Art and the City

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Margaret Sanger “Dancing Trees” Watercolor on Paper Photo Jim Magner

Artist Profile: Margaret Sanger
“I was a painter before I was a rebel,” she told me, “but I had to keep Margaret the artist barricaded behind the outer skin of the warrior.” She said the artist had to wait for a long time inside the “banshee” who faced down the law and repelled the attacks.

Margaret grew up with art. Her father, Michael Higgins, was a sculptor, “a crazy artist who had to carve cupids into tombstones to feed us kids.” She took a few art classes at a Hudson River institute but returned to Manhattan to become a nurse. She witnessed the death of a woman from a self-induced abortion and her life changed forever. She coined the term “birth control,” pushed the limits and went to jail for advocating contraception. She married Bill Sanger, an artist and architect.

Unlike many famous people who also create art, Margaret’s paintings are unpretentious. Celebs seem to think that fame and fortune require a Francis Bacon style on a Tintoretto scale. Her watercolors are small and straightforward, but not photographic. She brought life to the ordinary and let the paint loose to seep and saturate the paper in a controlled manner.

Margaret Sanger “Rocky Cove” Watercolor on Paper Photo Jim Magner

I knew Margaret the artist in her last years in Tucson. My mother was her private nurse. I was in my 20s. She was in her 80s. We were both painters and that brought us together. We talked almost exclusively about art and how it had made us human.  I gave her one of my paintings and I picked one of her’s—the “Dancing Trees.” I still have it.

We didn’t agree on everything. She was a pacifist. I volunteered for Vietnam. It upset her, but before she died, she left a painting—“for when he comes back”—the “Rocky Cove.” I still have it.

We discovered that you can find much in common if you listen—just listen.

For more about Margaret Sanger, see below: “The Play.”

Jim Magner’s Thoughts on Art
Margaret Sanger is sailing on the currents of timelessness—drifting over regal mountaintops, swooping in on roaring rivers, and gasping at the rising mountains of trash and floating islands of plastics. I know this because I am still with her. We began flying together many years ago when I was a young lieutenant and she was in her final years in a nursing home.

We discovered each other through art. We talked as we flew through time and the wonders of the universe.

We would take short imaginary excursions to Sabino Canyon near Tucson where we had both painted. I would describe the canyon coming alive in the morning: the sun turning the rock walls crimson, hawks catching an updraft, quail scurrying, cactus wrens getting busy, bobcats drinking from the rushing, singing stream. Margaret could see it all. She would look at me through endless eye-tunnels then close those eyes and let the sights and sounds settle deep in her private place.

But that’s the magic of the human mind—the ecclesiastical reaches of creativity. It’s the power to see, really see, beyond the limitations of the physical—to fly among the projections of our imagination. Aurochs come alive on a cave wall. Clouds take on human features. A flat arrangement of lines becomes a landscape that recedes to the horizon.

Seeing goes beyond sight. There is a cerebral sense to it all. Art with music, poetry and all creative visions, join in a communal spiritualism—the currents of a universal dream.

On her final day, Margaret asked my mother to take her outside to look up at the enchanted Catalina Mountains lit by thundercloud formations that glowed like heavenly lanterns. She watched the trees wave and listened to the birds sing one more time. She closed her eyes and let the sounds and sights settle deep in her private place.

The Play: “Margaret Sanger and the Soldier.”
I have written a play about our conversations. I was the soldier. Playwrights Horizons in New York, called it a “…lush, richly imagined exploration of the power of art.” Yes, at its core it is about the humanness of creativity. It was scheduled to be performed at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore this coming February but has been postponed until 2022.

Margaret Sanger, like many people who take on the world, has been called many terrible things from a weird variety of people her whole life. It continues today. She has been swept up in the raging verbal wars about racism and is the target of accusations even from those who had praised her. They are not true. If you would like to know why, send me an email. She was a tough lady who fought for human dignity and won the right for women to control their own fertility. She was also an artist who saw beauty everywhere.

 Galleries
“Making New Connections”
Capitol Hill Art League
Frame of Mine Gallery
545 8th St SE
Sept. 8 – Oct. 3
The 12 newest members of the Capitol Hill Art League (CHAL) present their work in this “pop up” exhibit at the Frame of Mind Gallery. “Making New Connections” refers to the new members, but also the inspiration that naturally occurs as part of the creative process.  www.caphillartleague.org

Hill Center
921 Pennsylvania Ave., SE
The annual Regional Juried Exhibition continues through 2020. Although it is closed, a wonderful work from each artist can be seen at: https://www.hillcenterdc.org/artist/2020-regional-juried-exhibition.

Fran Abrams
Foundry Gallery
2118 – 8th Street, N.W.
September 2 – 27, 2020
Fran discovered polymer clay in 2000. It allows her to work in full color and in three dimensions with almost unlimited elasticity and life. “Progressions” is a retrospective of her development from a “silk scarf” method of draping the clay, to her most recent work. Franabrams.com

A Capitol Hill artist and writer, Jim can be reached at [email protected]