The fortune teller and her prize

Ryerson photography prof, Annie MacDonell, has recently been nominated for the prestigious Grange Prize award for $50,000 out of four international candidates. While taking on the role of motherhood, MacDonell talks to us about how she balances a life as a prof, mother and award-nominated artist. Here is a question and answer session with the nominee.

Ryerson Folio: How did you get nominated? Was there an application process?
Annie: No, I was nominated. It’s a bit of a complicated process for the prize: First they choose our partner country, this year it’s Great Britain. Then they choose two curators from that country and two Canadian curators, and one of the Canadians is always from the Art Gallery of Ontario. Finally, that group of four curators has a meeting where they all present a group of artists that they think would be good candidates and shortlist the nominees from there. So you don’t apply for it, a curator nominates you.

RF: Was there a specific person that could have contributed to your nomination?
A: Sophie Hackett, the assistant photo curator at the AGO. I think she presented my work.

RF: How did you find out you were chosen as one of the four artists?
A: When Sophie came back from that meeting in the spring, which was in London, she called me and said that I was shortlisted as one of the nominees.

RF: What was your reaction?
A: I was surprised just because I didn’t know that I was in the running. I knew about the prize and I’ve been following it for a few years, but wasn’t expecting to be nominated so I was surprised and really pleased — and excited!

RF: Do you know any of other artists who were nominated?
A: I didn’t know them back then, but I’ve come to know them through the process of all being on the list and doing a show together in Toronto. Everybody was in the city for that and then there was a show in the UK too, so we spent a lot of time together.

RF: How did it feel to do a show in London?
A: It was great! They flew us over there for the opening so it was really exciting. Canada House is right on Trafalgar Square and its a beautiful building run by the Canadian government, so it was super fun reception and it was nice to see all the other artists and curators again in London.

RF: Has being nominated for the Grange Prize always been something you wanted to do?
A: Well the prize has only been around for five years, so it’s relatively new. I don’t know if I’ve really thought about it like that but I guess so, yeah. I think I would have been thinking about it more in a few years from now. The nomination felt really soon for me, but it was nice.

RF: What does it mean to you to be nominated within the first few years of the award?
A: It’s exciting because I really like the way the award works. I think the way it’s structured is really great for artists. Although a big part of the prize is the cash (and of course you’d love to win the prize), even if you don’t everybody on the shortlist gets a residency as part of the prize and gets to go to the partner country in the spring for six weeks to make work or research, which will be great. All of your expenses are covered so that’s a real treat to look forward to! I was also excited to be a part of the show at the AGO and it was nice to feel support from members of my own community like Sophie, I have known for a long time so it was nice to be shortlisted especially by her.

RF: What’s your relationship with Sophie?
A: We met when she was just starting as a curator. She did one of the first reviews I’ve ever had in a magazine while I was still in school at Ryerson. Besides that, we’re a part of the same community so we’re good friends.

RF: How does it feel to have your work featured at the Art Gallery of Ontario?
A: It’s really exciting because it’s such a diverse audience that goes to the AGO, in comparison to a lot of the smaller art galleries in Toronto. And it’s a beautiful space to display your work.

RF: What is your favourite piece to date?
A: I don’t really have a favorite, I think they all function in different ways. They all have strengths and flaws.

RF: In that case, a personal favorite of mine is Death by Landscape (2008). It looks magical to me. Tell me how you made that one.
A: Well for starters, the title of it is taken from a Margaret Atwood story. At the time, I was thinking a lot about how much the idea of landscape defines our national identity as Canadians yet how so few of us actually live in the most natural parts of Canada. So I built a structure that was a miniaturized landscape. It’s an 8x8x8 foot tall box, which you climb unto a platform to peer down into the inside. It’s full of those cheap miniature trees that you find around Christmas time, and I tried to make something beautiful out of them. The inside of the box itself is lined with mirrors on all four sides, which creates a simple optical trick that makes the piece look like a giant infinite landscape of glowing trees.

RF: Wow! On average, how long does creating a piece take?
A: Months. I have dedicated most of my life to being creative.

RF: What was your process to making a more popular piece like “The Fortune Teller?”
A: I bought the antique hand from a vintage shop, it used to be a part of a fortune telling machine. I didn’t know what to do with it for a while and then I decided to refurbish the hand so I contacted one of the conservators from the AGO and she put it back together. The images you see in the piece are documentations of her progress. The piece itself is an imitation of her documentation. I basically took images from before the hand was fixed and combined them with the images of the new hand.

RF: The title of that series: “The present is the future of the past and the past of the future,” was difficult for me to understand on a first read. Was it supposed to be puzzling?
A: Yes. The structure of the sentence is complicated on purpose, but the actual idea is simple, so when you finally understand it, you say “Of course.”

RF: If I were to get into your head while you were creating the Fortune Teller, what would you be thinking about?
A: The idea behind the piece is that we tend to think of history as this very linear thing that locked in with progress, especially when it comes to art. The fortuneteller proposes a way of looking at history in a less linear way where past, present and future can connect at multiple points and not just in a straight line.

I just layered the hands, so the image becomes more and more confusing and I treated the colour chart in the same way.

RF: What are things that you love to manipulate in your work? For example, light.
A: I manipulate images that already exist. I think a lot about photographic images and their purposes and how it has circulated in the world. Also, how old images can be read differently from the perspective of the present and how meaning piles up on images and objects. I always look for a way to add to that meaning and manipulate it.

RF: Where do you draw inspiration? Has it changed over time?
A: Everywhere. With each thing that I make, I learn and I come out as a different artist.

RF: How did you get into photography? Did you always know you wanted to do this?
A: It was what I gravitated towards in high school. Originally, I applied to Ryerson thinking I wanted to do photojournalism, but then I found my niche in the fine art aspect of it.

When I was younger, I thought I was going to be a writer and then I got into the dark room for the first time and it was such a magical thing. From there it was a bit of a rabbit’s hole, especially with photography. The more you think about it, the more you read about it, the richer it becomes to you.

RF: When did you get your first camera?
A: When I was a teen, my aunt gave me an old 1967 Cannon camera from her husband who had passed away. It’s a great camera, I still use it.

RF: How does teaching the next generation of artists impact you as a teacher and artist?
A: It definitely pays off, especially the conversations with students about their work. It’s really rewarding to help someone find whatever tools they need to express themselves. I’m also very lucky to see students graduate and become a part of the art community and the world.

RF: I know you’ve recently had a baby, Congratulations, how is being a mother going to affect your life as an artist?
A: I don’t know yet, its only been four months!

RF: Do you plan to pass on your love of art to your child?
A: Well he did spend a big part of his four months in galleries, so I think he’ll soak some of it up, but he’s free to be a real estate agent or a banker if he wanted to be. If it makes him happy, then I’d be happy too.

RF: Do you have a spouse? Do they also work in the art field?
A: Yes, I have a husband and he’s an artist/musician. His knowledge of music is really great because he does my sound for films and I don’t really do anything without talking to him.

RF: Can I get a teaser to any upcoming projects you’re working on?
A: I’m working on a long experimental film, all about the ideas of originality and repetition.

RF: What’s your next step as an artist?
A: I work in cycles, so when I finish the film I’ll move on to the next.

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Photo from "The Fortune Teller"