Artist to Artist: An Interview with MK MacNaughton
A restaurant, a street corner, a public art installation and some propane tanks. These were the elements present in the (artful) directions I received upon organizing a visit to the studio of MK MacNaughton, a prolific Juneau artist that I was told I must meet.
With success, I stepped into MK’s bright and airy studio and felt a strange combination of being transported into an alternate reality and a feeling of homecoming. As a new artist in town, I have been eager to get to know the other artists that call Juneau home. A cup of tea in hand and the scent of oil paint saturating my nasal cavity, I took in the scene with wide-eyed curiosity, observing rich and colorful paintings of landscapes and the impeccable mess of charcoal that becomes portraits of hard working Juneau-ites by the touch of MK’s hands.
Eager to know how all of these seemingly distinct series connected within this artist’s mind, we dove into conversation. After a generous two hours of learning about each other and geeking out over art mediums, performances, and dreams, we got to the bottom of what connects all of MK’s work, and her artwork to the greater world.
From hot dogs to healing arts. MK told me a bit about her beginnings here in Juneau and the way in which art meshed with her career.
I was out of money in Australia in 1989 after traveling for a while, and a friend from college sent me a photo of the beach in Juneau and offered me a job selling hot dogs at the hot dog stand, so I came up for the summer. I never left.
Working on the street corner, at the first vending cart in town, I met tons of people. It was actually a great start to community networking and meeting the town.
I began working at the domestic violence and sexual assault shelter facilitating support and education groups. I used art sometimes to get hard conversations going. I would start the conversation with a drawing or writing prompt. For example, with a group of incest survivor women, I’d ask a question about a feeling or a memory and ask them to focus on it, draw, and then hold up the picture and talk about it. This has had a big influence on the artwork that I do to this day. I think that art helps us leap into real conversation in a more meaningful and intimate way. I am fascinated with conversation and communication.
That was it. The connection between her projects and the community of Juneau: communication. I asked her how she has found this appearing in her artwork.
For example, a portrait project I did last year was called Secrets. I asked people to talk about secrets and to define them with an image. I began with a close friend of mine, Shona Strauser, a woman who I feel I can be intimate with and trust. She answered that people tell her their secrets all the time. She said, “it’s like the weight of a million butterflies on my heart. The weight of one is nothing, but the weight of a million is too much to bear.” That became the point of communication within the portrait.
Art is an intimate conversation with self. MK elaborated on her own personal communication with her artwork.
My first solo show I did was called Elicit. I was thinking about tipping points after so many years of working in suicide prevention and trauma: when you’re in a crisis and you make either a good decision or a bad decision. I wanted to strip that concept down into simple lines. I started thinking about knots and tension. After drawing a million knots, I found that they actually relax. The drawings didn’t show tension as I imagined they would; the knots evenly spread out. I found grace. I started with this intense emotional idea, and ended with grace. For me, that’s what creating a body of work is about. I start with an idea that I’m not sure how I’m going to accomplish. It seems a bit scary or bizarre, but I always end with a gift. It’s often learning about myself. When I pick a topic, though I don’t know it at first, it’s because it’s something that I need to figure out about myself.
The art is to keep communicating. By this point, my tea was getting cold, but the conversation was only getting better.
Fear of public embarrassment drives me to problem solve. There’s always the hurdle of getting over the fear of starting a project. Maybe it’s too strange a concept or it’s not going to work. How am I going to elicit that content? Grit, my current series, has been good for me. I strive to depict one person a week. I wanted to find people who were very good at their hard jobs and who were looked up to by coworkers, so I used word of mouth in attempt to step outside of my immediate social circle and find people who I don’t know. I think there’s something about the chain of one degree of separation. How we know each other in Juneau and how we overlap is intriguing.
I was then privy to witness an interview she did with another subject in her Grit series.
After the questions were asked and the photo snapped, she looked up at me and said that typically this is side of the interview she’s on. It was a whole new feeling for her to be the subject.
As I thanked her, said my goodbyes, walked across of the expanse of the parking lot, I glanced back at the propane tanks to the side of this small doorway leading into the alternate reality of the artist studio. MK’s goals as an artist reflect that of my own: determination to continue to use art as a bridge of communication between members of a community and our world.
Catch MK’s weekly portraits in the series Grit at Juneau Arts & Cultural Center and several solo and collaborative exhibits around town.
Interview and Portrait by: Lindsay Carron, lindsaycarron.com