Maggie Otieno: Sculptor par excellence with a knack for metal

Maggie Otieno
Photo credit: Margaretta wa Gacheru | Nation Media Group

Maggie Otieno is the most enterprising female artist I know.

She is currently working in a studio inside the Bric-a-Brack art centre in Karen that she both designed and built herself. Granted she had a little help from a friend, but working with welded mabati, wood, and glass required more than two hands at times.

“I’m in the process of extending what I already built which is just five meters by three meters, making me do a lot of my welding work outside the studio,” Maggie tells BDLife when we visited her recently (4.23.23).

Her studio is incredibly well organized despite all the nuts nails, and bolts, junk spanners, metal pipes, ball bearings that each get neatly placed in separate metal dishes for easy access.

She also is well-equipped with the tools and machines that every sculptor probably dreams of owning.

Photo credit: Margaretta wa Gacheru | Nation Media Group

They include everything from a full set of power tools, welding tools, and grinder drills to metal cutters, chisels, and saws, both wooden and metal as well as a wood sander and plainer to polish and smooth wood.

“Wood was the first medium that I carved in,” Maggie recalls. Initially, I was a painter [Painting was her major at Creative Arts Centre in the early 90s] up until I moved to Kuona Trust [when it was still at Nairobi National Museum] and attended a sculpture workshop with Elijah Ogira who really encouraged me to try out working in wood for a week or two. At the end of the workshop, my hands were blistered, but I loved what I’d done,” She’s created a smiling child being held by two hands. She was hooked from then on.

Then came the welding workshop that she attended in 1998. “I discovered I loved welding,” she says.

But to sustain herself until she could afford at least the chisel, axe, mallet, and file that Ogira initially gave her to create that first sculpture, she taught painting and drawing to children, often travelling to people’s homes.

Fortunately, she found a benefactor who helped her obtain her power tools, allowing her to work mornings and teach in the afternoons.

Photo credit: Margaretta wa Gacheru | Nation Media Group

It wasn’t long thereafter that she got an artist’s residency in the US to attend the Vermont Carving and Sculpture Centre for a month. And upon her return, she decided to shift to the GoDown Art Centre.

“I wanted to be in a more communal environment with other artists,”

But then, Maggie got a chance to work with African Colours, an online Pan-African art exhibition site aimed at generating new markets for African arts.

It meant taking a break from her studio work, but having the opportunity to work in arts administration was one more facet of the visual art industry that she looked forward to demystifying and understanding.

Becoming General Manager enabled her to travel around the continent and strengthen a regional network of African artists and art institutions.

It also enabled her to shift over to regional arts administration, this time with Arterial Network, which now meant working with just seven sets of artists and art networks in East Africa.

Based at Kuona Trust, she was gradually able to get back in the groove of doing her sculpture for more hours during the day.

But at the same time, she recognized the advantages of starting her own company.

Thus, Art Touch was born and Maggie started getting commissions to do work for everyone from Kenya Railways to Garden City Mall to the Trade and Development Bank (TDB).

On some, she could get other artists involved in the work, like Kevin Oduor, Jackie Karuti, and David Mwanyiki.

But on others, like the one at Garden City, she had to compete and ultimately win, together with Peterson Kamwathi, for her five? Tall. Soft. Metal Listeners/sojourners.

That was 2015, and it was around that same time, that Maggie met the late Chanelu Dodhio who introduced her to a new medium that would revolutionize her whole approach to her sculptures.

They were railway sleepers, ‘distressed’ Jacaranda wood that had served for decades on railway lines up until they became obsolete, and metals replaced the wood.

These were now long, lonely slats of wood that Mr Dodhio was smart enough to buy, knowing he’d eventually find someone like Maggie who could incorporate them into their art. This she has been doing ever since.

“I love integrating the metal and [distressed] wood into my sculptures,” says Maggie who transforms them into towering 12-foot ‘Sojourners’ and ‘Patriarchs’ or 2.5-foot ‘Listeners’.

This article was first published by the Business Daily.