In the next installment of our interview series, we spoke with artist Megan Hanley about the nature of her work. Quite literally. Hanley’s art focuses largely on issues of feminism, culture, and genealogy, discussing topics from the history of womanhood to astronomy, often connecting her topics to unveil and build off of larger issues. See below for her interview and visit her website to view more of her incredible work.
As I was making my notes for this interview, I started jotting down words that came to mind as I scrolled through your work. Words like primal, astronomical, exposing. You also focus on the female body in an interesting way. I love the way the women in your work are blended with the patterns of nature, and that objects such as a teepee become humanized. The skinny dipping teepee was particularly endearing. What did you base the concept of this particular collection on?
I am very interested in researching the past in an effort to connect to the worlds of our ancestors. In this series called “The Warm Embrace” I wanted to create a womb like structure made from pieces of nature that while sitting inside, you felt like you were connected to a living being. By looking at the drawings of the anthropomorphized teepee structures beforehand you realize that you are amongst something alive, and larger than yourself, that you are a part of nature rather than one step above nature.
In your bio, it says that your work “explores the nuanced experience of what it means to identify as a woman.” What do you hope to inspire in people’s minds when they see the pieces that focus on women?
It has been much more of a personal journey for me to explore the history of womanhood. While researching ancient mythologies and the artwork of the feminist artists of the 1970’s, I found it frustrating that there was a lot of debate between two different types of feminists starting in the 1980’s. Later feminists criticized the works that I was appreciating as being “essentialist” (which ended up being a curse in the art world). The later feminists thought that the earlier movement was reductive in relating woman to nature, which kept her in her place in the minds of men. Personally I felt that the debate was focusing on the wrong things and should have been more about why the patriarchal society felt the need to conquer, not only nature, destroying our environment, but also women, and other cultures as imperialists. This “essentialist” debate discredited much of the artwork done by women, who in my mind were trying to stand up and take back years of objectification of the female body by creating their own body positive artwork.
In my own work, I am aware that by picturing the nude female body I am referencing a long political history. But I am still adamant that it is important to create strong, positive female characters, both for men and women to experience. In the series of graphite drawings called “Enais” the four priestess characters are on the top, nude and free to assert their femaleness, but on the bottom, still held back a bit and wear a wool plaid skirt. It references the duality of the mind vs. the body, higher thought vs. nature. It is my hope that both men and women see these characters in all their societal contradictions and come to terms with themselves in their own bodies.
I admired the irony of the bunny sketched as a pinecone, or the pinecone sketched as a bunny, depending on the way you interpret it. Because it resembled the shape of a child’s stuffed bunny yet that it originated as a pinecone gave it this sense of foreboding that we usually don’t get from bunnies, most likely because of the way industry presents them to children. Especially during Easter. What had been your purpose when blending something we usually associate with softness and endearment with something that reminds us of pain?
It is interesting–others have asked if this is a pinecone as well, but it is actually supposed to reference a rabbit made out of braided human hair. It is a complicated connection to make, but another piece of mine called “The Priestess and the Vulture” is a scene where the vulture actually rips off the woman’s long braid in a ritualistic death so that the priestess then can be reborn alongside her spirit animal, the rabbit, which has been created out of her hair. Hair is a very important part of life in many cultures; humans will cut off all of their hair out of respect for the death of a loved one, or in times of great change. The vulture represents the symbol of rebirth, as the Egyptians saw the vulture as a positive figure that eats the dead in order to survive. In the work, the vulture takes the hair from the woman and creates something new and the woman is forever changed. Additionally, I created a small life-size sculpture out of my own hair that is also titled “Soft Bunny”.
I appreciated the blatancy of the women in a lot of your pieces. They are either nude or partially nude, some of them blended with nature, such as in Earth Nests in the Arms of the Mother, and some with astronomy, such as in The Beginning and End of Time. They’re native and also celestial. The celestial theme is in a couple pieces I really liked, for instance when the woman has crawled through a tunnel of an image of land to get to the external Earth. How do you decide the way you’ll combine those elements? I guess I’m asking, what’s the process and inspiration behind these artistic choices?
I’ve always been interested in combining nature and the human body, and even astronomy. Ever since watching The Cosmos years ago, I loved that Carl Sagan stated that we are all made up of “star stuff,” the same elements that are in deep space. I immediately felt connected to the plants and animals, rocks and dirt on the earth, but also the building blocks of this very universe. If we could start seeing ourselves less of individuals and more as part of a greater ecosystem/cosmos then maybe we will start being more conscientious of our planet and fellow humans. While some may see an existential crisis, I saw an opportunity to make connections to our environmental responsibility.
The artistry of your work also feels very gentle and mindful of its subjects, especially with the women. What inspired your “personal mythology?” Where did your interest in Egyptian mythology, Minoan Crete, and the Celts originate?
I always had these interests secretly, but never felt comfortable to express them except for in my artwork. As a kid I was deeply interested in the rituals of ancient Egypt, especially mummification. I think it has to do with the lack of ritual in the homogenized white culture I grew up in. There was a search for something more, a connection to nature that I wasn’t getting from Sunday School. I was interested in religions that saw women as more complex, powerful, at times terrifying, but also compassionate. At the end of my undergrad I really started researching these cultures on my own, specifically Minoan Crete, which is one of the oldest cultures, and that of the Celts (my own ancestors). I have been reading many books about comparative mythology along with feminist literature about the female body, and have developed my own personal mythology that combines the symbols of ancient cultures with my own dreams and experiences. In my next series I hope to continue to pursue studying mythology in conjunction with taboo subjects in our culture to confront relevant issues facing our society today.*