Will Maxen Wants To Find Ground To Stand On In His Work
by Taylor Michael·
Cover Image: Will Maxen by Jordan Benton part of "Labor Day Heat" series
Houston-based painter Will Maxen wants to bridge cultures and communities often separated into rigid categories due to racial, socioeconomic, or political factors. Often, he pulls directly from his life, creating impressionistic scenes drawn from family photos. Using color theory and collage, Maxen turns intimate moments between brothers, celebrating, or an embrace with a loved one into a conversation about truth, memory, and his personal, political, and artistic legacies.
Following the COVID-19 pandemic and George Floyd’s death, among other world events, Maxen quit his job teaching high school art classes and coaching track and football to pursue a Master's in studio art at the University of California, Davis. Maxen turned towards art to process his emotions, thoughts, and experiences with race, class, and belonging. As he searches for the truth in these intimate, domestic moments, Maxen purposely obfuscates his personal and familial memories, blurring details so the viewer understands these events as Maxen felt them.
Taylor Michael: How has your relationship with your practices developed since you started until now?
Will Maxen: I started undergrad as a PE major. Art was something fun that I always had an interest in, but I didn’t think it could be a career. I thought I would have a better chance of going pro in the NFL or MLB.
Will Maxen playing for Central Connecticut State University’s Blue Devils, image courtesy of artist
In my sophomore or junior year, I changed my major to illustration. I didn't get into meaningful work until the COVID-19 pandemic. I had this realization that I wanted to get my MFA.
Before that, I was a high school teacher. But the pandemic happened, then George Floyd happened, schools shut down, and expectations in public schools lowered when it came to art. I wasn't feeling fulfilled.
It was my way of understanding everything that was happening at that time. I had to do it. Like, you get somewhere in your life, and you have no other options.
Taylor Michael: What reach are you looking for?
Will Maxen: To show different experiences. Right now, experiences get categorized so that there's only one side or the other. I want to show the multitude of experiences, like an athlete who does art, who's biracial, who's Jewish, all these avenues, identities, characteristics, and interests that don't get recognized, like being biracial during the George Floyd protests and growing up in a white community.
For the first time in my life, I felt like I was Black. I was trying to reach out to these communities to be like, I'm one of you, but I'm also one of them. Where do I stand in all of this?
It was me trying to find ground to stand up.
Taylor Michael: I like the idea of art providing you with a ground to stand on, a way to see yourself, and a space to exist with all the different layers and multiple complicities of your identities. Can you discuss how some of these conceptual ideas appear in your craft?
Will Maxen: I was reckoning the idea of what I'm comfortable showing people and what I'm comfortable telling people. That’s where these watercolors and washed light qualities come from. They’re to hide and not tell some of my truths.
I use a lot of photo transfers—it's something my mother taught me. She is a teacher, an art teacher. She's been an art teacher my whole life. We used to go to her classroom, and I would be inspired to make things. I saw that [photo transferring] was something her class was working on, and I thought it was so cool. So she walked me through it.
In some previous work, I did stitching and some sewing. My grandmother, if something is ripped, she fixes it. My grandpa had a factory job fixing sewing machines.
I’m trying to explore lineage, not just in terms of African American figurative painting but also my own ancestors.
Before coming into my MFA program, I was taking on issues that were too big. It was hard for me to make work that was meaningful because I didn't really have myself in it. I started looking at family photographs to understand who I was and why this was my situation. It made for a better story. If it was like these big thematic issues, that could be boring. If it was just my family histories, that could be boring, too. So, how do I bring them together to create tension? That's where the work gets exciting.
Will Maxen’s ‘And the Older One Began to Sing’ inspired by a family portrait. Image courtesy of artist
Taylor Michael: What has the response been to your work, and what has stuck with you?
Will Maxen: It was my cousin and his family, who I hadn't seen in a couple of years. And we were standing in front of the work, “It’s Hard to Remember, I’m Tougher in the Sun,” and we were talking, and he was like, “Oh, that's you and Kevin.” Kevin is my brother. There was no face, but he said he was able to tell by our body positioning: how we were laid back chilling. That movement gave it away. That's exactly what I want to do. I want it to be about the moment, the feeling, and the essence of what I'm painting. That was the first time a family member had seen the work in person. My mom came for my thesis show, but that was a different vein of work.
Taylor Michael: With your background in sports, is movement something you pay attention to in your work?
Will Maxen: I take from sports, especially football, the idea of space: how people move and interact in a given space together. If one thing is off, or if one person is out of sync or out of phase, then things go wrong, or things go right. So, I like to think about how to fill the space to say it's me and my brother there, rather than just movement or the position.
It's finding the truth in space. The way things were painted, and the physicality of the paint, can say so much about truth and experience. If it's very big or very heavy, or if it looks hard, you can tell. But, if it's soft and delicate...you can have these layers of emotion through the physicality of painting.
Will Maxen’s ‘Recline’ and ‘To Hold You Close’
Taylor Michael: For the work highlighted with Good Black Art, what did you want to curate for this digital space?
Will Maxen: I wanted to pick pieces that told us a story of myself. Something from my past, “And the Older One Began to Sing,” something from the present, “To Hold You Close,” and then something that's about history in the piece “Recline.”