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Earthworkers | Jillian Mcdonald

Jillian Mcdonald is a Canadian artist living in New York. She makes experimental films featuring remote northern landscapes that, through animation and editing, live events, or the presence of figures, appear haunted by paranormal events.

How did you begin working with/in response to natural environments?

Over a decade ago, I was beginning to think about horror films and hauntedness as subjects of interest - especially the archetypes, sounds, and settings that work upon our collective sense of dread. In 2009 I was granted several artist residencies in spectacular natural environments - the Arizona desert, a Swedish forest, and Northern California. I kept going outdoors - hiking and wandering and considering landscape as the most important ingredient in horror. I started spending less time in the studio and more in the landscape, letting the character or spirit of a place lead me, developing characters to compliment or contrast it. I made a Western-themed video and photo installation that's a showdown between zombies and vampires as the sun rises in a red desert. I staged a collaborative and cinematic live performance at night with 100 actors spread out in a Swedish forest, a dark narrative unfolding along a path crossing swamp, hills, dense woods, clearings, and ponds. And I made a video in a foggy field where actors walk in and out of the scene; the field draws them one by one to their deaths and ghostly versions of the characters appear too. Since then I have continued this method of creating visual stories in natural, usually northern, settings, often adding live characters and later, animation, to enhance the hauntedness.

Share with us one of your favorite creative pieces and the natural environment it responds to.

One of my favourite pieces is Valley of the Deer (2013) which I shot in Northern Scotland over a period of nine months. In Scotland I noticed daily rainbows and a remarkable stillness in almost every location where I filmed. I set out to make a short video piece which transformed into a hunting narrative including local folklore, ritual, and tradition that all bear connection to the environment. For example, I filmed a version of the Loch Ness Monster at the expansive Loch Ness, and river fairies swaying in the lush River Fiddich. A cannibalistic family, a seer, and a shapeshifter all appear, represented as masked animal archetypes. Because I had the gift of time in this place, the work grew to a three channel piece that is less like a film and more like a series of landscape paintings where hardly anything moves and in which the local music - pipe and drum as well as song - flow over the landscape. The work is in a way a love song to that part of Scotland - an environment that stole my heart and still haunts my dreams. Every time I install the work in a gallery and spend time in it, I am transported.

During my pandemic lockdown in Brooklyn, I've been drawing holes in the ground and in ice as portals or escape tunnels - safe burrows which are also foreboding.

What advice do you have for someone who wants to co-create with the natural world?

Get outside and slow down - wander and get lost. Let the natural world be your collaborator, wonder about the strange or surprising details as they reveal themselves, and where possible leave no trace. Don't resist rest as a creative process or underestimate the importance of local knowledge.

View Jillian's new work "The Sweet Spot."


Visit Jillian Mcdonald's Website

Image info: 1 three-channel video, 21:30 minutes. Installation view Valley of the Deer (2013) | Image courtesy Esker Foundation, photo John Dean. 2 Hole: Deep Fear, coloured pencil on paper, 22 X 30 inches, 2020; 3 "The Sweet Spot" video

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