Gibbes Visiting Artist: Madame Magar
Nov. 27-Dec. 22
Free to attend
Gibbes Museum of Art
135 Meeting St.
To fully appreciate the work of Madame Magar, a small-batch label from textile artist and designer Leigh Magar, you first need to know about Eliza Lucas Pinckney.
Pinckney has been credited as one of South Carolina’s most influential agriculturalists. In the 1740s, while managing three of her father’s Charleston-area plantations, Pinckney laid the foundation to develop indigo as one of the colony’s most profitable cash crops. Its production transformed South Carolina’s economy. In a textile industry that was growing worldwide, especially in England, the indigo plant became valuable for its deep-blue dye. Before the Revolutionary War, indigo was the colony’s second-leading export behind rice.
South Carolina’s historic connection to both indigo and textiles has long been an inspiration for Magar, who grew up in Spartanburg when the local economy was still dependent on mills.
“My grandma and great aunts all worked in cotton mills, and I grew up seeing what they did in the mills,” Magar says. “They were vital to my love of textiles — or passion or obsession.”
Magar, who attended the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan for hat making, moved to Charleston in 1996 and owned a hat shop, Magar Hatworks, on Upper King for 20 years.
Although Magar had previously used indigo dye materials for the hats sold in her shop, she didn’t really begin exploring Pinckney’s story or the area’s connection to indigo until she moved to Johns Island in 2015.
“Her vision kind of struck me,” Magar says of Pinckney. “It was very powerful that she had the vision to grow indigo. Of course, she had the help and work of slaves, but her story was very inspiring to me.”
Madame Magar is a collection of what Magar describes as “seed to stitch” projects. She grows indigo and uses the plant to hand-dye fabric for dresses, textile art, and other accessories, which are hand-stitched. The textile artwork will be the focus of Magar’s upcoming residency at the Gibbes.
The concept of “seed to stitch,” Magar says, combines history, art, and fashion.
“It’s all kind of intertwined,” she says. “It’s taking history but bringing it into a modern, unique, positive light. It was just one of those things that kind of unraveled. And then when I was walking out here in the woods, I found native indigo, so that was really eye-opening, unbelievable, a gift.”
Magar also procured indigo plant seeds, which are challenging to find, through a connection with a mutual friend, who knew of a local indigo dyer living as a monk and a hermit.
“He saved seeds through many years,” Magar says. “Thankfully to him, he gave me the seeds. I grow a couple of patches every season. It’s from the pea family, and it loves the hot heat and dry soil out here. So in the winter, it dies, and in the summer, I start again.”
During her Gibbes residency, Magar will further develop her Silhouette Portrait Series, textile artwork created from the scraps of her indigo-dyed dress fabrics. The silhouettes are inspired by classic paper cutout techniques and have a quilt-like aesthetic.
Magar first began the series for a group exhibit that honored singer Nina Simone in her hometown of Tryon, N.C.
“It just came out the blue, pardon the pun,” Magar says. “I wanted something for the window; they had a beautiful window for the gallery. So I just wanted to make the portrait from the scraps, so it became a project. I started making portraits of women artists that were inspiring.”
For the silhouette portraits created in residency, Magar will look to the museum’s Miniature Collection for aesthetic inspiration. She plans to create silhouettes of Louise Nevelson, an artist whose work is currently on display at the Gibbes in the exhibit A Dark Place of Dreams until early January, and Corrie McCallum, an artist who taught at the Gibbes and was married to abstract artist and Charleston native William M. Halsey. Magar says she will take commissions for miniature scrap silhouettes and also create miniature indigo baskets.
And on Dec. 8, from 2–4 p.m., Magar will hold a Blue Christmas introduction to indigo dye workshop.
“It’ll be like a kit where you can dye it and make your own [silhouette] ornament, so it should be fun,” she says.