INTERVIEW: Shauna McGowan

Grief, death and Jason and the Argonauts

Machi, Shauna McGowan’s month long exhibition at Ards Arts Centre, brings Hollywood barbarism to County Down. Hides dyed various colours and patterns hang incongruously from the white, plaster walls of the old Town Hall.

McGowan’s inspiration for this exhibit was her memory of watching Jason and the Argonauts with her grandfather. He had recently been diagnosed with cancer and McGowan could see correlations between events in the movie and her grandfather’s struggle for good health. That is why she called the exhibition Machi, which means battle in Greek.

‘I realised that if my grandfather died then he’d become a myth,’ she says. ‘Just like Jason.’

Elements of the movie can be seen incorporated into the various hide canvases. Bare skulls and spears leer from a hide so thickly coated with gold that it looks sculpted. Others are bright blues or yellows.

‘I am the colour queen,’ McGowan admits with a wry smile. She’s 27 but a bus driver recently gave her a child’s ticket to Belfast. ‘These dyes, I saw them first at The Festival of Fools in St George’s Market. They use special non-toxic paint so it can be thrown over people and the colours were so beautiful. I went home and tracked them down online.’

Texture as well as colour is important in this exhibition. Her grandfather had a mass in his throat and when the doctors took it out he couldn’t talk anymore. It altered communication for the whole family. It became very visual and very tactile, 'So I encourage people to touch the hides, to see what they feel like.’

It is unusual. Most artists prefer you not to touch the artwork, but McGowan started her artistic career as a fashion student. It is a short step from wearable art to touchable art. However, the fashion industry wasn't for her. ‘I enjoy fashion,’ she says, ‘but I wasn’t into the idea of mass-production. To be successful you have to deal with trends and commercial constraints.

McGowan prefers the freedom of creating unique pieces of art. Each of the patterned hides on display today are one-offs. ‘You have to keep pushing your art forward,’ McGowan says. ‘So you don’t lose your edge.’

There is one thing that would draw her back into the fashion world though: Zandra Rhodes. McGowan attended Rhodes' lecture at the University of Ulster on June 11. ‘She was wonderful and had such a presence. I just loved her. I wanted to run up to her and ask her to take me with her in her suitcase and let me work for her.’

Until the call from Rhodes comes, however, McGowan is keeping busy at the Seacourt Print Workshop in Bangor. In addition to her own exhibition in Newtownards, McGowan has been working on a piece for an exhibition in the F E McWilliam Gallery in Banbridge. She describes at as a ‘big leather cape’, sketching the shoulders in the air with her hands. But then she downplayed her glittering, primal exhibition as screen-prints on leather.

McGowan’s grandfather died before he could see the exhibition he had inspired. ‘He did see a few pieces,’ she says, looking around. ‘I hope he would have liked it.’

Machi will be exhibited at the Ards Arts Centre in Newtownards until Oct 2.

Tammy Moore