HomeCultureArt & Theatre

State of the Art: Shona McAndrew

BY Anna Walker

31st Mar 2021 Art & Theatre

State of the Art: Shona McAndrew

Philadelphia-based painter and sculptor Shona McAndrew talks about her practice, her inspirations and why there's never been a better time to be unique. 

Reader's Digest: How would you describe your own artwork?

Shona McAndrew: I definitely think my audience is everyone, but I aim to talk to women specifically. I'm attempting to recreate or discuss the kind of art, typically portraiture, that has been made throughout time by men of women, for men.

The representation and role women have had historically, as we all know, was very limited, and in many ways it still is today. And that affects all women because we see these representations and think, Oh, that must be what it is like to be a woman. Turns out, we're just looking at how men think women are, and not how women think we are or how women choose to express themselves.

So, my paintings and my sculptures are a lot about taking that back and giving agency to the women I paint.

Shona McAndrew
Geena and Lauren, 2021. Courtesy the artist and CHART, New York. Painting photographed by Dan Bradica

RD: Your portraits show the moments women have to themselves, that belong just to them—that’s not something I’ve seen captured elsewhere…

Shona: I'm a fat woman, I've always been plus size. I grew up in Paris, where I was the fattest girl in school and I remember being comfortable and happy with myself until I saw a reflection of myself in a shop window. I'd feel sad, and not because seeing myself was sad, but because I was reminded of what other people saw when they looked at me. Thinking about what that image would mean to them made me sad.

I would think, Alright, I'm fat. I'm not supposed to be happy; I'm not supposed to be confident, and then my confidence would drop. That’s why I’m interested in these private moments for women, where they don't have mirrors around them, where there are not other people looking at them and reminding them of who they’re “supposed to be”—no one is there to take away the moment these women are creating for themselves.

RD: Your paintings feel like they have a particular resonance at the moment with women spending so much more time at home during the lockdown. I find that most days, I'm not wearing makeup, not wearing feminine clothes… I'm not presenting in the way that I usually do to the rest of the world. And it's been really nice to connect with that sense of self beyond the reach of others.

Shona: Absolutely, it's very freeing because when women get body hair, they're taught to remove it to become a woman, when a man get body hair, they're taught that they are men now because they haven't [removed it]. There’s an idea that being your “true self” means you're really a man and shifting who you are means you're a woman. I think there's been a freedom in lockdown.

This year has been the longest my leg hair has ever been and I'm still a bit taken aback by it sometimes because I'm not accustomed to it. But then you get accustomed to it. And you remember, “it's literally growing out my body, it's genuinely part of my body.” It feels thrilling to have these tiny victories of no makeup or body hair.

Portrait of two friends, one leans on the other's shoulder
Elise and Leah, 2021. Courtesy the artist and CHART, New York. Watercolour photographed by Elisabeth Bernstein

RD: There’s magic too in seeing your body cultivating something. We're normally so busy trying to remove or prevent hair growth that we’ve become disconnected from our natural bodies.

Shona: Yeah, I never knew! I've never let my hair grow past that uncomfortable stubble stage. I have armpit hair now because I've been inside so much, and my boyfriend and I have discussed how we both don't even notice it anymore. It's been a year now, and just like anything else, you get accustomed to things.

That’s why representation is so important, because things are shocking when you haven't had enough time to get used to them. But when you see enough of it, you become accustomed to it. That's why seeing plus-sized women, women of colour, women with handicaps, trans women and women with body hair is all so important. All that you have to do is expose it enough, and then we're going to have generations of people who say, “What do you mean women never used to have body hair? That’s just what women are like!”

That goes back to why I make my art. I want women to walk away [from my exhibitions] thinking, Oh my god, we're cool. Because I think women are very cool. And nothing is more thrilling than a confident woman, because we all know how much it takes to be confident as a woman. It gives me chills.

RD: I'd love to talk a bit about your new show "Haven". How did you choose the title?

Shona: This is the first time that I've painted multiple women. A lot of the women, including the painting of me and my mother, didn’t actually pose together, so I’ve photoshopped them together. It originated with me trying to create a moment with my mother: she lives in France and I haven’t seen her in almost two years now because of COVID. The painting created a very soft moment together, like puzzle pieces.

And then “Haven” means a safe space. Titles are a bit challenging for me, because I don't always like the weight words play on images, and I think an image should be able to live on its own.

There's also something a bit witchy about the word “haven”. I think for my next show I want to think about witches. Not the witchcraft part, but about the women who were burnt because they were loud and confident.

A woman looks out of canvas, her hair tied up, glasses on. She is rolling her eyes
Erica, 2020. Courtesy the artist and CHART, New York. Watercolour photographed by Elisabeth Bernstein

RD: Has the experience of visiting an exhibition ever influenced your artwork?

Shona: The shows of Jordan Casteel. She and I have parallel practices, I think. She's the much more evolved, considered version of what I'm doing.

Casteel has such an unbelievable relationship with her models. She takes pictures with the models in front of her paintings and you can see how excited they are to be standing before this enormous version of themselves in fancy galleries and museums. I’ve tried to emulate a lot of her energy. Plus, if you have the luck to talk to her, she's just the nicest human being ever created. I want my practice to have a similar warmth to hers.

