Megan Lightell's studio is nestled in the attic of her East Nashville home. Downstairs is decorated with beautiful antique furniture and gorgeous art, while upstairs is packed with everything a painter might need (including some skulls and curiosities pictured below.) Zeitgeist's Anna Zeitlin dropped by recently for a studio visit and got the lowdown on what it's like to be a full-time artist and how to keep artists in Nashville.
What is your daily routine? Do you spend a lot of time painting?
Since I have a school-age daughter, most of my painting time is during school hours. I walk her to school in the morning and work in the studio until about 3 pm. Sometimes if I'm not quite finished working, she joins me in the studio after school. She has her own easel and work area in the studio, so it can be fun for us to work together.
How do you balance work and family?
This is an issue that every parent struggles with, but it is especially challenging for artists, I think. Since my family relies a great deal on income from sales of my work, it has always been a family priority to protect my studio time. I've always been grateful for that and known how much more difficult it would be to prioritize it otherwise. I took off three weeks after the birth of my daughter, but started painting again as soon as possible. My studio has been at my house since before she was born, allowing me to be at home with her in her infancy and early years, and she attended some half-day preschool programs starting at age two, which gave me some larger blocks of time to work.
I was certainly apprehensive about juggling studio time and motherhood, but a mentor told me that in her experience many people become even more disciplined in their creative lives after becoming parents because time management skills are a necessity, and looking at it through that lens helped. She was right-- you have so little time for yourself in the early years that you must make the most of the time you do have and learn to adapt. I have always been very disciplined about showing up in the studio whether I felt like painting or not, so it was a fairly easy transition. The biggest difference now is that I have more balance in my life. In my twenties I would easily spend 12-15 hour days in the studio, which in retrospect is not the most healthy way to live. It is a great thing to have more of a rhythm in my day that includes taking a break in the evening to cook or spend time outside with my family.
What is your background as an artist?
I studied at the School of Visual Arts in NYC (BFA 2000).
What inspired you in high school? In college?
I wasn't one of those kids who knew from early childhood what they wanted to do. I was always vaguely interested in drawing and painting, but I wouldn't say I was especially talented. Around age sixteen I had a series of experiences that led me in the direction of applying to art school, and I began to seek out teachers and mentors to help me build a portfolio. I studied with Christine Misencik-Bunn, who was a legendary art mentor in the region where I grew up, and she is responsible for many art careers today, including mine, as I never would have received a scholarship without her advice. At art school, it was clear that since I was from a rural area with fewer arts resources than my peers from bigger cities who had arts magnet options and many more years of immersion in their work, I had a great deal of catching up to do in technique. I spent 6-8 hours a day painting from life, more hours in the evenings, and Saturdays taking extra classes at the Art Students League. Living in New York, you can breathe art all day long. I think I really did live on paintings, both making them all day and into the night, and spending all of my spare time going to museums. I had so little money the whole time I lived there, and I existed on cheap carbs and coffee and spent most of my money on the best paint and materials I could buy. I was obsessed with learning to paint from the masters, current and past, and didn't care about much else.
What was it like the first time you visited The Met?
My first trip to the Met was also the first time I learned to use the subway-- my art school buddy Michael Panicello, who was a native of Queens, realized I was a country girl from Ohio and took me under his wing to show me how to navigate it. From then on, I was at the Met at least every week or two. It was like a second home. Eventually I would find myself visiting the same few pieces every time, like Vermeer's A Maid Asleep, Joan of Arc by Jules Bastien-Lepage, and the piece that probably most influenced my current work, Arques-la-Bataille by Twachtman. One of my teachers, Sal Catalano, used to say that you could tell the art students at the Met because they were the ones with their noses almost touching the canvases. That was me. My favorite game was to try to guess the pigments that the painters had used and try to bring back some trick or technique to my own work each time. There is just no substitute for looking at masterful paintings with your own eyes, and it's the thing I miss most about New York, being able to see such a huge variety of work in person anytime.
How did your experience after college shape your work today?
