Introducing the art of Ingrid McMillan (Interview)

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INGRID MCMILLAN


DESTIG TORONTO - ART | DESIGN | TRAVEL - ISSUE 09 / JANUARY 2021

BEST OF 2020 | TODAY'S GREAT CANADIAN ARTISTS | SPECIAL ART FEATURES | HOT PICKS


"HOW MARVELOUS THAT THEY BROUGHT FORTH SUCH MAGNIFICIENCE FROM THEIR BRUSHES AND CHISELS." - ANONYMOUS


"My painting is a product of being a receptive witness of invisible things that shape our psychology and drive our behaviour. I think about our vulnerability, our fears and desires, and how we all seek to be loved. What are the edges between discord and harmony, and how do we protect our resilience?"

0202 FO TSEB GITSED

Ingrid McMillan is a German-Canadian painter

2018. Ingrid has two children and lives in Winnipeg,

whose work is about humanity. Her collections are

Canada with her husband Mark. Her work is held in

imaginative meditations on compassion and idealism.

collections across Canada, America and Europe.

Each body of work consists of multiple oil paintings grouped around specific themes.

You are a German-Canadian. Tell us about how these two

“I construct narratives using figures and nature to

cultures influence your art.

metaphorically describe our interiority. I intuitively

Both my parents emigrated from war torn Germany

play at making the intangible tangible.”

determined to make a new life in Vancouver, Canada. But it proved to be too hard. They divorced and I was raised in

Ingrid’s work is influenced by Jungian psychology,

Germany with my great aunt until at age 4 I was re-united

spirituality and the psychological nuances in the

with my family and stepmom in Winnipeg Canada. My

work of great painters. Ingrid holds a BFA (honours)

parents were shaped by the trauma of war that influenced

and MEd (art) degrees from the University of

me deeply.

Manitoba, Canada. She worked as art educator,

In Canada our family customs were steeped in the culture

school counsellor and art consultant in a progressive

of Germany. At home we spoke only German, I was reading

public school division before painting full-time since

German books and attending German School on Saturday


"There were painters on both sides of my family so painting was valued."

mornings. I learned English first playing with the kids on

personal injustices I consciously redirect my thinking

my street, and then in public school, where my fluency

towards how I wish things would be. I think about the

improved. I was always drawing my daily impressions

conditions that support our longing to be understood

and experiences, and at age 12 I fell in love with painting.

and valued, and imagine empowering characters to feel

There were painters on both sides of my family so

safe and hopeful, to coexist in universal harmony.

painting was valued. I have an especially deep appreciation for German Expressionists, Paul Klee, Max

What have you learnt about humans through your art?

Ernst, Max Beckmann, Otto Dix and others. The

My painting is a product of being a receptive witness of

intensity of German aesthetic resonates for me.

invisible things that shape our psychology and drive our

Conversely, Canadian art that I was exposed to was

behaviour. I think about our vulnerability, our fears and

narrowly defined by Inuit carvings, Indigenous paintings

desires, and how we all seek to be loved. What are the

by Norval Morrisseau, and The Group of Seven.

edges between discord and harmony, and how do we protect our resilience?

You have spoken about trying to take your paintings

There is a story of the battles won and lost by a giant of

towards human harmony?

the forest, a 400 year old tree. This tree survived

In the context of a troubled world I aim to make

innumerable avalanches, many times struck by lightning,

paintings that reflect my desires in favour of my

and raging storms. But it was the attacks on its inner

grievances. When I am broken-hearted about global or

strength that levelled the tree to the ground. It had been


"I think of art as the substance of being alive! It engages the intellect, fills me spiritually, and evolves self discipline, compassion, and patience and more."

destroyed by the incessant bites of an army of beetles. Aren’t we all like that battling giant, resilient to a host of traumas only to have our hearts pecked apart by little beetles of concern? Again and again we prop up and polish our exterior, but our internal stamina is amoeba like. Perceived hurts and secrets of self betrayal hide in the recesses of our nervous system and we are most terrorized by our imagined army of demons. What does art do for you internally?

possible. Painting demands of me to be deliberate, to

I think of art as the substance of being alive! It engages

trust my intuition and my decisions in the face of self-

the intellect, fills me spiritually, and evolves self

doubt. I am humbled in the absence of progress or not

discipline, compassion, and patience and more. I love that

knowing how to proceed, “What if who I am is not

art is accessible in ways no other language can reach.

enough?” Conversely, making art is validating and

While

a

especially exhilarating when surprises emerge. These

counterbalance to feeling trapped by a mechanical

rigorous cycles of the creative process are exhausting,

schedule. Since I quit teaching I have no time restrictions.

but I am committed to embracing the whole ball of

I feel liberated to unleash my messy streams of

polarities and feel deep gratitude for finally having the

consciousness on canvas, or experiment to learn what’s

time to fully embrace my passion.

