Mar 28, 2018

By Lisa Di Venuta

Much of artist Karen Margolis’s work embodies duality. Her series on cartography involves layering stacks of old maps, then using a soldering iron to burn holes into the textual landscape: in her words, “generating something new from what was lost.”

Margolis mined her college journal entries to source inspiration for a series called Emotion Flow Charts, repurposing words from what she describes as “rants and dreams…interspersed with deeply poignant moments.” She matched words such as “angst,” “sorrow” and “self-doubt” with a bold color swatch arranged according to numerical Pantone (aka those cards you pick up at the hardware store when you’re trying to choose a paint color).

Margolis described them as “Encrypted self-portraits.”

“They’re revealing and concealing at the same time.”

Margolis was speaking at Viacom’s Times Square Headquarters as keynote speaker for the Women of Viacom Art Exhibit. The company’s resource group focused on women, HERE, organized the event in honor of Women’s History Month.

I was also presenting my own art. This was something that would have been unfathomable to me before working at Viacom. When I covered HERE’s exhibit in 2016, I was a new employee. I was overwhelmed and hyper-stimulated by the creative energy pulsing through 1515 Broadway, loving it while simultaneously afraid to contribute to it.

Art, media and writing converge in this building; merging three of my passions into something unique, the life-blood of a company that thrives on imagination. After digesting the awe-inspiring works from my colleagues that first year, I decided to give it a try and show off some of my own work for HERE’s 2017 art show. This year, I focused on improving small details to make three new, cohesive pieces. The day of the show, I lugged my art to work with trepidation. I wasn’t ready, I thought.

Hearing Margolis speak was a glorious treat prior to the show. Looking at the slides of her work, it is clear Margolis has mastered her craft; delivering a final product that is both mentally and visually satisfying. And while Margolis is a revered mixed-media artist, she didn’t feel comfortable in the art world until later in life. She told us what made her decide to pursue art full-throttle, and it was dark. Margolis watched her grandmother, a talented baker, pass away without giving it a shot in the professional culinary world.

“I would rather try for my dream and fail,” said Magolis. She went into the art world without much formal training—a deficit she felt more and more acutely as she navigated the realm of fine arts, where the first question a fellow artist asked her was, “Where did you go to school?”

She didn’t have an art degree. She got started as a professional artist through an unlikely venue: she was working as a call center operator for Pfizer’s accounting firm, and learned her company had its own art department. She made a connection with the art curator, and met someone who helped her sell her first piece.

Margolis’s entrée into the art world was enchanting in its accessibility. Art often seems like something that requires the privilege to quit one’s “day job” and pursue an expensive yet glamorous educational journey, studying on artists’ colonies and learning from the masters.

As Margolis put it, being an artist isn’t about what you do for work, what you learned in school, or whether or not you even attended art school. It’s a state of mind. She continued selling pieces, working in three galleries owned and operated by women.

When artist friends from Yale would ask, “Where did you go to art school?” Margolis replied confidently, “I didn’t need to go to art school.”

I felt immensely comforted by Margolis’ words—just in time to show off my art. I stood by the cocktail table set up with my three pieces—BambiAlien, and Remnants—feeling like a genuine artist. I remember feeling like an imposter the year before; when people stopped by to look at my work I would subconsciously make fun of it, pointing out the imperfections before they had the chance to notice. This time, I answered questions earnestly, explaining my method and choice of materials without hesitation. This was the result of having presented my work once before, and feeling comfortable among the supportive women at Viacom. It was also a direct response to Margolis’s inspiring lecture.

I spoke to one artist, Ivette Urena, after she stopped by to see my collages. Urena works at Nickelodeon, as an executive assistant for the Location Based Experiences team. We discussed our mutual affliction with “imposter syndrome,” and how HERE, Viacom and Margolis all helped us feel like we deserved our place in the gallery.

“Art is my therapy. I paint about my experiences, things I feel passionate about and my Dominican culture aspiring to connect with art lovers that can resonate with my work. Karen Margolis’s talk was inspirational and she encouraged me to keep on painting even more. I feel thankful to Viacom to allow for the opportunity of HERE – Women of Viacom Art Exhibit to exist, it’s one of the many reasons it’s such a great workplace because they embrace the various facets of their employees.”

– Ivette Urena, Nickelodeon

Thanks to Viacom, Viacom’s Office of Global Inclusion, HERE and Karen Margolis for producing such a breathtaking show, and giving women employees a place to network and appreciate each other’s talent.