‘What is she thinking?’ asks Anna Magruder. She singles out a young woman with hunched shoulders and fingers tented protectively over her lap. An anxious expression remains frozen on the subject’s face. The mother next to her contrasts the daughter— she is tall, slender and poised as the pair sits awkwardly side by side. Two red rock spires cast human silhouettes in the backdrop.
As with all of her works, the painter didn’t know the answer to that question when she started the piece, titled “Distance.” The characters’ stories revealed themselves as the paintings did, allowing Magruder to catch a glimpse into the minds of her whimsical and expressive subjects.
Since switching directions—from her hectic fourteen- year career in graphic design to a more passionate one in oil painting—Magruder, 43, has gained a better understanding of her own creativity.
While growing up in Texas, she experimented with an array of styles and forms of painting. The artist, however, shelved her brushes in college, favoring what she felt would make a better career. She earned a degree in graphic design from University of Northern Texas.
Magruder’s work with different design houses took her from Texas to Colorado and then—impulsively— to Oregon in 2001. Four years later, she started her own business, Keen Creative. This graphic design venture liberated her to explore other artistic avenues.
“This was nice because, if a client needed an illustrator, I could casually mention that I knew of one,” she jokes, referring to her own artistic skills.
The same year, she rediscovered painting and realized how much she missed it. “I think I was so busy that I just burned out,” Magruder says. “It just wasn’t for me anymore.”
In a risky move, she closed shop on her business in 2009, with the hope of making painting her full-time career. “I moved into a place where I felt I was meant to be, and the doors opened,” she says, speaking figuratively. “It was quite serendipitous.”
Magruder dabbled in both realism and surrealism painting, though neither suited her perfectly.
“Here, anything goes,” she says of Portland’s creative atmosphere. “If there’s a concept you want to explore, it’s welcome.”
More than welcome, Magruder realized that exploration was encouraged as she started attending a regular artist social, eventually organizing her own art club.
She was emboldened to paint between the black and white lines of genres, and explored a whimsical gray area of exaggerated features, eccentric skin tones and fixing animal heads atop human bodies. “I want a person to look at my characters and wonder what they are thinking or where they are in that moment,” says Magruder.
She accomplishes this by bringing the focus back to the face. “I abstract the face to emphasize emotion,” she says. “It’s all about the face.”
In fact, Magruder’s canary-yellow studio along Portland’s eccentric Hawthorne Boulevard is filled with objects and faces that pique her interest. Walls are lined with cabinets, bookshelves and tables piled with collections of sepia-toned photo albums and 1950s and ‘60s yearbooks.
Magruder’s finished paintings hang on her studio walls like a private gallery—a medley of rich, deep shades. Wild, unruly hair, bold-colored winged glasses, lizards as necklaces—with many of the pieces bringing the focus back to the face. “I’m just obsessed,” she says, laughing.
Yet, she has come to understand her fixation might have more to do with a difficulty remembering faces.
“I have a very slight problem with facial recognition, called prosopagnosia,” admits Magruder. Clearly, Magruder has discovered a way to work through the difficulty. Emphasizing features and developing her characters are ways of making her pieces more real— more memorable.
The painter turns her attention back to her piece “Distance,” which is hanging over her computer.
“Look at the background.” She points to the protruding red rock monuments that mirror the mother and daughter. She traces the fraction of space between the two columns, and then shows how the void is replicated in the characters.
“There’s this space between them that goes deeper than this physical distance,” she divulges. “The daughter feels that she doesn’t live up to her mother.”
Much like the spirit of exploration Magruder first encountered in Portland, the faces and emotions behind the characters of her paintings are, themselves, an intense journey.
For more on Anna and to buy prints: annamagruder.com