Artist Interview: Meryl McMaster


Meryl McMaster’s powerful photographic explorations of identity and representation have seen the artist’s star steadily ascend within the contemporary art world. The Globe and Mail writes that “There’s a mythic quality to McMaster’s images, but they also show the burden of history…,” while CBC Arts describes her work as “…a striking collection of contemporary photography by an up-and-coming Canadian artist that explores questions of identity, hybridity and land through its use of Indigenous and colonial imagery.”

Glenbow art curator, Sarah Todd, succinctly summed up the current state of McMaster’s career by stating that the 31-year-old Ottawa-based artist has become “a really, really important Canadian artist really quickly.’”

Todd sat down with the artist to learn more about McMaster’s practice and the compelling images in her current Glenbow exhibition, Confluence.

You have mentioned that spending time in the outdoors is something very important in your life. How do these pursuits inform your art practice?
Having the chance to work in and explore the outdoors over the course of many years has imbued me with a strong appreciation of the diverse ecosystem we live within and subsequently has heightened my concern over our impact on the planet. These moments of being outdoors have also helped to shape my sense of self and have therefore influenced my interest in engaging in a dialogue with specific locations within my photographs. The sites I choose to photograph reflect on Canada’s history and I want to bring awareness to the environmental consequences linked to the tradition of unsustainably exploiting the ecosystems, animals and people that were here before colonization. If we fail to understand our past and present clearly our next actions may have a devastating effect on future generations.

The photos in Confluence are constructed very specifically in relation to the camera, the image creation process in the field is obviously very carefully considered. After you get back into the studio and look at the material, what kind of post-production work takes place?
Selecting the final image during the editing process takes a deceivingly long time to do. Minor details – for example, subtle expressions in the pose, can change the meaning and emotion of the image. I also am aware of how the images work not only on their own as a stand-alone image but as a grouping and complete story in the exhibition space. I do the necessary editing of the images within Photoshop and then I work with a print house in Toronto to calibrate the images with their printer in order to finalize the images before printing the final photograph.

The Secret Darkness of Birds, 2015. McMaster says that her elaborate costumes take months to complete.

How does the time you spend in the studio making the material elements of your images contrast to your time out in the field shooting?
My time in the studio compared to my time photographing the images is quite different – the bulk of the time is most definitely spent in the studio in preparation and post-production. The costumes take several months to complete, and I take the time to carefully create the different elements and to respond to them as they are created. Once everything is ready to be photographed, I do not have a lot of time to set up the images as I am working against the clock to get the right lighting, whether early in the morning or at dusk. Myself and the costumes are exposed to new environmental elements like high winds, snow, water, extreme temperatures, and some long hikes to get to the location. I try to account for these factors in the construction of the different elements, but you can never fully prepare for the unexpected challenges that nature throws at you on just about every shoot. Being the subject of the photographs makes things even more challenging as I am constantly rotating between roles of photographer, producer and performer. This tests my willpower and perseverance in a way that is very different than being in the controlled space of the studio. It is quite a bit more difficult but much more satisfying when it works out.

When you visited Glenbow many of the staff here recognized you from your images (almost like a celebrity!). That said, often in your works you obscure the face with makeup and adornment. What is it like to be an artist who uses their own likeness in their work? Is self-portraiture something you will continue to work with?
Having self-portraiture as a constant of my photographic practice has never been a comfortable path to choose as I have always been quite shy and introverted. I have never gravitated to public speaking or really anything where the spotlight on is me. This may seem quite strange as I continue to offer myself as the subject of my images. It started during my undergrad when I was too shy to ask friends or strangers to pose for me for a project. Even though I was very unsure and self-conscious of using myself I was much more comfortable directing myself within my images. Later, as I started to develop a firmer sense of the set of ideas that I wanted to explore within my practice, it made a lot of sense to continue to do self-portraiture as I was drawing on personal experiences and expressing very personal feelings in my images. At the moment, I want to continue to do self-portraiture, but you never know how one’s practice will evolve in the future.

Confluence has travelled to seven different locations – what is coming up for you in the future?
My major focus at the moment is my new body of work entitled “As Immense as the Sky” which will open at the Ryerson Image Centre in Toronto on May 1, 2019 as part of the Contact Photography Festival. I am producing 19 new images that I have been working on for the last 3 years. In July 2019 I will also be showing for the first time in Sydney, Australia at the Australian Centre for Photography alongside James Tylor and I will have a solo show at the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, UK in December 2019.

Join Meryl McMaster in person for an intimate Salon Series event at Glenbow on April 11. Complete details and tickets available HERE.

Image credits: Meryl Mcmaster, Viage (2010), Chromogenic print, edition 2 of 5, Courtesy of the artist, Stephen Bulger Gallery and Pierre-François Ouellette art contemporain;
MERYL MCMASTER, The Secret Darkness of Birds (2015), Ink jet print, edition 2 of 3, Courtesy of the artist, Stephen Bulger Gallery and Pierre-François Ouellette art contemporain

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