I

was

teaching,

making

art

became


"One of the things that I love about painting is its immediacy and how it supports layers of expression. Every new layer interacts with the one still vibrating beneath. This dovetails nicely with my natural way of ordering nebulous, spaghetti-like chaos to become a cohesive unit, where my thinking and painting converge."


Share with us some insight into your process for making paintings. Usually my paintings begin with an idea that is generated by a mental image or words that I hear or read. It’s like a download that compels me to investigate the thing of the thing. When the idea sticks longer than a few days, it grows into an obsession about the making. I mentally reverse engineer how to translate my vision, and paint a series until the theme stops speaking to me. For example, during my academic studies for school counselling, we practiced intensive mock counselling sessions in the university classroom. I imagined emotions as tangible objects in our brains, made visible by transparent skulls. What physical features would best describe each emotion? What visual vocabulary would evoke each specific feeling? I made endless lists of human emotions and experimented by making about thirty small studies. Of these I selected eighteen to become The Brain Uncoiled. I made each emotion on large 40” square canvas, folding cotton cord in alternating layers of oil paint and glue to mimic the cerebral cortex immersed in brain fluid. I expected having to sew the cotton cord to the canvas. To my delight, the white glue connected it like a natural growth of the canvas. Not only was sewing not required, the glue magically swelled the cotton to perfectly describe tender brain tissue. I still love most paintings in that series, especially Unafraid. Usually I go out to my studio by 9 am, work for 3 hours and then stop for lunch and a walk in my local forest-like park where I am inspired by the ego-less dignity of trees. Then I spend another 4 hours painting in the afternoon. It takes me about two weeks of layering paint to build a painting into itself.

"Usually my paintings begin with an idea that is generated by a mental image or words that I hear or read."


The bodies of work consist of multiple oil paintings grouped around specific themes. Why? Specific themes emerge as natural extensions of processing my thoughts and feelings. Slow Movement: a cultural reversal, is about observing the paradox of deeply engaged students in a frenetic culture. Other times I illuminate the invisible, or view nature as metaphor. My direct contact with the culture of youth and its increasing obsession with social media, sparked Play to Audience, where theatre stages are platforms for interacting with a collection of invisible friends. Finally, I Love You Anyway was about reclaiming myself as an artist after resigning from a lifestyle that I had outgrown. Why are you attracted to painting primarily? One of the things that I love about painting is its immediacy and how it supports layers of expression. Every new layer interacts with the one still vibrating beneath. This dovetails nicely with my natural way of ordering nebulous, spaghetti-like chaos to become a


cohesive unit, where my thinking and painting converge. I appreciate how a painting carries the residual energy of previous days, like thoughts held in a diary. It is also the medium that makes me want to level up my practice to improve as painter. How has your practice changed over time? In the early 90’s my life unravelled while attending art school and I exposed my deepest wounds on canvas. The work was honest, but I felt I wasn’t believed and I felt very uncomfortable making other people uncomfortable. Still do. Since painting about trauma failed to relieve internal anguish, I decided

to

avoid

making

direct

autobiographical statements. Instead, it is satisfying to paint narratives expressing my imagination. Labyrinth of Paradox was a series of over 30 pencil drawings that began with drawing students that I had been unable to connect with because others required all of my attention. While driving home from work, I decided on which students to draw from memory that evening. It was my way of honouring the disciplined quiet students. Finally these drawings became intuitive figurative pencil drawings of communities. For the next four series of paintings, I made preliminary

studies

to

inform

larger

paintings. Since I stopped teaching in 2018, I have had two years to experiment without time restrictions. Now I paint directly onto the canvas to conjure the initial structure. Editing is increasingly rigorous in that a series of over twenty paintings has been reduced to about seven. As well, for years I wanted to become a figurative painter, now more and more I view nature, especially trees, as metaphor for our inner world. The daily ritual of walking in my local forest-like park has also shifted from being a source of inspiration to a source of reference.


