5 questions with Shona Macdonald


I first met Shona while at the Roswell Artist-in-Residence program. There was a view of the scraggly barren desert, the company of scorpions and mule deer and lots of quiet. Shona and I were fast friends sharing a love of painting, teaching and vegetarian fare. You can see her work at Gridspace in Brooklyn, NY through June.


Name: Shona Macdonald

Where do you live, where is your studio? Who makes up your day to day world?

South Hadley, MA.  My studio is in the main Art Building at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.  I work alongside the students I teach.  The people in my dad-to-day world are my family, husband, Eric Salus, and children, Isla, Bram and Fenno.  I have a litany of artist friends and colleagues scattered all across the country and into parts of Europe.

What’s an average studio day like? 

It's always different due to time restraints.  In the summers and at the end of the year break from the academic calendar, I go in all the time, 8 hours a day. During the school year, I work in smaller stretches of time - two, three hours.  Since I make laborious work that is layered, these smaller spells of time work very well.  I listen to many things:  i-tunes, democracy now, pandora, podcasts, cd's and sometimes, silence.


What are you working on now? (What are you most excited about/ confounded by/ obsessed with?)

My work, during the past three years, has relied on paying attention to and noticing the landscape as I drive around the area in which I live.  I stop and photograph but I also memorize scenes that will later be transcribed into paintings and drawings.  Once back in the studio, I develop the work utilizing a layering process that merges these disparate sources of imagery.  The newest body, Around: New England, depicts odd, usually isolated objects popping up amidst the lurid greenness of this area.  Many of these objects are anthropomorphized:  I view them as surrogates for figures or bodies, nestled within the landscape.  The second body of work, rendered in silverpoint on a very small scale, Ground Coverings, depicts similar prosaic moments within the landscape, though the absence of color shifts the meaning in the work from evocative, lush greenery, to ghost-like gray forms.

What do you do when things aren’t going “right” or you’re having a fallow period in making/ thinking? 

I rework them until they do work. I don't believe in things 'not working.'  For me, if the piece isn't working, then it's me that is not working, not it. I stick with it until it does what I envisioned in the first place.  

I don't allow for fallow periods -- I work all the time because I don't feel right if I am not working and with the time restraints of having a family and a full-time job, I can't afford for this kind of time.

How do you sustain your creative life? (How do you pay the bills or what kinds of jobs have you had in the past?)

I am very fortunate to have a full-time academic job teaching brilliant and enthusiastic students.  I have run our graduate programme for the past five years and very much enjoy this. Although I have been teaching full-time for sixteen years, I have done every kind of job under the sun, including bar-tending, waitressing, house-painting and one summer, I actually painted garden gnomes for a living !

What advice would you give a young artist just starting out?

Get a studio straight away, or establish a place to work (a spare bedroom or room in your apartment, for example). Without this grounding, what Virginia Woolf called, 'a room of one's own,' it is very easy to look for excuses not to work.  Paying  monthly rent and utilities on a studio is strong motivation to get in there.  Also, you have to learn to like your work and be content with that because if you apply for five grants and three exhibitions, for example, and coincidentally, none of them come through, your belief in your own work will cushion this blow and provide the foundation to go into the studio the next day, despite what other people may or may not think. Don't compare yourself to other artists: no two artists out there have had anything remotely like the same career path.  Read widely, outside the field of art, art criticism and art history. Art is a small, esoteric field so connect yourself to others in other fields.