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Artist 2 Artist: An Interview With Eleanor McGough

Mary Gibney has a chat with Eleanor McGough about nature, bugs, and the charm of scissors in this latest edition of Artist 2 Artist:

Eleanor poses with her painting, Living Proof

Did you like to make things as a kid?

When did you first feel like an "artist"?

I first felt like an artist as a very young kid. Growing up in a big, energetic family and being the youngest of 6 kids, I found that drawing and making things was a way to create a quiet sanctuary for myself.

Lately, you've been making beautifully delicate cut-paper insects and nature patterns which you call ephemeral, and only existed together for a time and space during your Rosalux show.

The temporary nature of the installations (and the ephemerality of cut paper) adds a freeing dynamic for me as the maker - a wild flexibility that feels like each time I approach a space with the work, the installation might open up a whole universe of elements to think of and explore. The installation process is a bit like rolling the dice. I leave a lot unknown in my mind as I start, and keep myself very open to surprises as the process unfurls.

Unlike the paintings, this type of work is more of an experience for the viewer, than an object for purchase. Instead of the preciousness of something being an archival, solid work, there is a different kind of value in knowing that each configuration of cut paper is temporary and fleeting.

Branching Patterns at Rosalux Gallery 2023

They recall the tradition of a collection of butterflies or insects, each a variation of the species. Pinning them to the wall as you did seemed to echo a scientific urge to categorize in a taxonomy sort of fashion.

Yes, I think a lot about the human impulse to sort, catalog and collect from the natural world. What do collections evoke for us? Botanists, entomologists and taxonomists do this to study, discover and learn, yet there is something else going on - is it at times an attempt to own the riches of the natural world? To capture and conquer? Is it purely an aesthetic bedazzlement to gaze at endless beautiful variations on a theme? (Who hasn’t caught their breath viewing the unending variety of butterflies or moths on the pages of a book or in the display cases of a museum?) Still, there are troubling undertones to capturing and collecting, especially as habitat loss and environmental threats put pressure on some species.

I enjoy watching and listening to viewers as their eyes wander through my paper “collections” looking for something they recognize, maybe identifying a favorite shape, reading the rhythms of the grid formation and finding both order and surprise.

Bugs detail

As a viewer, I felt a sort of happy calm looking at the design and repetition of your display, as well as awe at the tiny detailed cuts required to create these creatures. Is it also a meditative process for you? Are you surprised by what comes from your scissors?

I consider my paper cutting to be a form of drawing - drawing with scissors! I couldn’t possibly think of using anything other than scissors as I am utterly charmed by their ability to meander and pivot through the paper at the same pace as my thoughts. The textural sound of the process and the moments when there is a 50/50 turn of the paper with the turn of the scissors can create a hypnotic effect for me as the maker. That instant when I begin moving through the paper and finding a form as I go is a spark of joy - anything is possible! What will it be?

Each cut-out is a small devotion, a way of being present. This paired down process of working can lend itself to my day at several different times and locations.

Bug Collection Installed At Gustavus Adolphus 2023

You also make beautifully detailed nature-inspired paintings. Are there environments you seek out for inspiration or is it more of a visual flow from your brain?

My imagination has held fast to this elusive image of wetlands as long as I can recall. Swamps, marshes, and primordial ponds have all found ways into my work for years. The paintings attempt to catch these imagined realms - places teaming with life on all levels. I loved visiting swamps as a kid - the algae, the smells, the reeds, the bugs and frogs, the mystery of what critters might be percolating in shallow pools. Reading about the critical importance of wetlands to the health of our planet has really added fuel to that fascination.

Eleanor McGough, Imagined Sanctuary

What other artists do you admire?

Drifting away from the visual arts for a minute, I really want to say that I admire poets. Poems are the thing that can make my jaw drop and can prod a part of my brain that seems difficult to reach otherwise. What a pleasure to read “From Blossoms” by Li-Young Lee, “Lost” by David Wagoner, most anything from Jane Hirshfield or Mary Oliver. So many of Andrea Gibson’s poems have saved my day.

Martin Puryear, Untitled

Is there any artist whose creative process you would like to witness?

The sculptures of Martin Puryear have captivated me since my college days. The uncanny combination of elegant, meticulous craft and whimsical organic form is so seductive, so unmatched. His sculptures feel like living, breathing entities.

Eleanor with her Branching Patterns installation

Eleanor McGough, originally from the Pacific Northwest, maintains a studio in Northeast Minneapolis.

She received her Bachelor of Fine Arts in painting from the Kansas City Art Institute and studied in Brighton, England on scholarship. She is the recipient of two Minnesota State Arts Board grant awards as well as a Bemis Foundation Residency. McGough’s work is represented by Rosalux Gallery and Veronique Wantz Gallery in Minneapolis, MN, and was featured in a segment on the Twin Cities Public Television arts program, MN Original, in 2013.

Working with a mixture of new and recycled materials, McGough works in the realms of ephemeral paper installations as well as acrylic painting. Her work is inspired by her fascination with plants and insects and is shaped by the themes of climate change and habitat loss.

Eleanor McGough, Up And Down

You can learn more about Eleanor and her work by visiting


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