8 Questions with Megan Rudden
We caught up with Megan Rudden, previous monthly winner of the John Byrne Award, to talk about feminism and the transformative potential of art.
In your winning John Byrne Award entry, you explored the question ‘What place does gender have in our perception of skill?’ Why did you choose to focus on this topic?
This question occurred to me out of genuine experience. This work initially began as a material investigation into various metals. I began to find myself in environments that would typically be dominated by men and this was evident even in the workshops themselves. I was too small to reach the welding table so I had to work on the floor, welding jackets and foundry clothes were far too big for me and when I forgot to bring my boots to a welding class the smallest they could offer was a men’s size 8 (I’m a 3). In the past, these types of industrial tasks would be carried out by ‘skilled’ men. However, as I began learning these traditionally gendered processes I realised, with the exception of the impact of masculine design, I was physically able to carry out these labour intensive processes with relative ease.
I’m really interested in the sexual division of labour and the persistence of this under late stage capitalism; how certain industries became associated with the dominant gender while women were subjugated to the reproductive sphere and the continued economic effect of this. In their paper ‘Sex and Skill: Notes towards a Feminist Economics’ Anne Phillips and Barbara Taylor consider that skill is not an objective definition relating to level of training or difficulty of task, as it may appear, but actually a term used biasedly to describe work undertaken mostly by white, male workers. The idea of what is seen as ‘skilful’ is not only undermining certain areas of work, but actually has an effect on wages and the ability of workers to effectively unionise, reinforcing the gender pay gap. I wanted to create a material understanding of metal that dismantled the dichotomy of male and female, hard and soft, organic and inorganic, while considering the relationship between the female body and the power and strength associated with these materials and processes.
When and how did you start making art?
I think everyone starts making art when they are a child and so I have always been making, drawing or creating but I think the moment I really began to understand what it was it was I was doing was at college. I studied on the HND Contemporary Art Practice course at Edinburgh College and it completely expanded my thoughts on what art could be. I learnt how to think critically, to be inquisitive and to constantly question everything. The course tutors (Jennie Temple, Colette Woods and Alan Holligan) were incredible teachers. They really helped shape my thinking as an artist and instilled in me the confidence to move forward independently. Studying there had a profound effect on me and I couldn’t recommend it more highly for anyone considering a career in art.
Why do you continue to do it now?
This is something I ask myself a lot, I think it’s important to question what you are doing any why. However, I’m definitely my biggest critic so sometimes I try just to make and to reflect later. I think having a creative outlet is really healthy and necessary for my own wellbeing, it’s a way to articulate and understand feelings and thoughts, to give form to them. In that way it is personally cathartic, but I also believe art and the creation of it is entirely necessary for a functioning society.
Where do you get your creative inspiration?
My inspiration comes from a laborious process of researching, reading, drawing. My practice is quite heavily research based, I read a lot and this definitely influences my work; there are often several theoretical references behind a single work but I always use my own personal experience, thoughts and feelings to give form and boundary to these ideas.
What impact is your work having/ would you like your work to have?
I suppose ultimately, I want my work to make people think, to examine their current position, to ask questions, to encourage sensitivity, to consider an alternative perspective. I think, under the current political climate, artists have a social responsibility to engage with current issues; to question, provoke and challenge. However, I think art has the ability to go further than politics and language in being an entirely different way of communicating that is not to do with inflicting biased opinion, but giving space for a different type of thinking to evolve. Art has the ability to translate complex ideas and theory into something that is visually engaging, therefore it has real transformative potential to engage people. But to have any real affect art needs to be accessible, and I think there are still large areas of the art world that, quite simply, are not. Accessibility is something I am constantly thinking about within my work and in how it is shown to the public. Audience is very important to me, I am constantly questioning who the work is for; how is it visible and to who?
Who do you admire and why?
I admire my mum and dad. We’re very close and they’ve probably been the biggest influence on who I am as a person. I’m not from a particularly ‘artistic’ family but creativity was always encouraged at home from a very young age. The whole concept of art school was very new to them but they always said they wanted me to do whatever it was that made me happy. Even though they still think some of it is a bit strange, they say I’ve expanded their ideas about art. My dad once stood for twenty minutes looking at what he thought was a sculpture before he realised it was the gallery coat stand!
Recommend us something to read, watch or visit, please. Can you tell us the story behind why you’d recommend it?
‘Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation’ by Silvia Federici. It’s probably the most important book I’ve ever read and shaped much of my early thinking as an artist and a feminist. My tutor Jennie suggested I read it in relation to my work while at college and it was a real pinnacle moment for me in understanding the complex relationship between capitalism, organised religion and the oppression of women, all issues I was entirely struggling with at that time. It gave language to this struggle and articulated a lot of things I had been feeling. Describe yourself and your creative work in one sentence? I don’t think I’ve ever been able to answer anything with one sentence!
What do you think of The John Byrne Award?
I like that the JBA is accessible to everyone. It’s great they accept all kinds of creative practice; there are few places featuring such a range of visual works alongside writing, essays etc. This appeals to me particularly as my practice is varied and often moves across different mediums. I also think the financial prize is important as it acknowledges that the artwork is ‘work’.