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Who is Madeline Donahue?

Who is Madeline Donahue?

In the outsider art world, Madeline Donahue is in a grey area. Most argue that artists in this genre must come in untrained. 

Donahue certainly has training, having obtained two degrees from prestigious art schools. But we think she’s an outsider artist, and for good reasons. 

Discover why we include her in this art form and what makes her work stand out.

Let’s explore! 

The Story of Madeline Donahue

So, what makes Madeline Donahue an outsider to us? It’s easy to see in the primary subject of her work that Donahue is the parent of two young children. 

Historically, men kept women out of art spaces as anything other than inspiration objects. As the creative world shifts to include women artists, motherhood continues to divide.  

We think Madeline Donahue’s work falls into an expanded definition of outsider art because she’s a woman and a mother. By definition, mothers are nurturers and creators, but what about artists? The divide comes when society expects women to put aside their art to focus on parenthood.

As an honorary outsider, Madeline Donahue refocuses her work on the art of raising children. At once funny, uncomfortable, authentic, and crude, Donahue’s pieces challenge the viewer. She works in ceramics, painting, and drawing. 

Early Years

Born in Houston, Texas, in 1983, Donahue created her first painting about motherhood at age 15. The image, featuring her own mother, depicts the bonding between parent and child. 

Growing up, Donahue’s mom openly discussed her birth experiences. Young Madeline had access to books about feminism at home, and those ideas encouraged her to create. 

After high school, Donahue attended Tufts University and The School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts. Upon graduation in 2006, she spent nearly ten years as a working artist before attending graduate school. 

Six weeks after the birth of her first child in 2016, Madeline began working on her Master of Fine Art (MFA) at Brooklyn College. During that period, Donahue worked on two bodies of work. One was a public piece she created for her MFA. The second was more personal work she kept for herself. 

The private work explored the post-partum body, loss of privacy, extreme intimacy, and losing personal identity. Donahue’s professors and peers saw this work and recommended she focus on this aspect of life. 

When Donahue graduated with her MFA in 2018, influential gallery Underdonk included her in a group show. The curator chose to include her motherhood work; from there, it became her main focus. 

Why Did Madeline Donahue Become an Artist?

Relationships with families of origin are a common theme in art, but Donahue flips the script. She creates pieces that speak to her experience as a parent. For Donahue, making art is about capturing a feeling more than perfection. 

Prolific in several mediums, drawings often become paintings, and paintings become ceramics. The interplay between the different mediums is fascinating. Other themes in Donahue’s work are flowers, stars, water, and her dog. 

Tell Me More About Madeline Donahue’s Art Career

Donahue enjoyed success with two solo exhibitions in 2019 and 2021. Since 2018, Madeline has been part of 37 group exhibitions. 

The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston acquired her ceramic piece Birth which depicts the birth of her son. Speaking on this piece, Donahue mentions that her daughter didn’t help with the birthing process, but she felt her daughter’s presence the whole time. This piece reflects that very personal experience. 

What Inspired Madeline Donahue’s Art?

Before the birth of her daughter, Donahue’s work was different. Her website features paintings reaching back to 1998 that center on portraits, nature, and sex. 

Then, in 2016 with the birth of her daughter, Donahue’s artwork changed. The piece Golden Baby is her first work that centers on motherhood, a central theme of her current art. By 2018 most of her work focused on parenthood, loss of individual identity, and extreme intimacy. 

The artist also examines, in unsparing detail, pregnancy’s effect on the body.  In her recent work, each piece is created in one day during her limited hours in the studio.

What Are Some of Madeline Donahue’s Art Pieces?

A prolific artist like Madeline Donahue has a considerable body of work. Her goal is to be a lifelong artist. It’s challenging to feature just a couple of her pieces, but we’ll start with these three. 


Slingshot captures the themes of Donahue’s current work perfectly. In the drawing, the artist’s backside is prominent in the frame. Just below, two sets of eyes stare upwards. Nestled in the artist’s underwear and ready for launch is the youngest. 

The mischievous older child pulls back on the underwear and takes aim. It’s impossible to miss the lack of privacy and boundaries that living with two young children brings. Also present is Donahue’s sense of humor about the erosion of personal space. 

See Saw

See Saw is a different kind of drawing from Donahue. Green ink on paper, this piece leaves out the bright colors and flat lines that are her signature. Two figures, probably underwater, pull each other by the hair. One image has a circle around it, and the other doesn’t. 

Take the time to look for the differences between the two renderings. They’re subtle but noticeable. In the circled image, the water is more defined, and there is a stronger sense of the characters saving each other. 


Dressing breaks down the idea of boundaries completely. In the piece, the artist attempts to dress while a child pokes out the top of her jeans. The baby grips her hair and pulls. The artist’s face is partially visible but mostly obscured by her arm. 

Donahue uses simple colors here, with red and blue popping against a lighter blue background. Created in one day, this piece captures the moment and frustration perfectly. 

Where Can I See Madeline Donahue’s Art?

Finding Donahue’s work isn’t difficult. And as much fun as it is to see her work in person, it’s much easier to find online. Most of her exhibitions have been in New York City, but we found one in California worth checking out. 

Johansson Projects

Running from June 25 to August 18, 2022, in Oakland, California, Johansson Projects’ Community Garden Exhibit is one not to miss. Several of Donahue’s paintings and ceramic sculptures will appear in the show. 

Madeline Donahue’s Website

By far, the most exhaustive collection of Donahue’s work is on her website. Her archive of paintings, ceramics, and drawings goes back to the late 1990s. You’ll see her whole body of work and can track the evolution of her craft in each medium. 

Outside Folk Art

Additionally, we have some of Madeline Donahue’s art in our personal collection on Instagram. Check out one of her pieces titled Hi for an iconic mom moment.

Bringing Humor Into Artwork

Modern motherhood is fraught with challenges. Donahue faces her obstacles with brutal honesty and a wicked sense of humor. 

We hope you enjoy her work as much as we do. If you discover a favorite piece by Madeline Donahue, let us know about it in the comments. 

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