The Spiritual Currency of Sylvia Maier’s Painting

by Sarah Sutro

Sylvia Maier, <i>Peter</i>, Currency Series, 2013, 11x14
Sylvia Maier creates everyday tableaux and multicultural portraits with deep empathy toward the people, places and situations she paints. In casual social situations like a café, a bakery or a concert, she first draws people she observes, then paints grouped compositions using hired models to satisfy the narrative she has conceived. In series such as “Circle of Mothers” she depicts women who have lost sons to violence, establishing the mothers as strong figures who will not disappear, even naming them. Their presence is a testament to loss and a commitment to end suffering, their gaze impossible to ignore. In this series, and in “Currency,” she paints everyday women and men as figures on coins, burnishing their extraordinary value as human beings.

Sylvia Maier, <i>Jesus Meeting Mary (4th Station of the Cross)</i>,<br> Currency Series, 2016, 11x14

Maier grew up in Manhattan, the product of a bi-racial marriage. Her mother was from Argentina, her father African-American and Cherokee. Maier spent her childhood summers in Argentina with her maternal grandmother. Curiously, two strands weave through her work that may have been sparked during these summers. Argentina was victimized by a ‘dirty war’ in the 1970’s–80’s, when the military dictatorship ‘disappeared’ people whose politics threatened the regime’s values. The reality of that internal war is reminiscent of the iconic series of grieving mothers painted by Maier. In Argentina, the courageous Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo refused to give up on ‘the disappeared’, who were their children and relatives (indicated in blue), appearing for years in the plaza with signs and photographs of the kidnapped. Her grandmother’s strong Catholic influence also affected her; she only took her visiting granddaughter out of the house to go daily to Catholic Mass. Maier’s more robust figure paintings hark back to paintings of saints and martyrs, and she has painted such figures as the Magdalene and Mary and Jesus in the “Currency” series, even as she creates her own spiritual narrative rooted in the everyday.

Maier came from a family of musicians, her mother a trained classical pianist, her father an R&B composer who wrote music for Motown Records. An only child who grew bored watching adults make music, she was given a pencil and encouraged to draw, and has been continuously drawing since. Now, as an adult, music continues to be a strong impetus, with the Rolling Stones her favorite group. Reflecting their influence, she aspires to make paintings that have “grit, sexuality and restlessness.”1 Her portraits are a study of inner emotion, with something of the depth of Rembrandt’s painting of his father. Henry Tanner’s portraits are also an influence: Tanner, who studied with the well-known painter William Merritt Chase, was one of the first African-American artists to achieve fame as a painter in the U.S.

Sylvia Maier, <i>Mother's Milk</i>, 54x48, 2008Other references in her work include homages to the Spanish master painter Diego Velasquez, who painted royal portraits as well as ordinary subjects. His Old Woman Frying Eggs seems reflected in the composition of Maier’s Mother’s Milk (2008). Both paintings provide a glimpse of an everyday scene involving a woman and a child in an environment focused on familiar food. On the right in Velasquez’s painting, an older woman in profile leans into her task, stirring eggs in a frying pan. Right hand raised and beautifully drawn, she holds a wooden spoon, on the edge of action. The child on the left watches. The woman’s face is contemplative, pausing as she does this ordinary task. In Maier’s painting a mature woman in a hat sits in profile with her hand holding a spoon, about to dip it into a bowl of cereal. Another woman, in profile, sits in a repoussoir pose with her back to the viewer. The child at the knee of the woman on the right holds onto her hand and watches as milk spills from the table, the conversation around him so deep only he sees what is going on. Maier says she saw something like this scene in a café and connected with the child as the sole observer.

A quality of quiet and intense absorption pervades both paintings, which revel in the presentation of the ordinary. In the Velasquez painting, the viewer focuses on the frying eggs, spoon, jugs of water, milk and wine as well as the figures. In Maier’s painting, a yellow box of cornmeal cereal—which reminds her of the kind of thick porridge she ate as a child—and the spilling milk are the central focus, as well as the women and their conversation. Each painting intensely involves us in a scene that is mesmerizing in its specificity and clarity.

