A monochrome painting of a woman withe white hair.
Portrait of a Beautiful Irish Lady by John McDonald

Art, the Social Map: An introduction to John McDonald

Last week, members of Chapel Arts Studio (CAS) and Unlimited had the unenviable task of interviewing artists for a unique residency opportunity at CAS. Who did they select, and what will be the focus of the residency next spring? Jo Verrent, senior producer for Unlimited, reports back.

As mentioned in our original call out, CAS sits at the centre of a cemetery in Andover providing a unique space – a “capsule of social history, not only for those buried here but also for living history as locals walk their dogs, young people chat on benches, relatives visit the graves of loved ones, and the homeless community share a drink together”. The aim of the residency is very much to connect to the local communities, the environment, the ecology and the living history, all of which converge in this unique space.

For Unlimited, the residency gives a chance to test out new opportunities. Whilst the number of visual arts awards via Unlimited are the single largest in relation to art form, these span a wide range, including performative works. We wanted to see if there are other ways in which the visual arts could be supported, and testing out a residency opportunity seemed an obvious part of that research. We targeted it to artists based in the Midlands and the South West only, responding to our data which shows we have awarded less funds to artists in these regions than elsewhere.

So who did we select? After a tough application and interview process, we chose a Derby based artist called John McDonald. John impressed the panel with his large scale technically driven work plus his passion for connection. He has committed to dive deep into both the graveyard and the communities that surround CAS and connect to a wide range of people, breaking down the barriers than so often divide them.

Whilst he lives now in Derby, John’s hails from Scotland, then Liverpool – both amplifying his natural desire for social change: “I was born in a Glasgow tenement, and left school with a piece of paper (no certificates) stating that I was deaf and would be best employed in a noisy environment as everyone would be similarly disadvantaged… Following a decade of such work, my real education began in a Merseyside Unemployed Resource Centre… Having pursued my own education as an adult I simultaneously worked for social services, and mental health services, until I lost all this through becoming profoundly deaf at age 38 (due to my genetic condition: Osteogenesis Imperfecta.) For a long time I needed to shout, and I used my spoken word performance to shout publicly, about abuses and inequality I witnessed in mainstream services, to shout out for social justice, and educate on behalf of silent minorities… after 17 years profoundly deaf, I was finally able to get a cochlear implant last spring.”

John places the dual passions of his life centre stage: a passion for creative arts, and passionate campaigning for social justice: “My painting is in a socially critical tradition, examining poverty, social exclusion, homelessness, religion, gender politics, neo-natal death, disability, childhood, old age, and human relationships. I am unashamed about the passion and pathos of my work. I paint, mainly portraits, with a theatre-like departure from realism; I often set a staged scene and create a dramatis personae in collaboration with my subject, or introducing a narrative, which may be historical, psychological, emotional, political or spiritual. Despite my colour-blindness I am a colourist, and play with meaning through colour bursting through, or bleeding out of ‘monochrome’ works. My current practice is primarily in large-scale painting, but I am becoming known too for my alternative curation.”

So what will John McDonald aim to do within the residency period? “My aim for the CAS residency is to introduce a period of creative and multi-disciplinary research into the Cycles of Life that interconnect in the place that is Chapel Arts and Andover Cemetery, in order to create a new kind of painting: that is a story, a map, multiple portraits, time-travel, a community scene, a portrayal of nature and human life. The importance of this for my own practice is the opportunity to produce work which inter-fuses both my love for the natural world and my love of narrative, and need to both portray and question the human condition.”

David Dixon, Director of CAS said: “In John’s interview, his passion and commitment shone through. There was an irresistible urgency and need in his application to simply work with people, to make contact and to share. The CAS AIR projects have been set up specifically to reach out to the community, with the intention of bringing increased cultural engagement to an area that sometimes struggles to reach beyond its regular audience. John’s aspirations for his residency feel a perfect fit for us. With a residency programme entitled ‘Themes of Life’, intended to explore the social and biological context of our area, John should find his practice perfectly placed. We’re really excited!”

David isn’t alone – everyone connected is really excited to see what happens during John’s time in Andover, which starts in February 2020. We’ll report back further once he is in situ!