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Catalog Entry Trina McKillen

Trina McKillen – an appreciation

"Being a Catholic from Northern Ireland is different from being Irish. It is a sort of no-man’s land. You are part of a minority that is neither British nor Irish."

Trina McKillen’s richly colored photographic images are beautiful, and a little frightening. Not horrifying, not cruel. Not too big to handle, like a natural disaster or a bomb. More like a small, personally felt, controlled, cataclysm. McKillen works with materials that are difficult to manage, both literally and symbolically. Her images of small, found objects – toys, dolls, flowers, nails and pins – could easily become decorative or sentimental, or else fall into the clichés of a heavy-handed surrealism. Instead, she handles them with an odd combination of sureness and improvisation. Her work is lyricism with an edge.

We asked McKillen for an artist statement, and she responded with an autobiography that she said, just came out of her: a story of growing up inside a war. (See excerpts from her autobiography below.) It must have seemed, through the eyes of a child, to be a very personal battle. In her photographs, we can see the effect of sectarian fighting in Northern Ireland, but transfigured, rendered dreamlike in memory and in the odd, displaced objects of childhood. Death and even evil have been filtered, watered-down, made somehow lighter through the determination of her family to maintain an inner peace and to survive.

McKilllen says, "I work using a stream of consciousness method. I rarely plan projects or the content of my work. Over the years I have collected old dolls, beauty items, toys; tools, games and miscellaneous objects that appeal to me either for their color or form. I use these in my photos. Sometimes I simply photograph them. Other times I spontaneously arrange them or bring certain objects together. Sometimes I alter them significantly, as I did in a recent series in which I wrapped small dolls with rose petals."

The battered toys and doll’s clothing in her photographs are touched by individual, personal association and with humor and affection. McKillen says of a photograph of nine pieces of doll’s clothing, "I know which one of these is each of my brothers and sisters, and which is me." Her work is family oriented in a way no contemporary politician would dare to approach. It is a lot like her - rooted, feminine, funny but strong. It is art you would be glad to be in company with, behind the barricades. KFG


Excerpted from Trina McKillen’s Autobiography:

"I was born in December 1964, in Belfast, Northern Ireland. A new generation of Catholics had watched how the Civil Rights movement in America had mobilized to effect change. In January of that year, the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association was formed in response to almost 50 years of unionist discrimination against Catholics. This discrimination took the form of lack of employment opportunities, unfair allocation of public housing, gerrymandering of electoral boundaries and intimidation by the "B. Specials," a predominantly Protestant auxiliary police force.

My family, which included nine children, lived in Andersonstown, a concentrated Catholic ghetto that became a breeding ground for Irish Republican Army (IRA) recruitment. When the British army arrived, despite promises to bring peace and security to the province, it became clear that they wanted to stifle any dissent with military intimidation. My neighborhood became a hotbed of sectarian violence.

The IRA responded to the British Army with their own brand of stealth and violence, and intimidated the locals, demanding coerced loyalty and support. The sight of an army in full combat gear was very frightening for me and very provocative in my community. When the soldiers would go on patrol in their armored vehicles, people would bang their metal trash-bin lids on the ground as a warning of the patrol and a call to get your rocks, stones, petrol bombs, and guns ready. As a child, I leaned to run home as fast as I could at the distant sound of the bin lids. As they got louder it meant the soldiers were close and the danger was not far behind. Riots were common and we had to lie on the floor at the back of the house in case we were hit by stray bullets. A bullet once whizzed an inch above my mother's head and lodged itself into our garage door. We found others lodged in the wails of our house.

I would see IRA members, wearing balaclavas (ski masks), shoot from roof tops at the British army. A bomb meant to target a British patrol was planted on the road outside our front gate and exploded, blasting all the windows out of our house. The IRA arrived one night demanding the use of my father's car for "a job." They took the car, warning us not to report it because our phones were tapped. They returned the car unmarked.

One year, on the 9th of August, the anniversary of internment, an oil delivery truck was hijacked and parked at the end of our driveway and the IRA threatened to blow it up. After a whole day of negotiation, they decided not to do it but I remember wondering if I would be alive the next day.

The sight of hijacked burning buses was common. An image that will forever be with me was the sight of a man being tarred and feathered against a lamppost with an angry mob around him. He must have been an informant.

