Morgan MacDonell

Commentary by Kascha Semonovitch

Morgan MacDonell balances a formal ceramic practice and a socially-oriented installation practice. He has carried them both through his formative art years and MFA, and he intends to continue balancing these practices. 

“Two buckets were easier carried than one,” wrote Seamus Heaney, a poet living between Protestant and Catholic Ireland. A little like the poet, MacDonell has spent time between two worlds as well as between two artistic practices. Before coming to the UW, he studied at the small Kenyon College in rural Ohio. He came to the secluded, exclusive school from California where he had worked in the service industry while making ceramics at a community college. Surprisingly at Kenyon, “they didn’t have any ceramics. So for about 2 years, I didn’t fire anything, but I was still using clay in my processes and the kind of art I was making. I just didn’t fire it. And then once I graduated from Kenyon I picked back up firing work.” 

He felt out of place at Kenyon not only because of the lack of a kiln.  At the school, he explained, “I was probably the only person from a community college that was there and who worked a job, like an actual job outside of an internship on campus. And I was looking at the way people treated space, treated service workers, and I thought, this should probably be talked about.” His art alludes to these experiences and the food involved: “A lot of the donut references are references to working at a donut shop for three years.…I…went from cashier through everything — I was a donut fryer at the end.” He continued to work in the service industry in Ohio, but few of the other students did.

This motivated a series of pieces that he began at Kenyon and continued through his MFA. The series explores the relationship between the food industry, service workers, and consumers: “the conditions that affect people and really shape their sense of everyday life both from the side of being the customer and then a worker. And when you’re not being a worker and you’re being a customer. And…how labor affects us and…that there are some things that make living and finding meaning difficult. A lot of the work was created in situations using architectural space and familiar objects and food and stuff like that in the workplace.”

At the UW, he found himself with a huge ceramics facility and returned to firing clay. But he did not settle back into making only ceramics. MacDonell continues to alternate between formal ceramic work and multi-media, installation-based projects. He has settled into a rhythm and found “my natural workflow is doing a body of work that’s very socially intense — for me anyway — to think about and talk about with people” and then to take a break and return to making traditional ceramics.

At his thesis exhibition in the Ceramic + Metal Arts Building, these two bodies of work were on display in two separate galleries. The separation is in part an accident of the facility, but in MacDonell’s exhibition, this accident served to underscore his diverse practice. One gallery held a plaster wall, built on-site, with an open doorway. On one side of the wall, hung an apron; on the other, a huge tic-tack-toe board had been drawn in plaster. The place evoked a domestic place — perhaps the home of a service worker who had just returned from work, hung the apron and headed out again to enjoy being at the other side of the service industry. Like the service industry — and MacDonell’s body of work — the piece has two sides.

In the other gallery, he displayed more formal ceramics: a set of tall, swaying vessels, glazed in a palette tending toward greens, and blues that echo the Pacific Northwest coastal landscape. He placed a few vessels on wood pedestals, some on the floor, and some on a canvas-covered pedestal. In this detail, his experience in installation enhanced the formal pieces. He explained the reason for the material: “canvas has…a tradition of being a work surface with ceramics. So for me, it goes back to the origin of the piece and the process and trying to get closer to that process and kind of sensory experience of working with clay.” In this detail, his two practices intersected.  I asked whether in the near or distant future, he wanted to draw the two bodies of work together, and he was not sure. Alternating between two practices offers a relief and a routine. 

MacDonell finds that, at times, he wants firm control over the product and at other times, he is willing to let go and receive the surprises that emerge from the kiln or the situation of the installation. He said that often the installation projects are “held by the conditions of the real world” while when he’s working in ceramics, he has “more control over the material conditions…which is nice.” We discussed how ceramicists must endure waiting to see how objects emerge from the kiln and whether the work is as they expected it or not. He said, “Yeah, it’s fun to see ceramicists work and how they handle that. And then you…kind of learn who they are as a person because it quite often connects to whether they are really trying to control the process or whether they are okay with those moments.” I asked, “What about you? Do you feel okay with it or did you wish that you could have controlled it?” and he replied — with a nervous laugh — “No, I’m okay with it.”

I asked if there was a moment or a class that changed his work. He pointed to an American art history class with Professor Juliet Sperling: “I never had a class that explained American history through such a visual lens. It was really fascinating to understand why portraiture is interesting and to understand the social history that’s going on with portraiture. Or the history of photography and how complicated it is, especially in America. To hear those arguments, the way she threaded together the images we were seeing, the hard facts of the history we were seeing and allowing us to think at the same time — that was really interesting insight into how to use history to reference other art.”

The art-historical movement that most influenced his thesis project was Arte Povera. He found himself “pulling from those artists that were highly influenced by the circumstances of their environment.” The artists in this group “were pulling from industrializing countries. Turin where a lot of them worked out of was an industrial center, and they pulled a lot of their material from those manufacturing processes and talked about how that was affecting their communities — moving from a village economy to an industrialized one.”  Arte Povera artists also led MacDonell to philosophers, John Dewey and Umberto, who have influenced him: “they talk a lot about communication and different ways to approach it…Dewy thought [communication] had to be active…I think that’s useful.” 

For Dewey, artwork did not have meaning in and of itself; rather, it achieved meaning only when completed by the viewer. In his socially-oriented work projects, the meaning of MacDonell’s work shifts when viewed by a person with experience in the service industry or by someone who has not. In his formal sculptures, the viewer’s body develops a relationship with the ceramic vessels. Although in distinct ways, each of his two bodies of work are constructed with the awareness that the viewer’s embodied participation is essential to the meaning of the piece. For MacDonell, an online, photo-only experience of his work won’t have the same meaning. Referencing both an earlier sculpture of a three-foot Gmail message on metal framework and his MFA installation, he explains: “it’s unfortunate when people can’t get physically confronted by an email or physically interact with a built environment that they see in everyday life that, now it’s been taken out of context. I hate using the word phenomenology because it’s such a long word, but you know that relationship between your body and the art work definitely does something. It calls up memories or experiences.”  

In short, three-dimensional art works well in person. And you’ll best understand McDonnell’s art if you are able to stand in front of it — or even better — walk between the two bodies of work.