Theresa Knight McFadden’s life as an artist is a great guide for making art while making a living, something many artists aspire to. She is also an example of how getting to that doesn’t have to take a straight path.
Knight McFadden notes that from the time she was tiny, she was pulled to make things. The Catholic schools she attended growing up did not offer much in the way of arts training and by high school “I had lost my confidence in my ability to make art,” so she turned to her second favorite subject, English. When she found no art being offered at George Mason University in Virginia, she decided to focus on writing.
For ten years, freelance writing, and eventually writing for National Geographic World (the children’s magazine of National Geographic) let her follow her creativity after marriage during college and one child by the time she graduated. Yet she still yearned to make art.
To that end, she enrolled in art classes at Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA), the local community college and realized, “This is what I really want.” After she had earned her associate in arts degree, her teacher, Michael Platt, asked her when she was going to graduate school in art. Until that point, Knight McFadden had assumed that one needed an undergraduate degree in art to continue to an arts degree at the graduate level, but Platt told her to assemble a portfolio and that he would write a letter of support for her, and that was how she found herself accepted to the University of Maryland’s MFA program.
At UMd, McFadden Knight found that “going to graduate school in art was like being in a fantasy world because everyone around you had arts as their number one interest and priority which was very freeing for me. Their program encouraged you to follow your own path and discover your own artistic voice.”
After earning her MFA degree, she returned to NOVA to teach, and continued her artistic pursuits alongside her teaching duties.
Knight McFadden painted large pieces, and entered one such piece, “A New Way to Fly”, measuring about 83” tall x 59” wide, and shaped like a “T” in the NOVA faculty arts show. Prior to the faculty show, the piece had been shown in Richmond VA and had been praised by the Washington Post as “bold and sassy.”
The piece shows a nude woman floating in air down into a town, her figure Rubenesque, voluptuous, arms gone like a Greek statue. “She was not portrayed as beautiful, and was meant as a tribute to female empowerment.” The piece was hung in the foyer in such a way that it faced the heavily traveled Route 7 corridor to the campus in Loudoun County, VA. Some people found the painting controversial from the start and gathered petition signatures for its removal.
The Provost, Neil Reynolds, upon receiving the petition, suggested that Knight McFadden offer to give a talk on the painting. While she declined, feeling no need to defend herself by giving an individual talk, she did agree to join the other faulty artists in presenting talks about their work as a group.
In a November 12, 1994 issue, Post writers, Rajiv Ch and rasekarn covered the controversy:
Since it was put up a week ago, the painting has been the foremost topic of conversation on the 4,000-student campus near Sterling. Some classes have spent entire 60-minute periods debating the work’s merits. And more than 60 students crowded into the foyer for a discussion with McFadden and top college officials Thursday afternoon.
Provost Neil Reynolds said he told students at the meeting that removing the painting would be a blow to freedom of expression. “Is it illegal? Is it obscene? Is it vulgar? No, it isn’t,” Reynolds said yesterday. “Do some people not like it? Yes. But that’s no reason for us to take it down.”
Beverly Blois, chairman of the college’s humanities division said, “It’s been the liveliest and most spirited discussion of anything related to academics we’ve had in a long time.” And the painting remains to this day at the Loudoun campus, bought from Knight McFadden and donated to the campus’s permanent collection by Blois.
Knight McFadden eventually took on teaching ceramics at the Annandale campus of NOVA and remained there for 23 years. While her degree was in painting, she notes, “the best way to learn an art is to teach it.” She retains the title Professor Emeritus for her work there.
Her love of the figurative remains in her ceramic work. Her process begins with sketches, “letting my mind wander, getting to that ‘twilight’ space you sometimes get going to sleep or upon waking, where images reveal themselves. Sometimes I know where I’m going and sometimes I don’t. Then I rely on my intuition and following the impulse.”
Knight McFadden and her family came to Cambridge as the second deepest port (the first is Baltimore) on the Chesapeake Bay, perfect for sailing. She notes the town was somewhat blighted when they first came in the 2000s but “it is getting better. What struck us was the wonderful people – we have more friends in Cambridge than anywhere else.”
She joined Main Street Gallery (MSG), the local arts co-op in 2011. “We have fun here. I’ve always liked the art better here, too, funkier and less traditional than much Eastern Shore art. As an artist and member of Main Street Gallery, I am very interested in the health of our downtown arts scene. “ To that end, Knight McFadden recently volunteered for and was appointed to the renewed Arts and Entertainment Committee of Cambridge, and says, “I hope I can lend whatever insight and expertise I have To the Arts and Entertainment Committee to help build a bigger and even better arts’ scene in Cambridge.”
Tammy Vitale has spent many years of her life regularly visiting the Eastern Shore, and moved to Cambridge in early 2023. An artist herself, she has fallen in love with all the facets of art available in Cambridge/Dorchester County, and wants the rest of the world to get to know and love the arts and artists of this area as much as she does. Cambridge practioners of the arts are invited to contact her [email protected], subject line “Arts.”