The simultaneous evolutions of Lisa Magnarelli-Magden

Lisa in front of her painting Purple Mountain Majesty, oil on canvas, 11 x 4.6
Tetons, tools and getting dirty

Three years ago, I was asked to help babysit during a surprise birthday party that Lisa Magnarelli-Magden threw for her wife Laura at their house in West Tisbury. At one point, Laura and Lisa’s daughter, Lucy, ushered me into the basement to draw with her and a friend. At the bottom of the stairs, I found myself staring at a giant painting that Lisa calls “The Grand Tetons.” I can’t describe it any other way than that it gracefully depicts a mountain range formed of breasts.

As a teenager with no context, I looked at it briefly and blushed before settling onto the carpet to draw with the kids. I’ve since learned that this piece is part of a series Lisa did during grad school at the Museum of Fine Arts, an era in which she used her art as an avenue to sort through her sexuality. As she put it, “In grad school, a lot of my art had to do with my sexuality. I was young and I was out, but there was coming to terms with being a lesbian, so a lot of my art had to do with that.”

Lisa is currently an art teacher at the West Tisbury School, where she has worked since 2012. Before that, she worked at the Edgartown School for six years. When she is not teaching or spending time with her wife and three children, she is making art of her own, which currently manifests as a reflection of her life on Martha’s Vineyard: “My artwork represents where I am now; where I live, what I like to do, my family life.”

Lisa’s personal art is not influenced by a desire for monetary gain, but instead by her natural creativity. She likes to experiment with multiple mediums and materials. Right now, she’s working on two unconnected series which collectively employ charcoal, a chainsaw, and cylindrical logs, among other things. “I don’t feel locked into a style or a material,” she told me while describing these projects. The first, a series of large charcoal drawings of tools, is something she’s been hoping to do for a long time. Inspired by a professor at the Museum of Fine Arts, who did a series of charcoal drawings of her grandmother’s silverware, Lisa put her own spin on the idea, saying simply, “I use a lot of tools.”

This is no overstatement, as Lisa and Laura essentially built, wired, and plumbed their home in West Tisbury. They worked alongside local craftsmen, and arranged a deal with an electrician to have weekly tutorials about the ongoing wiring process. The electrician then checked their progress the following week, and explained the next steps. This process was not as time-consuming as you would think: They finished their house in under a year and a half, and are now well equipped to fix any problem.

Working on her house gave Lisa a new understanding and appreciation for the tools she used, and was the inspiration for her new tool series. The first drawing she has completed in the series depicts a typical tape measure as a beautiful object. The tape extends forward as if to leave the page, drawing the attention of the viewer down the tape and toward the mechanically precise self-retracting portion of the tool. In each aspect of the tool, Lisa incorporated her light source so as to invigorate the object with a metallic luster — it was far beyond what I thought charcoal capable of. Lisa expressed her pride as she unveiled it during our interview: “I love it,” she said of the meticulously proportionate piece. She plans to add a chainsaw to the series, and promises that other tools will follow.

The second series she is working on follows not the tools themselves, but things created with tools. Lisa has begun using small round logs of varying widths and heights to create three-dimensional pieces that she thinks of as similar to cityscapes. She introduced the idea by saying, “We live on this Island, and we’re outside all the time. I chop my own wood, so this project is about using my chainsaw and using the things around me to create.” The process behind these large installations is surprisingly simple. Lisa cuts down trees from around her house for firewood, and keeps the logs with the width or shape she is looking for. She then mounts these cylinders on a large sheet of unprocessed wood, creating a wood-grained, bark-covered cityscape that inspires a viewer to touch and study the way in which the individual logs became a cohesive whole.

One of these pieces greets the Magdens’ visitors in their entryway, sitting proudly atop a set of drawers, but these pieces can be displayed in a variety of ways. Lisa describes them as “a centerpiece that you could also hang on your wall.” She is experimenting by making these sculptures in different shapes and sizes, and hopes to build a large piece to hang above her fireplace, though she is concerned about how the wall will support the weight of the sculpture.

Lisa brings her inclination to experiment with a multitude of materials into the classroom, where, former students say, she inspires creative confidence and exploration. Former student Katherine Dorr, who graduated from the West Tisbury School in 2010, remembers, “Lisa made art so fun — it was never intimidating. I used to get so excited about projects — it was always the first class that I told my mom about when I got home.” One of Lisa’s favorite assignments to give students is modeled after the TV show Chopped. The students “get a basket with ingredients that they have to use,” which often includes items such as toilet paper rolls, pipe cleaners, and miscellaneous objects that Lisa collects. The students can then use other materials and art supplies to cut or manipulate these assigned objects, and create anything they wish. After a predetermined period of time, everyone finishes up their projects, and the class discusses what they have created.

The point, as Lisa noted, is that “we all made something different, and every creation is awesome. Everyone has their own style, and how cool is that?”

It’s not unusual for artists to experiment with different media over time. Lisa likes to do it simultaneously: fashioning a wooden garden gate into a rendering of the sun, a tool into a charcoal masterpiece, tree limbs into a cityscape, and an art class into an exciting, stimulating experience.

“I really just make my art to make my art,” she explained. “I like to make stuff; I like to get dirty.”

Photo by Bella Bennett:   Lisa in front of her painting Purple Mountain Majesty, oil on canvas, 11 x 4.6 “

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