RD: How do you connect with the models you paint? There’s such a sense of intimacy in your portraits.

Shona: A couple of the paintings in “Haven” are people who've just reached out to me and said, “I would love to be painted one day”. Then the rest are friends of mine, or people who follow me [on Instagram] and who stand out as being very confident. I like people who don't strive to be like everyone else.

When I was growing up in Paris, I was around very, very pretty girls. I went to a very fancy school, and a lot of my high school friends are literally international models, so I've existed for a long time around women who really wanted to look exactly how we were told to look. I never really understood why they cared, because “pretty” really only means three things: you have great DNA, a lot of time to spend, or a lot of money to spend on your appearance. But it doesn't say that much about who you are as a person. I enjoy painting people who don't seem like their goal in life is to be exactly what a woman is "supposed" to be.

"I have calluses from how hard I've been painting"

RD: Are there any body parts that you find particularly enjoyable to paint?

Shona: I prefer painting plus size women. I painted a few more skinny women for the last show, but typically I find that a bit more boring—there's less flesh, there's less curves, light hits bodies a bit more plainly. I love a nice belly.

RD: Do you feel that being a woman artist means that you've had a different experience in the industry to your male counterparts?

Shona: I think any other time I would have said yes in a negative way. I think right now, though, it's a harder time in some ways to be a man—though of course [she laughs], they're still being purchased by museums the most and they're not doing badly. But it's a hard time for them to speak about who they are, because for so long they've created this world where men are the norm, that now it’s a question of, What do you have to say about the man?

It’s also a good time to be a plus size woman. For a couple years, I had no shows, but I had about an article a month written about my practice. And a lot of it was like: She's fat and confident. How does she do it? or She makes art about fat woman wanting to have sex, which is not even true. People just wrote stuff like that about my work without asking me. So I think there's an aspect of, Wow, you're a fat lady. That's so cool.

I think right now it's a good time to be unique and proud of it.

RD: Anytime women’s bodies are portrayed in a way that deviates from the media ideal, there seems to be a temptation to frame it as “fetish”, but your work is intimate and vulnerable while remaining completely devoid of voyeurism or sexualisation.

Shona: To use my Instagram as an example, if I have breasts in my painting, it will get almost twice as many likes. I think we all just love nudity. I grew up with nudist parents. We lived on one of the islands in Paris and the sand would be covered with topless women over the summer. Nudity is normal to me, but boy do my followers adore nudity.

"If I have breasts in my painting, it will get almost twice as many likes"

RD: It’s a very new phenomenon for artists to witness such direct reactions to their work through social media platforms. Does consideration of the way a painting may perform on Instagram ever affect your work?

Shona: I definitely don't want social media to influence my work. The only thing is that it makes me worry about the women I paint. I don't want them to think that a painting of them [not getting as many likes] has anything to do with who they are.

When my models are sending me 10 pictures of themselves, and some of them have never met me in person, there's a lot of trust going on and I take that very seriously.

three girl friends recline on a sofa, heads leaning on each others shoulders
Priyanka, Vidushi and Ananya, 2021. Courtesy the artist and CHART, New York, photograph of painting Dan Bradica

RD: What are you working on at the moment?

Shona: Next up is my third solo show of the year.

RD: We’re only in March!

Shona: I know! I don’t know if you can see but [she raises her hand to the camera] I have this little callus from how hard I've been painting.

I have a sculpture show in two months at this place called Art OMI in New York. They have an incredible interior space. A lot of female artist heroes of mine have shown there recently, so it’s an unbelievable lineage to follow.

I'm making a full installation with three women—it's going to be like the three graces. I have a lamp in my bedroom of the three graces that I've had for many years now, and I love them very much. It's from the 1940s—I bought it on Etsy I was I was 25 and it moves everywhere with me. I'm making [a sculpture installation depicting] three women at home. I’ve been thinking about the last time I was really, truly involved with my girlfriends. These days we call each other and see each other, but [I’m focused on] when they were critical to my life, when they were the first people I texted when I woke up, back when I was single and in my early 20s.

I miss the days of planning everything around my girlfriends. That time was so important, but I didn't realise it then, I didn’t understand that it was not always going to be that way. For this show I’ve asked myself: If I was living with my best friends still, what would that look like? It’s going to be our living room, with a coffee table full of snacks and a bookshelf with 100 books on it.

RD: That sounds amazing. It comes back to what I said before, about the way your paintings depict women’s private worlds—time spent living with my girlfriends is the only time other people have been in that bubble with me.

Shona: Me too. Absolutely. It’s crazy how it becomes a family.

Have you seen that movie Twins from the nineties? Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito play twins. [She laughs], I watched it a lot as a child for this one scene that shows their mother living in a commune of artists. I remember being so young and thinking, Oh, that looks incredible. There was a field just full of women painting and being friends. Little did I know that's not actually what adults do. But I've always wanted to recreate that…


Header photograph by Stuart Lantry

Keep up with the top stories from Reader's Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter