In the Studio with Holly MacKinnon

In the studio with Holly MacKinnon, whose work involves figurative and landscape elements to create dreamy, imagined environments rife with tension and emotion. We met with Holly to tell us more about growing up in Montreal, her greatest influences, and unexpected sources of inspiration.

When did you first begin to see yourself as an artist?

Probably when I got out of university and started painting outside the influence of teachers and classmates.  I don’t have many hang-ups about the word “artist”.  If you create art consistently, that’s what you are.

Where are you from and what was your upbringing like?

I’m from a small town outside of Montreal, Canada, where I lived with my parents and older sister.  The community I grew up in was a mix of suburban and rural; picture lots of woods but also farmland and horses.  I remember wandering through forest trails often, either with friends or my dog or alone.  I think this is at least partly why I like painting forests and plants.  I’m still really drawn to that landscape.  I was a quiet, creative kid.  I played a lot of sports, read books and drew a lot.  I was really lucky.  

Paint us a picture of your artistic journey. What inspired you to first pursue, and then continue to practice artistic work? 

I loved drawing as a kid.  As a teenager, I would take pictures of my friends and try to draw them as realistically as possible.  But even then, I didn’t really consider becoming a professional artist.  In Quebec, we have a school system called CEGEP in between high school and university, and after trying some different things, I landed on the Fine Arts program there.  It allowed me to dip my toe in different media, but when I tried painting I knew that was it for me.  It was the kind of challenge I could keep coming back to.  

I went to NSCAD University in Halifax and I graduated with my BFA in 2015.  I then moved back home.  For years I lived with my mum and used her garage as my painting studio while trying to figure life out, working part-time jobs and applying for any artist opportunity I could.  I think the pivotal moment was in 2018, when I was accepted to my first artist residency in Iceland at a place called Fish Factory Creative Center.  I felt so encouraged, like finally someone had decided I was good enough to take a chance on.  I’d felt lost for a long time.  I spent a whole month painting and daydreaming and reading voraciously.   I made my best work to date there, and I remember thinking that maybe there was actually a place for me in this art world.

So I just kept going.  I made a deal with myself to keep painting whether or not the accolades and opportunities come.  There have been many slumps since then, but I have always been able to find my way out of dark holes.

What’s the message of your work? Where do they come from? 

I’ve never been good at coming up with a concise and satisfying answer, I think because it’s partly intuitive.  But what I can say is this: I’ve always been interested in bizarre, emotional things.  Weird books, sad music, heavy poetry.  Something you can pull your own meaning from.  I’m a very introverted person.  I’m contemplative, maybe a bit serious at times.  All these things come together to make a weird cocktail.  I have certain themes that keep coming up: nature, loneliness, gender, joy.  Sometimes images pop into my head, and often I follow that to see what emerges.  Or I see something that stirs up an idea for a painting.  Throughout the process it evolves, often into something else entirely.

As for the aesthetic, right now my goal is to have both crude parts and sophisticated parts to the painting.  If things get too tight, it’s boring.  If they are too childlike, it’s not as engaging.  So I’m trying to figure out that balance.  Aside from that, I often feel my style is out of my control.

Somebody once described my work as “spooky and tender”, and I’ve always liked that.

Who & what are your greatest influences?  

Peter Doig.  Allison Schulnik.  Kim Dorland.  Margaret Atwood.  Robin F. Williams.  Rae Klein.  Elizabeth Glaessner.  Loren Erdrich.

An unexpected source of inspiration?

Books by Margaret Atwood.  After I read her book Oryx and Crake, I was on fire, both for painting and writing.  The Edible Woman by Atwood also really shook me in the most quiet, subtle way.  Bizarre fiction seems to stir up a lot of ideas in me.

Also, lyrics by The Smiths and Belle & Sebastian.  They deliver very sad and cynical thoughts in an upbeat way.  That’s exactly the kind of thing I love.

What do you want people to take from your work when they view it?

I want people to feel like they’ve been jostled a little.  If all goes well, they’ll stare at the painting for a long time.  Some people just connect to it immediately, and that’s always a magic moment.  I guess that’s who I am thinking of when I paint, those who have a visceral reaction that they don’t need explained.  It’s interesting to discover who those people are.

For me, the main motivator is emotion.  But hopefully in a layered way, where it’s not just sad or unsettling or joyful but a few different feelings pulling you into different corners.  That’s most interesting to me and the kind of art I enjoy most as a viewer.

What events in your life have mobilized change in your practice?

I think residencies and traveling have initiated a lot of shifts in the work.  And any personal experiences with heightened emotions.  Loss, heartbreak, euphoria, cathartic moments of any kind.  Sometimes it’s only upon reflection that you see the effect of these things.

The paintings have evolved quite drastically, at least from my own perspective.  Even looking just a few years back, I see a huge shift.  The work from past years was very whimsical, and I often painted very loosely.  Since then I have tightened the paintings up, technically.  They feel a little more subtle and nuanced.  

Often, just making simple mistakes or errors in judgment leads to experimentation, though I’m trying to experiment more consciously.  Sometimes I get bored and feel like I’m repeating myself.  That’s when I know it’s time for me to look at different things and read more. 

For example, my latest work has been a complete leap.  I started putting together little collages with found imagery and using those as models for paintings. The results are pretty jarring.  I like the idea of two opposing images layered on top of each other, with no attempt to marry them.

What are your ideal conditions or catalyst for creating a “good” piece of work?

There’s no perfect formula for me.  My most creative periods are usually when I’m reading something good.  That seems to churn up my visual mind.

Tell us the inspiration behind your works?

One that remains dear to me is Joy Is A Dog.  I made that painting during a residency in Portugal called PADA Studios.  I was so deep into painting for that whole month, I became a little depressed actually.  I was thinking about happiness and sadness.  I’d recently lost my dog and had been devastated by that loss.  At the time, the paintings were a little more fantastical and so I created this odd scene of a woman dipping her feet into a pond and laughing with a dancing dog by her side.  To me, it was joyful and gaudy but still had something unsettling in the air.  It’s still a bit funny and creepy to me.

Something in the future you hope to explore?

In 2021, I started writing poetry when painting got difficult.  I would like to see it evolve and try playing with different kinds of writing.  It’s my dream to publish a book.  I’ve also considered doing some projects that involve both writing and painting.