This sort of detail engages the viewer in an immediate human world, one that Maier feels compelled to represent. Her colors run to the warm and rich, with deep pinks, salmons, reds, oranges, deep purples, warm grays and black. Figure paintings generate energy through this coloration, suggesting casual, comfortable, personal scenes that interest her in real life, as opposed to the distance and dignity of official portraiture. She even does small portraits of food products called “Kitchen Paintings” in lush, thick, rough oil paint, lingering over color and detail in such foods as Nutella, olive oil, coffee, matzo ball mix, peanut butter, brown sugar, beans. As she paints, the models she works with suggest their favorite food products as subjects.

Sylvia Maier, <i>El Pico</i>, Kitchen Paintings Series, 2010, 9x11

Some of Maier’s most engaging paintings are from the “Café” series. She studies people at a local Brooklyn café, where people come not just to drink coffee, but to meet, talk, play cards, watch movies and knit. She spends time watching and sketching, then hires models who take the poses she configures from these drawings. These are contemporary “genre” paintings, glimpses of ordinary life, like those paintings of everyday life so prized by seventeenth-century Dutch artists and Italian Caravaggesque painters. Each suggests a narrative with underlying themes while also giving the viewer a relaxed, rhythmic experience of daily life in gestures and body language, warmth and interrelationship. Physicality and compositional cropping solidly locate these paintings in the present tense. Loose handling of paint and even imperfections seem to fit with what she is trying to describe: the momentary quality of life in the café. In Bread Cutter (2008), a woman stretching to secure a cutting board and slice bread is seen from the back. The gesture is reminiscent of Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus (1601), in which a figure seen from the back prepares to get up, putting his hands on the side of the chair, while a man at the other side of the table stretches diagonally into the canvas with arms wide—an enlargement of space, even breaking through the fourth wall into the viewer’s realm. Caravaggio’s painting shows the figure of Jesus appearing to a group of men sitting at a table, suggesting the sacred as part of daily reality, with scintillating sill-life painting at its center. In Bread Cutter, a collection of crockery and a basket on the table are faintly painted in monochrome pink beige, and elements in the background—a mechanical object, the corner of an ornate frame or mirror—are abstracted. The woman’s drawn hair and light, brushy skin tones are abbreviated in a similar way. Her gray shirt has a patch of blue at its neutral center, calling attention to her as the main focus. Maier’s unusual colors—pink/grey/flesh color/ochre/brown/charcoal—are reminiscent of the distinctly warm colors in Velasquez’s Venus at her Mirror (1649–51).

Sylvia Maier, <i>Bread Cutter</i>, 2008, 44x72

In The Card Players (2009), three figures line up behind a table. One standing in profile consults several cards stacked in his hands, almost as one would a contemporary cell phone. Another sitting at the table stretches her left hand out to reach a card. A third sits at far right, with her head in her hands, her cards in front of her. Maier delights in a kind of painting vernacular, showing the standing figure’s arms covered in tattoos, the girls slouched at the table, posters informally taped on the wall behind them. The background is a familiar salmon pink, blending richly with flesh tones and contrasting (like embers in a fire) with the greys and blacks of the figures’ clothing and hair.

Sylvia Maier, <i>Constance Malcom</i>,<br> part of Circle of Mothers' vigil, 2015, 48x48In the “Currency” series and the “Circle of Mothers” paintings, as well as in the large “Four Mothers,” Maier realizes her true subject: protesting violence. The “Currency” series evolved from her study of coins, where she asked why ordinary people weren’t represented and given value as “coins of the realm.” She came to think of these paintings as exhibiting “spiritual currency,”2 portraits of ordinary people who deserved to be remembered and acknowledged. Variously capturing wisdom, sadness and strength, each face celebrates the power of human example and resistance to further suffering. A person’s name is painted as if etched into the circle, along with “In God We Trust” and “Liberty.” The painting Circle of Mothers (2015) shows four mothers holding white candles, in various poses as they confront the viewer, identified by their own and their murdered child’s name. Last year she was commissioned to create Four Mothers: We Shall Not Be Moved (2016) by the Neeland Gallery, as a civil rights testament against violence. She wanted to paint a subject that moved her and chose to honor mothers from all walks of life who have lost children to brutality and violence.

