Artist Jillian McDonald Explores Nature and The Paranormal

Jillian McDonald is a Brooklyn-based artist originally from Canada. Her work draws inspiration from film genres such as horror and romance, as well as cautionary tales that playfully manipulate simple narratives, archetypes, and local actors in uncanny landscapes.  

On May 21, RMCAD will host McDonald for a solo exhibition, “The Rock and The True Believers.” Displayed in Philip J. Steele Gallery, the exhibition includes videos and drawings of remote landscapes augmented by paranormal events.   

Prior to the opening of her exhibition, McDonald answered a few questions about her work, what inspires her, and what people can expect from “The Rock and The True Believers.”

How did you first get into art, and when did you decide you wanted to be an artist?

My junior high and high school art teachers introduced me to art—although I drew all through childhood, mostly copying cartoons. I didn’t know that people could be artists professionally. I don’t think I ever went to an art gallery until after college, although my parents owned some Inuit art, which was the first art I knew.

I lied to my parents and applied for art school instead of medical school—it took them years to get over it. I’m not sure they’ll ever get over it. I was extremely naive in art school. The whole landscape was new and exciting and I had my eyes and ears open, discovering more every day. I found my community in performance, video, and new media. When I moved to New York for grad school, all my references were considered wrong and I had to start again. I was making video and performance art and web art, so I knew I had to make a living another way. I started teaching almost right after that and found it to be a great fit for me.

How would you describe your work?

I make different kinds of work, but most of it includes video magic of one kind or another. I love manipulating moving images. Some of my work is humourous and pokes fun (lovingly) at celebrity culture. That work isn’t in this show, but I film myself against green screen and sneak that footage into existing Hollywood film scenes, suggesting relationships between various actors and my on-screen fan character, and manipulate the scene to change the story.

Other work is more like moving paintings—where landscapes and sometimes actors in the landscapes work together to create a haunted image or a paranormal situation. I use artificial means, sound, or video effects to achieve the idea. Sometimes there is a story based on horror film or folklore, but other times it’s just all visual and there is no narrative. The places I consider beautiful are remote, cold, and scary—I want to pay homage to them, to represent and amplify them.

What should people know before seeing your exhibition?

All of the works are filmed in Northern locations—Scotland, The Yukon, Canada’s Georgian Bay.  The show is named for a video shot in Newfoundland, where my family comes from. It’s a vast, under-inhabited, slowed down island at the most North-eastern point of our continent. I associate it with superstition and true believers—folks who are deeply religious and some who have never left the island.

The flora and fauna seem artificial there, and cling to the rocky island. Moose were brought over in the early 20th century to encourage hunting, but they thrived and now endanger motorists; The provincial flower is carnivorous and hard to find; and in spring, the island is visited by icebergs and iceberg hunters. Mummery is a fading tradition where people parade the streets wearing creepy masks, fake horse heads, and their underwear on top of their clothes. They disguise themselves and play tricks and sing and drink. It’s these kinds of stories that interest me. Like mirages, they are strange but it’s all quite ordinary when you’re there. I wanted to re-enchant some of these things.

The other works are related—you can see something creepy in the landscapes, something supernatural and gorgeous and somehow soothing. This is how these places make me feel.

What inspires you?

Remote or Northern places inspire me. I’m afraid of being alone in a remote place, of being in the dark outside, of being eaten, and seeing ghosts. I’m also claustrophobic. So, those things inspire me. Being afraid inspires me, and over-the-top nature which can kill me, in particular the horror of nature and the unnatural. Humor inspires me too, and the unlikely combinations of things.

What projects do you have in the works in the next year?

I’m editing a video called “Freeze,” which was shot in Svalbard during a residency on a ship in the High Arctic. I’m adding in 3D animation, which is new for me. I’ll be in residence on Governor’s Island National Park in New York starting this summer making three new works that incorporate 3D and 360 degree technologies featuring a house, a creepy uninhabited neighbourhood, and Google Earth’s version of the island.

I also just completed a two-part video called “The Dig” with a Canadian collaborator Linda Duvall. We each dug a deep hole on our land (mine in urban Brooklyn and hers in rural Saskatchewan). The ending is surprising and a little mysterious—we’re still figuring out what’s really going on in this work.

I’ll be on sabbatical next year and plan to work on an Instagram performance in which zombification in ordinary situations spirals out of control. I’ve also become obsessed with plants lately—indoor and outdoor plants—and keep dreaming about a short film in which plants are either consuming me or controlling my mind, but maybe that’s not art, just reality.

The Rock and the True Believers, an exhibition by Jillian McDonald, opens on May 21 and will be on display through June 28, 2019.

See more of Jillian McDonald’s work at


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