A visual form of breathing: Anna F Macdonald

Artist Anna F Macdonald describes her abstract art pieces as ‘a visual form of breathing’. In her minimalist compositions she creates simple marks which deliberately leave space; asking the viewer to breathe and be present. I was interested to find out how this artist, mother and teacher finds zen in a busy world and how she feels when she creates art. We spoke about the importance of self-care, self-acceptance and vulnerability; how we must share the lows as well as the highs in order to remain authentic and connect with others.

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Visiting Jay II 2019⠀

A lot of my artistic journey has been about accepting who I am.

Your art is inspired by the zen philosophy of ‘Ma’ – which means ‘gap’ or ‘pause’ – how has this influenced your work?

About two years ago, I knew I needed to start exploring new ways of working; by taking risks with my work and going on a creative journey. At that time, my life was very busy being a mum to young children whilst also teaching and if I’m honest, I was on the edge. It was full on and it didn’t help that my home was full of stuff. I started reading from ‘The Minimalists’ which embraces the concept of living with less and looks at space in design. I started clearing spaces at home which was very calming. I was also watching documentaries on Japan which spoke about the philosophy of ‘Ma’, which was confirming what I was already drawn to. 

At the same time, I was researching abstract artists like Victor Parsmore. I just knew I wanted to make something that was a simplified version of the work I was already making; reducing elements down and making simple marks which deliberately left space. I’ve learnt that by giving yourself space, you can reflect and let things settle which is really powerful.

I like how you have described your work as a ‘visual form of breathing’ tell us more.

I remember thinking this when I was at the Tate Modern in the Antony Gormley room whilst sketching some sculptures. For some of them I wasn’t drawing the shape or form, I was just shading the different variants in tone and shadow. I remember studying the shifts between dark and light, it was almost like they were moving. This inspired my body of work ‘Breath’; I wanted it to feel like breathing when you looked at it. At a fair, people told me, ‘these works make me want to sigh’. I asked them to look at the title. It was surreal and lovely. 

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How do you feel when you create art? 

Like most people there are two sides to me; I can dawdle and procrastinate, but I can also be incredibly efficient. After a busy week I can feel quite drained and tired, so more often than not, I don’t feel like getting in the studio to create. Saying this, I do feel calm and hold a real sense of joy and presence when I’m doing it. But as soon as I start to feel jaded, even after half an hour, I’ll stop. I don’t want to be doing anything in my creative space that feels like work. I enjoy what I do and want this to come across in my work.

There is something ritualistic and spiritual about how it feels in my body to just draw lines.

It sounds like it’s a form of meditation – you take the time to tune in with yourself when you create?

Ironically I don’t meditate, I find it hard to commit to. But it is a type of meditation when I make art because I’m very present. As a mum and a teacher, you’re forward planning constantly; it becomes a state of being which is hard to switch off. It’s amazing when I do sit down to create because my physical space is full of light – it becomes a spiritual experience. 

Do you have any pre/during art rituals?

Yes! first I’ll clean my space because my workspace accumulates stuff. It’s also a way of clearing my mind to see where I’m at. It’s funny because a lot of my artistic journey has been about accepting who I am. I used to think that because I’m clean and tidy, and sometimes methodical, it meant I wasn’t a “real” creative. But now I just embrace it as that’s how I am. When I get into the studio, I have a clipboard where I write what I want to do next with my work e.g use colour, use bigger paper. I also listen to classical music and always stop for some coffee and something sweet in the afternoon – it’s like my religion. 


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Anna in her studio (@annafmacdonaldart Instagram)
You are a teacher, a mum and running a business with your art, how do you find zen in a busy world?

What I want to be careful of is how busy people, mums especially, wear “I’m so busy” as a badge of honour. There are times when I’m busy but I always prioritise self-care. I say no to a lot of things which means, going to bed really early, because as you get older you find your rhythm and what works for you. I’m not a night owl so I prefer getting up before the kids to get my quiet time. 

I don’t want to be doing anything in my creative space that feels like work. 

I admire how you invite your audience to join you on your creative process. Do you ever find it hard to be vulnerable with your audience?

Through Instagram I’ve definitely seen that my most vulnerable posts and stories about when I’ve faced rejection, or when things have gone wrong for me, always get the most feedback from people. Learning about myself and accepting myself has been a long hard road for me, but the more vulnerable I am, the more I am connecting with others who are experiencing the same things. 

I don’t follow anyone whose Instagram is about the way that they look, I only follow really creative people who are inspiring. I don’t think I’m particularly burdened by the type of images that I know young girls are. When I do videos of myself, I think “holy sh** but then I think, actually, it’s just me. I don’t have a face made for TV but if I don’t do this then what’s that saying? This is who I am. 

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From the A Winter series 2019
Lines are very present in your art, do they hold a meaning for you?

I can’t remember when I started using the black marks but I just remember really liking japanese calligraphy and oriental brush work; when the bristles separate you don’t know what’s going to happen. I discovered acrylic ink which is much more opaque than Indian ink; the intensity of that black against translucent watercolour – I just thought, wow. 

A year after using these in my work I realised that that they’re all like self-portraits. I didn’t know why I was making them. There is something ritualistic and spiritual about how it feels in my body to just draw lines. If I go out anywhere and forget my notebook, even just to write and make marks on paper, I get panicky. 

Giving yourself space gives you space to reflect and let things settle which is really powerful.

What are some of the challenges you face in your work?

One of my recent Instagram posts was about how I find it hard to play; to let go, and be free and silly. And that is reflected in my work; it’s all quite careful and contained. My large pink piece ‘And Then I Danced’ represents a turning point for me. I’ve always started from something in the landscape like a beautiful plant in my garden; I would cut it, observe it, sketch it and paint it. And then, I would simplify it and reduce it to lines and shapes but try and keep particular colours as true to the original source as possible: it’s about capturing the essence. 

The pink painting was my first painting about my inner landscape. I went to a gallery that had organised for The Central School Of Ballet to have a lesson where the public were invited to sketch them. Because they were moving constantly, I realised that I had to draw the figures without looking at my page – it was more about movement, not about creating a perfect drawing. 

When I got home, I put on some music and got out some big paper. I was feeling quite emotional because I used to dance when I was younger until my mum got ill. It was a brave thing for me because I wanted to be free and create authentic marks, but I didn’t know what they’d look like! I wanted the composition of the pink, with the black marks to be teetering on the edge of being balanced. When they were finished, I put them on my wall and burst into tears and thought, “yep, they’re done”. 

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And Then I Danced 2019
What are you currently working?

One of the things I’m working on is scale. I want to produce smaller work because in terms of my business, it’s important that people can afford my work. But I also enjoy working big. I usually work on paper but I am exploring canvas – a completely different way of working for me. I’m also looking to broaden my colour palette and explore works around landscape and memories, particularly around my mum. This is going to be challenging because I know it will be about making work that maybe isn’t about sharing or selling, it will be about exploring emotional things that might be uncomfortable for me. 

Where can we see your work?

I have just auctioned off a painting at The Auction Collective. I have a couple of paintings showing at 508 Gallery on Kings Road in Chelsea, and I also have a group exhibition at Queens Park from 21st – 28th January. 

To view more of Anna’s pieces… 


Instagram: @annafmacdonaldart
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Instagram @annafmacdonaldart

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