Artist Spotlight – Interview with Maggie Foskett!

Maggie Foskett (American, b.1919) would not have you call her a “nature artist;” nor is she a romantic about humanity’s relationship with the natural world. Rather, she is an artist who creates images that suggest, as she says, “How delicate our balance with mortality is.” As a lover of the darkroom myself (how I miss making my own prints!), I am fascinated by her work and leapt at the suggestion of an interview.

Ms. Foskett was born and grew up in the “wild country” of Brazil. Vacations were horseback rides through the country and great care had to be taken that “you didn’t step on the wrong things.” This was the root of her keen observations of the cast-off bits of nature, its debris and refuse. She walks through the woods and picks up small, organic objects that simply aren’t meant to last and brings them back to her darkroom.

Once she has the materials for a particular composition together, she layers them between glass plates to create her own negative – no need for cameras or film. The technique is a variation of cliché verre, which traditionally uses drawings made on glass projected onto photographic paper, usually a gum bichromate print. “Cliché verre is not a photograph,” she says. “I can usually get three prints from each composition before the materials fall apart.” She places the “negative” in a photographic enlarger to project it onto light-sensitive paper to create the prints. It is vital that light be allowed to pass through the materials.

Maggie Foskett, Rain Forest, 1996. Cliché-verre. Gift of the artist.

Maggie Foskett, Rain Forest, 1996. Cliché verre. Gift of the artist.

One might think that this would put some serious limitations on the materials suitable for creating the images, but Ms. Foskett has no lack of ideas. Leaves, snake skin, even onion slices are fair game. “I made an entire series with onions, but I have no sense of smell… the darkroom with all the onions and chemistry was very interesting at that time!” One of her favorite materials is the x-ray image; she collects x-rays and even uses her own. “Animals have always fascinated humans. When the x-ray came along, it gave people the opportunity to see inside animals like they never had before. I love bones because they tell a story – in a way they’re almost eternal.”

Science is a great inspiration for Ms. Foskett. Advancements in technology such as DNA sequencing and space exploration all lend to her view of modern science as being turned inward in a reflection of human existence. She sees the natural world not in the context of being conventionally “beautiful,” but as an “arena of survival” in which mortality and the relationship of pattern echo one another.

Ms. Foskett has been working in the darkroom for many years; she has worked alongside many artists, not just photographers, in Maine where she spends her summers. When I was looking through her resume I noted that she had worked with Ansel Adams, so I couldn’t resist asking about that experience. “They always start with him!” she said. “He was a wonderful teacher, and a very kind man. Students would come up and ask him, “What camera should I use?” He would look at them very directly, and then point to his eye and forehead, saying: “The camera is up here.”

I asked Maggie what her advice to young aspiring artists would be. She thought for a minute and said: “Use your hands – anything tactile. Touch, volume, and texture are very important. Mix anything, use any materials. And make sure you pick darkroom materials they won’t discontinue!”

Six of Maggie’s cliché verre images will be on view in Telling Secrets: Codes, Captions and Conundrums in Contemporary Art – a perfect fit, as she has always been “attracted to the ambiguity of nature.” I would like to thank her again for the wonderful conversation and generous advice.

About the Author: Carolanne Bonanno is NMWA’s communications and publishing intern with a soft spot for the darkroom.

0 thoughts on “Artist Spotlight – Interview with Maggie Foskett!

  1. I also make contemporary versions of cliché verres and am always looking for them on the internet. 99% of them are just awful. Ms. Foskett’s cv on this page is gorgeous. Where can I see more?

  2. If it is more of Maggie Foskett’s images you are lokoing for you can go to http://www.caldbeck.com. Many of her pieces are at the Caldbeck Gallery and you can view them online. I hope you enjoy. She is an inspirational artist!

  3. Cliche verre Peter Feldstein. Thank you for your comment. I am fascinated by the molecular imagination of your own work. It’s a pleasure to know of someone familiar with cliche verre. Sometimes I’m tempted to abandon the term because it’s difficult to explain the no camera concept. I still prefer to emphasize the direct hands on approach which is rather like pushing bits and pieces under a microscope. At my age, it was great to shed tripod and all that gear and head straight for the darkroom. The smallest shapes hold the greatest surprise. Every print becomes an experiment.
    Any questions?

  4. Foskett also did a book that looks wonderful. You can find it at http://www.blurb.com/b/2305281-who-was-sadie-cooksey.
    I found out about her because she was doing a show at the Children’s Museum in Boston, although I cannot find any images specifically identified as x-ray specimens from the museum’s natural history collection. I would not call her work cliché verre, but on the other hand, the categorizing hardly matters because the bigger picture is: she makes art! The images on Caldbeck gallery are wonderful.
    Could she really be born in 1919, which would make her almost 100 years old?

  5. Pingback: Flowers, Fruit, and Fatality | Broad Strokes: The National Museum of Women in the Arts' Blog