It was an extremely stressful time for my parents who were trying to ensure the safety of their nine children in the middle of a war zone. They were adamant believers in a non-violent resolution to the conflict and my father was one of the initiators of the first peace movement In Northern Ireland. He campaigned for the Social Democratic Labor party (SDLP), which was headed by his good friend, John Hume, now a Nobel Peace Prize winner. My father believed that equality and peace were attainable through negotiation and compromise, not by the gun.

One afternoon in August 1975, mum returned home from a visit to my grandmother. When she entered our home she found that it had been ransacked and vandalized by intruders. Everything in it was destroyed. Nothing was stolen. Even her gold watch, which had been given to her as an engagement present by dad was smashed to smithereens.

My parents put our house up for sale the next day. They were certain that someone was giving them a message and decided that the safety of their family was in jeopardy. We moved to Dublin, in the Republic of Ireland, three months later. We never did find out who the intruders were.

My father had felt a real sense of loyalty and obligation to Belfast, to stay the course, to be part of the generation that implemented change and established justice, but the direct threat to his family awakened his primal instinct to survive and protect his family.

Moving to Dublin opened up a completely different way of life.Three of my sisters and I were enrolled in a convent school. We wore exotic, royal blue uniforms with blue and white checked blouses and red ties. I was in my element; a proper school and no bomb scares; white socks and shiny black shoes and cream-colored woolen coats.

I finished my years at the convent school at 16 and spent 2 years at a pre-university center: a mixed school for boys and girls. I relished the opportunity to make friends with guys. It was liberating. At the convent school, we would be reported to the Headmistress if we were spotted in the village of Castleknock talking to a boy.

Most of my lasting friendships originate from my time at the pre-university center. I applied to the National College of Art and Design in Dublin. Dad wanted me to study architecture because it would guarantee me a good future but the idea that I would have to measure things and deal with math made me run straight to Art College, which would almost definitely guarantee me an insecure future!

In 1987 I applied for a student JI Visa, which would allow me to work for the summer in the U.S. We had family friends in California and they invited me to stay with them. I applied for a job in a design company in Long Beach and was hired as an in-house sculptor earning $500 a week. We designed store displays for all the major department stores. I was being paid to make huge lipsticks and mascaras. My world opened up. My life changed. I had the best time of my life for those four months. The thought of going back to art college in Dublin was dismal, and I vowed to return to California as soon as I graduated. I dragged myself through the next 2 years and graduated with a degree in Fine Art Sculpture in June 1989.

America was for me the land of individuality, opportunity and freedom. I went straight back to Hollywood. I believed that I could use my sculptural background to earn a living in the field of set design. After a month of pounding the pavement I managed to convince a production designer to take me on as his assistant. Alex McDowell was highly regarded and was working with a talented young director, David Fincher, at Propaganda Films. My first job was on the video for Aerosmith, "Janie's Got A Gun.' Next I worked on a Madonna video and then on one for my hero, Bob Dylan. It was a very exciting time and it seemed like I had fallen into the right job at the right time. I worked for Alex for about a year and then started working as a freelance set decorator and later as a production designer.

It was around this time that I met Billy Steinberg. Billy has always been very supportive of my work and even while I was working in the commercial arena he encouraged me to do my artwork on the side. Early in 1995, I rented a studio for myself and started making assemblage pieces; gradually my work evolved into taking photographs of what I assembled.

Billy and I were married in September 1995. Our son Ezra was born in March 1997. Becoming a mother was a life-changing experience, but I was far away from the comfort arid security of an extended family and, especially, my mother. I hadn't bargained for the loneliness and isolation that I experienced. I was paying a price for choosing to find my identity in California.

After the shocking terrorist act of September 11th, I sank momentarily into deep despair and anxiety. This was not supposed to happen in America. I felt trapped, as if I would never see my Irish family again, and feared the world was coming to an end. One morning that September, I went for a walk with a friend at 6:30. We were walking past a fire station a few blocks from my house. The sun was just coming up. There were a few guys hosing down and cleaning the fire truck. It was gleaming. "Good morning girls," one of the guys called out with a big smile. That moment changed my whole attitude. I suddenly thought, these are my firefighters. These are the guys who are going to put out the flames if there is ever a fire at my house.

In Belfast, I had never seen a fire truck. They would never come into my neighborhood to put out a fire. They never came when the bomb exploded and blew out all the windows. They never doused the flames on the burning buses. The police never investigated the break-in.

I really became grateful for my life and I decided that in order to truly live I could not be afraid of death. I started on a whole new body of work. My work addresses my fundamental concerns: feeling and numbness, beauty and ugliness, life and death. I am aware that there can be many interpretations and I welcome them!