Moroccan Sketchbook
Articles and Interviews

A Providence Artist in Marrakech

Margaret Owen leads an exotic travel workshop

RENEE DOUCETTELocal artist Margaret Owen's work is inspired by the Moroccan city of Marrakech
For the East Side Monthly

If you wander downtown, you might pass the building at 191 Westminster and notice that in the window, there are several paintings reminiscent of spring, complete with fresh flowers and warm light. These paintings are a sampling from the body of work by Margaret Owen. Showing work in this space is her opportunity to add a little more brightness to downtown.

I met Margaret Owen at the Small Point Cafe downtown. I knew Owen had a great talent for color, that 2011 had been a very successful year for her, and that she had a big trip planned in the near future.

The first thing I notice about Margaret is her contagious positive energy. The tone of her voice and the kind flicker in her eye could soothe any stress. She was so engaged in our conversation that even I was starting to think I would do well in her drawing class at the RISD Museum. The drawing class initially started this past fall and will be running again in the spring. She describes her class as time set aside just to hang out in the gallery and interact with the work on the walls. Unlike other seminars that feature a guide just standing in front of pieces to speak about them, Owen invites her students to really look at the work and copy them with their own hand. This provides a different, more intimate experience with the painting that leaves a lasting impression complete with a mental and muscle memory.

One of these drawings from a student who took a class with her at the Zimmerli Museum of Art at Rutgers University, found a permanent home in her studio. The drawing is a copy of a Henri Matisse painting. Matisse is an artist who has inspired Owen throughout her career, and plays a role in her upcoming project.

Beginning in 1912, Matisse started taking trips to Morocco to discover the African light. The city of Marrakech became a destination for several European artists and writers who were looking for the exotic, away from the dirt and grime. Over the years, Margaret’s own interest with the African country increased until one day fate stepped in and she came across a blog site called My Marrakesh. The blog’s author, an American woman named Maryam Montague, moved her family to Marrakech and opened a guest house there. Without hesitation, Margaret contacted the woman to find out about taking a trip; soon after, the Moroccan Sketchbook, an all-inclusive drawing and painting retreat in “fabulous” Morocco, was founded.

Owen, along with Elizabeth Hutchinson, an artist friend from grad school, will be leading a small group to Marrakech on March 11 for a seven-day travel sketch workshop. It is important to note that this trip was designed for all: the experienced artist or the novice doodler. It is for anyone interested in taking some time away to rediscover the fundamentals and find inspiration in an exotic land. In addition to the time spent drawing or painting, the excursion offers participants morning Pilates, henna parties, day trips and much more.

“Learning to draw is like learning a different language,” Owen told me as she sipped her apple cider. She made me wish she had taught my drawing class in college, which I remember was an uphill battle. Owen radiates an aura of patience, kindness and understanding; she acknowledges that as an artist herself, she is not above the anxiety that can be crippling in the creating process. She describes her own method in tackling the overwhelming feelings when starting a new work of art: take one step at a time and deal with only what you can handle at the moment. If painting is too overwhelming, grab your watercolors or if that is too much, grab your markers. If canvas is daunting, then pull out some paper.

Not every attempt will be successful and that is okay; the more you get up the courage to make something, the more your attempts will be rewarding. Hearing her speak about this process makes the Morocco trip even more inviting because she is not expecting Picasso-level work. But just like a language immersion course, this trip will be a full immersion into the fundamentals of creativity.

Owen hopes this trip to Marrakech will hopefully become a yearly pilgrimage open to all those interested. How can anyone resist visiting a place where peacocks roam free around the property? Even if you can’t make take the trip, the next time you walk into a gallery at the RISD Museum and find Owen and her students, trust that they are in very good hands and maybe think about signing up; Margaret is not the type who would discourage your own sense of adventure.

By Sarah Merrill


Providence artist Margaret Owen has an adventurous mind. Those who’ve joined her for a painting, drawing or collage workshop have observed that even when she is teaching, Owen is always exploring and considering. She doesn’t pretend to know things, and in faithfully not knowing, she is a wonderful teacher. In a recent interview with blogger Sofia Amarchi, Owen was asked about the traits that make her a successful artist. She responded, “To continue to inhabit an attitude of playful inquiry despite the cacophony of voices in your head—and the dishes in the sink.”

