Music, life inspire Rodney Madison’s art

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    A detail at the top of this painting by Rodney Madison depicts the elevated, or "El," train in Chicago, where Madison grew up. The painting is one of many layered on the walls of Madison's studio at 100 Avenue A in Turners Falls. For the Recorder/Trish Crapo

  • Rodney Madison applies paint to a work-in-progress. He seldom plans a painting out before he begins but prefers to find his way as he goes along. For the Recorder/Trish Crapo

  • Rodney Madison cites artists Romare Beardon, Salvadore Dali and Jean-Michel Basquiat as influences. But jazz music and news reports—such as instances of racial injustice—also affect his work. For the Recorder/Trish Crapo

  • Rodney Madison of has transformed his second-hand shop into a vibrant art studio and soon-to-be community gallery, contributing to the growing art scene in Turners Falls. For the Recorder/Trish Crapo

  • Painter Rodney Madison has transformed his second-hand shop into a vibrant art studio and soon-to-be community gallery, contributing to the growing art scene in Turners Falls. For the Recorder/Trish Crapo

  • Rodney Madison's paint box seems to glow in the diffused light from the storefront windows of his Avenue A studio in Turners Falls. Madison breaks the rules, using acrylics and oils, sometimes even house paint, in the same painting. For the Recorder/Trish Crapo

Published: 4/27/2016 3:17:07 PM

Stepping off the sidewalk at 100 Avenue A in Turners Falls into Rodney Madison’s studio is like stepping into some wild museum of boundless energy.

There are paintings everywhere — unstretched canvases tacked to the walls in overlapping layers, paintings on board or in frames leaning on chairs and easels, against table legs, or hanging from hooks in the ceiling.

The colors are mostly bold, the strokes muscular and unconstrained. It’s exciting to cross the threshold and just stand there, looking.

And maybe museum’s the wrong word, since there’s Madison himself, near the back, touching a small brush to a work in progress, his hands, smock and shoes spattered with multi-colored paint.

Now the space seems more like a boundless energy factory, with Madison — worker, manager and CEO rolled into one.  

Madison does share the studio with another artist, Eric Grab. The two have divided the space roughly down the middle, with Madison’s work on the left when you come in from the street, and Grab’s on the right.  

From what you can see at first glance, their work seems markedly different — Madison’s larger, brighter; Grab’s palette more muted and some of the works quite small, altered Tarot cards — but both artists share an interest in what Grab calls on his website (, “the art of so-called ‘primitive’ cultures.”  

Many of the figures in both artists’ work seem to beckon from other worlds, carrying the authority of icons, or, again from Grab’s website, “… mysterious relics that stir the memory of a place long forgotten — buried beneath the mental and spiritual detritus of modern living.”

Gesturing toward Madison’s side of the space, I say, “To me, this looks like a burst of new work because before, you had the shop here. But maybe it’s not. Maybe you were doing the work somewhere else.”

Madison says that over the winter, he’d been painting up the street in the Third Street studios, owned by Max Armen, before he closed his second-hand shop, Madison on the Ave, and converted that space into a studio.

“Everything you see here has been done in the last year,” Madison says. “And mostly in the last eight months.”

Madison exudes a quiet but potent energy as he relates that he wakes in the morning, has half a cup of coffee, “And then I’m painting, at 6 in the morning. I wake up, that’s what I want to do.”

He paints with acrylics, mostly, but sometimes he “breaks the rules” and works with acrylics and oils in the same piece, or paints with house paint. Most of the paintings aren’t made with the traditional paints an artist might use, he says, because he wants them to be affordable. He shies away from naming specific prices, saying that people can come talk to him about it.

As artistic influences, Madison mentions first his father, Reginald Madison.

“He’s the best painter I know,” Madison says.

Madison says he grew up seeing a lot of art and smelling the paints from his father’s studio. His father lives in Hudson, N.Y., now, but both father and son grew up in Chicago. Madison recalls playing on the stone lions in front of the Art Institute when he was a kid.

“When we were kids, it was free to go, so we went all the time,” he says.  

At 56, Madison has done plenty of other things on his way to being an artist. He has a master’s in education and has taught and coached at many of the schools in the Pioneer Valley. Though he loves the game of soccer, and loved coaching it, he smiles as he says he doesn’t mind not being called “coach” any more.

“This is a new episode,” he says of his art.

Like his father, Madison never studied art in school, but learned about it by going to museums. Painter and collage artist Romare Beardon, surrealist Salvadore Dali, and Brooklyn artist Jean-Michel Basquiat are artists he admires and who might be considered influences. But Madison says he tries not to consciously work in the style of any other artist.

The music of jazz musicians Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins are influences, as well, Madison says. He’ll often listen to those musicians while he paints, so jazz influences him directly in that way. But also, he grew up listening to the music and it has become part of him, the way images he saw in his dad’s studio or in the Art Institute of Chicago have become part of a visual language he just knows.

Things he hears on the news — particularly instances of racial injustice — also have an impact on his work.

“Lots of things I’m feeling, I put on the canvas,” Madison says.

He rarely plans a painting out before he begins, but prefers to find his way as he goes along. One exception is a large blue and green painting that depicts a fish leaping.

“My best friend had just died in the last two months,” Madison says, “and he was an avid fisherman. And so the fish — I painted that for him.”

He pauses, nodding slightly. “As I was painting it, I really felt this — I wept during parts of it — I felt what some people might call his spirit.”

Because it connects him so strongly to his friend, the painting is one of very few that Madison’s not willing to part with.

Madison and I leave the studio to sit in the sun on the new benches at the corner of Avenue A and Third Street. From here, we have a great view of the storefront, its door open and its windows filled with art.

“I guess, these days, they would call me a ‘self-taught artist,’” Madison says. “I’m going to school right now. And frankly, I’m in elementary school.”

We laugh.

Then Madison smiles, a little mischief lighting his eyes. “But I’m getting good grades.”

Good grades, indeed — not just from himself, since “self-taught” implies he is both student and teacher — but others have started to notice his work. Though he can’t reveal details just yet, Madison has been approached by someone who wants to represent his work, and is in line to have a show at Augusta Savage Gallery at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst in 2017.

He and Grab are also working on turning the front part of their space into “Gallery on the Ave,” in order to offer exhibition space to local artists. They plan to kick off the new gallery with an opening weekend of May 27, 28 and 29.

“Turners has some wonderful, world-class artists here, fantastic published writers and sculptors, world-renowned,” Madison says. “I’m just one part of an active arts scene here.”

“It’s great to be able to have the studio right here,” he continues. “And I want to emphasize that I want to share it with the community.”

Madison says his friend Felipe — Luis Felipe Gonzalez Perez — who owns Mariachi Shoe Repair across the street, has been coming in to paint almost every morning.

And not long ago, a young man came into the studio with his wife and baby and lamented that he loved to draw, but never had enough time and couldn’t afford supplies. Madison gave him a box of pastels.

“He’s taken off with it, and he’s been showing me some work that he’s done,” Madison says with a smile. “It’s great to see it spreading.”

Contact: or drop by the studio at 100 Avenue A, Turners Falls. Madison says the studio is newly open every day from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.





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