Growing up in Belfast, there wasn’t a great deal of opportunity to experience art when Jenny McIlhatton was young, but after her first visit to a large gallery in Dublin at the age of 16, Jenny was captivated and inspired and has incorporate art into her life and work ever since. Combined with a strong sense of feminism and the need for personal expression, Jenny’s art takes on an impacting, tactile and profound form and explores the female figure in all her beauty, power and vulnerability.
WHY DO YOU MAKE ART?
My first project started off very much for myself. It was basically for my mental health, to regain a bit of ground again. After some years in therapy, I felt like I had all of the tools to heal myself, but I wanted to find a new outlet for my emotions when I was feeling up and down instead of going back into therapy, because I didn’t think doing that again would help me.
DO YOU STILL CREATE FOR THE SAME REASON?
Now its broadened into being much more about various feminist issues, things that I care about, about women in general and female empowerment.
WHAT DO YOU TRY TO INSPIRE THROUGH YOUR WORK?
I guess it’s a dialogue about the various ways in which women are oppressed, how we fit in to modern society and the things we have to deal with. For instance, my current show is very much based upon reproductive rights. I’m from Northern Ireland, so that’s a big deal for me. I was brought up somewhere where it’s illegal and there’s that culture of shame; everything is very closed, everything that you’re taught in school is about abstinence until you’re married and there’s no proper sex education. I think all these things effect how we grow as women in society and I think there’s so many things within that that need to be changed. So, I attempt to address some of those massive issues.
CAN YOU DESCRIBE YOUR CREATIVE PROCESS?
I read constantly, always making new reading lists, trying to ensure gender equality and decolonising within my own bookshelf! Ideas and feelings start there and then I move to my huge collection of fabric, I have a massive trunk of things from all different sources. I think of the figure and what I want to say with the piece, choose colours, chalk out the shapes and start shredding the fabrics which I manipulate as I apply to the canvas.
WHY FIGURATIVE ART OVER ABSTRACT?
A figure seems to come so naturally to me, especially with feminist issues being the centre of my work, I have been hugely inspired by recent exhibitions of Lee Kranser and Madge Gill to be freer and work more abstractly, so let’s see where that takes me!
WHAT INSPIRES YOU?
Most of my inspiration comes from reading. Mainly my reading is female/feminist writers – I recently started to read a lot more about women of colour and feed myself with all sorts of different stories and narratives so different to my own, either past or present, to fill in all the gaps of my knowledge about feminism and what modern intersectional feminism means.
In my current show, it charts almost a year and a half from when the announcement was first made that they were going to try to repeal the 8th Amendment in the Republic of Ireland, right up to now where they’re still fighting in Northern Ireland to try to change the law. In both the Republic and Northern Ireland, these laws saw a woman facing life imprisonment for murder for trying to procure an abortion.
WHO ALONG YOUR JOURNEY HAS INSPIRED YOU?
Oh wow, there’s a lot… let me see. Someone that was really a sledgehammer in my life was Reni Eddo-Lodge – she wrote a book called Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race – she’s a black feminist and it charts a whole history of racism, eradicated black history, class and race, institutional racism and unconscious bias and Feminism. She is a powerhouse of a woman and really inspired me to discover histories and narratives far beyond my own experiences.
ACCORDING TO YOU, WHAT IS THE LAST REMAINING OBSTACLE BETWEEN MALE AND FEMALE ARTISTS?
I think that’s a really difficult one… I guess it’s like when you look at the spreading of wealth and the people at the very top of most industries you just see, generally, a sea of white, middle aged men. So, then people who have a lot of money to invest in art and things as collectors tend to be white men and they seem to perpetuate the cycle by collecting mostly male art. Some galleries and collectors are working really hard to try to change this, but 88% of the art sold in Sotheby’s in 2018 was by men, so there is still a long way to go! Knowledge is power, Dr Kate McMillian has done an amazing job supported by the Freelands Foundation, researching representation of female artists in the UK over the past 4 years, along with studies by Artnet and the National Museum of Women in the Arts, if people know and understand how difficult it is for female artists to be seen fairly and equal to their male counterparts, perhaps they will do more to support them.
DO YOU FEEL A SPECIFIC DUTY TO ACT IN RELATION TO THIS AS AN ARTIST AND AS A WOMAN YOURSELF?
