After her first major solo exhibition at the Mount St. Vincent University Art Gallery closed early last month amid mounting concerns for health and safety, painter Megan Kyak-Monteith has been keeping busy thinking up new ways she can explore the possibilities offered by animation. Kyak-Monteith, who uses her work as a mode of investigating the limits and truth of memory, speaks with IAQ Profiles Editor Emily Henderson about the impetus behind her show Whale Hunt - I think everyone is here, serving maktaaq at the opening and her ongoing experiments of working between still and moving images.
Emily Henderson: This show was a significant milestone for you in your early career. Can you talk about the work you were showing as a part of this exhibition?
Megan Kyak-Monteith: The show is called Whale Hunt - I think everyone is here, which is also the title of the piece. It's based off of a large-scale oil painting with the same title that I did last year from my show, Maktaaq, at the Anna Leonowens Gallery at NSCAD University. It was one of a series of three paintings that depicted the process of hunting and preparing a whale, but I felt like animation worked better to suit the narrative of the hunt. I’m showing the process of a community working together after a whale hunt; you see people coming in on the boat while the residents start to arrive and together they help pull the whale to shore. Afterwards, they start cutting it, which is when they start moving it to the tarps spread out on the ground. It’s like watching little ants, because the viewpoint from on top of a hill so the viewer is watching everything happen from far away. It seems like the entire community is coming over to help not only bring the whale to shore, but also to share the meat and eat together. With animation you can really see the work, the way people cut and serve the meat. In that way, it helps to make it feel more real or true.
Megan Kyak-Monteith Whale Hunt (2019) Stop-motion video projection 46s
EH: This is such a familiar scene for so many Inuit and I understand when your family attended your show opening, they brought whale with them for people to try. What was it like to have them present and to share country food with everyone?
MK: My whole family drove over and my mom came prepared with everything. She brought fish as well, arctic char and all the cardboard we need to cut it on and the soya sauce and napkins and toothpicks. I think my friend and fellow artist Darcie Bernhardt got to take the rest home. It was really fun and a lot of people tried it. No one said they didn't like it!
EH: Sharing food together must have added such a unique and immersive aspect to the opening, for you but also for your audience, which is reflected in your choice of animation itself. Because animation is a distinctly different artistic process from oil painting, I’m wondering if you could speak to this shift–why did you choose to animate this work and what did that process look like for you?
MK: I changed a lot of things from the original painting for this animation. The original piece, Whale Hunt: I think everyone is here (2019), is set in the summertime and the people make up a big portion of the view, while the whale was positioned far away in the background. I kind of scrapped those proportions to suit the animation better. I figured it would probably be better if the vantage point was farther away and set in the wintertime so I could show the community pulling the whale from the water onto the snow. I started by drawing the water, the sky and the shore in oil pastel on a sheet of paper and then I placed a sheet of glass over the paper. From there, I painted the rest of the scene in oil paint on top so I could have my camera positioned where I could paint frame by frame, take a picture, erase it with a knife, and paint the next frame. The whole animation is done in stop motion.
Megan Kyak-Monteith Whale Hunt (I Think Everyone is Here) (2019) Oil on canvas 90 x 60 in.
EH: Considering this evolution in tone and composition, did the storytelling change for you from one iteration of the work to the next?
MK: The original painting was based on the styles of Romantic painters—you have the giant sky, with that romantic lighting and intensity. It's heroic in tone compared to the animation, which seems more raw because you see the people just doing what they're doing to feed themselves, nothing overly special to it. But [the two pieces] definitely go together and you can tell they're depicting the same thing.
EH: A whale hunt is such a large, communal event and something that tends to stay with a participant. Memory plays such a pivotal role in your work, especially memories related to food sharing, like in your previous solo exhibition, Maktaaq, at the Anna Leonowens Gallery. How did you approach that fluid aspect of memory in this piece? What role did it play in transforming this work into an animation?
MK: A lot of my work is about cataloguing these memories I have into something I can see. The painting and the animation are based on a distant memory of being four or five years old at a whale hunt in Iglulik, and I talked to my mother about it because she was there as well. I can remember seeing everyone pull in the whale, cutting it up. I can also remember a bulldozer, which is why there's a bulldozer in the animation. Talking to my mom was a kind of fact-checking for the animation. For example, I added the blue tarps because she said that’s what you would normally lay out to butcher the meat. There was a little more research involved this time compared to the first, which was just based on memory. My mother went through the entire process with me so I made sure I got it right. I think when things come from memory alone they get a bit more sentimental.
Megan Kyak-Monteith Whale Hunt (still) (2019) Stop-motion video projection 46s
EH: This exhibition marked a major career milestone for you—a solo exhibition at an established professional gallery. As an artist still early in their career this is a huge opportunity, and I'm sure the closure of the show has been challenging for you. How did you find the process of working with the gallery to put together this show?
MK: Laura Ritchie, the director of the Mount St. Vincent University Art Gallery, reached out while I was still in school after seeing Maktaaq. She told me about the Prospect series, which is an exhibition series for emerging artists. After I was invited to do a show, I brainstormed ideas for animation because I wanted to explore that more after doing Nuit Blanche. I wanted to experiment more and see what worked. It was pretty cool to go from a student exhibition at the Anna Leonowens Gallery, where you set everything up yourself, to the MSVU Gallery. I also appreciated that they had an American Sign Language (ASL) translation for my artist statement which I read aloud at the opening, as well as headphones so you could hear it in the gallery later.
As for the installation of the projection itself, because it is completely digital it could easily exist online. But having it in the gallery on a large scale was fantastic because you could use your own shadows and play with it so you become involved in the story and the animation. I was imagining different ways to build on the project when the show came down and—though I can't enter the gallery due to it's COVID-19 closure—I am inspired to add more layers by painting over the animation, or playing with the shadows in a future project.
Megan Kyak-Monteith Whale Hunt (still) (2019) Stop-motion video projection 46s
EH: It sounds like you have a lot of ways that you would like to extend this project, to make this work even more interactive. How do you envision those plans going forward and what are you filling your days with in the meantime?
MK: I do want to do more painting over the animation, or doing an artist talk in front of the projection where I could be silhouetted on it. Laura Ritchie and I had been thinking of recording a one-on-one discussion about the work and I still want to do that. I think I could do something with the shadows of people in the room that get cast onto the projection. That's something to do in the future, maybe. Right now, I have been working entirely on freelance digital illustrations. I’ve done two posters about COVID-19 safety about how to deliver groceries to elders and prepare food for babies, as well as how to properly disinfect surfaces. I’m also working on a nutritional poster for the National Indigenous Diabetes Association and making revisions on a book about Inuit tools from the Western Arctic. I’m really glad that my situation allows me to continue to work, so glad!