In Practice: Michelle MacKinnon

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Michelle MacKinnon (Corner Brook, NL) is the first artist in our Present Tense series, Michelle MacKinnon: Pandemic Portraits, which opened September 1st, 2020 on level 2.5.  Over the course of the pandemic, she has been creating watercolour portraits of members of the provincial art community accompanied by the description of a simple event.  Mireille Eagan, our Curator of Contemporary Art, reached out to MacKinnon to learn more about her series.

ME: Your work often deals with the mundane, as with your largescale drawings of knitted objects – an interest that seems to have continued here. Why are you drawn to the mundane?

MM: I think this pandemic has forced us to have a new confrontation with the day-to-day. I’ve always been drawn to the mundane. I think it’s more interesting than the dramatic things that can happen. I like to think of how we build habits or rituals, how we go about our time, how we structure our days. What does it look like if I don’t have that structure of work or friends? What does it mean to have new  habits for the day or goals, what does it mean to feel accomplished?

At first, for me, having a full day when I didn’t have a huge pandemic-related freak-out was a cause for celebration. Now it shifts from every day or week to week, where mundane things feel like accomplishments.

ME: How did the series start?

MM: The Pandemic Portraits started because I am a ritualistic and habitual person. Halfway through working from home in April – there had been so much talk about efficiency and getting things done, and I don’t agree with that. It is very individual and I have to think about that for myself. I realized I needed to do something that felt like an accomplishment every day. I started with a self-portrait. My flat iron broke, which seems insignificant, but I have wild hair. I did a little self–portrait about how I was feeling and that this happened. And I got back into the swing of things by doing that, which was good. So I did a portrait of my partner and asked him what happened that he felt accomplished about, which was spoon carving.

I kept going from there, approaching people close to me and hearing from them what had been significant in their everyday lives. I thought people were going to give me positive things but they varied.

ME: Did any of the answers surprise you?

MM: The one that surprised me that was on the negative side was Jane Walker’s “On April 3rd, I got laid off.” After collecting a few mundane answers, this one felt more abrupt and powerful. The one that I enjoyed was Nelson White’s “On May 16th, I lined up outside of Kent to buy nails.” None of them got too personal, or into any nitty gritty, but I like that some of them are cryptic. For example, Michael Flaherty said he tried to open a bank account and what does it mean to try to do so. And what does that mean? Did he open one? Was Covid the hurdle?”

I started with people that I was close with and then it became about highlighting arts-related people in NL. Currently I am having a problem continuing them because I have run out of supplies. But the art store here did just open so I have a backlog of photos and writings from people that I am going to continue to do to get them done.

For these portraits, I allot a maximum of three hours per work because I don’t want it to turn into an exercise of being perfect.

ME: How does this series fit within your overall practice?

MM: I think that on a surface level I used to do portraiture all the time. It was a return to something familiar in a time of unfamiliarity. Since I have been painting arts related people, it has been about feeling at home and the people that make place feel like home, especially when going through this stressful time. Looking to familiar faces. It is self-soothing.

ME: Creating portraits seems to be to be an act of care for others too. It is not only to look closely at someone else, but to give them this gift. Would you agree?

MM: Yes. And acts of care are something that we have all been a little more aware of now, even when it comes to something fundamental like dropping off food to someone or checking up on people who are alone. These drawings are an act of care for others. They get excited to be in portrait form, but it is also an act of self-care for myself – the sense of accomplishment of something that can be worked toward. I work very meditatively, where I tune out and work on what is in front of me. Through this tumultuousness, it is a way of being comforted.

Image credit: Michelle MacKinnon. “...and on April 18 2020, I landed back home, in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador”(2020). Watercolour on paper. 22x14cm. Collection of the artist.