Maggie Tomei is a self-taught artist who lives in Northern New Mexico.  She creates assemblages using found objects and also works in mixed media. I really enjoyed listening to her describe her life, her process and why self-taught artists are just as talented as their trained counterparts.  Check out her website at but first, here’s our chat.

MICHAEL: Hi Maggie. Thanks for chatting with me. First off, you live in New Mexico which seems to be a haven for artists. What do you like about living there?

MAGGIE: First of all, I want to thank you for your interest in me as an artist. I moved to New Mexico in January 1990 after several trips to Santa Fe to visit a friend. I was completely mesmerized by the light here. The skies are so blue that one can see the moon during the day and the shadows that play upon adobe buildings, the landscapes, characters on the street as well as just things in general make this beautiful place I call home an artist’s haven. When I first moved here, I could not stop taking photographs. It has so much character and charm that lends itself to photographers as well as other types of art. Another great aspect about living in New Mexico is that there are so many artists that the creative energy becomes so apparent when one is a creative soul. I find that being among other artists is both exciting and stimulating. The energy nurtures and feeds my own creative juices. It has also pushed me to reach a higher skill level since I am mostly self-taught.  It is not only a place of beauty, but a place that quenches my thirst.

MICHAEL: I've always thought that simply being in a creative environment begets creativity in most people. However, doesn't there have to be an inherent gift?  So much is said about "self taught artists." How much of artistry would you say is pure talent and how much would you say is plain old hard work?

MAGGIE: Yes, it is true that living in a creative environment is both stimulating and conducive to tapping into what you call an "inherent gift.”  Neither of my parents were creative folks, but I found myself during early childhood just lost inside my imagination whether it was coloring books or just figuring out how to construct something. My grandmother was "crafty" and I think when we are very young, much like animals, we imprint those things that we are driven to learn whether it is out of curiosity or for survival. My earliest childhood memories about my own creativity emerged when I was in Kindergarten. I just could not get enough of painting, coloring, drawing, paper-mache and so forth. This is a pattern that I watched develop since then and it is a process that continues to this very day. My style and work continues to evolve as I continue to explore the many types of mediums one can work in. The reason I describe myself as "self-taught" is because I did not pursue a degree in Fine Arts and so I have always considered my creative time an expression of my own consciousness. I went to nursing school out of practicality and a need to secure a well paying job and continued to take artist workshops, go to retreats and create in my free time as a "hobby".

MICHAEL: So, it sounds like you really worked at honing your talent.

MAGGIE: It was only after I moved to New Mexico 20 years ago that I got more serious about my work as an artist and actually began to feel comfortable calling myself an artist. I believe that all people are creative in some way, but to realize it and then use the gift you envision does take work. It takes time to develop skills, to network with other artists and in general, to put yourself out there for the rest of the world to see. There is definitely risk taking and the acceptance of vulnerability and criticism that goes along with putting yourself out there too.

MICHAEL: I want to get to your art in a moment, but first, I love what you just said about acceptance, vulnerability and criticism. Which do you think would be worse ... having your work constantly, brutally trashed or not seen at all?

MAGGIE: As you know, creative expression comes in many forms. Nobody gets recognition, good or bad if you are not willing to take risks. I would much rather put my work out there and be vulnerable to criticism, good or bad. I don't take criticism as a negative thing because it can actually push an artist to produce work that might not otherwise have been created. I view it as an opportunity to grow and learn from others. Some of my art is based on the need to process real life experiences and having said that, some of it can be difficult to look at if you are a person who only wants to look at what is pretty or what matches the interior of your house. I am deeply inspired to produce work that has a little bit of a shock effect to it because art should evoke some type of emotional response in the individual who is viewing it and sometimes the metaphors I utilize in my work are healing for me. That is the core of what I go for. After all, we live in a society where we have the option of expressing our own opinions about our own likes and dislikes. That is what makes us such a diverse population of people who have so many choices when it comes to buying and owning art. I love the idea that there is something out there that appeals to everyone.

MICHAEL: How would you describe your work? How has it evolved and where is it going?

MAGGIE: I would describe my work as a blend of archetypal imagery both past and present, where I utilize found objects, vintage materials and new materials to create my assemblages. In particular, my assemblages are also a way for me to process my dreams, visions, and life experiences. More than anything, they serve as vessels for my emotions and in that respect, my art becomes more than just an object, but rather something that I can look at and know that it has served more than one purpose. It is what I call soul work and I consider it synonymous with the making of art as one form of processing and healing one’s own psyche.

