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Retrospective Reflections 

Eyewitness: Carol MacDonald at VCAM/RETN

Carol MacDonald - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Carol MacDonald

On a sunny day in June, Carol MacDonald stands beside a glass countertop awash with gem-colored swaths of colorful ink. At 59, she is tall and slim, with piercing, sea-green eyes and cropped, silvery hair. As she talks, MacDonald wipes two bright blots of cobalt-blue ink from her arm with a laugh. In the lofty confines of her studio, hundreds of her artworks cover the walls almost edge to edge, evidence of her years of dedicated work, consummate skill and singular vision at the printing press.

This month, MacDonald’s 40-year retrospective exhibition, “The Thread,” opens at the Vermont Community Access Media (VCAM) and neighboring Regional Educational Technology Network (RETN) spaces off Flynn Avenue. The show, which includes some 92 pieces from MacDonald’s prolific career, resonates with skill and intelligence as it demonstrates the development of her oeuvre over the years. “Looking back, it’s interesting for me to see that I’ve been making viable work for 40 years,” she says. “The ideas still stand up.

“There is a way that it all links together in terms of my life and work,” MacDonald continues. “It really has been integrated with the path of my journey to date.”

Some of the earliest works in the show are from MacDonald’s “Portrait” series from the late 1970s. In those works, she struggled to define herself as an artist. “In 1976 I was 23. I was trying to figure out who I was in the world,” she remembers. In several works from the “Portrait” series, detailed domestic, interior scenes surround outlined, faceless figures, voids against the intricacy of the surrounding space. “I’ve always felt that the minute there’s a person or figure in a piece, it becomes the focus,” MacDonald explains. “I was interested in how to do a portrait differently by defining the person by the space around her.”

The series coincides with the artist’s early years in Vermont, soon after she relocated from Bedford, N.Y., in the mid-’70s.

MacDonald’s fascination with the spaces and taboos of domesticity became more pronounced in the following decade, as she worked in her studio while raising small children. MacDonald, who was a strong proponent of women’s equality in the arts, remembers the dissonance between her activism and her life at home.

“One of the things I noticed about the women’s movement at that time was a real denigration of housework,” she says. “You just weren’t supposed to do it, but then, who was going to do it? So I thought, if I had to do all this repetitive housework, why not celebrate it? Why not paint the beauty of the laundry on the line?”

The artist’s works from this period relish the prismatic tumble of toys over the carpet, the lyrical swinging of clean clothes on the line and colorful stacks of laundry.

MacDonald’s “Kimono” series from the 1990s led her to come to terms with early sexual trauma. Of that series she writes, “Learning to trust my intuition and work from an internal, feeling source, I developed images of wounds, cocoons, nests and prayers, looking for the wholeness that embraces both the light and the dark.”

In the early 2000s, MacDonald turned to themes of community action, healing and communication, using the imagery of birds and nests to consider the interrelatedness of individual lives. She writes that birds “live both on the land and in the sky.” She sees a kinship with them, as her works connect the often-separate spheres of her inner spiritual life and her public activism. In the wake of 9/11, MacDonald’s works featured birds as cooperative creatures that pick a healing thread together and bring it to the nest. Even in the birds’ absence, nests are pictured as evidence of their constructive ethos.

In “Seeds of Hope I” from 2005, a fiery red nest spans two halves of a torn sheet of paper, the separation widening to a yawning gap at the top. Delicate white thread stitches the two halves together, seeming to repair the split. Seedpods lift into the air from the nest, floating upward and across the divide. “Sewing, for me, is about repairing things, about bringing things that are apart together,” MacDonald explains.

Her knitting works from the past few years are among the artist’s most subtle and intricate. They are masterpieces of gestural drawing that extend the metaphoric thread held in the beaks of the birds. The knit pieces seem freer in style, and more joyful.

In MacDonald’s most recent works, “the thread” becomes string. The artist began playing cello in 2006 and is fascinated with what she calls the “texture” of that instrument’s music. Her cello pieces seem a fertile beginning as she explores how to visually express sonic textures.

MacDonald’s aptly named retrospective, “The Thread,” reveals the rich fabric her intertwining works of over four decades: a masterful synthesis of a personal, spiritual and political journey made distinctively visible to the outside world. “So much of the influence of my work is really looking first at what’s going on here,” MacDonald says with her hand on her heart, “and how do I speak about that?”

”The Thread” Retrospective, VCAM/RETN Artspaces, Burlington. Through August 31. carolmacdonald.com

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