Yeah, I think women should be allowed to make art about whatever they want. There should be no feeling that just because you’re a woman you should make feminist art or political art, but it’s something that’s really important to me, so that’s why my art revolves around those topics, but it may well evolve into something else in the future. I just think women should make art. More women should make art, more women should get involved in the art industry and try to push their way through in every way that they can.
DO YOU THINK THAT FEMALE ARTISTS REFUSING TO PARTAKE IN SUCH DIALOGUE ARE IN THE WRONG SOMEHOW?
It’s a tough one because I think that when you look at the facts and figures there is a huge disparity in the world of art in terms of the female voice and the male voice, and everything in between. There is a huge disparity in what we see, even when you look at massive exhibitions, we do see a small increase in the female voice being included in them, like the Lee Krasner exhibition was absolutely phenomenal and the Barbican did and amazing job of that and she is such a powerhouse of a woman, but her art’s been around since the 70’s. Why do we not know more about her?
Her generation trailblazed an entirely new abstract impressionism in New York, so in terms of her influence on art as a whole, it was enormous. Also, her personality is huge when you watch the video interviews with her, she is so engaging. There’s a wonderful clip of her talking about her work and she’s the only woman in some group being taught cubism sketching by this very famous artist at the time, and he came over to her and looked at her work and he said, “it’s so good, you almost couldn’t tell it’d been done by a woman.” And she was just like, “what am I supposed to do with that?” Why does everything boil down to being a woman?
Also from reading Becoming by Michelle Obama recently, what she does really amazingly is – and I mean I’m not sure she even says the word feminism in the whole book – but she just talks about herself, her own experiences, how she broke down certain barriers, things where she went wrong and it’s about sharing your experience, being honest and if as a woman you’ve been successful, sharing that with others and giving back. So, I think that’s what’s really important. Whether you want to be an overt feminist or not, there is a duty to share or inspire with your peers, with older women and younger girls.
I have a female mentor – she’s amazing, I don’t know what I’d do without her. You do sometimes need someone who is that sounding board in your life and the more women who can do that, the better. Whether you do it on a small scale and do it one-to-one, with a few of your friends, with people in your workplace, or whether you do it with your actual work as an artist or whatever it is that you do, I do think it’s really important. But if people don’t want to take action, we can’t make them.
QUICK FIRE QUESTIONS
FIRST ART MEMORY?
It’s actually a really vivid one. I grew up in Belfast and at the time there were zero art galleries there. I must’ve been about 16 when I got the train to Dublin and went to an art gallery and it was a massive space, very high ceilings, and there was a huge Francis Bacon painting, and it was the first time I’d ever seen anything like that other than in a book. The scale of it and the power of it totally blew me away.
MOST EXCITING EXHIBITION YOU’VE EVER BEEN TO?
The Lee Krasner one, recently. It was so phenomenal. I knew about her as an artist, but they charted it through from her really early work when she was at school, right through to her famous works, and she’s just amazing.
MOST INSPIRING CITY FOR YOU?
London! As much as I get frustrated sometimes and feel like I need to escape, I think London has so much arts and culture. I would like to spend more time in New York to even compare it, but for me, London has everything.
WHICH FEMALE ARTIST IS INSPIRING YOU AT THE MOMENT?
At the moment… I mean I hate to say Lee Krasner again, but… Well, there is an artist I read about a couple of months ago called Clara Peeters and she was working at a similar time to Caravaggio and the great epic painters – big male personalities who were painting massive biblical and mythological scenes, painting male nudes, painting themselves as Jesus and other characters in their own paintings to kind of immortalise themselves in their work!
At the time, women weren’t allowed to paint the male nude (they weren’t allowed until the end of the 19th century!), so she was making a living as a painter doing portraits, but she also painted these epic still-life works – massive scale – of fruit and shiny silverware, but they are SO amazing. What she did was also paint mini reflections of her face to put her own portrait in the silverware, so it was like what the male artists were doing at the time, but she did it in this little miniature scale of getting herself into her work to immortalise herself. I just think it’s so interesting that at a time where there were hardly any famous female painters, she was so ingenious and bold and wonderful.
You should read a book called Seeing Ourselves. It charts the history of female self-portraiture from the 16th century to the present and it’s a really wonderful experience of how women in different centuries became bolder and expanded the horizons. I can’t even imagine what it would’ve been like in the 16th century forging a career as a woman and as a painter, but, believe it or not, some did!
A FEMINIST FIGURE YOU’D LIKE TO THANK?