As wonderful as it was to be immersed in learning to paint in New York, there was a huge part of me that felt disconnected there. I had grown up among rolling hills, fields, forests, and rivers in a foothills farming community, and had no idea how much I would miss that landscape when I was surrounded by manmade structures and concrete. The community artist Anne Cornell had just taken the director position at the Pomerene Center for the Arts at the time I was graduating, and she offered me a show and long-term residency there, which afforded me the time and space to let my work develop beyond the school environment. It was a key turning point for me, being able to return to a rural landscape with new eyes, and also having my first experience of working in community and teaching as an artist. Having time and space to work was so important in the beginning. The first landscapes came out of that time, since I was still searching for a direction, and a group of artists in that community had formed, and we were doing figure drawing together and working out in the landscape on site every week. We were all working with different media and different approaches, but we enjoyed the way that each of us could take the same experience and come away with completely different work. Before I knew it, my studio was filled with large-scale landscapes. I started realizing that there were similarities in the sites I was choosing, and there was something I couldn't quite describe that was drawing me to a certain kind of image. Anne and I would take turns choosing sites, and we talked quite a bit about why we each liked certain things that the other didn't.
Because I didn't know what to do with all of the canvases I was painting, I entered some into a juried exhibit and was picked up for representation by Michael Orr at his gallery in Columbus, which was the beginning of my path as a gallery artist. He was so supportive and great to work with, and helped me navigate the process of doing exhibits and working with other galleries.
How do you discover new landscapes to paint?
It still feels more like they discover me. It's very intuitive, and I know an image when I see it. The time of day and the season are important, and I often find myself revisiting a spot many times if it's especially compelling. Some places are close by, and others we discover while driving out in the country. Sometimes my husband will drive, and I will just look, and over the years, he has come to just know when a place feels right and he will pull over without me asking. We love to take long drives, and that was one of our favorite things to do when we first met, but in the beginning he couldn't understand why some landscapes would require turning around on a country road and going back, and others we would pass right by. I don't understand it completely either, but somehow now we both often have the same gut reaction to a place.
What personal ties do you have to different landscapes?
Since I spent over half of my life in Ohio, the foothills landscape there is most intimate and familiar, and I will probably always be painting it. I have lived in Tennessee for almost a decade and a half, though, and it feels like home too. Painting the familiar brings a certain power and connection that only comes with knowing a place for a long time. When I did a series a few years ago from a trip out west, those images were all from unfamiliar places that were brand new to me. Those images can have a freshness and a new set of problems, so I've come to prefer working back and forth between familiar and unfamiliar places.
What advice do you wish someone had given you when you were starting?
I asked for advice constantly when I was younger, and still do. The thing I've learned the hard way is to manage the studio objectively as a business. I'm not the worst businessperson/artist, but I have a great deal to learn in that area. Choose your business partners very carefully and listen to your intuition. Expect to be paid, on time, and don't be afraid to walk away from people who are taking advantage of you. Be assertive and be professional. Preserve your best energy for the studio.
The best advice I got as a student was from the illustrator Stephen Kroninger, who told me to just keep doing the work, so matter what. He said that eventually, everyone else would drop away and you would still be left working...it sounds so simple but it really is the hardest thing to do when family, bills, and life are calling you away.
What resources do you wish Nashville had for artists?
Aside from wishing for a great visual arts MFA option here, my biggest concerns for the visual arts community are affordable housing and studio space. When I first moved here, it was a very reasonable cost of living and possible to live simply and have space to develop work. I've had some creative and cheap or free studio spaces in the past, but I fear that our rising cost of housing will prevent the next generation of young artists from relocating here. Continued investment in affordable housing for artists would be great public policy to keep the vibrant nature of the community from disappearing.
What do you like about being an artist in Nashville?
Nashville has always felt like a small town that just happens to have the perks of a larger city. I've always loved the kindness of people here, the openness of the arts community, the diverse cultures that merge here, and being surrounded by talented, creative people who are following their passions. The Nashville I fell in love with years ago still had a strong connection to the rural, almost as if we were all in a city by accident, but we would go canoeing on the weekends, and play music that sounded like a front porch in the mountains. I hope we will hold on to those roots in the years to come as we grow as a city.