Drawing Mystery From Nature, Conversations and History


Interview led by: Walter Cabal  |  cabalcrafted.com
Featured artist: Caitlin McDonagh  |  caitlinmcdonagh.com

Today, we're thrilled to welcome Caitlin McDonagh to the blog, a weaver of tapestry and stained-glass-like paintings exploring the mystery and the symbolism of the world around us.

Hi Caitlin! I’m glad you’re joining us. I know everyone’s got a unique way they begin their journey - and looking at the intensive list of exhibitions you’ve done since 2007 listed on your website - I’m sure our readers would love to hear about how you got started with art as your profession.

Throughout high school I tried to take as many art classes as possible. I was lucky to have some really supportive teachers, and I started taking part in exhibitions then. I never had a goal of being a full time artist in my mind - in fact it didn’t even occur to me that that was possible. I continued doing art on the weekends, or whenever possible, while working at my day jobs. Just over two years ago I took the jump into doing art full time. It’s been a wild ride so far and I’m so glad I made the change!

It’s super inspiring how natural that came about. In a previous interview you said that you “like to create wordless narratives that evoke mystery.” I love this description. Can you give our readers a little bit of insight into how this affects the way that you see the world?

There is definitely a lot of mystery in the world, as well as so much to constantly take in and learn. I like to capture sparks from my environment, conversations, history, etc. and use that as a reference for starting point for creating my own mysterious realities. Exploring the way that things balance and find harmony - then exploring the possible process behind arriving there. I think that if you are present and have an open mind you can find more mystery than you think.

I can definitely see how you much attention you pay to the world’s mystery. There are many dualities in your works that I observe. Animals and Human figures, dark spaces and vibrant colored spaces, curvature and metric lines, the list goes on. In a very polarized world, are there any insights that you’d like to leave with our readers about how to work through these polarities, or how art helps you to interact with the dissonant posture the world tends to have?

I’m very drawn towards opposites - whether that’s day/night, life/death, human/animal, dark/light - and processing the in between. I like to think that my characters are going through stages of upheaval, loss, survival and finding harmony. Really, I’m just exploring things that we deal with over the course of our lives. While the characters are showing their humanistic and animalistic sides of themselves, I feel like they are living in a world where the line between Human life and Animal life has been blurred. 

I think that art is a natural way for people to process what’s going on for them. Whether it’s directly in their day-to-day life, environmentally, or on a broader scale.

Your highlighting of the direct opposites almost guides people to linger in those grey spots, and the way you draw people into that in-between seems to be through symbolism, and iconography. In this kind of territory of religious iconography, do you find any spiritual solace in painting?

Layering symbolism feels like a natural way for me to express more subtle themes at play within my paintings. They can be understood by people who recognize the imagery, and it can be defined in an entirely different way. That’s what I love about art - regardless of what you’re trying to say or the story you are making, people will interpret their own meaning when looking at the work. Because of the themes that I’m exploring, I feel like I’m working on my own personal solace.

I see that you have much inspiration rooted in elaborate details. The forms I see in your work remind me of very symbolic religious art, and you’ve mentioned in other interviews that “the shapes and interiors of cathedrals and religious buildings” inspire you also. Can you tell us why?

Something about the bold lines and angles, mixed with incredible detail, stained glass, and ornamental aspects that I can’t get enough of. I started noticing architectural shapes and thinking of ways to apply them into my work. Once my eyes were open to that, it set off a whole new way of creating for me. I see the different lines and angles as being a flat, almost patchwork, grid to fill with patterns and imagery. I have some more developed ideas surrounding this that I’m hoping to translate into a larger body of work this year.

I’m excited to see where that goes! Thinking about it - Cathedrals are pretty closely associated with western art; and when I first look at your artwork, I don’t immediately get an overtly western art vibe from it. Are there any other cultures that you draw from, that influence the very vibrant, almost fabric-like visuals you tend toward? Does any part of being a Canadian artist influence your work, too?

I tend to pull inspiration from various folklore and traditions of different cultures. This definitely includes fabrics and textiles, costumes, masks and of course artwork. Another aspect that I reflect on is the beautiful animals and nature of the West Coast of Canada. I like to picture my creatures and characters frolicking and causing a stir in the lush forests. 

A big inspiration for me comes from (but not limited to) Eastern European countries and their carnival festivities and parades. The textiles, masks, rituals and imagery are so fascinating to me. I've been enamoured with the history of these community wide festivals, and I'm excited to say that I'm going to be taking part in a residency next year, which I hope to focus on a festival in particular, in Germany!

We’ve been poking around lately at what self-love means to different artists and makers. In another interview you mentioned that “It’s hard being your own boss and it can be overwhelming, but it has allowed me more time to focus on the art, and more time with each painting” - can you tell us a little bit about the different things you balance, and what incorporating self love/care looks like in your own life?

Over the few years of focusing on my art full time, I’ve been trying to also focus on paying attention to what my body needs. I personally find painting extremely soothing for my stress and anxiety levels and feel like my (borderline) obsessive pattern making is helping my sort that out. I’ve also paid close attention and pinpointed when during the day is my most productive time to get work done. I don’t force myself to try and create outside of that time frame (unless there are deadlines of course). This is definitely a form of self-love, in my opinion.  Setting up a routine and semi-normal schedule has really helped me organize and feel comfortable with this whole “being your own boss” thing, as well as listening to what you need and want.

Some of my favourite works of yours depict a bird broken wing and what seems to be a horse skull ornament clothed in a shawl. I like that these almost require for me to pause and either develop a narrative around this piece, or try to discover what related meanings these must have. Can you tell me a little bit about these pieces?

The image of the blue bird with the broken wing was actually made as a gift to my grandmother who fell and broke her arm in December. She was wearing her favourite bluebird shirt, which got ruined in the fall. My parents approached me about creating an image of a new bluebird for her to enjoy - such a fun piece to make.

As for the shawled horse skull character, this is my depiction of a Mari Lwyd costume - a traditional folk costume from South Wales. I love the imagery of the cryptic skull with a beautiful flowing gown and ornaments. I’m hoping this character will be reappearing in my work this year.

This month you recently put up a Print Fundraiser campaign where half of the money raised is donated to the Native Women’s Association of Canada, Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, and Together Against Poverty Society. Can you tell us about how you view the relationship between social justice and art?

I’ve been so inspired by seeing artists standing up for causes that they believe in and wanting to make a difference through their art work. I know that I’ve been feeling, along with so many others, frustrated, angry and wanting to help in some way. There’s a lot of overwhelming things happening right now and I wanted to find a way to support some organizations that I feel are doing important things within Canada. I feel like art is such a powerful tool for creating awareness, conversation, and a way of moving people to want to take action.

Lastly, regarding processing the "in between" do you have any words of encouragement for our readers who are struggling through that in between spot? I'm sure they can add your words and your own method of processing through it using art as a jumping point for their own practices.

Like our life processes, our art goes through changes as well. I think it's important to be patient with yourself and your work. Not everything is going to be perfect. Not everything is going to sell or be liked by others...and that's okay! If everything is easy how can you push yourself to go to that next level? Take time, try out new things, and stay excited. Make art for art's sake. This is definitely part of cultivating self-love - don't be too hard on yourself and enjoy your own process. 

Thank you so much for chatting with us Caitlin. My hope is that as more people experience your work, the wonder and mystery of the world reignites in them - and perhaps your art can be like stain glass windows they look through, to help them see the vibrant magic of everyday life.

Thank you so much Walter! If my art can achieve that for others I would be totally honoured and thrilled.

For more of Caitlin's journey: @caitlinmcdonagh  |  caitlinmcdonagh.com