Carol MacDonald is one of that rare breed of artists who is as eloquent in words as she is in her art. Both express her deep love and respect for what it means to be human, to be vulnerable, to seek healing and to project a more hopeful future. Especially in this time of COVID-19 challenge, her work offers insight, question and comfort.
Many of her monoprints feature images of knitting. The act of knitting, itself, holds a central place in MacDonald’s personal life, and the transfer of knitting images into monoprints makes for very powerful work. The images may look somewhat familiar, at first glance, and then further questions arise as the viewer is drawn in and begins to reflect upon the metaphors presented. The tightness or openness of the weave, the colors chosen — all — bring up various associations that relate not only to the personal, but to the universal connections between us.
MacDonald is an artist who is constantly involved in a process of questioning what it means to be part of the human condition. Her series about birds reflects on birds as a bridge between two worlds. They bridge the gap between air and land, in body and spirit. She sees birds as community oriented, with their own means of communication.
The woven nests in this series bring to mind the works on knitting, which are also woven pieces, albeit using a different technique. Many of her pieces are open to political interpretation, with images of birds turned in opposite directions or angrily confronting each other as in House Divided. These works predate the current political climate and seem to express not only perennial frustration but also hope, as when a larger bird, in Conversation II, joins smaller birds with an offering of thread to add to their nest.
Not afraid of conflict herself, MacDonald constantly pushes her art to encompass questions that relate to conditions beyond her personal situation. Her upcoming exhibit, “Mending Fences,” at the Rokeby Museum in Ferrisburgh June-October, will feature objects, monotype prints, and site-specific installations that — in the face of complex cultural challenges — promote both simple and profound acts of repair. The exhibition, curated by Ric Kasini Kadour, will include environmental and gallery installations of works inspired by Rokeby Museum artifacts and archives.
MacDonald came to Vermont in 1974 when she moved to Johnson to become the art director of the Lamoille County Weekly. She now lives in Colchester where she and her husband raised their two daughters. In addition to her career as a prolific exhibiting artist, she has also been active in community organizing, serving on many local and national boards.
MacDonald also helped found and lead “Art’s Alive” which promotes the work of Vermont visual artists. She has been awarded the prestigious Susan B. Anthony Award from the YWCA, and the Barbara Small Award from Burlington City Arts.
MacDonald has an impressive exhibition record in galleries and museums throughout the United States and Canada. Her upcoming show shows in summer and fall will (hopefully) be at the Rokeby Museum and the Southern Vermont Arts Center. We are lucky to have such an energetic, generous and prolific artist whose values include a deep concern for the individual and community. I’d like to ask her some questions about these values and her processes in creating her unique work.
B.A.: How did you become involved in knitting, and when did you decide to make it a subject of your work?
C. MacD: My mother taught me to knit when I was young, and I remember knitting scarves on fairly large needles with thick yarn. Fast forward 30-plus years, and I was visiting my mother and she and my sisters-in-law were knitting, so I tried it again and loved it. I love the fibers and the meditative “doingness” of it. I had this idea at 3 a.m. one morning, that I could print the knitting.
In 2007, I did a month-long residency at the Vermont Studio Center. The idea of the knit prints had stayed with me and I decided to spend the month exploring that idea to see where it would go. I discovered the fun of free-form knitting. I figured out how to draw the knit and purl stitches in pen-and-ink and pencil. It opened up this whole new metaphor of life for me and it was really fun!
B.A.: Knitting has always been a quintessential “women’s” activity. What is its relationship to your work?
C.MacD: I love that knitting has mostly been passed down through the matriarchal line. It is also considered a lowly craft by many. So to be able to take this form and create large sensuous prints that bring it into the realm of fine art is thrilling. I think my work has always been from a “women’s” perspective. I have often thought of my work as metaphorical self-portraits and I trust the idea that the personal is universal.
I came of age as an artist in the ’80s and ’90s during the time of the Women’s Caucus for Art, which is where I met you. I also came in contact with many of the women art historians who were literally rewriting art history from a woman’s perspective.
B.A.: Can you describe your artistic process of monoprinting and how you also include drawing and collage?
C.MacD.: Monoprinting is using printmaking techniques to make one of a kind unique prints. When I first started printmaking back in the ’70s it was all about editioning prints. Making etching, lithography, linoleum or woodblock plates and hand-printing multiple prints that all looked exactly the same. This is a practice that I still love.
Monoprinting on the other hand is very freeing. Working on plates with ink I can create an image, which I print and then have ink left on the plate so that I can continue working with the image, which will get lighter and lighter with subsequent prints. I can also incorporate etching, mezzotint or lithography into the mix.
I often print from things that I have knit. I can print them directly or by getting the pattern in the ink itself. Often a piece of paper is printed many times before it is done, or I go back into a print with colored pencil, pen-and-ink, sewing, etc. I will do anything to the print to make it work.
B.A.: What is the relationship of your knitting series to the bird series?
C. MacD: The birds came first, and when I started the knitting work, I was ready to retire the birds, but then things happened, and the birds needed to come back. So now they coexist. I am a Gemini, the twins, so holding different bodies of work at the same time makes sense to me. The birds have become personae. They can act out or address societal and political issues that I feel need to be out there.
For many years I worked with crows. I love crows for their wholeness. They are the trickster, and the harbinger of death. They are incredibly smart. They eat our garbage and are all about community and communication. Lately though, I have diversified the flock, creating conversations and interactions with birds of different colors, sizes, genders. I’ve been sewing into some of these with thread. In my knit work, I am able to work more abstractly exploring textures, patterns, colors.
B.A.: You wear many hats — artist, mother, community arts organizer, teacher. How do these roles complement and complicate your work as an artist?
C.MacD: Yes, there is a real duality there. My two daughters are grown up and have moved away, but I have the delight of grandchildren! I am mostly an introvert and love my time in my studio alone. My artist self would love nothing more than unlimited studio time. I come from generations of amazing teachers of which my mother was one.
I taught drawing and printmaking at (Community College of Vermont) for over 20 years. Now I offer monthly monoprinting workshops in my studio, September-June. I have some wonderful women who come and work with me. I also run a summer program for kids, which I’ve done for over 25 years. I always hope that their experience in my studio will give them permission to pursue art if they so desire.
The arts organizer piece keeps popping up. I am currently president of the Frog Hollow Craft Association nonprofit board. I have shown my work at Frog Hollow for over 15 years, and I felt it was time to give back to them. I am also on the board of the Monotype Guild of New England. The administrative part of teaching, arts administrating and being an artist gets taxing. I do love being involved in a community, and that is how I have chosen to contribute.
B.A.: You talk about effective communication as being essential to creating balance in our lives. How do you see your artwork contributing to this?
C.MadD.: Creating balance is the thing I struggle with the most, keeping all those hats in order! I think that we all need time to listen to our inner voices. Effective communication often needs time for the response. So for me, being engaged in my art practice gives me the time and space to go inward and listen. This allows for constructive conversations and responses to issues that can take both visual and verbal form.