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Kingston artist Maggie Sutherland’s controversial nude portrait of PM Stephen Harper, a recreation of Manet’s 1863 painting Olympia, was hailed as the People’s Choice award winner at the Kingston Arts Council’s 2012 Juried Art Salon and was purchased by an anonymous buyer for $5,000.
When Maggie Sutherland, Artsci’85, Ed’91, was taking politics courses at Queen’s in the early 1980s, she had no idea that some 20 years later she’d be working as a professional artist or that she’d win national notoriety for painting a nude portrait of Stephen Harper.
“People’s reactions have been really interesting and very polarized,” she says. “The general hullabaloo around the painting took me by surprise, but it’s reinforced the idea that I’m able to create something that speaks to people, and that’s been very affirming.”
It was when Maggie was approaching the end of her studies at Queen’s that she enrolled in an art class at St. Lawrence College. From that point on art – figure drawing and portraiture especially – came to play an increasingly important part in her life.
Following graduation, Maggie and husband Gary Greer, Artsci’80, whom she’d met through work at CFRC, relocated to New Brunswick where Gary took a job as the campus radio station manager at Mount Allison University. Maggie started on a “bumpy road of self-discovery through art,” taking courses at Mount Allison while Gary worked on campus and completed his BEd.
In 1988, the couple moved to Hong Kong to teach for two years. Returning to Kingston, Gary went to work with the Limestone School Board, while Maggie continued to explore life drawing and returned to Queen’s for her BEd, though teaching was not to be the calling she ultimately chose.
“I realised that while I’d taught happily in Hong Kong and enjoyed the experience of being a more mature student at teacher’s college, my introverted nature meant I was really more suited to being an artist,” she says.
After a difficult six-month period during which both of her parents passed away, Maggie decided to put some of her inheritance towards pursuing her dreams when she enrolled in a two-year MFA course in figurative art at the New York Academy of Art.
“It was tough being away from Gary for so long, and New York is an intense place to live,” Maggie reflects. “But it was gratifying to be in such a large community of artists. No matter what you were interested in, you could find other people who shared that.”
For Maggie, the appeal of portraiture, as a viewer, is feeling like she knows a little bit about the experience of the person in the painting. In her own work, she feels like a writer telling a story. “I want a little slice of life to come through. I’m not a fan of the idealized portrait. I want to show warts and all: a bit of life, maybe even a bit of the struggle.”
It was this revealing approach to portraiture combined with a post-feminist perspective that led her to create Emperor Haute Couture, the Harper portrait she did for a juried competition and that hung in the Kingston Public Library. The work was inspired by the fairy tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” Maggie’s own jadedness about North American politics, and a lack of dissent and representation by women in the Harper cabinet at that time.
The painting, intended as political satire, caused waves locally and then nationally. Some Kingstonians thought the nude portrait shouldn’t be on display in a library room that also hosted children’s events. Others saw the portrait as disrespectful of the Prime Minister.
“Some people think it’s great, and some are scandalized by what they perceive as the sexual nature of the painting, but as someone who’s studied anatomy for so long, nudity in art to me isn’t as loaded as it seems to be for some people,” says Maggie.
“I’d say the general reaction to the picture says more about our culture and our reactions to nudity than anything else.”
Despite her feeling that it’s gratifying to know that people still notice art and that it can provoke discussion, Maggie doesn’t have any more portraits of recognizable public figures planned. Instead she’s back in her studio, putting the furore of recent months behind her, and working on a series of new paintings for an exciting new show in Toronto in the fall.
“It’s time to move on – I’ve got work to do,” she says. “It’s going to be a busy summer!”