Margaret Fanning's "Snapshots" at The Center for Contemporary Art
About a decade ago, while she was still in college, Margaret Fanning began sifting through boxes packed with albums of old family photos.
She was trying to reconnect with her late grandmother, a teacher and artist whose art supplies fascinated young Margaret years earlier. Fanning was a kid when her grandmother died. The photos, she says, were a way to “process” her death later in life.
The effect was immediate.
“I don’t know for sure how an archaeologist feels when they uncover something new and discover something,” recalls Fanning, who was studying art at a school in Georgia at the time. “But it had that kind of feeling — like you’re delving into the past and you kind of get a new understanding of things.”
In fact, Fanning had such a strong connection that she was inspired to create an artistic technique and style that has defined her work ever since.
“A lot of them weren’t posed photographs,” the New Jersey artist remembers. “These were all snapshots taken at a time, when you have no idea what’s going on with them almost.”
“Once I discovered the photos, I was like: ‘This is what I want to do,’” she says. “It was very quick.”
What Fanning does is make paintings or drawings inspired by photographs — of family members, of strangers, of anyone at any random moment, really.
She doesn’t paint on top of photos. She draws copies of them, sometimes changing an element or two, and then colors it with paint or ink. The result are pieces that are simultaneously realistic and surreal — more human than comic book art but more off-kilter than common portraiture.
A collection of her recent — and more modern-looking — work is on display at The Center for Contemporary Art in Bedminster through June 8. It’s called “Snapshots.”
Fanning admits the title may be misleading because some people might expect it to be a photo exhibit. But snapshots, she concludes, are what inspires her work.
“I think actually more than figurative, it’s narrative,” the 32-year-old Warren resident says of her art. “It tells a story — each piece tells a little bit of a story.”
“I find that even with a bad photograph, you can actually make a really interesting painting from it,” Fanning adds.
The goal, she explains, is to bottle the spontaneous.
“A lot of portraiture right now, it’s very posed and stuff,” Fanning says. “But I’m really drawn to the in-the-moment kind of feeling. Just capturing someone who didn’t really expect to be captured.”
One piece on display at the Center is simply a painting of a woman in vintage sunglasses and smoking a cigarette. That’s called “Polaroid.”
Another is of a pensive woman standing alone in front of a set table. That’s “Why Didn’t They RSVP?”
Then there’s “Flamingo vs. Shark,” which shows two women drawn in black and white and holding brightly colored toys — or are they figurines, or purses? — shaped like the titular animals.
Wes Sherman, chair of exhibitions at the Center, says Fanning’s talent is striking. “She’s got insane techniques,” he explains.
But it’s more than that. Her work has a “narrative that’s kind of haunting,” Sherman says.
“The images she picks, they’re not the typical images,” he continues. “It’s not like she’s picking things where people look nice and collected. It’s like catching people in between the bigger moments you might have in a day.”
Fanning grew up in Berkeley Heights. But her grandmother lived in Queens, and Fanning loved visiting her.
“She was just so enthusiastic about it,” Fanning recalls. “When I visited her and saw her supplies — she works with a bunch of cray-pas and different media — I would just kind of take that and have fun with it. Experiment from an early age.”
That sparked a lifelong love of art, even though many people — including Fanning’s teachers — encouraged her to pursue other careers. Fanning didn’t listen.
“It was kind of a stubborn streak in me,” she recalls. “I was like, ‘No. I need to do this. I need to paint and draw or go into comics.’ I just knew I needed to do something with my art.”
Fanning ended up 800 miles from home, studying painting at the Savannah College of Art & Design.
Yes, she knows New York is only an hour from her hometown. Why would she go south instead?
Well, it was November when Fanning was checking out schools. Up here, it was rainy and windy. But when she traveled to Georgia?
“It was 72 degrees out and warm,” Fanning remembers. “And they had such a good program.”
Savannah didn’t require a portfolio to get in. The college taught foundation skills of painting. That, Fanning says, made her work stronger.
She was a senior, in 2008, when she found those family photos and stumbled upon her signature style.
At first, Fanning says, she tried to be “very true to the photograph.”
“Any mistake that was in it, I tried to put that into my painting,” she explains. “Because it was all about time and how time can deteriorate something. ‘Oh, here’s a piece of tape that was taped right across it. That’s kind of intriguing. Let me put that in my painting.’”
But soon, she started changing elements — like reducing the background or moving figures around. “I just took it as inspiration and created something a little different,” Fanning says.
She also branched out from family photos. Fanning started experimenting with other peoples’ pictures that she found at antique markets or on the internet.
And she took some photos herself.
“I’m not the best photographer,” Fanning admits. “But I find that even though I’m a poor photographer, I can at least get inspiration from elements of it.”
She also likes capturing images of strangers.
“Because you have more leeway with them,” Fanning says. “You can change them around a little bit. And there’s also a story you might invent in your head.”
Whereas her work started with older, more classic-looking pieces, it’s evolved into being “something more modern,” she explains.
“You can kind of see a passage of time with the entire series,” Fanning says.
As for her process? She begins by drawing the photo almost like a graph, “where you think about a map in longitudes and latitudes.”
“I want it to be accurate to a point,” Fanning says.
That takes time.
“I want the drawing to be good before I even start painting,” Fanning says. “Because it’s the foundation. If something’s off with that, my paintings going to be off.”
She uses all kinds of paint after that. Two paintings in the show are oil, another two are watercolors, one is acrylic. The rest are ink.
Fanning also teaches art at the Center in Bedminster. And her next ambition is to make her pieces bigger. As in, physically larger.
“I have to start building my own panels almost,” she says.
For the record, Fanning has crafted many paintings from her grandmother’s old photos.
“Surprisingly,” she says, “I’ve sold a bunch of them to some strangers.”
In other words, it has all come full circle for Fanning.