The Making of a Young Artist

young woman wearing a white shirt standing in front of two black and white sketches
Maggie O'Keefe (B.F.A. '19) and some of her fall 2018 work. William Staffeld / AAP
Three paintings of houses at night with interior and porch lights
Passerby, a fall 2018 exhibition in Tjaden Hall. William Staffeld / AAP
three tall paintings of individuals hung on a gallery wall with smaller works around them
O'Keefe often paints pictures of her close friends such as these, that appeared in Passerby. William Staffeld / AAP
Maggie O'Keefe (B.F.A. '19) and some of her fall 2018 work. William Staffeld / AAP Passerby, a fall 2018 exhibition in Tjaden Hall. William Staffeld / AAP O'Keefe often paints pictures of her close friends such as these, that appeared in Passerby. William Staffeld / AAP
November 5, 2018

Maggie O'Keefe (B.F.A. '19) says her ability to paint and draw is as natural as walking and talking. Living in Scarsdale, New York, O'Keefe was close enough to New York City to attend classes as a young child at the Art Students League of New York (ASLNY) on Manhattan's Upper West Side. There, she learned the techniques of classical artists: the big brush strokes, defined shapes, attention to detail. This classical style can still be seen in her current artwork, but O'Keefe's recent goal is to step away from the status quo of classical art.

"I enjoy using the classical background in drawing while introducing other nuances, styles, and contexts," says O'Keefe. "I render certain parts of my work more than other parts to create a sense of focus. I strive to maintain a deep sensitivity to color, hue, saturation, and value. I also want to try new mediums and create my own vision."

With Classical Training, Making It Personal and Playful

O'Keefe sees much of her work, visual and literary, as biographical — a reflection of the places she's been, friends she's made, and family she loves. She believes that these fleeting experiences have not only shaped a large part of her life but have allowed her artwork to express new ideas and behaviors.

Coming to Cornell exposed O'Keefe to new experiences, including study abroad and expanding her songwriting interests. Although O'Keefe admires the ASLNY — their teaching of the classic fundamental art techniques — she says it's important to learn how to do something formally and then break the rules in order to make it personal.

O'Keefe is very playful while still honoring her craft. She loves using oil paints partly because they have a history dating back to 15th-century classic artists. At the same time, she loves the medium because using oil paint has a process of revision that entails manipulating the paint to destroy and remake her work, which is less classic and more playful. She concentrates on this balance between fun and seriousness, classicality and originality, simplicity and detail.

After her first year at Cornell, O'Keefe attended a summer program in Mount Gretna, Pennsylvania, where she learned to capture meaning in the mundane. She found moments in nature and life that were overlooked and highlighted them through paintings and drawings. She also spent time thinking about how to represent the ambiguity of life through color and value. This theme of biographical internal work can be seen in all of her later paintings.

Throughout her Cornell experience, O'Keefe took advantage of Cornell programs in order to further explore herself and her artwork. Participating in programs in Rome and New York City, she further honed her work. She painted her tight-knit group of friends, who can be seen in much of her work, and explored collaging, which can be seen in a recent work of her sister.

O'Keefe debuted her singer-songwriting skills for her Cornell fall 2018 art exhibit titled Passerby. "I am constantly looking and sketching what is around me and selecting what intrigues me," she says. "In my recent show, Passerby, I painted three small paintings of houses at night. These paintings depict a rather ordinary subject matter but reflect an intimate view and feeling. I also enjoy painting my friends and family in this manner, highlighting what we see every day."  

Ekphrasis and Songwriting

"I value the communication between art practices as they complement each other."

O'Keefe's songwriting is very influential to her artwork. She talks a lot about ekphrasis — the literary description of or commentary on a visual artwork. The lyrics of many of O'Keefe's songs also reflect the temporality of her experiences as well as the uncertainty of life, a theme common throughout all of her work. However, when she feels stuck about what to paint, O'Keefe looks to music to help get her creativity flowing — the opposite of ekphrasis.

"Music is as important to me as visual art," explains O'Keefe. "I grew up in a household with music and have been playing the violin and other instruments for many years, but I found my voice in songwriting. Composing a song is like composing a painting. Rhythm, mood, timbre, texture, and many more elements are shared in music and visual art. In my songs, I am writing music about family members and friends, which is also a topic I paint."

O'keefe continues, "Ekphrasis is a process of making art that I practice. I value the communication between art practices as they complement each other. I often write poetry with reference to a piece of art and vice versa."

At her Passerby exhibition, held in Tjaden Hall Experimental Gallery, O'Keefe's music played in the back of the gallery, which intrigued listeners to follow the sound to further explore her artwork.

The Familiar and Unfamiliar, Now and the Future

Currently, O'Keefe is working on a 5' x 7' painting of her grandmother in water, swimming. She is excited about the piece because the pairing of the harmonious serene ocean with a spooky quality of the water challenges spectators to question why she is in the water alone. O'Keefe is also working on a painting about the symbolism of her friend Stephen, amidst items that represent him and his personality in an obscure place. In this painting, she hopes to explore familiarity and unfamiliarity — a familiar person in an unfamiliar location.

After completing her Cornell undergraduate degree in the spring of 2019, O'Keefe hopes to return to ASLNY to be a monitor and mentor to young students. She also wants a museum internship and will consider pursuing a master of fine arts degree in the next few years.

"Cornell has been a challenging and fulfilling experience so far. From my semester in AAP NYC to Cornell in Rome to my time in Ithaca, I have greatly benefited from the liberal arts experience — continuing lessons in songwriting with Annie Lewandowski, studying virtual reality, studying Spanish, earning an architecture minor. I value the tight-knit art community we have here in AAP and the many peers across disciplines that I have met."

Whatever she ends up doing, O'Keefe says that she will carry the idea of the importance of a community — an idea fostered over her time at Cornell — with her in future endeavors.

By Kayla Scott '22

This story appeared on the Cornell Research website.

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