She was introduced to a group of grieving mothers who were there to support each other, the original “circle of mothers.” It was from this group she drew the mothers for her paintings. Four mothers, Latina, African-American, Jamaican and African, stand together in solidarity, colors glowing against a deep black ground. Richly varnished, the background almost suggests memory, thought-space or infinity. This painting is the culmination of the series on women—large, imposing, filled with emotion, it has a feeling-tone of harmony, power and sadness. The African woman wears a colorful blue-green top, a necklace and a turquoise turban. Two of the women turn toward her in support, grasping her hand, touching her shoulder. The faces are rich with paint, color. On the far right is a younger woman with a bullhorn, hand in a fist, her figure encoding action, not contemplation. She embodies resistance.

Maier studied at almost every school in NYC in her search for a mentor, learning from classical art students, and finally met Harvey Dinnerstein and Mary Beth McKensey at the National Academy of Design. Eventually following them to the Art Students’ League, she also found Ron Sherr as a teacher. She made her own curriculum, working long hours at the League and in weekend sketching classes, trusting in practical experience to bring her to mastery. She uses thick impasto paint on highlights but thinner washes over larger areas. Her studies of hands and faces feel freshly painted and alive, and forms such as counters and tables have solidity like Chardin’s surfaces. She mingles contemporary details like tattoos and brand names, scraped-out edges and softened details, with an overarching respect for the classical tradition in painting. Stripes on a shirt are drawn lightly with graphic flair, hair is smudged with a finger, forms in the background are loosely described. Where figures are in movement, edges are soft. She is intentional in using nuance rather than tight control—selectively controlling areas, leaving less defined areas as suggestion and back story. She has a strong interest in drawing transferred to painting, loose and life-like, inclusive of many classes of society. Maier encodes energetic drawing in her work with such heart and brio; the viewer is drawn into the world she creates and finds welcome there.

Sylvia Maier, <i>Artist as Puppet</i>, 2013, 48x72One body of work she refers to as “conceptual” adds a sense of mythology that is distinctly different from many of her more straightforward paintings. Drawing Down the Moon (2007), part of the “Drummers” series, is deeply mysterious. A man in the role of a native priest engages a woman in a ritual of fertility based on African culture. She leans back with open arms while the man draws out her potential through drumming. Figures create a strong moving diagonal. The canvas has the robustness and physicality of classical European paintings, but with pagan associations instead of Christian overtones.

Artist as Puppet (2013) appears to show the figure of Maier drooping from the arms of a man like a puppet, conjuring up strong emotional and physical sensations. The idea of artist/puppet suggests lack of control, lack of agency. The figure’s long hair flows down her body, drawing her downward and contributing to the sense of loss of power. The subject and content seem to be symbolic. High keyed, dramatic in in color and subject, these paintings contrast with other everyday genre scenes. Extreme human emotion is suggested as well as extreme music, embodied in physical movement and gesture. These works have a restless, gritty quality, earthy and extreme, as do the paintings in the series “Prospect Park Night and Day.”

Sylvia Maier engages the viewer in the conflict and pleasure of being alive while calling attention to injustice and serving her community and country. Her activism shows mothers of children killed through violence in compassionate, sometimes troubling portraits and figure paintings. She tries to both warn and heal, documenting life while making a point about what matters, creating positive change.3 In raw, vulnerable depictions of people and in ordinary scenes of connection and community, she mirrors the texture of life in our times and hopes to invest art with purpose, instill compassion and “give voice to the voiceless.”

Four of Maier’s “Café” and “Mothers” paintings are at Bernarducci Meisel Gallery, 37 W. 57th St., January 12 through February 25, 2017.


1. Interview with the artist, January 12, 2017. Unless otherwise noted, Maier’s remarks are taken from this interview.

2. Sylvia Maier, Statement: “About the ‘Circle of Mothers’ Series.”

3. Ibid.