You may have noticed from one of my February Chilmark town columns that I ran into Margot Datz during her most recent installation of two paintings that now flank the Chilmark library’s children’s room exit to the main hall. I had spoken with her months ago, after library director Ebba Hierta told me about the wonderful Friends of the Chilmark Library gift of murals, to see if I could visit while she was working on the project. I caught up with Margot at her Edgartown home and studio. My memory clearly failed me, since I entered the basement expecting to see her studio downstairs, and then emerged onto the ground floor, startling her in her paint-smeared lime green canvas apron with a Kate Taylor owl charm necklace. She offered me coffee (something she admitted to enjoying twice weekly) and a beautiful hummingbird-adorned tin of Tasmanian honey, a gift she treasures.
With Margot’s dogs curled up in their beds alongside us, we began to talk. The Chilmark library reached out to Margot about a year and a half ago, and though she prides herself about being on time for projects, she says “2018, I just got behind,” spending an extra two months working on the Edgartown library’s mural, and extra time on the Chilmark library project. Margot says she “takes public works very seriously.”
“There is the possibility of enduring work, so I want to make it incredibly high-quality, [maintain] archival integrity, and I want it in a style that will transcend the trends,” Margot tells me. She has now completed murals and public works for three Island libraries — all different in nature — plus the Whaling Church in Edgartown, the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, the Arkansas Children’s Hospital, and the Harry Tompson Center at St. Joseph Refuge in New Orleans, among others. Margot does not rest on her laurels; she had to put together proposals to submit, like all artists considered for these projects. She is thrilled she’s had the opportunity to do these public works.
Margot uses MDF, medium-density fiberboard, for her panel pieces, coating them with archival primer and sanding them in between coats. “It creates a barrier from any acids rising up from the board,” she says.
The Island library projects are all very different: Edgartown’s retiring librarian Debby MacInnis, a lover of coral reef diving, chose that as the theme at that library, and expanded it to include all the coral reefs of the world. (Look for Margot’s regional fish mural at our hospital.) Oak Bluffs library wanted art at the ends of their book stacks; Margot wanted to illustrate the written word, and says, “I went past the written word into things like the Bayeux Tapestry [an 11th-century example of telling a story only through images].” For Chilmark, library director Ebba Hierta said, the theme was “Chilmark.” Margot wanted to present Chilmark “through a new lens”; however, she said, she “viewed Chilmark through old eyes.”
Thomas Hart Benton “practically lived across the street, spending his summers here,” Margot says. “He painted some of my all-time favorites. You know from the flora, the fauna, the horizon, that this indeed is Chilmark.” Margot dove deep into searching through Benton’s paintings, lifted things out of various paintings of his, and then recombined them and added elements of her own.
“I added children. I wanted a flower stand, a vegetable stand, salute our farmers, celebrate fishing, sheep farming,” Margot explains. “For the entrance works, I lifted from very famous Benton paintings. One of his sons, who in the original has a baseball bat in his hands, and I put in a fishing pole. At his feet is a little toddler. That character was lifted from ‘Jesse at One,’ his [Benton’s] daughter, an enchanted painting. Flanking it is a younger version of Jesse, playing the guitar. I wanted to make her more adolescent than young woman. I tried to put in all different ages, genders, and backgrounds, so everyone feels represented.”
Margot learned from Ebba “that in the original building, the children’s room was in the attic,” so for the pediment piece, the last to be installed, Margot added “bookcases, and made it very attic-y.” Hierta also asked that Margot include “signing,” which she “worked out by adding another character to the proposal.” I learned from Margot that sign language is now being taught to babies who can more easily communicate by signing before they begin to talk, helping them understand the concept of language.
Margot’s “standards keep rising.” She says that every project expands her. Prior to moving to the Island, Margot was a painter and sculptor, but after 1980 and her first mural project at the Hot Tin Roof, that changed. Over time Margot has come to accept that private commissions can end up being demolished or painted over when homes change owners. She has learned to accept “the beauty of it now, and not try to control the destiny of it.”
“It was hard to detach from the habit of details in order to serve Benton,” Margot told me. Many paintings Margot used as source material were only 20 inches by 28 inches, but his large works “have incredible refinement.” She wanted to get into the detail, and was having a hard time until a friend suggested she change her brushes, moving from brushes with “five hairs” to larger ones, so she could “paint in a more dabby way. I realized part of my identity was sewn up in details, and I had to loosen it up and serve Benton, watch what he had to teach me, wiggle around a little more.”
Spanierman Gallery in New York wrote of the artist, “Benton’s working method involved laying out his designs from pencil sketches created on his travels, and applying pen and ink over some of the details to define and preserve them. He next formed a three-dimensional clay model or maquette that resembled a stage set, and painted, arranged, and then studied its clay figures and adjunct details (such as trees, leaves, rocks, etc.). The completed maquette served as the prototype for oil and tempera studies, and for the subsequent fully realized compositions. Benton destroyed most of the maquettes after use.”
“Here’s something [Benton] did, and I’m now going to start to do this,” Margot explains. The maquettes were made from plasticine and wax. Margot said she now understands where his sense of dimensionality came from, a shadow sourcing that made sense seen in this new light: “He was absolutely referring to his maquettes.”
One thing Margot is now doing is using black, something she had been taught never to use. “I actually get his colors now, because he mixed black in. Another thing is [that] I see him everywhere.” Margot seems to being wearing Benton lenses, seeing a broken limb and how it would appear in Benton’s work. “I find myself taking pictures of Benton bark.”
She laughs and says some people see Prada bags, she sees “Benton bark.”
And we finally go into her studio to see the last work for the Chilmark library atop her easel, 110 inches long. Margot points:, “There’s going to be an owl up there. [There are two figures.] She’s teaching him the sign for library. The book [shown in the painting] will be on signing,” Margot says. “Benton painted the weirdest cats, and I know how to paint cats, so it’s hard for me, because his cats are like cartoon cats.”
Fountains are currently on Margot’s bucket list. She says she wants “to bring a fountain to every town.” In the meantime, enjoy Margot Datz’s latest public work, now fully installed at the Chilmark library children’s room. And many thanks to the Friends of the Chilmark Library for making these works possible.
If you’re interested in being added to Margot’s list for her summer art sale, or want to commission work or get in contact, use firstname.lastname@example.org.