Shona McAndrew’s paper-maché sculptures challenge social constructions of the female body and show honest representations of women secure in their identities, bodies, and environments. Reflective of her own experiences as a plus-size woman, McAndrew’s pieces confront the viewer by depicting women who are representing their truths and their private, inner moments with no regard for the viewer or socially accepted norms of female beauty or behavior. Gazing at one of her works is almost like intruding on another human being. Their presentations of banal and inconspicuous moments of privacy are affecting in their normalcy, but their self-aware actions are also familiar and arresting. Using film stills and photographs of her own body as source material for her sculptures, McAndrew places herself within the work and allows for a more realistic and genuine rendering of her figures. More recently, she has been creating digitally rendered collages that place her sculptures within imagined constructed environments, playing with ideas of space in relation to their action and form.
In one work, Charlotte, which introduced me to McAndrew’s work and practice, a woman stands naked except for a towel loosely clutched around her waist, with one leg up on a small table. Her hair is partially tied atop her head, with strands haphazardly escaping their binds. Her shoulders are squared forwards, her large breasts fully exposed, her arms only barely holding the towel around her, and her face is calm and and at peace, with only a hint of a smile showing through. The woman Charlotte is a plus-sized figure and the sculpture itself is large, scaled about 1.2 times life size. While the sculpture itself is not hyperrealistic, the anatomy of the figure, the painted tones of the skin, and the rendering of the body parts and facial features play with realism and present a sculpture of a woman who is present and is occupying space within the gallery room. Confronting this piece, you immediately can visually understand the weight of the figure and the intimacy of the scene, where the figure Charlotte has just exited the shower and is perhaps now gazing at herself in a mirror, or preparing for her daily personal routine. It is unfortunate that society deems it shocking to see a plus-size woman’s body naked. McAndrew’s sculptures not only challenge this assumption of beauty, but do so in a way that emphasizes these everyday mundane moments as beautiful, powerful, and normal.
Shona McAndrew was born and raised in Paris, France, and moved to the U.S. when she was 18 for college. She has a BA in Psychology and Fine Arts from Brandeis University and holds an MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design. McAndrew’s work has been exhibited across the United States and in Europe. This past year, her work has been shown at SPRING / BREAK Art Fair in the show The Staging of Vulnerability, and was also included in the group show NSFW: Female Gaze at the Museum of Sex. McAndrew recently moved to California, where she now lives and works as an artist.
How did you first get interested in art and pursuing a career as an artist?
I was born in Paris and lived there until entering Brandeis University at 18. Growing up in Paris nurtured the artist in me. My mother is an artist, and my father is passionate about music and the visual arts. I attended art classes every week during my childhood years, and “made art” whenever I could. We regularly visited the many wonderful museums in Paris as well as others in Europe on a regular basis. Although a career in art was not foremost in my mind, looking back, I appreciate how those influences formed a current that carried me to the shores of art and art-making, a world I relate to and love so much.
I studied psychology at college with no conscious plan for making a career as an artist. I remember suffering from depression during my sophomore year and turning to art as a source of comfort. Serendipitously, during senior year a professor took me aside and strongly suggested that I was in a place that I consider seriously pursuing art. That was the first time I thought about art as other than a hobby. I began to experience art as the means of expressing an essential part of myself. What had always been a source of comfort and pleasure has now become a serious pursuit.
Although I didn’t have a clear idea of the impact that graduate school can have on one’s formation, I entered RISD as a graduate student because it beckoned as a step along the way, part of a career plan that I was not yet even fully conscious of. I do not consider myself religious nor am I a determinist. However, I must admit that much of my artistic trajectory seems attributable to events that happened because they were meant to be. I’d like to think that’s true.
What kind of art did you grow up looking at and what was inspiring you as you were making work in college and beginning to develop your own work?
As many young art-lovers, especially those growing up in Paris, I was attracted to figurative work. Something that clearly has stuck with me. My own work consisted mainly of drawing women. Much of it relates back to Matisse, who will always be my first love. I visited the Musée d’Orsay often, where I was surrounded by that genre of portraiture. My female identity matured during that early period of drawing and painting women. My life and my artistic work were clearly coinciding and merging, even without conscious intent.
I was first introduced to your work through your sculptures at Spring Break, but you also create works on paper and work with video and photography. Can you talk about how you have developed materially and what has attracted you to pursuing sculptural work more heavily now?
My sculptural work is relatively recent, based on an interest and talent I uncovered during graduate school. Until then, my artistic expression took the forms of drawing and painting, which seemed to me what art was all about. I don’t mean to gainsay the value of drawing and painting. I valued and still value both as a means of studying the body in order best to represent it through my own personal artistic filter. I should add here that photography entered my artistic toolbox only when I began experimenting with sculpture.
