Margaret Meehan, We Shall Overcome, 2015 Ceramic, wood and plexi 9 x 7 inches.
Little monsters look at us from ink, mold, paint, and collage. These monsters look familiar. Not just as historical markers to marginalized existences, which they are, but as real, flesh and blood women. This is part of the thesis of artist Margaret Meehan’s work. Meehan’s work has a strong sculptural based ceramics background from her academic training and yet, while clay has never left her practice, the content wills itself into multiple mediums.
“Once again it really comes out of being between worlds or on a border. I went to grad school at the University of Washington which has a strong sculptural based ceramics program. We were taught to be artists foremost in whatever media we worked in and I think this informs my practice to this day as clay weaves in and out of my life. I like that I can be creative on different levels and in different ways but the bottom line is to be thinking.”
Meehan’s work is about the humanness of monsters. Not limited to fictional characters conceived in a laboratory but those born into the cruelty of the natural world. She is interested in powerful women born into powerless situations. In a world where girls and women are constantly bombarded with subtle political jabs at their place in the standard of beauty, Meehan is, in a totally punk way, embracing difference through the language of her work. In her words, “It’s about facing up to difference.” Meehan has made work about women born with medical conditions for the past few years, exploring these ideas at Conduit Gallery through theoretical connections between Frankenstein and Coco Chanel in Paper Moon (2014), at Artpace in San Antonio in Decoration Day (2014) where Meehan made work about women in combat, going back to the Civil War when women like Sarah Rosetta Wakeman and Jennie Hodgers dressed like men in order to fight for their beliefs, or the work shown in the CentralTrak group show Sadie Hawkins (2013), a show in which she exhibited her photography prints based on former Dallas resident Alice Doherty who had Hypertrichosis, causing her to grow extended hair throughout her body.
Meehan took photos of a model and through replicated effects long white hair flowed from her face and body. She posed in stances of attack, hands adorned with boxing gloves, eying the spectator, blood dripping from her nostril.
“I like thinking about what would be different if these women were born in our time, but also what they were able to do at that time and what was done to them at that time.”
What makes us different? Race? Gender? Medical anomalies? Language? Meehan comes from a place of rigorous investigation into our shared histories, the way they are told through time, as well as her own place among them. She describes her interests as “corporeal, the ick and yuck of the body.” Her work is also about questioning the social constraints we accept as “normal” through the lens of her own lived experience. Being born with a congenital birth defect that left some of her organs on the outside of her body, her anxieties were real as she spent most of her childhood and teens in and out of the hospital. Identity and difference drive the dynamics of Meehan’s art, but it’s the larger context of empathy that she hopes comes through.
“Hopefully the work is stronger than the story, but I know my story has something to do with that. This is me processing what has happened throughout history in 2016. It’s also about what history has become, what memory has become.”
Meehan gravitates towards earlier time periods in America history, when rights such as inclusiveness were in their infancy, making the women of those times that she includes in her work ever more dynamic.
“It’s interesting to see the roles of women, and when they can break out of that, and the ideas of difference and how that relates to right now.”
While Meehan works on ambitious projects for the future including a show this month at Albany’s Old Jail Art Center (on view through September 4), she is simultaneously working on smaller, affordable projects, continuing her meditations on beauty and otherness, through ceramic shotglasses and cups. These objects are made under what Meehan dubs an “alter-ego”, Sister Hyde Ceramics, a different persona interested in a similar distillation of concerns with unique functionality.
“It parallels my interests but is a fun way to obsess about monsters. It’s nice to let my sense of humor show a little more. I love knowing people will use and interact with them and allows me to play on the side when I’m working on more ambitious labor or research based exhibitions. It is important to me to have work out there that can be be more affordable and accessible to people that like my work.”
With Meehan’s practice, the power is in the subtlety.
“When you’re really obvious, and you carry that stick above your head, nobody listens. But if you cover that with pinkness and then hit them over the head, that’s what I’m trying to do.”