By Zoe Fitch

Faulkner once said, “To understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi.”

Being from Oxford, Mississippi, home of Faulkner, I find this true because Mississippi is just weird. By this I mean that the landscape, way of life, people, and multiple species of insects and animals are connected to a person in a spiritual way. Beyond the veils of foliage that cloak the land, there is a sense that another world exists within our region. The American Southeast and its Southern Gothic history invite one’s curiosity into the unknown.

Joe MacGown is from Maine, and moved to Mississippi at the age of ten. He spent many of his early years collecting insects, exploring the woods, and drawing everything he could see, as well as many things no one ever sees. His fine art craft came organically by way of science, biology to be exact. Joe MacGown started his fine art career in a most unique and respected way, as an entomologist at Mississippi State University. 

After growing up in the Southeast region, MacGown went on to work part time at the Mississippi State Entomological Museum doing basic museum tasks and growing his inspiration for the arts. Eventually, this job became a full-time permanent position at the university. MacGown retired in 2020, but was rehired a few months later to continue work with the Formicidae collection, which is focused on the southeastern United States with an emphasis on surveying the region to ascertain what species are in Mississippi. He says, “Exotic species, undescribed species, new state records, and rarely collected species are documented as they are discovered. Since I began working with ants in 2001, the Formicidae collection has grown tremendously from a cabinet with many undetermined species to six full double cabinets with pinned material and a double cabinet with species stored in ethanol. I have developed a web site for the ants of the Southeast, with keys to species, faunal lists, species pages, and other information.” MacGown’s interests in these species have turned into his series of paintings and drawings that invite his viewer into his world of ‘science meets place’.

MacGown’s work majoritively comes from his mind and the world within. He basically takes what he sees in a microscope and magnifies it for his viewer. Surreal nature comes out from beneath his scope onto his canvas. MacGown’s creatures grow beyond the microbes he views and become a new animal that invites the viewer into a realm that is somewhere between this sphere and the untold. 

“Southern imaginary” is a term with a deep history that has ventured beyond the scope of the southerner. According to Charles Reagan Wilson, this term is defined as “an amorphous and sometimes conflicting collection of images, ideas, attitudes, practices, linguistic accents, histories, and fantasies about a shifting geographic region and time”. I use this term in relation to MacGown’s artwork because his art connects to place, the land, and its organisms so deeply. MacGown’s world is all of this, the Northeast and the Southeast, and something all of its own, a universal experience. While he is not originally from the South, and his work does not contain the traditional southern aesthetic, his artwork contains a multitude of the feeling of “place”.

MacGown’s artwork is detailed and vibrant. His creatures overlap and become a new being, almost other-worldly. His pattern-like drawings and paintings offer a view into a new world within our own. From a distance MacGown’s work pulls the viewer in with his energetic gradients, but the detailed drawings and personified features embody a new and unseen world, something to bewilder and investigate. 

His inspiration lies in looking through a microscope and finding living organisms with the potential to become individual characters in their own right within the dimensions of his canvas. MacGown recalls growing up on the coast of Maine as a kid and hating it. He loved nature, but that place wasn’t for him at the time. He has connected to land and place by making his own inks from natural materials amongst other interests in multi-mediums. 

Growing up MacGown also recalls never seeing a person of color amongst other normalities you see in the South. Aspects such as these have inspired the curiosity to investigate what else is out there. When the only things around you look like you, it inspires investigation into other worlds to explain your own. Moving to Mississippi welcomed an experience of a world that was unbeknownst to MacGown. He continued to create his drawings and extend his undiscovered world. The South is weird, and people are crazy (universally), or so he would see.

MacGown now resides in Starkville, Mississippi where he runs a residency on his property alongside his son. The residency is titled the MacGown Artist Residency, for short, MARS. They welcome artists of all mediums, and accept few throughout the year to continue their practice and research on their property. This is a growing residency that is beneficial to Mississippi and its upcoming artists that rely on residencies such as this to help them stay in the state that inspires their practice.

Science provides a space for research, a space for discovering new findings. So much so does Mississippi and the Southeast region overall. The South is a place where artists can slow down, connect to the land, and discover what exists beyond our scope of modern life. History lurks beyond the veil of our landscape, and so does a world unseen. Joe MacGown’s artwork is an invitation into an unknown world, one that we may know but we cannot see, one that he connects science to place before our eyes.