In keeping with her exploratory nature, this spring Owen is leaving those dirty dishes far behind to journey to Marrakesh, Morocco. In March, she and a colleague (fellow graduate of the New York Academy of Art, Elizabeth Hutchinson) will be teaching a drawing/painting workshop as part of theMoroccan Sketchbook retreat. For seven nights guests will inhabit a luxurious and soothing spot calledPeacock Pavilions, complete with its own olive grove. Owen came across the retreat while following a blog called My Marrakesh, written by renowned designer Maryam Montague. The blog has something of a cult following, perhaps unsurprising since Marrakesh has is among today’s most hip destinations. The city was recently called “an obligatory stop for jet-setters” (Charlie Wilder, New York Times, 12/26/2010).

How fitting that Owen is headed for the Pavilions, since Montague created the retreat in hopes of attracting “talented” and “creative spirits.” The 12 (incredibly lucky) guests who participate in theMoroccan Sketchbook (March 11-18) will enjoy fresh, local Moroccan cuisine, tours of Marrakesh, belly dancing, pilates classes, spa treatments, and a visit to an ancient seaside town. There will of course be daily drawing and painting, although Owen stresses that experience and skill are not necessary.

Owen has told novice students that learning to put paint on paper in an appealing way “isn’t rocket science,” although it does require learning to look at things in a certain way. Through Owen’s eyes, for example, the most common objects take on a vibrant complexity; things like lemons on a table or birds on a branch become irresistibly colorful and dynamic. Her daily painting blog, offers a tour of her colorful style and has won her many devoted fans.


It’s important to note that Owen didn’t just get up one morning and decide to go to Morocco. In addition to nourishing her art career, she parents a 6-year-old boy and runs a household. Her husband, Michael Owen is an installer at the RISD museum and also a painter. Although this existence sounds romantic, Margaret’s life is cluttered with the same urgent and unromantic matters that tether most of us to the ground: a mortgage to pay; the rising costs of living; a child to (gulp) guide through life. The difficultly of navigating around such practicalities has kept exotic travel squarely in the realm of day dream. Owen explains that her Moroccan vision was fanned to life when she read Elizabeth Gilbert’s inspiring travel memoir, “Eat, Pray, Love” (Viking, 2006). Gilbert’s journey made her ask, “Why shouldn’t I go exactly where I want, just because it’s an inarticulate yearning?’”

In truth, Owen’s yearning to travel to Morocco was quite articulate. She says that in 2009, her “inspiration journal” began to fill up with images of Islamic architecture, and textiles and ornamentation. Further, as an adolescent she loved carpets, suzanis and tile work. And she was raised by “a couple of Francophiles”: her father a Proust scholar, her mother a master of French cooking. Owen and her sister were fluent in French as preschoolers, and she’s been brushing up on her language skills in preparation for her adventure. Come March, she’ll be more than ready to find her adventurous self (pencils and journal in hand) exploring the vibrant colors of a Moroccan market. Ready to embrace your own adventurous self? Visit for more details.

A Moroccan Journey.:


by Sofia fatima Armarchi


The Interview Margaret Owen is a painter, teacher and mom living in providence, RI. You can see You can see her work in the current exhibition at Buonnacoursi-Agniel Gallery, read her daily painting blog at, and see her various course offerings at

What led you to pick up a brush?

That question boggles my mind a bit. Color, perhaps. Perhaps seeing the artwork of my great aunt Ellen as a child. Cezanne's work and Picasso's rose period certainly inspired me. Because of the way Cezanne grasped the paradox of focusing on a part while still perceiving the whole of what was before him. Picasso, for the haunting and sculptural way that he rendered the saltimbanques. Everything in the Phillips collection in DC and the Burghers of Calais at the Hirshorn.

What are the important traits or skills of a successful artist?

Grit, I suppose, as with most things. To continue to inhabit an attitude of playful inquiry despite the cacophony of critical voices in your head. (and the dishes in the sink.)

