Outside it was sweltering on that particular afternoon, but there was a gentle breeze in Margaret Maugenest's vast loft in Gowanus. As soon as I arrived, she offers me a cool glass of ginger ice tea and pushes a plate of Madeleines towards me. "Try them and tell me how you like them." (They were amazing and remind me of my childhood.)
I have known Margaret for a few years now, mostly as a neighborhood activist and member of Friends And Residents Of Greater Gowanus, otherwise known as 'the Froggs.' The moment I met her, I admired her for her spunk and outspokenness. I knew that she was an artist, but had never seen her work. "I would like to write about you" I told her one day, and was happy when she spontaneously agreed to be interviewed.
That afternoon, Margaret and I spoke about many things: her interesting background, the winding road that lead her to Brooklyn, the Gowanus Canal and its community of artists, her travels as well as her art. But let me start from the beginning.
Margaret was born in Indonesia, of a family with Dutch and French ancestry. The family left Indonesia in 1957 and moved to Holland, where they settled in Amsterdam, right next to the Rijks Museum. In 1961, the Maugenest family immigrated to the United States. Margaret remembers her excitement, when the ship they were traveling on passed the Statue Of Liberty in New York Harbor. They continued on to Cincinnati, Ohio, by train, and settled there.
After attending the University of Iowa, Margaret was drawn back to Europe. She convinced her then-husband to leave the Midwest to travel extensively through Spain and France.
In Paris, Margaret received an offer to work at the International Herald Tribune's photograph archive. The couple seemed destined to make the city their permanent home. But the day before she started the job, Margaret knew that she truly wanted to be in New York City.
So, she walked away from the job offer and settled in a loft in Soho instead.
Soho then was still a thriving artist community. Creativity was evident everywhere in the neighborhood. Painters and sculptors were supportive of each other and freely exchanged ideas about art.
By the early 1980's, Soho began to change. The quiet streets became busier as stores and restaurants opened in the area. Margaret saw the handwriting on the wall and knew it was time to move on. She found a new loft in Gowanus, a then-remote area of Brooklyn. She has been living here ever since.
Margaret once met Willem De Kooning in his studio in Spring, Long Island. They spoke Dutch together and she found him to be gracious and gallant. She still owns the summer dress she wore the day she met him. (see photo above)
Her Gowanus loft is filled with beautiful objects collected from her many travels. Her art hangs everywhere around the loft. She used to paint on huge canvases, but then concentrated on watercolors. For the last twelve years, she has been painting on silk. She has suspended some of her delicate sheer panels from the ceiling, and as the air moves around the loft, they gently sway in the wind, sometimes overlapping and tangling to blend their pale colors together in a multitude of combinations.
"They are like painted air." Margaret tells me. She is right.
Before leaving, Margaret shows me her favorite place in the loft. It is near one of the windows. which looks down onto the Gowanus Canal. She has placed a chair right there, so that she can enjoy the view whenever she wants. And what a view it is!
We stand there for a while in silence. I am sure we are sharing the same thought. Just like Soho, this canal area will change in the next few decades. But whatever the area's future, i will hopefully continue to include space for artists like Margaret, because their presence enriches our community.
Thanks you very much for a wonderful afternoon, Margaret, and for inviting me into your magical home.