MICHAEL: And so … what is the medium that you typically explore?

MAGGIE: Because I have experimented with so many different mediums, my artwork has transformed itself more or less into what I would consider mixed-media. The evolution of my work is that I now feel like I have the ability to combine skills from the past with skills from the present. This pushes my curiosity and imagination to continue to explore other avenues in the art world. What has changed in the last couple of years is that I am now transitioning into Book Arts which is another completely different way of constructing 3-D works of art. I also like the idea of utilizing my handmade books for visual journaling and for housing miniature works of art that I have wanted to find a place for without investing in framing. I like the idea of working small because it is so intimate and tactile. So, if you ask me where I am going with my work, I would have to say that it is moving more in the direction of smaller pieces that one cannot only experience the visual aesthetics of a piece of work, but can also enjoy the tactile aspect of it as well. My goal is to continue to explore other art forms, but continue with this huge interest I have in handmade books, assemblage and collage. It is my passion for the arts as well as my curiosity and imagination that drives me to evolve as an artist. It’s also the surprises, hidden deep within my own psyche waiting to emerge and transform into something that serves to stimulate both artist and viewer. It is the surprise at the end that holds me steadfast in a direction that I see myself savoring for the rest of my life.

MICHAEL: Wow, that’s cool. You know, the main thing that I love about assemblages is they're the ultimate in recycling. Not only do you rescue a found object, but you give it new life and actually give it a purpose that's arguably higher than its original function.

MAGGIE: I love found objects and the idea of recycling them into something useful. I have been a collector of found objects since I was a child. Things like dried leaves, shells, fossils, stamps, coins, charms and so forth. Now of course, I collect more antiquated and eclectic items to incorporate into my work. To me, they are tiny treasures awaiting transformation. I feel so satisfied when I do utilize certain pieces to create an assemblage that I almost always end up really liking. So much so, that it becomes difficult to detach from them for awhile. It amazes me to go through my collection of things and see that I still have things I picked up as a child. I am also a huge fan of Joseph Cornell. I am so inspired by his work that sometimes just looking at his work will often spur me on to start a new piece. The concept of recycled art seems to be growing. The City of Santa Fe has been home to The Recycled Art Show for several years now and I am always amazed at what other artists create with materials that would have otherwise ended up in the dump. It is both intriguing and fun to see.

MICHAEL: I'm a collector, so I totally understand what you mean. Finally Maggie, given your personal history, New Mexico, your assemblages, journaling
and more, what do you ultimately want your work to say about you?

MAGGIE: I would like to be recognized as a passionate artist who sees beyond the final product. What I mean is that each and every item I make is a unique, one of a kind piece that is carefully interwoven with stories about my life. Not just my life as an artist, but as a human being who has a story to tell. I have never made two of anything other than a few artist’s trading cards. I am not terribly fond of reproductions, massive editions, copies or any commercialized art where the artist is working to reproduce as many pieces as possible to make a living. I am not criticizing that aspect of the art industry because it serves a purpose and after all, those kinds of artists need to make a living too. But, what I would like my work to say about me is that it is unique, unpretentious and authentic regardless of the shock value, criticism or vulnerability. I also want people to understand that I am driven to create out of passion not out of a need to support myself, so in that respect, it frees me up to create without worrying about approval or sales. To create art that emerges from the soul is the most beautiful aspect of being an artist. I would also like other people to recognize that there is an artist living in each and every one of us and that just because a person has not been to art school doesn't mean they don't have talent. I believe if your passion is large enough that the real authentic self can emerge to become whatever the dream is. That is how I view my own personal journey as an artist.

MICHAEL: Well said.  I couldn’t agree more.  This has been fantastic!  Thanks so much for talking with me.

MAGGIE: Thank you Michael. I am so visual that words do not always materialize into much of anything. That is where my creativity is the least effective.  I definitely appreciate you taking the time to interview me and am very humbled by the experience. Also, kudos to you for living, breathing, walking and talking your passion-collecting art, writing books and most of all living an artistic life. What a wonderful journey you are on. All my best to you.

As you can see Maggie does indeed have a way with words, but why not take a look at her art as well?  Check out her website at