I have a thing for white walls. Or, more precisely, I have thing for hanging things on white walls. One of the best parts of renovating my flat in Budapest all those years ago was amassing the artwork. I’d brought a few pieces with me on the train journey from London, but it took years of careful shopping and curating to find just the right pieces to match the mood of each room. Forget the curtains and the cushions. Forget the furniture and the fittings. For me, most of the fun in a renovation is about the pictures and the walls.
I remember the series of pictures that would journey with me as I climbed the stairs to my bedroom in my granny’s house. All the aunts, with their lovely old country houses, had what seemed like millions of pictures on their walls. And if they had stairs, the pictures ran up alongside those, too. The house in the village has a split-level stairs going up to the guest bedroom and I wanted to recapture the experience, albeit on a much smaller scale. I knew I wanted a series of pictures but I wasn’t quite sure of what. And then, as it so often does, the universe answered my unspoken ask and Madeline Ludtke entered my world.
Himself had spoken in glowing terms of his talented niece from Minnesota. She had graduated from art college and was being commissioned to do illustrations for various books. She’s got talent, he said. You should check her out. And I did. And I fell for one of her pieces. A hand opening a door.
It spoke to me of possibility. Of secrecy. Of the unknown. I was enthralled. I had pictured it in my mind as a large print – one that would sit well on the first half-landing, at the top of the stairs leading in from the front door. But, she told me, it’s only 7 inches x 7 inches. I was disappointed. It showed. But, she added, it’s part of a series of seven, her final year art project. And I was hooked. Each picture reveals just a little more of the detail in the one that goes before it.
I was curious to know more about the process, about the mind behind the magic, behind the whimsy, behind the fancy. So I asked a few questions.
From the age of 6, Madeline knew she wanted to be an artist. Me? I was going to be a prison officer, a long-distance trucker, a lawyer, a teacher, a social worker … Ask me now what I want to be when I grow up and I’d say a writer. Someday. But Madeline knew in First Grade that she wanted to be an artist. The teacher had held up her shoebox sculpture, part of an art project creating miniature dioramas of Minnesota wildlife and their habitats, as an example for others in the class – and she knew, at 6, that this was what she wanted to do. She graduated 18 months ago with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Illustration from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, so she’s well on her way.
I was curious as to how much time each piece takes. But there’s no formula, no pattern. Some take longer than others. I mentioned what Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi calls the flow…something that happens when you get so caught up in your life that time loses shape and form and flies by. Madeline gets that. She gets wrapped up in pieces, experimenting with new media, exploring new possibilities. Watercolour and ink feature heavily in her portfolio (I have a soft spot for ink) as does cut-paper collage.
Having made the decision to purchase and frame the series of seven, and to hang them along the stairs so that the gradual exposition of detail could be explored with each step, I wanted to know where the inspiration had come from.
My artwork is often very wild and whimsical and encourages the viewer to reconnect with their childhood imagination. Sometimes I think of a subject that I want to paint and then I come up with a way to twist it to make the scene more bizarre and imaginative. For example, I could just draw a giraffe, but it would be more fun and interesting if I drew a giraffe wearing high heels walking through the middle of a city.
My series (how quickly I become possessive) was inspired by another project where she painted a window to a crazy city with odd-shaped buildings. She decided to explore that city, to see who lived there, stepping out of one painting and into another. I immediately thought of the fabulous murals dotted around Budapest and of the magic she could make if she had a full five-storey wall as a canvas. I had great notions of putting her to work on the pillars on the back terrace when she stopped off on her travels this summer, but her time in Hungary was too short. I wasn’t worried about taking advantage. She takes commissions. For books, albums covers, portraits, posters, magazines, and yes, even murals. And she relishes a challenge.
I think she’d get on well with my favourite Hungarian illustrator, Papp Norbert or long-time Budapest resident Marcus Goldson, both of whom feature on my walls. She likes the surreal and imaginative qualities of illustrators like Shaun Tan, Victo Ngai, (who made the Forbes list of 30 illustrators under 30 to watch – they love their lists), Brian Selznick (the Invention of Hugo Cabot is now on my Christmas book list), Quint Buchholz, Peter de Sève, Tadahiro Uesugi (possibly my favourite of Madeline’s influencers), and Maurice Sendak, the mind behind the (in)famous children’s book Where the wild things are.
Travel is a complementary passion of hers, one that she mixes with her art as often as possible. When she visited this summer, Madeline was on her way through from a spell in Thailand where she was volunteering with a non-profit organisation called Art Relief International.
The more I got to know Madeline and her work, the more I realised that the world could do with a few more of her. People who don’t shy away from quirkiness. People who embrace the whimsy and refuse to let go of the playfulness that is stamped out of far too many of us, far too soon. This young woman from Stillwater, Minnesota, who has been drawing, painting, and doodling since she was a little kid, has both the talent and the wherewithal to make the world a more interesting place, to offer us some respite from the mind-numbing realism of twenty-first-century living. Whenever I climb my stairs, I take a little trip with her. And that journey is always slightly different.
If you’re in the market for an illustrator or have a blank spot on a wall that is crying out for something different, Madeline can be contacted at http://madelineludtke.com/#contact