Artist on the Circle: Peter Madden

Over the course of a week and half this past December, Peter Madden was the Mudge Fellow and Artist-in-Residence, in the Christopher Carey Brodigan Gallery.  He recreated his studio at the base of the stairs in the Dining Hall; tables filled with piles of the flotsam and jetsam of modern life: fruit labels, twist ties, bits of thread and yarn, scraps of paper.  Jars filled with like-sized items lined the walls and rolls of contact paper were spread across the surface of tables on the other side.  From these bits and pieces Peter was creating and experimenting with light, shape, and design using a rudimentary type of photography, Cyanotype – better known to preschool teachers everywhere as sun prints.   The process, first applied to photography in c. 1841 by noted botanist Anna Aktins to record images of her extensive seaweed collection, uses a specially treated blue paper that when exposed to sunlight creates shadow forms of any object placed upon it.

As an artist, Peter makes intricate and complex books, using a variety of mediums and techniques.  It was in the course of creating printed pages for a series of books that he discovered his current project.  Intrigued by the depth of color that can be achieved with cyanotype, Peter began using household items arranged in patterns, secured on contact paper, to create design.  Once completed, the contact paper sheets serve as negatives for the cyanotype paper.  Playing with the relative size and opacity of the items allowed him to explore the limits of this kind of printing.  When displayed, the pages he created with designs in subtle shadings of blue were astounding, and viewers clamored to learn how he had achieved such an effect.  Suddenly his printing project expanded to incorporate the negatives, as it became apparent that the how of his prints was as integral to the finished product as the prints themselves.  Ultimately the final product will be a large handmade book of the prints paired with their negatives.

From his perch in the Christopher Carey Brodigan Gallery, Peter engaged the Groton community in his artistic process.  He worked solo when the Dining Hall was not the center of the School’s day, but when meal times rolled around he was often in easy conversation about his work with a parade of students, faculty, guests, and especially the faculty children who were captivated by his multiple piles and jars.  The young children were quick to point out those items they recognized from their own kitchen drawers.  And this may be the central ethos of Peter’s artistic vision; art should include and embrace, never embarrass or put off the young or old explorer.  His handmade books are a perfect expression of his point of view; books are universal, places of stored wonder or information, but easily identifiable and accessible.   Peter wants the viewer to understand his art and through that understanding be transformed to see the world a little differently.

Art has always been a part of his life; his mother was creative and taught Peter by example, intricately adding embroidered flowers and borders to pillowcases.  The youngest of six children, he knew by the time he hit his teens that he wanted to be an artist, but he had no talent as a painter, despite several attempts to learn the techniques and skills necessary to become proficient.  While completing his degree in Fine Arts at Mass. College of Art and Design he studied with professors who carefully and thoughtfully shifted his focus away from standard artistic expression and supported him as he began to explore a more tactile and manipulative medium.  The creation of books, large and small, hand sewn, with intricate covers and handmade papers, proved an artistic awakening for Peter.

With his seven-year exploration of cyanotype nearing its end, Peter is looking forward to delving into other projects.  Though not entirely sure where his gaze will linger artistically, his work with cyanotype and the impact of light and shadow has sparked an interest in etching glass.  Bookmaking will continue to be an artistic outlet, but he is looking forward to the day when his studio is no longer a repository for used twist ties and bits of yarn.

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