When a difficult childhood and troubling high school experiences left 24-year-old Madison Nicole May with a hefty emotional burden to bear, the Grand Rapids native decided to make the most of it, channeling her pain into art to overcome the past.
“I knew that I needed something from leading me down a bad path,” May said. “Art was the thing that kept me focused throughout my entire life. It’s therapeutic.”
While high school was a particularly challenging time for May, it was there that she was first able to explore her artistic talents. Under the guidance and encouragement of her high school art teacher, she applied to Kendall College of Art and Design, where she not only felt accepted as a student but as a person.
“There were people (at KCAD) who understood me in that community and let me blossom,” May said. “When I got to school there, they treated me like a person; like I was smart and that I could handle it.”
May has since graduated at the top of her class, earning a bachelor’s in printmaking from KCAD in 2016. The same year, she was awarded KCAD’s Excellence Award in printmaking, as well as the Juror’s Choice Award in the Michigan Emerging Graduate Artists (MEGA) exhibition at the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts.
Through preservation tactics like dipping a shirt in wax or securing an old photograph in plaster, May’s student work at KCAD often tackled heavy topics such as domestic abuse. “I felt like it was a conversation that isn’t had in Grand Rapids, and I wasn’t satisfied with that,” she said. “I think it’s an epidemic that people brush under the rug, and I can’t support that circle of violence.”
Now, May said she’s making the transition out of the past and into creating work that embodies the present. “It’s still about relationships, but instead of being about the violence, I’m more interested in the communication between people,” she said, adding, “love, loneliness — I’m still interested in tackling those subjects that people don’t really talk about.”
But, different from the colder, darker look and feel that her student work took on, May’s current work has a light and airy aesthetic. Her three-dimensional works reference items that are synonymous with comfort, such as pillows or a bed; while her two-dimensional works, such as her collage series, for example, are more meditative. In creating her collage series, May crafted one small collage each day for an entire year to document her experience with losing a relationship of her own.
In addition to developing her own art, May has long worked to foster growth in the city’s art community, volunteering at local galleries and events, and even opening a small contemporary gallery, Bend Gallery, at 40 S. Division Ave., last summer.
“I thought it would be great to open up my own space so that I could show my work for free but also to make it affordable for other artists to do the same,” said May, explaining that some gallery fees can be quite high, so she opted to impose a flexible sliding fee as a cheaper alternative.
May’s strong online presence also has become a critical resource for artists who display their work at the gallery.
“Our artists can pull images from old shows when they were professionally hung and showed,” May explained. “Their success is so important and being able to give them the tools that they need is awesome.”
For more information about May and her work, visit her website.
*Photos by Jim Gebben