By: Ina Joseph
Maddie Durso grew up with a drawing utensil always in hand, having been artistically inclined for as long as she can remember. But when her mother put her in art classes at nine years old to help mitigate her Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), the stroke of a paintbrush became more than a hobby. It was the source of stability, balance, and expression for the rest of her life. Now, the 24-year-old Boston-based artist uses oil painting, watercolor painting, woodblock prints, and her full-time job as an art advisor to bring that same sense of joy and peace to others.
At nine years old, a bought with Pediatric Autoimmune Neuropsychiatric Disorders Associated with Streptococcal Infections (PANDAS) left Maddie with severe obsessive-compulsive tendencies. Tics like needing to touch the sink five times before leaving a restroom or extreme paranoia of germs and contamination prohibited Maddie from going about her day-to-day life with ease. Her mother’s decision to place her in art classes for four hours a week was initially intended as a distraction. But in addition to added structure and support alongside therapy, that therapeutic art ended up providing a very productive channel for Maddie’s anxiety.
“My [art] teacher taught me that you put one error in a drawing first so then the rest of it will be great. I think that was very symbolic of me trying to let go and art being a symbol for letting go – putting error in first and then letting go for the rest of the drawing. Art was a way to channel my anxiety and also teach me how to not be a perfectionist in art, but also in life."
Nine years of art classes later, Maddie grew both a passion for oil painting and an ability to work through her OCD. Most people in Maddie’s life don’t even notice (or know about) her OCD now that she engages in practices that help her be “the real Maddie”, from exposure therapy to continuing her therapeutic art.
Since graduating from Boston University’s College of Fine Arts in 2019, Maddie has developed her aesthetic through a combined love of plants and womanly shapes. Her florally-inspired abstraction takes shapes that move fluidly between flora and the female form.
“I came from a household that was always [about] women empowerment and looking up to female role models, so I had that instilled in me and I’ve always wanted that to be a part of my work...but weirdly, how I got into painting the female figure is that I was always attracted to flowers. Even when I was younger, I loved drawing flowers,” Maddie explained. “When I went from traditional to abstract - it’s impossible to not work from anything, so I needed an entry point. So, my entry point was working with the flower...seeing the shapes in the flowers, the lines, and I kind of realized as I was making these line drawings of flowers that they were looking a lot like women.”
That distinct, and now deliberate, connection between floral forms and bodily shapes defines much of Maddie’s woodblock prints and oil paintings. Now, mostly through Instagram, Maddie commissions her larger oil paintings and small watercolors. Not only is she fulfilling client requests through those commissions, but also through her fulltime job as an Associate Art Advisor at TurningArt, where she curates local artists’ works for spaces such as hospitals, corporate spaces, and hotels. One of her most rewarding experiences has been submitting work at places like Boston Children’s Hospital, where she knows the art she chooses could make a lifelong impression on young people’s lives.
“It’s so cool thinking about what a kid will want to wake up to after surgery and knowing that [that artwork] will forever be in their mind... some of these kids are lifers at the hospital and they will forever see this art and it will be a part of their life because they won't be able to leave the hospital,” Maddie explained. “It's stuff like that that really hits you. You think of art like it's just aesthetically pleasing but it really has an impact on people’s day-to-day life, whether they realize it or not.”
Whether it’s through her day job as an Art Advisor, with the work she creates on her own time, or through conversations like this one, Maddie's Perspective holds dear the universal power and beauty of art, and the importance of sharing it with others.
What’s your process? What do you do when you reach a block or run out of inspiration?
With abstract painting, I always start from a jumping off point, like a flower or a plant; I’m very much a “plant mom”. I would look at something like [my plant] and look at the shapes. I would make a lot of different line drawings and see what jumps out to me shape-wise. Then, I would go from there trying to make a composition in my notebook. Then, depending on what the client wants, work within a color-palette that they suggested. I also like to plan out my colors beforehand; I’m not always good at it, but I like to work with color theory. I think it’s really cool when a certain color is placed next to another color and it creates this...electricity - one color looks different looks different than it would if it was standing alone or next to another color. Like how white would look bluer if it was placed next to an orange.
When it comes to blockages, typically I’ve realized every time I try to work through a creative block, I always go backwards in the painting. I need to be better at recognizing that stepping away is sometimes more productive than working through it for another hour. I find that when I come back to it the next day, it always gives me a better start than if I had worked through it for it for another hour.
What unique perspective does your art bring to the world? What makes you different?
It’s difficult to be different, especially when there’s so many inspirations in the art world, and you’re taught in school about so many different people. I think it's impossible not to be influenced by the different artists around you. I think your work is always going to be evocative of something or someone, even if you subconsciously don’t realize it. That’s how artists become great artists; they do the stuff that hasn’t been done before and isn’t influenced...but typically it’s hard not to be influenced.
I think what makes my work a little different and what I’m striving for is the use of shape and line, I would say. Personally, when I look at a plant, I would probably see different shapes than someone else, and I think that those unique shapes that I pull out of something then transfer them to the canvas I hope is a different viewpoint than something you would look at in your daily life.
I think I’ve been doing a lot more of that during COVID, also, just because I’m surrounded by ordinary things. So, I’ve been observing those “ordinary things” a bit more and trying to pull out those unique shapes and lines.
How does social media impact your work or artistic process?
I’ve seen the power of social media; most of my commissions I get through DMs on my Instagram. It’s something that I definitely value.
It’s also a way to keep up with my fellow classmates. I love seeing what they’re making and their progress. But also, of course, famous modern painters; [Instagram is] a way to see into their studio life; it’s always good to see inside other people’s processes.
Social media is mostly a source of support; but this is a good question because so much that is...any art school experience is critique... So, because of that, you have to remove the personal competition from it. [Critique] is something that we’re trained to do, so you kind of have to take the emotion out of it even though the arts is such an emotional field.
What has being an artist taught you about yourself and the world?
I feel like every artist struggles to call themselves an artist...but part of becoming one is claiming yourself as an artist, as “good enough” to hold that name. So, I guess I’ve been an artist since I was little. I’ve never known myself as anything else or wanting to be anything else. I think without it I’d be less introspective and less in touch with how I’m feeling. I’m definitely an emotional person and sensitive to how I’m feeling at what point, and I feel like that probably comes from the arts and criticizing a painting – really looking into why this is here. Why I’m feeling what and why I created this. Why did this come out of me today? How am I feeling? How is this different from what I felt yesterday and what I created yesterday?
[As for] the world at large, I’m definitely a cup-half-full kind of person, so art has taught me to see the beauty in something that may seem normal to other people. Not that I’m easily pleased, but I can appreciate a lot and see different things in different situations that aren’t just typical. And I think that’s because of the arts.
What’s your biggest piece of advice to aspiring artists?
Don’t be afraid to try different mediums. I wasn’t a water color artist, and I also use flashe paint which is a new type of paint I had never used before. I used to hate water color...and now most of my paintings are comprised of flashe paint and water color. So, don’t be afraid of transforming your creative practice; try new mediums because that’s how you evolve as an artist.