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Deciphering Disembodied Hands and Symbolic Birds With Local Artist Meg Keetley

There’s a lot going on within and between the lines of Meg Keetley‘s illustrations and paintings. The local artist-slash-activist’s complex and otherworldly depictions have so far been used to address issues such as collective trauma and personal identity.

Meg recently agreed to explain more about the themes and ideas inspiring her artwork, which you can read all about in the short but in-depth interview below. You can also keep up to date on Meg’s upcoming/ongoing projects and collaborations by following her on Instagram via @allthefirelights.

What were you like as a kid and how did art factor into your childhood and upbringing?

I remember being very encouraged to make stuff and taking to art pretty fully. I got a lot of comfort from drawing specifically, and was pretty well consumed by it at points. There were lots of other kids in my neighbourhood and this made for big collaborative efforts where we would draw all day. Being one of the older kids, I think I wound up trying to meet younger kids where they were at, and this permitted me to remain interested in games, art and make-believe for longer than most of my peers.

Your drawing style is super intricate and detailed – you must be a very observant and focussed person! Do you use reference photos or objects? What inspires you to start a new drawing?

Thanks! Lately image ideas have sort of preceded actually sitting down to make my drawings. Often I will get inspired during a period in my life where a chapter has finished, and there’s a space of unstructured time where some new aspect of things is about to begin. I also get inspired by other artists, activists or fellow collaborators. Recently I worked on a poster for a project that centered on the survivors of sexual assault, and this very much urged me to want to figure out how to communicate about issues of consent.

As an artist, what is your best work habit? Your worst?

My worst habit is to wish I was some other artist whose work I am in love with and compare our styles. For me, while seeings other’s work on social media is pretty motivating, it can also derail things, depending. I’d say my best habit is looking at my own previous work from time to time in order to remind myself of my artistic trajectory and get back into the place of doing what is most fun.

Hands, hair and birds are recurring themes in your artwork. What is the significance of these subjects to you?

That’s a great question. I think that really depends on each piece individually and what was going on around me at that particular time. In the drawing I made for the ‘Rape is Real’ project, for example, the disembodied hands were about the ability of survivors to work together creatively despite our trauma, and even to use it to form something new. “Rape is Real & Everywhere” is a comedy show put on by survivors that subverts the misguided use of the rape joke and puts the control back into the hands of those who have typically been invisible or at the brunt end of these jokes. I used hands also to reference the need for a culture of consent and the process of disentangling ourselves from confusing myths about who has ownership of our bodies.

Hair is mostly just fun to draw. You can get a lot of little lines in there. Of course it also does carry some meaning. At times I might be trying to say something about personal freedom or memories. It might also represent femininity as an essential thread in our society. At other times it might be touching on experiences I have had as a queer person who chooses to present as femme.

Incorporating images of birds throughout my drawings has been more of a base-line thing. It’s partly a shout out to my aunt Elaine Savoie. Elaine is a family member who I looked up to quite a bit in my twenties, and someone who painted these ornate chicken saints from her off the grid piece of property on Hornby Island where we share family heritage and where her life is pretty quiet. Her satirical images are a response to the implications of Catholicism in our lineage. They are playful, but also sharp. The paintings made me laugh and she’s really funny herself. Elaine was always a kind of feminist role-model for me growing up, working the farm on her own and wearing her heart on her sleeve. I think I use birds to remind myself that standing up for what you believe in does not always take the form of riots or grandiose collective efforts. It can exist in the everyday of how you live life.

What is your personal relationship with nature? How do your city and surroundings influence your artwork?

This question makes me think about that massive flock of crows that convenes around the skytrain in Burnaby. I guess just the fact that Vancouver is surrounded by such gorgeous nature informs my practice. I draw a lot of rocks, clumps of earth, branches and nests. Vancouver has all of that stuff nearby, and then some.

Most of the people in your drawings are missing their faces or else they have been replaced with something different or had their facial features obscured in some way. Why is that?

I’ve noticed a lot of artists in the last while have been working with similar imagery; a lot of missing faces and floating disconnected parts of the body. I’ve done a lot of work within myself around personal boundaries and self-care in the last few years, so it probably has something to do with a conscious shift in the way I move through the world and how I conduct myself in relationships. An editor I collaborated with on some projects with once also said something that stuck out to me. She said, “We all say that there is bone and tissue underneath our skin, but how do we really know? It could be just empty space”. That likely spurred my using hollowness a lot in the images I make. It was meant to be a kind of philosophical mental exercise and I thought that it would make for interesting pictures.

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How much of yourself goes into your drawings? What does your artwork say about you?

I guess one thing that I’m attempting to convey about myself may be that I believe in the fight for living versus “doing”. I think that art-making itself is a means for some people to work against the tendency within western contemporary society to always have to be “on” or producing. I think this can cause us to lose parts of ourselves. Sometimes we just need to go with our imaginations and allow ourselves to lose the thread. There’s a self-care piece here. If I didn’t allow myself to make things and connect with my imagination, I might not know I was queer for example, or what my individual opinions on things were versus the status quo.

How much of what you do is scrapped or kept to yourself? If we were to peek into a personal sketchbook of yours – or upend your paper recycling bin – what would we find and what would these drawings reveal about yourself personally and your creative practice?

I’d say about 50% gets scrapped. If you were to riffle through my garbage, I think you would see drawings of several different styles/aesthetic approaches. You might be confused as to who made it. I change up technique all of the time and so from drawing to drawing they don’t resemble one another all that much. The last few years I’ve been more interested in the why of what I’m making rather than execution. But even that changes, and I can become really heavily focused on the aesthetics, just not in any consistent way. This might tell you that I am a person who is always examining the world and learning about myself through it.

The fantastical or surreal aspect of your work makes me think that you must spend a lot of time in your own head, with your imagination. What are some of your current fantasies and dreams (or nightmares)?

I mean, I have a lot of fantasies. Where to start? I fantasize that the Vancouver housing situation improves vastly for all people real soon, for example. Or that I continue to get asked to work on wonderful collaborative projects with other gentle people. I am also currently fantasizing a lot about Canadian Journalism surviving the changing landscape altered by social media.

Speaking of nightmares, I sense a dark element in your artwork. Do you have a dark side and how does it help or hinder your creativity?

Some people say darkness breed honesty. Or is it that honesty breeds darkness? Or am I mixing it up just so I can avoid answering this question?

What’s next for you? Please tell me about a new project or idea that you’re excited about working on in the near future.

I’ve been interested in drawing conceptual representations of how parts of ourselves feel and respond when we think about consent or lack thereof. I will be accepting submissions of descriptions or stories about folk’s experiences on a bodily level. My hope is that it will deepen my own understanding of how to navigate consent more fully, and as well as illustrate the diversity of need among us in terms of negotiation of personal space.

There are 2 comments

  1. this may be yhe dark period of your drawings megs as they evolve to a brighter
    future hope to see more vibrant colours and scope always watching the development
    and can hardly wait for the christmas card collection.

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