Maggie Cowles’ illustrations reflect daily life through a practice coined “food memory”

With a love of wordless narratives, Maggie creates food-centred scenes of domesticity which reflect the wider world.

17 August 2021

After spending the majority of the pandemic on her own, illustrator Maggie Cowles became fixated on “comfort, security, the warmth of food, familiar spaces and familiar meals,” she tells It’s Nice That. This has translated into a body of work that relays this comfort for the viewer through “food memory”, where neatly placed table settings and delicately chopped ingredients provide a snapshot of a narrative, even if no guests are featured. “The work explores how rooms can be full even when they’re empty,” as Maggie describes. “They’re an ode to gatherings past, present, and future.”

Over the years, Maggie explored many creative mediums before settling on illustration. A “through and through” New Yorker who was born in Manhattan and later grew up in Brooklyn, Maggie first studied textiles at Rhode Island School of Design. Moving back to Brooklyn after graduation and working as a print designer for apparel companies like Madewell and Converse, Maggie always kept up her “personal creative endeavours on the side.” A move to Los Angeles soon followed, “when I decided I never wanted to hear the words ‘polar vortex’ again,” opting for “the land of eternal 78 degree days.” In her home since 2015, more recently those side endeavours, like illustration, “pushed their way to the front,” meaning Maggie now works as a full time, self-employed creative: “I paint, draw and illustrate all day, every day.”

Illustration seems to have won the battle of creative careers for Maggie due to her love of narrative. “I’m specifically fascinated with the world of children’s picture books where the purpose is to tell a child an entire story wordlessly,” the illustrator points out. “I have so many books in my house from my own childhood with inscriptions in the front, reading things like ‘Happy Birthday Maggie, three in March 1990’. They are probably some of my most treasured possessions.” She holds these items close for the times she needs to disappear into their stories (The Art of William Steig and The World of William Steig are the two books on her desk at all times), and for the creative push their storylines often provide.


Maggie Cowles: Gravlax for Tablet mag (Copyright © Maggie Cowles, 2020)

Creativity is also a familial influence, specifically through Maggie’s aunt, Nancy Haragan. The founding director of the Greater Baltimore Cultural Arts Alliance, Nancy was “very attuned to the art world,” opening Maggie’s eyes to “experiencing, analysing and appreciating it,” she describes. Her aunt’s influence also reintroduced itself more recently; when the pandemic began Maggie pulled out a set of coloured pencils her aunt had gifted her before she passed in 2011. “The pencils are oily, blend-able, vibrant and rich – almost like an oil pastel. Frequently people reach out asking where to find them,” the illustrator relays. “After enough people asked, I researched myself and came to find they no longer exist. The brand was discontinued in the late 1990s. I like to think it’s one last special thing my aunt and I can share; one more art world door she is taking me through.”

These coloured pencils stylistically leads her work, Maggie describes, lending it a quality of movement that appears in her stills. “When I think of how I have defined my aesthetic, right off the bat I would say my shaky hands,” she adds of this quality. “I’ve had shaky hands since I was a little kid.” Again, William Steig’s influence has encouraged Maggie with this natural quality to her drawings, due to how “artfully he leans into unstable lines. There’s a shakiness I’ve learned to embrace in anything I create.”

This quality can be seen most recently in the quiet dining scenes Maggie explained earlier. Part of a collection called A Year by Myself, which will be featured by Studio Miracolo in Paris this September, there are 12 drawings in total. At first, we see a “lush room with multiple wine bottles, food and a warm interior space,” yet as you move through each image “what reads as an inviting feast slowly devolves into a questionable Alice in Wonderland delusion,” explains the illustrator. The titles of each work also further this narrative, such as a piece named The Night We All Cooked Together “yet no one is in attendance and the meal still set.” Collectively these drawings reflect the mix of emotions felt during the pandemic via this practice of “food memory” the illustrator has developed. Maggie illustrates the existence of an individual “riding the line between managing and madness” – a feeling we can all relate to.


Maggie Cowles: We Have Guests (Copyright © Maggie Cowles, 2020)


Maggie Cowles: Quiet Night in The Odeon (Copyright © Maggie Cowles, 2020)


Maggie Cowles: Quiet Night in July (Copyright © Maggie Cowles, 2020)


Maggie Cowles: Barcelona (Copyright © Maggie Cowles, 2020)


Maggie Cowles: That Night We All Cooked Together (Copyright © Maggie Cowles, 2020)


Maggie Cowles: Lunch on the Patio (Copyright © Maggie Cowles, 2020)


Maggie Cowles: Enough for Everyone (Copyright © Maggie Cowles, 2020)

Unlock an inspiring new way to explore It’s Nice That, get your hands on exclusive perks, and help bring meaningful creative projects to life.

Sign up!

Hero Header

Maggie Cowles: I Brought Good Wine (Copyright © Maggie Cowles, 2020)

Share Article

About the Author

Lucy Bourton

Lucy (she/her) is the senior editor at Insights, a research-driven department with It's Nice That. Get in contact with her for potential Insights collaborations or to discuss Insights' fortnightly column, POV. Lucy has been a part of the team at It's Nice That since 2016, first joining as a staff writer after graduating from Chelsea College of Art with a degree in Graphic Design Communication.

It's Nice That Newsletters

Fancy a bit of It's Nice That in your inbox? Sign up to our newsletters and we'll keep you in the loop with everything good going on in the creative world.