You have a keen eye for color. Could you describe your artistic style?

My style might best be described as earnest and impatient. I love color and seek it out in whatever I am painting. There is an Italian expression: Alla Prima, meaning "at the first." I am an alla prima painter, often finishing pieces in a single sitting as opposed to using layering techniques such as glazing.

When you choose your subjects, do you have a plan for what you want to capture, or is it all just pure whimsy!? :)

When I choose my subjects I do sometimes know exactly what I want to try to capture; for example a flat patterned blue cloth against the solid organic shape of a yellow lemon. All those juxtapositions: texture, three and two dimensions, weight and color. Or the luminous orange shadow on a face in front of a blue ocean. Just as often I begin a painting having no idea what will come up and even feeling totally unable to comprehend what is before me. I tell myself, "Embrace uncertainty. Your job is to sit down with this subject and this paintbrush and explore."  

It is very important for me to let go of any predicted outcome and simply be present with the painting at this moment. That is a difficult line to walk as often my thoughts move to noisy questions: "How will this come out? How will it fit in with my other paintings? Could this be in a show? Will this sell? I haven't posted anything in a couple of days this one's got to work! Shouldn't I be doing something more productive with my time? Those thoughts shut down the creative process; they distance me from the work at hand.

Blogging helps my process immensely because it allows me to see my work in a new light-literally just to see it outside the studio is revealing, and because of the support and feedback I get from others. But I can't actually think about the social/exterior aspect while I am painting or I'm doomed. I need to move fluidly between my own quiet interior frame of mind in which I make my paintings and the bustling outside social world that inspires me, shores me up, helps me to be more creative, and gives me permission to spend time on my art. It's a bit of a paradox.

Oh, and that reminds me of a canny Virginia Wolfe quotation on making art. "Always...before exchanging the flow of life for the concentration of painting she had a few moments of nakedness when she seemed like an unborn soul, a soul reft of body, hesitating on some windy precipice and exposed unprotected, to all the blasts of doubt."

What are you planning next? (Tell us about the Morocco workshop!)

Oh my gosh its going to be amazing! We will be staying in luxurious style at the breathtaking Peacock pavilions (it has a pool and an olive grove!) There will be tours of Marrakech, fabulous food, dazzling interiors, belly dancing, beautiful henna tattoos, Pilates classes, spa treatments; even a day trip to an ancient seaside town. And, of course, drawing and painting.

Our idea was that participants of any skill level could learn to record their travel experiences in a sketchbook and therefore more fully enjoy their trip. Sketching is so richly rewarding; classes energize our students, they leave with confidence and a renewed capacity for play. This time they will come home with a beautiful sketchbook of their travels! And now students can use online publishers to print a hardbound copy of their sketchbook as a keepsake or one of a kind gift.

Let me introduce my friend Elizabeth Hutchinson. She and I met at the New York Academy of art where we received our masters degrees in Painting. I was drawn to her combination of peace and purpose as well as her dazzling ability to see the world and express life on the page with a pencil. Over the years we've stayed close, leaning on each other for solutions to life's puzzles.

In order to spend time together despite living in different countries we plan for art adventures. We both love to travel and now that my son is older and hers are in college we are looking farther a field, hence Morocco. I have always been drawn to Morocco. Beautiful textiles and architecture have been showing up in my inspiration journals since I was a girl.

I had been following My Marrakesh for a couple of years when one day this spring I saw the link to Peacock Pavilions. I made up my mind immediately to teach a workshop there. I love to speak French but rarely have the opportunity. I had an *Eat Pray Love* moment when I realized: "they speak French in Morocco! Therefore I can experience Marrakech, teach painting with my dear friend Elizabeth and speak French. All at the same time!" Thrilling.

It's such fun teaching with Elizabeth. She has a great ability to show students how to grasp what eludes them and how they can reach further. Together we are three times the teacher we are singly. I love teaching because as a teacher I am able to experience the situation from 12 more perspectives. Its as though I get to be 12 different artists solving a multitude of problems and seeing the world through a multitude of eyes, all in one class!; richly rewarding. Our trip to Marrakech will be a glorious time.