The first plus-size woman I painted was Adina, a plus-size friend and a beautiful woman. I created paintings and drawings from Adina while at RISD. It proved to be a significant milestone in my artistic development. Adina enjoyed modeling for me and I enjoyed painting her. But, as satisfying as it was, something was missing. It had something to do with creating “frozen figures” -- unchanging images that would forever be the same. I wanted something more.
Lo and behold, an intensely personal element emerged as I reflected on this seeming paradox. Given my ongoing condition of body dysmorphia, was I afraid that my paintings would be considered allusions to myself, that people would consider them in the nature of quasi self-portraits? At that point in my life I didn’t want to think about my own body, to acknowledge myself in that way, but I gradually accepted that I must take the bull by the horns, to confront that central aspect of myself. The real confrontation for me was actually just looking at and really seeing my own body. I convinced myself that the direct approach would enable me to consider my body aesthetically and to use that very body as the focus of my work.
I began taking photos of myself-- screenshots from videos I made of myself navigating around my apartment. I have found that finding screenshot in a video leads to a significantly more genuine image. I am not very good at posing, but it turns out that I am excellent at walking around apartment in my underwear and forgetting that a camera is on me. The screenshots became the photographs and became the genesis and roots of my sculptures.
Can you elaborate a bit more on how that thought process has evolved from looking at another woman’s body to looking at your own? How has the work developed through that?
As I mentioned above, I have body dysmorphia, a condition suffered by many. Body dysmorphia makes it a challenge to gaze at the mirror, something I still struggle with now. The unfortunate truth affecting all young women -- we are not taught to gaze at what is natural and beautiful about ourselves, but instead on what aspects we must reject and change. Constant external editing leads inevitably to internalization of that false critique, the inevitably self-defeating standard.
My work has helped me learn how to look at myself and to accept and enjoy what I see. Plus-size bodies are most often depicted merely as ‘before’ pictures--before the future ‘hot chick’ emerges from that unappealing and unwanted chrysalis. During our formative days, we are taught that we aren’t what we could or should be. We are never just right. There is no natural reason or imperative to sport the same look and the same body, but we are brainwashed to accept it as the standard we should strive to achieve, the ‘ten out of ten’ body, as Mr. Trump would say.
My work presents women who are about none of that.
My sculpture, Charlotte, gazes at herself as she emerges from the shower, acknowledging her body. During a critique of my work, someone said that my sculptures are “presenting” rather than “representing”. They present women in moments or places of comfort and experimentation with themselves. Do you know how many women don’t even know what their vaginas look like? So many women spend so much time grooming--we shave, we pluck, we tweeze, we do all these things--yet don’t know what our bodies actually look like. There is an implied societal taboo that to look at ourselves is wrong or naughty. It is taboo for a woman to acknowledge her own sexuality. The female body is sexualized and even over-sexualized, but it is a big no-no for a female to overtly acknowledge her body, as she could a rose, in an unadorned natural state. The women I depict are in a moment where they exist just for themselves, where they are just with themselves. That is my goal, my objective. Something that I am learning to do for myself and something that I want to share with others.
Thinking about presentation vs. representation, how do you approach selecting a pose or context for them?
My basic tenet is that a plus-size or overweight body is not a ‘before’ to an ‘after’. My work is not about the past or the future. No. It is grounded in the present. That means that it must concern an action in time and exist in that moment. It is not about capturing a photographic moment of the person or representing the person as a portrait. Instead, it is about context. Why are they there? What made them be there? It is an underlying premise of my sculptures. My work is not about representing a woman in a pose, but about presenting an action or a moment in space/time in which the sculpture’s world truly exists.
For me, planning and calculating the actual position of the figure includes asking myself if I would do that action or could be in that pose. That is why some of my works are based on my own actions -- I strive to capture a candid moment, but one that can exist in the natural world. I employ video rather than posed photos in order to avoid a pose, a programmed acting out, whose relevance relates only to a particular moment. It is usually discomforting for one to watch my video because a lot of it can be reduced to angles or attitudes that no one cares to observe themselves assuming for extended periods of time. For example, I may be digging through my fridge or going to the bathroom or cleaning my closet. I’ll screenshot maybe 120 pictures from a 20 minute video and then pare those down until I find what I am looking for.
What is your material process for these works?
