Artist Will Cotton’s painting of Martha Stewart for the 25th-anniversary cover of Martha Stewart Living magazine depicts her standing amidst a wintry-white holiday wonderland of confections, dressed all in white, wearing a meringue-topped “fascinator” and a pastry-piped garment. The characterization seems particularly apt for the woman whose enterprise made baking and doing-it-yourself cool again in the ’90s. But while the cover image seems the ultimate expression of Stewart’s persona, tailor-made just for her, it actually came about through a case of perfect synergy between subject and artist.
Cotton – who grew up in New Paltz – is best-known for his paintings in which women wearing imaginative confections inhabit luscious candy landscapes. And while commercial projects like the magazine cover are more the exception than the rule for the painter, who normally works within the fine-art realm, he has done several other collaborations with celebrities – notably singer Katy Perry for her 2010 release Teenage Dream, painting her lying demurely nude on a cotton-candy cloud.
He starts his process by creating maquettes made of synthetic materials, staging a setting with handmade confectionary props. Once the model is in place, Cotton photographs the scene, then paints the finished image, usually in oils. At first glance, his work appears photographic when viewed in print or online, but in taking a closer look one can see the softer focus and painterly hand at work.
Cotton is currently in the midst of a five-week artist residency sponsored by the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation at the late artist’s estate in Captiva, Florida. Almanac Weekly’s Sharyn Flanagan caught up with him last week by telephone.
So how did the cover with Martha come about? Did she have any creative control over the process, or did she put herself in your hands?
Really the latter. We had some initial discussions, but I think the reason we came together in the first place was largely because I had known her work for so long and had been aware of her cultural importance. And when I started making maquettes to make these paintings from, it was her books that I was using, for the most part. When she became aware of my work, I think she felt that kind of relationship between the two of us. And that’s what made me think about doing this in the first place; normally painting someone for a magazine cover isn’t something I’d be doing. But because it’s her, I thought it’d be a really fun project to work on.
What was she like to work with?
Terrific. I had this admiration for her, so I felt lucky to be there and really had a good time with her. I felt very comfortable with her.
How long did the whole thing take?
A good four months, start to finish.
I’m curious about the process; is that actually frosting you piped on her shirt?
It’s very frostinglike, but it’s more flexible. I found through trial and error that if I pipe real frosting, it means you can’t ever move in the garment or it cracks off. So I found this synthetic elastic material that looks just like frosting and feels like it coming out of the pastry bag, but it’s more permanent and durable.
I read that the initial impetus for you to work within the confectionary theme was the Candy Land board game. Would you elaborate on that a bit?
It’s a game a lot of us grew up playing, and it’s something that has become a very important reference for me personally since the mid-’90s when I rediscovered my own childhood game. Since then, I’ve been developing this idea, which is essentially, “What would a place like Candy Land – a kind of Utopia – actually look like?” On the game board, you have one illustrator’s interpretation of that idea, and of course it’s limited: It only goes so far, to the edges. I thought, “I want to explore beyond the edges of that idea and see where it takes me.”
I was looking at a video of you photographing Martha with all the props before you started the painting for the cover. I know you’re a painter, but it made me wonder: Did you ever consider exploring this theme through photography and stopping there?
Oh, yeah, pretty much every time! It would be so much easier, for one thing, and it would be a perfectly reasonable way to work through this idea. But for me, the idea also includes things like presence of surface and the gesture of a hand, and it’s all an important piece of the picture. It wouldn’t be the same if the image was mechanically reproduced or if I had someone else paint these, the way some people do. It’s really important to me to paint them, and sometimes I wish it wasn’t.
What’s next on the horizon for you?
I’m looking forward to a show I’m having this spring at the Orlando Museum of Art in Florida [March 12-June 5] that will get a little bit more into the process of what I do. I’ll be showing the costumes and props and hats that I used to make the paintings – which is something I’ve never done before – along with some of the paintings, drawings and prints.
For more about Will Cotton’s portrait of Martha Stewart, visit https://www.marthastewart.com/1135581/behind-scenes-martha-stewart-living-25th-anniversary-issue-artist-will-cotton