Dance and art

Artist Megan Mosholder flies over tragedy to exhibit at the Venice Biennale

Three Atlanta-based artists, Shanequa Gay, Megan Mosholder and Deanna Sirlin, have been invited to exhibit at this year's prestigious 59th Venice Biennale, the world's largest art fair, from April 23 to November 27. ArtsATL talked with each of them about their participation and its impact on their lives and their art. We feature an artist every Thursday. Today it's Mosholder.

Megan Mosholder's goal as an artist is to engulf the viewer's visual senses and awaken the simple intrigue of looking. Trying to figure out how she uses string, rope and cables to render three-dimensional drawings that are enhanced by ambient light can be a mind-bending quest. But visitors instinctively come across the same word when describing what it feels like to live in one of her larger-than-life, site-specific installations: "Magical."

There is, however, nothing magical about the miracle of being Mosholder. This is a story about resilience and life itself.

A SCAD alumna and adjunct professor at Kennesaw State University, Mosholder has received numerous awards from institutions such as the Foundation for Contemporary Arts and the Hambidge Center for Creative Arts and Sciences, and her work has been exhibited around the world.

Megan Mosholder
Mosholder's work "Letterale" is part of the exhibition "Borders of Light and Water" that she and Sirlin are creating together at the Biennale.

But in 2018, she was in a catastrophic car accident. When she woke up from a month-long coma, she learned that more than 60 % of her body had been burned. Since then, she has undergone 27 surgeries and one amputation and has years of healing ahead of her.

She also suffered the loss of a beloved friend and colleague when Justin Rabideau, then director of the Zuckerman Museum of Art, died just as Mosholder was being discharged from the hospital.

"At first, learning about Justin's death made me deeply depressed and I lost my motivation," she says. "It was like a double whammy because I was dying and nobody thought I was going to make it. But then I decided I had two choices: either I could stay in this bed and rot, or I could go back upstairs and go to work.

In every respect, her journey since then has been a charmed one. Last year, she was invited to present at the European Cultural Center Personal Structures exhibition coinciding with the Venice Biennale. This came as no surprise to anyone familiar with the intricate canvases she has woven - from Woodruff Park in Sydney, Australia, to Atlanta's Atlantic Yards, where her latest commission for Microsoft will be unveiled in late May.

ArtsATL caught up by phone with the working artist in Venice, where she was installing her work "Letterale" at the Palazzo Bembo. She and Sirlin exhibit together, under the title umbrella Borders of Light and Water. Mosholder reflected on her role as a cultural ambassador and remembered the muse who inspired her to transcend tragedy.

ArtsATL: Your parabolic string installations have a celestial, supernatural quality that evokes a sense of infinite possibilities. Have immersive pieces like "Letterale" changed your state of mind and/or facilitated recovery from the car accident?

Megan Mosholder: When I started making work, it wasn't supposed to be about me at all. I felt that including myself in my work created a limit for people - who deserved to experience art in a very personal way.

After the accident, so many people said they were eager to see how it would affect my work. At first I was annoyed by the suggestion, but I finally decided to rip off that band-aid and do something about it.

The first piece was "Trial By Fire" at MINT Gallery in 2019.... a self-portrait that people could walk into. There was a charred element - ash and what looked like burning coal - that mimicked the way my body had been charred, broken, cut into pieces and put back together.

When Jason Peters, one of my assistants in Venice, first saw "Letterale" made in New York, he said it was poignant because it reflected my experience of rising from the ashes to continue building.

Mosholder and his assistants work in his Airbnb in Venice.

ArtsATL: Can you describe the room?

Mosholder: This self-portrait is so literal.

It is a self-contained cabin, almost like a phone booth with flames at the bottom, a projection on the floor of a car accident. On the ceiling of the booth are the hand painted ropes. It is a literal self-portrait of who I am as a person and as an artist. It's a nod to overcoming my challenges....especially in this city because Venice is not ADA [The Americans with Disabilities Act] compliant by any means.

I have wonderful artists helping me - dragging my wheelchair over every bridge. And I literally crawled into my Airbnb. We also built a ramp into the room so that people can, ideally, access it if they are in a wheelchair.

ArtsATL: If you could leave an imprint in Venice as a direct result of a visitor's visit to "Letterale", what would it be?

Mosholder: I guess it would be perseverance.

I want people to know that you can come back from something catastrophic and tragic in your life and still live life as it was before. When I got out of the hospital, I kept hearing how inspiring I was to people. At first, I was really annoyed by that. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it wasn't about me, it was about them. If my story and my work can encourage them to persevere through the challenges in their lives, I think that's all I could hope for.

ArtsATL: What impression has Venice left on you?

Mosholder: One of the reasons I decided to participate in this exhibition, besides the prestige it gives to the artists, is that I have always wanted to see Venice. But the reality of this city exceeded my expectations and imagination. Every corner, the food, the people, the wine ... are all breathtakingly beautiful!

ArtsATL: You have budgeted 130,000 $ to participate in the Biennale. Who is covering the cost?

Mosholder: Part of the reason for the exorbitant cost is that I can't physically do the work myself. So I have five assistants helping me in Venice. Thanks to private donors, we have already raised close to 60,000 $ through an ongoing fundraising campaign.

With all the people suffering in Ukraine, part of me thought, "Who the hell do I think I am asking to help me raise this money? But when I saw pictures of how Ukrainians were protecting cultural artifacts from being blown up, it reinforced my belief that art is important.

I am a cultural worker representing Atlanta in Venice. I think people are finally starting to see Atlanta as culturally important to the United States. Artists back home no longer feel compelled to move to cities like Brooklyn to have viable careers. Here at the Palazzo, Shanequa Gay is in the hallway next to us, so I feel like there's a solid little piece of Atlanta right here. The city is flexing its muscles in all sorts of ways......and one of the most significant ways is via art.

Frida Kahlo, photo by Juan Guzman
Mosholder was inspired by Frida Kahlo, who was immobilized in bed for many months while recovering from severe injuries. (Photo by Juan Guzman, 1952)

ArtsATL: You cited Frida Kahlo as a source of inspiration. What did you learn from her example?

Mosholder: In July 2020, I had my left leg amputated below the knee. It was a decision I made because my left foot was still badly burned and the scar tissue had left it so incredibly twisted that walking was not going to be an option due to the pain and discomfort of dragging that foot around. When I learned that I would have to spend at least three months in bed to recover, I felt like I was in prison.

I had an upcoming exhibition in South Carolina and wondered how I could build work for the show if I was stuck in bed. So I emulated Frida Kahlo - who was also stuck in bed after a tragic accident - knowing that part of what helped her recover was painting. I followed her lead and started doing CAD [computer-aided design] drawings, talking to clients, ordering supplies and directing my assistants from my hospital bed - which really helped me make the leap to living my life again.

I also felt that my parents, who deserve to enjoy their retirement, did not need to take care of a 46-year-old baby. [Mosholder laughs]

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Gail O'Neill is a ArtsATL editor in chief. She animates and co-produces Collective knowledge A conversationall the series broadcasted on TheA Networkand frequently moderates author talks for the Atlanta History Center.

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