

Perilous" — everyone wants to "sit" there.

For her own part, Morpeth observes that "it’s hard to say why

you like abstract work," then readily cites Madigan’s


use of color and balance in his compositions. His work is


she says; "there’s obviously a thought process behind it."

Noting that his paintings complement each other, she refers to the

tension between colors and textures — a decided help in hanging

a Madigan show. During an Artworks class some years ago, she overheard

Madigan talking about his painting to another class. This marked the

beginning of her interest in his work.

Madigan has been affiliated with Artworks for about 12 years. Teacher,

board member, and committee chair, as well as prime mover behind the

distinctive mural on the side of the Trenton building, he has been

an active part of the institution’s own evolution. On Sunday, March

18, he’ll give the first gallery talk in Morpeth’s new venue. Those

who enjoyed or missed the artist’s opening reception on March 3 are

welcome to bring questions, comments, and, as the radio announcer

says, their "finely tuned ears." If they’re lucky, Madigan

may whistle a tune or two, adding the language of music to those of

art and conversation.

— Pat Summers

Micheal Madigan, Morpeth Gallery, 43 West Broad Street,

Hopewell, 609-333-9393. "Aisling Gheal" runs through Sunday,

April 1. Wednesday to Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Madigan’s work will

also be featured for the month of April. Gallery talk is Sunday,

March 18, 1 p.m.

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