Feature Stories

Landscape and Memory

Creating art that evokes a sense of place or displacement
  • Landscape detail in oil on canvas from "Around" series (2011) by Shona Macdonald

Macdonald explores the sense of belonging in her paintings and drawings, encouraging viewers to ponder their own sense of place in physical space.

The power of art to make us freshly see is manifest in the work of artist Shona Macdonald (Studio Art) whose work invites reflection on the meaning of belonging and identity. Drawing inspiration from an array of historic and contemporary influences ranging from 16th century icon paintings to geographic maps to works of poetry, Macdonald’s art invites the viewer to reflect on what ties us to place and how landscape gives us a sense of belonging or not.

Having moved to the United States from northeastern Scotland in her twenties and through subsequent travels around the globe, Macdonald’s art reflects her personal experiences with displacement. Through her drawings and paintings she invites viewers to question and reflect upon their own connection to sense of place and belonging. Inviting introspection at the intersection of our memories and experience of landscape, her aim is to raise questions rather than impose messages on the viewer.

“I believe that art needs to have an audience, it needs to have a purpose,” Macdonald says. “There is always something new a viewer brings to the work,” she adds.

Her creative process often begins with travels through the landscape where she photographs what she sees along the way, from a sweeping horizon line to everyday objects often overlooked.  These serve as a jumping off point for drawings and paintings that then begin to take shape and assume a life of their own.

Macdonald works with a range of media including pencil, paint, gouache, silverpoint, and digital media. “The material used lends weight to the idea,” she adds.

In a recent series entitled, Around New England, Macdonald explores the sense of belonging in a series of paintings that juxtapose ordinary man-made structures against sweeping landscapes, encouraging viewers to ponder their own sense of place in physical space. In these paintings, everyday objects such as a road sign or a power line are set against a somewhat abstract rendering of the landscape. Throughout, Macdonald strives to keep her work universally relatable.

“The larger metaphors are about other people’s displacement. You can be from anywhere and still get something from these paintings,” Macdonald says.

These themes are echoed in earlier works including series such as Two Northeast, Isles/Countries, and Topamnesia.

In a recent project, Macdonald is using the Apple iPad and other digital technologies to create a series of works that have “less hand in them,” as she describes them. Macdonald plans to unveil these works online as part of a UMass Digital Humanities Project, and also more “tangibly” as printouts on paper viewed in gallery shows.

“I thought it was a great tool, a great way of investigating the same ideas and subject matter in a different media but with broad accessibility online,” Macdonald says.

Macdonald is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships including the Pollock-Krasner Foundation (2009), a Roswell Artist-in-Residence Fellowship, New Mexico (2010-11), and Can Serrat Fellowship, Barcelona, Spain (2012). She has exhibited widely and her work has been reviewed in Art in America, Art News, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun Times, Sacramento Bee, and New American Paintings. She has been a visiting artist at more than forty institutions.

Complementing her work in the studio, Macdonald teaches a range of undergraduate and graduate courses, including advanced drawing, painting, and graduate seminars. She has participated in the Interdisciplinary Seminar in the Humanities and Fine Arts along with director Stephen Clingman (English).  Macdonald has also team-taught a class with art and architecture historian Max Page, Sense and Place, which mirrors Macdonald’s own artistic process, exploring connections and creative forces across an array of artists, poets, historians, philosophers, and writers among others.

“I try to…emphasize that we’re on a university campus, not an art school, so go take some philosophy and English classes. I try to teach students to think that way,” Macdonald says.

Macdonald’s road to success as an artist has been a series of stepping-stones and transitions much like the ones depicted in her art. Macdonald prides herself on longevity, on her lifelong commitment to the pursuit of art.

“There will be months when galleries won’t call you, grants will reject you—you will be rejected from everything. The one thing people can’t take away from you is your creativity, and if you hold on and believe in it, things will start to happen,” Macdonald says.

Sharon Tracey and Diana Alsabe ('15)