A Providence Artist in Marrakech

Margaret Owen leads an exotic travel workshop


If you wander downtown, you might pass the building at 191 Westminster and notice that in the window, there are several paintings reminiscent of spring, complete with fresh flowers and warm light. These paintings are a sampling from the body of work by Margaret Owen. Showing work in this space is her opportunity to add a little more brightness to downtown.

I met Margaret Owen at the Small Point Cafe downtown. I knew Owen had a great talent for color, that 2011 had been a very successful year for her, and that she had a big trip planned in the near future.

The first thing I notice about Margaret is her contagious positive energy. The tone of her voice and the kind flicker in her eye could soothe any stress. She was so engaged in our conversation that even I was starting to think I would do well in her drawing class at the RISD Museum. The drawing class initially started this past fall and will be running again in the spring. She describes her class as time set aside just to hang out in the gallery and interact with the work on the walls. Unlike other seminars that feature a guide just standing in front of pieces to speak about them, Owen invites her students to really look at the work and copy them with their own hand. This provides a different, more intimate experience with the painting that leaves a lasting impression complete with a mental and muscle memory.

One of these drawings from a student who took a class with her at the Zimmerli Museum of Art at Rutgers University, found a permanent home in her studio. The drawing is a copy of a Henri Matisse painting. Matisse is an artist who has inspired Owen throughout her career, and plays a role in her upcoming project.

Beginning in 1912, Matisse started taking trips to Morocco to discover the African light. The city of Marrakech became a destination for several European artists and writers who were looking for the exotic, away from the dirt and grime. Over the years, Margaret’s own interest with the African country increased until one day fate stepped in and she came across a blog site called My Marrakesh. The blog’s author, an American woman named Maryam Montague, moved her family to Marrakech and opened a guest house there. Without hesitation, Margaret contacted the woman to find out about taking a trip; soon after, the Moroccan Sketchbook, an all-inclusive drawing and painting retreat in “fabulous” Morocco, was founded.

Owen, along with Elizabeth Hutchinson, an artist friend from grad school, will be leading a small group to Marrakech on March 11 for a seven-day travel sketch workshop. It is important to note that this trip was designed for all: the experienced artist or the novice doodler. It is for anyone interested in taking some time away to rediscover the fundamentals and find inspiration in an exotic land. In addition to the time spent drawing or painting, the excursion offers participants morning Pilates, henna parties, day trips and much more.

“Learning to draw is like learning a different language,” Owen told me as she sipped her apple cider. She made me wish she had taught my drawing class in college, which I remember was an uphill battle. Owen radiates an aura of patience, kindness and understanding; she acknowledges that as an artist herself, she is not above the anxiety that can be crippling in the creating process. She describes her own method in tackling the overwhelming feelings when starting a new work of art: take one step at a time and deal with only what you can handle at the moment. If painting is too overwhelming, grab your watercolors or if that is too much, grab your markers. If canvas is daunting, then pull out some paper.

Not every attempt will be successful and that is okay; the more you get up the courage to make something, the more your attempts will be rewarding. Hearing her speak about this process makes the Morocco trip even more inviting because she is not expecting Picasso-level work. But just like a language immersion course, this trip will be a full immersion into the fundamentals of creativity.

Owen hopes this trip to Marrakech will hopefully become a yearly pilgrimage open to all those interested. How can anyone resist visiting a place where peacocks roam free around the property? Even if you can’t make take the trip, the next time you walk into a gallery at the RISD Museum and find Owen and her students, trust that they are in very good hands and maybe think about signing up; Margaret is not the type who would discourage your own sense of adventure.