Nfld. & Labrador

'She was a difference-maker:' Mary MacDonald, celebrated artist, writer, and organizer dies at 32

Her loss leaves the St. John’s and Atlantic Canadian arts communities shocked and deeply saddened. Her work leaves them strengthened, inspired, and grateful.
Mary MacDonald died of cancer at a young age, but leaves a legacy as a curator and mentor of emerging artists. (Mary MacDonald)

Mary MacDonald, a pioneer in the St. John's arts community, has died at the age of 32.

Her loss leaves the St. John's and Atlantic Canadian arts communities shocked and deeply saddened. Her work leaves them strengthened, inspired, and grateful.

"She was a difference-maker," said artist Joe Fowler, who worked with MacDonald at the Eastern Edge Gallery.

A curator, artist, writer and organizer, she ran Eastern Edge from 2012 to 2015. She is often credited for putting the gallery on the Canadian arts radar as a hotbed for up-and-coming talent.

MacDonald was one of the founders of Girls Rock NL, a summer camp for young women who want to play music or be in a band. (Jenina MacGillivray)

MacDonald also helped found Girls Rock NL, a non-profit offering free summer camps to young women who want to form bands and play music. 

In 2014, she was selected as one of ARTINFO Canada's 30 most promising art world influencers under 30 years of age.

MacDonald was diagnosed with cancer in 2016. She passed away in St. John's on July 18, 2017, with her family and close friends around her.

Plans are underway to start a foundation in her honour.

'She was definitely trusted'

MacDonald grew up in Pictou, N.S. and obtained a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Mount Allison University, in Sackville, N.B..

She completed an MFA in criticism and curation at the Ontario College of Art and Design in Toronto, and then returned to Atlantic Canada — first to Pictou, where she organized the W(here) Festival, about rural artistic practices in the region, and then to Newfoundland, to run the Eastern Edge Gallery.

"Anybody running an artist-run centre in Atlantic Canada could call Mary and she'd stop what she was doing," said Michael McCormack. (Aine McLellan)

"It's hard to find young curators here in Atlantic Canada who stay," said Michael McCormack, a Halifax-based multidisciplinary artist. He's the artistic director of Flotilla, an upcoming conference for Canadian artist-run centres.

"She was emotionally invested in Atlantic Canada and people saw it. She's more than someone working as a practitioner or an artist. You can tell there's more care. And artists are receptive to that."

'Celebratory and sad'

"She was definitely trusted," McCormack said, adding she brought that care and trust to her work at Eastern Edge.

"She brought a lot of interesting people in, while staying true to local artists," he said. "That's so important if you're the only real independent exhibition space in town. And it's something that's not easy to do. She could do that because she cared so much about it."

"In conversation with Mary I was always struck by how razor sharp and sunny she is – both of those things at once." - Lisa Moore (Candace Fulford)

He says MacDonald worked hard to bring Canadian art and artists to smaller places, and that she succeeded.

Her successes, as well as "her understanding of people," were what prompted him to ask MacDonald for her help bringing Flotilla, a biennial gathering which normally takes place in larger centres, to Atlantic Canada.

She and McCormack wrote the funding proposals, and she acted as a curator for the event, which begins in September.

"It's a really strange mindset to be going into this project, but also comforting knowing Mary had such a huge part in it," he said. "It's celebratory and sad, gut-wrenching, heart-wrenching, but really powerful."

A 'brilliant curator'

MacDonald brought her sense of place — of Newfoundland and of Atlantic Canada — to her work as a curator and a writer.

She wrote for The Overcast and C magazine, reviewing contemporary art from the region and placing it within a national discussion.

As a curator, MacDonald often explored ideas of place, with a focus on smaller, rural places and their histories and practices. Land of Mirrors: ongoing experiments in Newfoundland, presented at the Eastern Edge, asked artists like Michael Flaherty, Philippa Jones and Will Gill to wonder what Newfoundland dreams about now.

Will Gill's Erratic Dazzle was featured in Land of Mirrors: ongoing experiments in Newfoundland, curated by Mary MacDonald. (Will Gill)

Author and artist Lisa Moore says MacDonald was a "brilliant curator."

"[She] brought together strong young artists to talk about relevant, urgent things. Things that matter socially and politically here in Newfoundland," said Moore.

"I think Mary had a fine-tuned radar for the cutting edge. The kind of art that is adroit at pinning down what matters absolutely in terms of the way we are living, but at the same time she seemed to approve of beauty and wonder."

Art = Work

At the core of MacDonald's work in the arts community was the belief that the work of artists and arts organizations is necessary and essential. She asked that art and artists be taken seriously. She helped artists and arts organizations value and promote their work without hesitation or apology.

"Talking to her about how she views this work and how people should view this work, how important this work is, was so important for me," said Jenn Brown, Executive Director of the St. John's International Women's Film Festival.

"She worked tirelessly to foster and share emerging voices, and to elevate our art to a level where it is just as crucial to our city's identity as The Narrows," Brown said.

"She rightfully earned her high reputation as a young, bold and outspoken woman who is creative, supportive, energizing, and deeply respected as a leader."

MacDonald teamed up with VANL to host the Art = Work forum in 2013, in response to cuts to the Rooms' budget. These pins are still worn by many local artists, and this picture was their profile picture on Facebook for some time after the forum. (April White)

She protested cuts to arts funding with letters, organizing and action, sometimes at the risk of her own professional advancement.

In a public post and letter protesting a proposal to collapse the Rooms' art gallery, museum and archives into one entity, she wrote, "I realize I will never be hired by the Rooms. But it's the right thing to do to stand up when the consolidation of power into one office puts arms-length programming and best practices within our field at risk."

"She was very determined and unwavering in what she believed in," said Joe Fowler. "Probably more than anyone I've ever met. And that's the kind of passion you can rally around ... That's the kind of passion a community needs."