All of my sculptures are made out of paper maché, which I think is considered a craftier medium. It all started when I returned home to Paris for a month during a summer break and wanted to make an art piece that would be easy for me to transport back to the States. I remember watching a YouTube video of a woman making a paper maché version of her French bulldog. I immediately wanted to use the same medium to make a sculpture — of a miniature woman. Sophie became my first sculpture. She languished in my studio during my first year at RISD. I saw her merely as an art project, not as a new path to pursue. But my friends and peers were intrigued by her and it amused and intrigued me to watch them interact with her. At some point, when I only had six weeks until my first ever show in New York. I thought that it would be the right amount of pressure to push me to do something really bold and “ballsy”. I went much larger and expanded the size of my little Sophie the sculpture. I made two near life-size women, one plucking the other’s forgotten armpit hair from an otherwise hairless armpit- a funny memory from me and my best friend.
The material I use is mainly paper. If the arm isn’t working out, then I’ll cut off the arm. There is no permanent commitment. There is something about the material that allows me to feel comfortable doing that. I also like figuring out things on my own, as an engineer would. Given these factors, papier-mâché is a manageable medium for me at this time.
Use of this medium is true to my artistic inclination, true to me and to who I am as a person. A lot of people assume that they are made of plaster or cast molds. Most have thought it was bronze. When people learn, sometimes with surprise of the nature of my material, I am amused by their confounded reaction. I think that in some ways it reflects how I, Shona, want to surprise people. My plus-size body that many would assume can do very little is creating a large, physically challenging and intricate sculpture. Paper Mache, that has rarely been used or treated the way I do, can make such monumental and delicate forms. It feels right.
Are you just painting them with acrylic paint?
Yes, I use sponges to dab them with paint, which is how I achieve the quality of skin. Painting the bodies allows one to see the brush strokes, an effect I want to avoid. If anyone is interested, it is also a nice workout as I need to dab my ladies bodies thousands and thousands of times to get the effect I am looking for. I use a lot of different mediums to create effects, but most of the external layer is acrylic paint.
How do you approach scale and size with the work?
My goal is for the work to be 1.2 times larger than life because I think people react and are intrigued by something that is uncanny and off in a way that isn’t always noticeable at first. I also enjoy making them very small, perhaps a lingering childhood love for toys and dolls. You recognize yourself in their bodies, but there’s also a distancing that happens which adds to their alienness. The larger ladies take me a very long time to make so the smaller ones allow me a quicker release of ideas.
It’s interesting too because your work isn’t hyperrealist, but at the same time it’s very representational and clearly formed -- can you talk about how you approach that balance?
I use photographs to arrive at the work’s position. Once I start making the work, I already know how the figure will be standing or positioned, so I don’t have to consider that reference again. As I said, I begin with a photo of myself and from there it is purely imagination. As I have never studied anatomy, my “naïveté” helps to avoid a hyperrealistic effect, and also why the bodies I sculpt are based on my knowledge of my own body. How I see myself is limiting but also liberating.
I plan to make a sculpture this summer that is going to be me and my boyfriend lying together naked. My boyfriend is a more typical representation of an attractive human being, and I am a more atypical kind. I think these morphological shapes are usually not represented in a single work; he’s young, tight and fit, and I’m voluptuous and squishy in all the right places. One of the biggest challenges is making a truthful representation of myself, and all of my sculptures have been getting pretty close, but this time I’m going to make an actual me next to an actual him. I’m going to “make myself” see my body next to his because I never really get to see that. My sculptures present my knowledge of what a body looks like to me.
Can you elaborate more on this current project and what else you’re working on at the moment?
My sculptures always seem to correlate with things I’m going through personally. I am currently in a relationship, in a moment where I feel comfortable talking about sexuality in a way that I didn’t even know one could, without stress or giggles behind it. I seek honesty and an absence of discomfort. I’m quite curious and love to hear other people’s sexual experiences. They are so fascinating to me. I love to share because when I do so I see that it inspires others to do so as well. That’s another major theme my sculptures are about—the discovery that one is not alone and the thoughts one has are commonplace, and that realization opens more space to share. That is true with sexuality as well. When you see someone very comfortable or very sexual or daring in a way that you want to be, it gives courage to move in that direction.
