Cynthia Markert’s work may be among the most currently recognizable art created in Knoxville. Her most identifiable paintings feature variations of women, all flapper-esque with distinctive page-boy coifs. It’s a theme she pursues religiously and has for many years. And although she was raised in Oak Ridge and traveled and lived elsewhere, notably in DC, at various points in her life, one might safely opine that this artist is almost pure Knoxville in the best possible way.
To talk with Markert is to take a take a stroll through some defining moments leading up to Knoxville as we know it today. Her work found its way into the Fine Arts pavilion during the 1982 World’s Fair. Later she took up residence in the 11th Street Artist’s Colony. She sipped coffee at Java from the beginning, in its Old City pioneer days. And through it all she lived in Maplehurst, a nearly fabled community full of creative spirit and, some might say, spirits of the long gone but lingering.
“Knoxville and Maplehurst have a spiritual hold on me.“
It’s no wonder, and really no mistake that Markert found her way into all these moments. She lives, much in the same way she paints, with openness and presence, and because of that, is drawn to the positive rhythm of life. “When I had a studio above the 11th Street coffee house, I would walk all along the water by UT and just sort of empty my mind out. And that would give me this space to create.” It a space without cellphones and distraction where she is able to get lost, to be open, and let things happen.
That doesn’t mean that she doesn’t attract negative energy and criticism from time to time, she says, “Some say ‘she just paints the same thing over and over’ – it’s so untrue.“
While it may be true that her work is distinctive and thematic with recurring elements of form and content, the genesis of the work is unique and contributes to an almost ineffable and certainly individual mood in each piece.
Markert began our conversation with a complaint about the quality of wood she’s been getting. It’s her defining medium, and lately she’s noticed more issues with warping and other flaws that “make it harder for me to hallucinate.” Of course, she laughs, “I’m not hallucinating. It’s almost like in Charlotte Perkins Gillman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ I’ve always associated my work with that, with trying to set the woman free.” Markert smiles in a way that makes me wonder if she’s pulling my leg and adds, “I have to have motion in the grain of the wood – that’s where I see my women.”
Artists often speak of being in the zone, but for Markert that moment of utter concentration is akin to a trance-like state of complete presence and receptivity in which she waits for something, some potential and latent quality in the wood to reveal itself. It’s not too far removed from seeing shapes in the clouds or finding religious imagery in everyday objects, but when Markert paints she is waiting to see if her women appear in the wood. But in some ways, it’s less important for Markert – and perhaps for us, too – to see the women as it is for her to discover what they’re seeing.
It’s this quality that gives Markert women their magic – it’s the feeling that we’re being observed, that someone is asking, “Is that really what you’re going to do?”
Thumbing through her journal, Cynthia Markert, finds the passage she’s looking for. It’s a quote she’s written on the left hand side of her journal (all her literary references are on that side):
“Scott Fitzgerald observed that the flapper had been created by a spirit of emancipation that had been fermenting since the beginning of the century.”
Reading this quote aloud lights a flame in the artist, her eyes flash because, she says, she’s “excited by any emancipation of women from extremely rigid roles – so I became obsessed by marriage in England in the 1890s, how the women were stuck and subject to outrageous things: if she was divorced the man got her money, well he already had all her money, her children. And then the obsession grew to every little patch of the earth which still has so much of that [female subjugation].”
This obsession she describes began with seeing how male-dominated her college art text, “They didn’t mention any women except for Georgia O’Keefe. All the paintings were by men with the male gaze.” Markert’s paintings explore the female gaze, and that, she thinks, is what draws women in particular to her work, “that, and the attitude – they are not there for men’s desire, they are their own women.”
“Forty Years of Painting” by Cynthia Markert will be on view at the downtown Knoxville Tomato Head on Market Square thru May 5th. She will then exhibit at the West Knoxville Gallery Tomato Head from May 7th thru June 3rd.