Briefly describe the work you do.
For over two decades, I have undertaken a site-specific “intuitive exploration” of landscapes (including houses) I have lived in or traveled to. My work is intentionally meditative, recording relationships (human, archeological, poetic) that exist or have existed between people, objects and place. I use printing, paint, ink, paper, metal, collected stones and glass, photography and video. Water is physically or metaphorically present throughout my practice. I translate my experiences of rivers, seas, farm fields, streams, and even the homes and household items of the dead, into interrelated image/ object series, using spiritually significant numbers (1000,108, 99, 36, 39, 24,12,7,8, 4, 3, 2). In addition, I write, including librettos for song cycles celebrating the lives of two Americans intensely involved in the natural world, Lorine Niedecker and John Muir.
Tell us about your background and how that has had an influence on your work and on you as an artist.
Water and numeration as spiritual qualities spring directly from my childhood. My grandmother had an enormous influence on my worldview. She lived next to a remnant of northwest Ohio’s Great Black Swamp, and knew a lot of local natural history, herbal remedies and folklore. We visited her nearly every week, often staying over. She could add large sums in her head and used to play counting and guessing games with us.Through her, I learned to value my direct experiences of the worlds of earth and numbers. I also grew up surrounded by difference – many of my friend’s parents spoke a variety of different languages at home. We learned from them about others places and landscapes, mostly near water like our Lake Erie/ Ottawa/ Maumee River area. My father had eccentric friends, loved opera and poetry and art, had a lovely bass voice. My mother was painfully shy, so our family household had both periods of long silence and of music, librettos and poems read aloud, stories told. English language (spoken and read), the watery natural world we played in, and love of the arts were unifying, familial forces. Silence has remained a comfortable state for me. Quiet is equally “home”, whether visually or environmentally.
The concept of the artist studio has a broad range of meanings in contemporary practice. Artists may spend much of their time in the actual studio, or they may spend very little time in it. Tell us about your individual studio practice and how it differs from or is the same as traditional notions of “being in the studio.”
Hmmm. That’s a great question. I have traveled a lot recently. This year, I’ve only been in Wisconsin 3 months. I still use the studio. But the studio by necessity has also become my camera, my computer, my suitcase, my mind. Travel, being in places that are not mine or outside my culture, is changing my work and changing me. I’m literally outside much more, in all kinds of weather, which is very good for someone intrigued by water, land, and light. Numbers too have become significant presences – temperatures, water levels, earthquake intensities, the stars, the lamps at night and distances between them, transport routes. They are somehow even more numinous as they grow in practicality. How strange the mind is!
What roles do you find yourself playing that you may not have envisioned yourself in when you first started making art?
I am very, very happy to be teaching English to non-English speakers. To me, it is a homecoming, a world where I feel comfortable in my outsiderness, my difference. It’s also allowed me to meet many adults (I teach university or adult sessions) outside the arts, and that is valuable. Too often artists are speaking to themselves among themselves. We need that dialogue, absolutely, but we need to speak to others about what we do and, importantly, listen to their worldview. I hadn’t thought I would find myself doing this sort of work, and I am surprised at how well it suits me.
When do you find is the best time to make art? Do you set aside a specific time everyday or do you have to work whenever time allows?
I meditate every day, I walk every day, I eat every day, I work at my practice every day. I played classical piano for 8 years as a child. Practice is just that – practice. It’s perhaps a little difficult at times, but the flexibility of body and mind, the emotional engagement, is worth it.
How has your work changed in the past five years? How is it the same?
I’m learning more about materials – video, photography, bronze. Painting continues to be a learning experience. My images have slid more and more into the light and darkness of earlier ink and intaglio work, more gestural, yet also I hope more present in actual sighting of place. I am still immersed in watery things and thoughts, in kinds of spiritual numerations. I am still very much tied to the physical nature of my materials – that is, I like to make things that remain, that are left as remnants after the experience of making.
How have people such as family, friends, writers, philosophers, other artists or even pop icons had an impact on the work you do?
As a young artist, I saw a roomful of Mark Rothko’s work and cried. I’m stunned by Agnes Martin and Agnes Varda, indelibly marked by Goya’s prints and late paintings, Picasso’s Guernica. The work of Akira Kurosawa, Kon Ishikawa and Alexander Sokurov has deeply affected me. Robert Grenier’s poetic legacy is huge and so important and clear for me, Stephen Ratcliffe’s temporality blog is quietly monumental and engrossing. Writers Kyoko Yoshida, Marton Koppany, Anca Cristofovici, Royston Tester, and Hans Henning Harmer have all inspired me as they struggle with form and meaning. My closest friend of 36 years, Cynthia Back, is also an artist. My sisters and their families are imaginative, creative, and fiercely pro-union, pro-arts, tolerant working Americans struggling with the current closed-minded political situation. That they are my rock is an understatement. Constant companions have been poets – Rilke, Lorca, Williams, Niedecker, Ko Un and Ikkyu among them. I admire Dogen, Kuo Hsi, Emerson and Muir. I am intrigued by so much writing from fiction to neuroscience. We live in an age when great discoveries and creations as well as acts of selfishness and suffering are equally, and easily, accessible. If we are open and remain fluid, we filter such copious amounts of information throughout our life. It is there in the work. How completely conscious of this influence are we? Even if we are mindful, I believe very little.
Have you ever been pulled in the direction of a pursuit other than being an artist? What are your other interests?
I am art-centred. I believe because of that, I am able to incorporate expansive thinking and doing into my life path.
Marsha McDonald was born in Toledo, Ohio, USA. She has lived in the United States and South Korea, working as an artist and teacher in Europe, the Middle East and Asia. She is currently teaching a semester at university in Tokyo, Japan. She has collaborated visually with writers, poets, and composers, including video and still images for writer Anca Cristofovici (Ninebark Press). Recent exhibitions include online platforms for art and poetry in Paris and Budapest, and an exhibition at the Watrous Gallery, Wisconsin Academy of Arts and Sciences. She is currently exhibiting in Venice, Italy and is represented by galleries in San Francisco, New York, and Milwaukee. She lives in Milwaukee, WI.
All images copyright of the artist and used with their permission.