My boyfriend, Stuart Lantry, is a fit 27 year old, blonde, physically fit young man who grew up surfing and snowboarding- the many benefits of living in LA. I , on the other hand, am a plus-size woman. Though I am significantly more comfortable with my body than ever before, society doesn’t conceive of us as a pair. The series I will be creating will be about our bodies together and interacting. The first sculpture I am creating will confront me and my angst about my body, specifically my body next to his. In the sculpture we’ll be lying in bed naked and he will be aimlessly looking for a Netflix movie on his computer and I’m going to be holding his flaccid penis while gazing at him. I like the intimate moment and I like that it is not necessarily sexual, but there is still a sexuality to it. I like that he is the object being played with and looked at, so the viewers will be looking at me looking at him, or looking at him through me. I’ll also be in the midst of an action while he is passive, which is in many way a reversal of roles. I assume that many people will be uncomfortable at first viewing our intimacy, my naked body next to his, but a truth about scary things is that once you’ve seen it or done it, it becomes less alien and threatening. Before my relationship with Stuart, I too was fearful and uncomfortable about what it meant to have our bodies next to one another, but a year in, nothing feels more natural and comfortable than when we are naked together in bed. That is where the sense of differences come from, because you just don’t know what it is or what it means if haven’t seen it before. It definitely challenges expectations with a sort of ‘so what’ attitude, and I hope it will also inspire others to be more comfortable with themselves. I am more confident and comfortable talking about sex than my friends who are significantly more conventionally attractive—a realization that baffles me because I would have thought that I’d have so many more reasons to be uncomfortable. You know, having learned that I can’t be comfortable and can’t be an object of desire after a lifetime in our sizeist society. I hope to convey that it doesn’t matter at all who you are and what you look like. You have the choice to think what you want of yourself, and to decide on your own what you deserve. I am me and I look like me. And frankly, I like being me.
How have you yourself been influenced by making of these sculptures of this highly personal subject matter?
It has very much influenced me. I’ve always said that I hope to be as confident as my sculptures one day. I do a lot of imagining with my sculptures. They are certainly not real, but I’ve developed them in my mind so that they each have their own character. The sculptures obviously speak for me, but I make them do things that scare me a bit in the hope that I’ll catch up. That’s my theory about life too, if you wait to be ready for something, then it’s never going to happen. You should allow something to happen and then you find a way to be ready afterwards. You don’t wake up one day and just decide to be brave, it doesn’t work like that (at least not in my experience). The first time I took an actual picture of my naked body to show to an audience, I was lying on my floor nervous and hyperventilating only an hour before the big reveal. I can’t imagine feeling that way anymore. It helped me see my body just as a body. Because of my body dysmorphia and my inability to confront my body, I used to think of myself as a fictional character, just the idea of a person. I would never think of my fundamental or intrinsic value and impact as a human being, to confront and accept the consequences of my Self, or how I really am. This might seem bizarre to some, but I use to hope that people would see me enter the women’s bathroom, that it would somehow prove to others that not only am I person, but a woman. I have moved on from having merely an “idea of myself”, or relying to others to tell me who I am. Somehow seeing myself, through art, as an object and as an image has allowed me to acknowledge myself and has made me more confident.
What is the most challenging part of making work is for you?
Honestly, it is all quite challenging for me. There isn’t a stage of my work that isn’t demanding. But because it’s so hard, I feel like all I really have is my intuition and to me, that’s the real challenge. I believe that we really only ever have our intuition. It may not always be right, or lead to the right action but it always shows up, and it’s up to you to learn how to understand and interpret and develop it. There are many artists whose advice I can seek, but if I can’t trust myself first, there is no point in carrying on. A good idea can happen to anyone, but developing it, that’s the real challenge. It is difficult to learn how to look at your work and to read it and to push it.
I think that too many people are good at knowing what they are bad at and not always able to assess and believe in what they are good at. It may sound silly, but that is my experience. It is crucial to know both sides of yourself and your thoughts in order to move forward. This relates to the first question about how I began making art -- I don’t fully know because a lot of it was just putting one foot in front of the other and following my instincts until I arrived at the place where I am today. The idea of making a sculpture of me and Stuart lying in a bed naked is totally terrifying. But because of that, because it’s terrifying, I know I have to do it. I’ve never made a male body, I’ve never made a bed, and I’ve never made a sculpture that big, but that doesn’t mean I can’t. It just means that it’s going to be challenging and challenges are just things to overcome. If I started listing all of the things I can’t do, I would never do anything.
As you can tell, I really just want to be a professor teaching freshmen...I don’t like being inspirational, but I tend to be that way. People just need a little extra boost of confidence. There is too much out there that seeks to shut us down.
What are you currently trying to develop or incorporate into your work? How do you see it developing in the future?
I very much like discussing the plus-size body, but that was really just my gateway into understanding an art piece or how to work with the body. I want to expand out of that and from that, which to my mind requires learning about other people’s experiences. My sculptures come from my imagination and experiences, which was liberating but is starting to be limiting. That makes me wonder if I can only portray white women, as I have only ever experienced the life of a white woman. I don’t think I can imagine what it feels like to be a Latina or a Black woman; it just isn’t my place. So I want to start working with an actual person and I would like it to be a presentation of that person. I think this will open many doors for me.