Since being on Instagram I share my work and follow

Uncoiled 2012, Dream Home 2014, Play To Audience

profiles that expedite my learning about current art

2018. Finally, teaching placed me in a professional

production, art criticism and art exhibition. Thanks to the

political arena that helped me learn how to navigate the

generosity of the Instagram art community, I am

competitive climate in a healthy way.

informed, entertained, and feel connected in spite of working alone in the studio.

Which artists have you been most impressed by? I like many artists or their specific work at different

You were an art teacher with up to 400 students a year

times and for different reasons. The common thread in

for 22 years. How has being an educator shaped you?

the art of my favourites is emotional warmth or human

Teaching gave me a golden opportunity to experience

resilience. Usually but not exclusively, they are

youth in their natural habitat of public school. Every day I

figurative painters, loosely listed here. In my teens I

had the best seat in the house for the art of life. It was

collected posters of work by Paul Peel, Rembrandt, and

rewarding and humbling and exhausting! Still, I felt

Winslow Homer. In art school I was impressed by Rubins

incredibly privileged to be infected by the energy,

and Michelangelo. Later my favourite painting was The

humour and innocence of youth. The challenges included

White House at Chelsea, 1800 by Thomas Girtin,

designing curriculum, fitting the organic nature of art

Woman in White, 1923 by Picasso, Agnes Martin and

making into a mechanical time table, and formally

Turner. I love Self Portrait, 1658 by Rembrandt in The

assessing each student three times a year. It was

Frick, NYC. Also, Bosch, Delacroix, Goya, Manet,

relentless work, but summers offered respite for painting.

Matisse, Odilon Redon, Eva Hesse, Francis Bacon, Jennifer Packer, Eric Fischl, Kiki Smith, Peter Doig, Dana

Teaching instilled in me a disciplined work ethic. As artist,

Schutz, and others.

I was protected by regular financial support and from taking myself too seriously. The diversity among schools

Tell us about your two recent exhibitions - 'I Love You

represented a cross section of society that fit my bird’s

Anyway in Berlin', and 'Pandemic 2020'.

eye view of the world. It was fertile ground to conceive

The summer of 2018 marked two concurrent life

my own art in the series Slow Movement 2010, The Brain

changing events: I quit teaching and my father had died.


"I like many artists or their specific work at different times and for different reasons. The common thread in the art of my favourites is emotional warmth or human resilience. Usually but not exclusively, they are figurative painters."

"One of the most meaningful experiences of my life was being an art educator in a public school system where I conceived and executed large projects with students, adults and artists."

This propelled me to arrange a three month self-directed

threat of Covid 19 that spooked us all. These works are

artist residency in Berlin, where I had dreamed of

about my daily commune with my local forest-like park

studying thirty years ago. There I reclaimed my life and

where I projected the menacing qualities of nature.

myself as artist. Berlin, itself loaded with the spirit of revival, was the perfect place to mark my homecoming

Share with us some of the highlights of your art career

from a mountain of grief. I made twelve figurative

thus far.

paintings about embracing our internal shadow, as in

One of the most meaningful experiences of my life was

Jungian psychology, to arrive at self-love.

being an art educator in a public school system where I conceived and executed large projects with students,

Sometimes I painted 14 hours a day to squelch self

adults and artists.

doubt. When not painting, I walked and Ubered all over

Other highlights include, making Slow Movement and

Berlin, visiting as many museums and galleries as I could.

driving the paintings across Canada to exhibit and talk in

We prepared for a real life solo exhibition that included

three galleries in British Columbia. The residencies in

four exquisite works by a young local emerging artist,

Ontario, Canada and Berlin, Germany were important

and was reviewed on the day of the opening in the

for my artistic growth. Finally, now that I am free to

Berliner Zeitung, January 7, 2020 by the local journalist

think and do whatever I want, I consider every joyful day

Ingeborg Ruthe. Conversely, a few Pandemic paintings

in the studio a highlight!

were among an online group show in the UK. Back in Winnipeg I had made a series about the mysterious

Website: www.ingridmcmillan.com


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