Q&A With Megan Canning:
Tell me a little bit about yourself, who you are, and where you are from.
Well, I am a Midwesterner by upbringing – born and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio, where my family still lives. When I was in undergrad, everyone I knew wanted to move to New York City and be an artist, including me, and sometimes it’s still hard for me to believe that I am here! In 1999, that dream came true when I was accepted into grad school at Hunter College and it’s been my home ever since. I fell hard for New York that very first time I came here and flew right over Manhattan–I was just wowed by the city’s immensity and all the possibility.
What is your current job title?
I am the deputy director of the Design Trust for Public Space, an independent nonprofit dedicated to improving public space in New York City. We collaborate with city agencies, community groups and private sector experts to work on emerging research, design and policy projects that will make New York a more dynamic, livable and sustainable city.
The Design Trust is probably best known for the feasibility study we published in 2002 that effectively made the case for the High Line to be re-used as public space, and resulted in the Mayor rescinding the outstanding demolition order on the structure. So our study played a pivotal role in paving the way for Friends of the High Line to move forward on their dream and build the magnificent public space it is today.
How do you describe your self as an artist and the style of work you do?
I consider myself a mixed-media artist that incorporates fiber materials and hand-embroidery into drawings, paintings and installations. Sometimes I say that I make paintings using hand-embroidery, it just depends on the context and who is asking the question. I don’t self-identify as a “fiber artist” or a “craftsperson” – those titles are too narrow and restrictive.
How did you discover the human body as a subject of your work, and what did you do once you decided this was something you wanted to pursue?
My interest in the body grew out of an interest in memory and how we are profoundly influenced by our interactions with others, carrying those experiences with us, like smells, sounds, touches, etc. Jeanette Winterson’s book “Written on the Body” was hugely influential on my early thinking – there is one passage in particular that really inspired me, where she says “Written on the body is a secret code only visible in certain lights; the accumulations of a lifetime gathered here.”
Since I knew very little about anatomy or how the body looks and works, I began making regular research trips to the public library, to the science section. A place I did not feel at home in whatsoever, and certainly had never visited before. After a few visits, I hit the jackpot – I pulled a book off the shelf that was packed with micro-photographs of the inside of the body. And they were stunning. I had never seen anything like this before – I couldn’t believe how beautiful they were, and that this is what our insides looked like. So I began making paintings inspired by these microphotographs of blood cells, of the inside of the heart. That’s what started me on this path.
When did you know you would pursue the arts?
I always was drawn to the creative arts growing up – art, theater, music, writing. If I had to pick a particular moment, I would say it was in my ninth grade art class when I felt like I was where I was supposed to be, doing what I was meant to do. I had an amazing, encouraging art teacher too, who really nurtured me and took me under her wing, which I am very thankful for still to this day. She helped me find my path.
How did you learn to do what you do as a mixed-media artist?
I studied painting, ceramics and art education in undergrad, and then painting in grad school. The embroidery is all self-taught, I never had any formal instruction. Just like I came to the body and anatomy through my art practice, I taught myself how to sew and eventually, how to embroider, for my art. I never learned how to thread a needle or sew a button growing up, let alone do embroidery. We did have a sewing machine in our house, but it was an antique that didn’t work – in fact, it was our coffee table.
What do you love about the work you do as an artist?
I love the materials, the colors and the texture of thread, of fabric and of paint. I love that when I am doing the embroidery, I am touching the work as I make it, it feels almost like I am in it. It surprises me, the patience I have with the embroidery because I am not what you would consider a very patient person. I don’t know what it is about doing hand-embroidery, but it is so mesmerizing and satisfying, that the slowness of it is not a source of frustration, but instead, a source of pleasure.
And then after the work is finished, I love watching people’s reactions to it, how they interact with it, and the looks of surprise when they find out what the subject is.
Anything unexpected about the work you do? Maybe something you didn’t know before you started on this path?
Yes, all of it!
What is so amazing about being an artist is that you experience the world through a different lens, and it can lead you places you never would have gotten to otherwise. It is still surprising to me – and I think, to most of my friends & family – that I make the art that I do. I hated science in school and never learned how to sew growing up, none of the women in my family do it. So the fact that my primary subject is the human body’s anatomy and internal systems, and my main medium is hand-embroidery, is totally unexpected.
Where do you get inspiration for your work?
I have lots of lady artist heroes that I look to constantly for inspiration: Georgia O’Keefe, Eva Hesse, Frida Kahlo, Anne Truitt, Sheila Hicks, Nina Simone. Right now I am reading Georgia O’Keefe’s letters to Alfred Stieglitz and just finished the second book of Anne Truitt’s journals, called “Turn.” Being able to get a glimpse into an artist’s development can be so enlightening and inspirational.
I draw inspiration from a lot of sources – whether it’s antique embroidery samplers, early medical diagrams, bits of poetry or learning how the five senses work, it all feeds into what I am doing and thinking about.
Please describe how your creative brain works.
I’m not sure I can, really. One idea tends to lead to another idea, and so on. Even if I am not consciously thinking about my work, it’s always there, in some part of my brain, developing and changing. Once I get an idea for a piece, I write down a lot of thoughts and questions in my sketchbook, and make some quick drawings. Then I develop the idea further, do research if necessary, then make to-scale drawings and plans, some times over and over again with minor variations, until I feel like I’ve hit what I wanted. Every piece I make begins with a pretty clear plan but they never end up being what they were in my mind at the start. That is one of the hardest things about making art – I might have a wonderful vision in my mind of a piece but achieving it in real life is incredibly difficult. I don’t know if any artist ever feels like they’ve made exactly what they envisioned. I hope I get there someday!
What is your dream project?
I would love to have a storefront studio & workshop some day, where my studio could be in the back and in the front, there could be a large communal table to hold workshops and open embroidery sessions, thread and other materials for sale, and then my artwork could hang on the walls. So it could be a gathering place, a social space, a learning environment and a showcase for my own work too.
Any advice for someone interested in following your chosen path or learning to do what you do?
Be open, be courageous, and always be learning.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
Probably “say yes to everything.” I try to follow that, within reason, because everything is a learning experience, even if it’s terrible or a failure.