Molly McGuire is a multi-talented musician and visual artist who has achieved international fame for her work in both disciplines. As a musician Molly was a member of several of her own bands in addition to playing with other notable acts like Queens of the Stone Age and Frank Black. The subject matter of Molly’s visual art, which she sells under the name Magwire, primarily focuses on contemporary folklore and mythology in a traditional circus banner format. Most notably her circus banners were featured in the TV Show, “American Horror Story” during season 4’s “Freakshow.”
In person, Molly McGuire radiates an artistic free spirit. This is immediately apparent in the way that she carries on a conversation. I was lucky enough to have lunch with Molly one afternoon in the Bywater.
NCM: What brought you to New Orleans?
Molly: In 1995 I moved to New Orleans to study Jazz. I was a bass player, but instead of playing Jazz, I ended up becoming immersed in the Alternative Music Scene. The Mermaid Lounge was kind of our home bass. I painted all the signage there and helped build the stage and the bar.
During that time I played with a bunch of different alternative bands. Then I ended up spending about seven years in Los Angeles to pursue a career in music. But in 2008, I decided to move back to New Orleans and basically became a visual artist.
NCM: Did you have a personal crisis? What made you decided to make such a huge shift?
Molly: It became apparent to me that I was on the wrong path. The bands I was in kept breaking up. But as soon as I made the decision to move back to New Orleans, everything seemed to align. I immediately landed a job as the property manager at the Bywater Art Lofts. The job came with a free apartment and it was the first time I had ever had a steady job in my life. It gave me a chance to focus on what I was going to do with my future. That was when I decided to focus on painting.
NCM: Did you have any training in the visual arts?
Molly: I’m mostly a self-taught artist. I did have some formal training as a sign painter. I went to sign painting school for two years in Toronto. My parents are both artists and they met at art school. So, when I was a kid, I always knew that I was going to be an artist when I grew up.
However, my parents didn’t want me to have to take out a student loan to go to art school. I was devastated about not being able to go to art school, so I just basically ran away and became a musician.
I ended up running away to New Orleans for Jazz. In 1990, I came to New Orleans for my first Jazz Fest. I was so blown away by New Orleans. In the 1990s . You could rent a beautiful shotgun house for $200 a month and live however you wanted. Luckily I got to experience that amazing time in New Orleans when it was dirt cheap and you could live well. We played music, we made art, and we thrived. New Orleans has always been attractive to artists.
NCM: What genre would you say that you work in?
Molly: Most of my art is focused on contemporary folklore and mythology in a circus banner format. I do some circus content, but for the most part it is just whatever is going on in my mind. My training as a sign painter helps in the way that I execute my paintings. That is where I get my typography. And many years ago, sign painters were the ones who painted circus banners.
NCM: Do you use sign paint to paint them or do you use something else?
Molly: I don’t use One Shot, which is what a lot of sign painters use. I only work in recycled materials. I began doing this in Los Angeles when I worked on movie sets. Because, once a movie production ends, they throw out a lot of perfectly good art supplies. I would find the canvas drop cloths from a movie set and use them to paint on. So I use almost 100% recycled materials. I usually use latex house paint which I custom pigment. The process I use gives me a similar flow to One Shot paint, but it is also less toxic.
NCM: Whose work inspires you the most?
Molly: Nieman Eisman is my favorite circus banner painter. I mimicked his style when I did the banners for American Horror Story. But I haven’t watched the show though because I’m not into Horror movies.
NCM: How did you get that gig?
Molly: I had been trying to get on their radar when they were filming down here. I even visited Second Line Productions and tried to get them to talk to me, but had really hit a brick wall and pretty much given up.
The production company had hired someone in Los Angeles to do the circus banners, but, luckily for me, they just weren’t nailing it. My friend, David Kelsey, let them know that I painted circus banners and the production company contacted me. They explained that they needed them immediately because they were already starting production.
The first painting for the show was literally done overnight and sent to Ryan Murphy, the creator of American Horror Story. He said it was perfect and they hired me to do all of the circus banners. I ended up painting 15 of them, which I had to paint at the rate of two a day. I was also still working at the Art Lofts too.
NCM: Do you feel that American Horror Story really established you as a visual artist?
Molly: Yes and no. The show didn’t put my name in the credits. And that happens a lot in productions. Especially when it comes to Art Departments. But my work in the show is recognizable. People can see it on my website and I have a catalog that I put out when I am vending which showcases the work.
NCM: I first saw your work hanging in a restaurant. It was the Dressed Oyster PoBoy Pinup. And I remember thinking that I wish I had thought of painting that myself.
Molly: I’m not from New Orleans, but I love everything about it. A lot of the themes that New Orleans is famous for have been beaten to death as subjects in art. So I’m trying to come up with fresh ways to portray those themes without being boring or cliché. The subject matter is endless when it comes to things that you can paint down here.
NCM: How do you deal with negative criticism? Do you ever get it?
Molly: So far I haven’t gotten any negative criticism, but I guess that is coming. Artists usually get raked over the coals when they become too popular. It will probably be a good sign when it happens because that will mean I have really made it.
NCM: What do you wish you knew about being a visual artist before you got started?
Molly: There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t wish that I went to art school. I’m finally starting to get over it though. I have become comfortable with my own naivete’ about painting. I’m replacing knowledge with passion. Sometimes I do try to train myself with online tutorials.
NCM: If you had to pick one favorite out of all of your work, would you be able to do it?
Molly: Not really because I have done over 400 circus banners at this point. I do remember that in one of my first shows I did a piece called Suicidal Clowns, which I loved. I have a dark deviant sense of humor that comes out in my work. That piece was a good example of it.
NCM: Do you ever get tired of painting circus paintings?
Molly: No, it’s a format that I have strategically chosen for myself so that I will not get bored. There are actually several different subcategories of my circus banners. While some are circus or sideshow themed banners, others have a contemporary mythology or folklore theme to them. I also paint a lot of New Orleans musicians and marching band kids. I am very excited about having a lifetime of painting ahead of me.
NCM: Where can people see more of your work?
Molly: I’m represented by Galerie Vinsantos located at 811 Royal Street in New Orleans. You can also see my work on my website at www.magwireart.com