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The Professor Is In: Jillian McDonald

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What do George Romero, motherhood, and the word "iceberg" have in common? They're just a few of the things Associate Art Professor Jillian McDonald loves. Read what else tops the list in this month's The Professor Is In.

From staging supernatural happenings in Victorian homes for a horror film, to creating video artworks in the Yukon and Arizona deserts, to making five films across Scotland in nine months, Dyson Associate Art Professor and Co-Director of the Pace Digital Gallery Jillian McDonald has crafted more than her remarkable artwork—she’s created a successful career that has allowed her to travel across the world, collaborate with other talented artists, and receive dozens of awards and honors. At Pace, the Canada native has shared her expertise through a variety of art courses from animation to digital design and inspired students to be open and seek out what inspires them. Professor McDonald shares how Pace students can paint their own portrait of success, and shares her fascinating experiences making films in this month’s issue of The Professor Is In.

What was one thing or person that made you passionate about your current career?
I drew all the time when I was young. Everyone said I could draw but I didn’t think that meant anything serious. Then I got terribly sick for a long time when I was 14 and I almost died. My high school art teacher showed me that people could really be artists for a living. I didn’t grow up knowing anything about the arts so this was a revelation to me. The knowledge took me by surprise and very incrementally blew my mind. Week after week over three years I gathered information until I figured out that one of those people could be me. I knew that I wanted to spend the rest of my life doing something I loved. I was really fortunate to start my career in Winnipeg, Manitoba, where there existed an amazing arts mentorship program for young women. My mentors encouraged me to apply for grants and shows and work really hard. I'm still in touch with all of these peoplethey changed the course of my life.

What quality do you most value in your students?
Enthusiasm, self-direction, and responsibility. Those who come for extra help or delve into their projects on their own always have my admiration. I least admire when students make excuses or complain a lot.

What’s your advice to students to make the most out of their time in college?
Some students ask what they can do to get an “A” instead of cultivating their ideas and finding their own path. My advice is to teach yourself to be self-sufficient. Engage with everyone around you, join groups, be community-minded. Spend time with your professors and get to know themthey are all professionals in their field. In the art department, for example, the professors have shown their work all over the world. Get to know them, ask lots of questions, and read. Use the resources of the city and go to museums, galleries, and performances. Attend lectures and events about all kinds of things and be open—you never know when something is going to excite you. Work really hard and don't worry about your grades.

If you had to do it all over again and took another path, what profession would you choose? What profession would you not choose?
I'd likely choose the same path, or maybe I’d be an environmental scientist, a writer, a musician, a fashion designer, a painter, a curator, a filmmaker, or an actor. I do some of these things in various ways in my artwork. I need more lifetimes. I wouldn’t do something that I don't love.

What is your favorite word? Least favorite word?
Amazing is my favorite word, apparently. Iceberg makes me very happy.

What is your guilty pleasure TV show or mobile app?
I don't believe in guilt or regret. At the moment I like The Walking Dead, Better Call Saul, and Transparent. They are all between seasons so I am going to watch a lot of films, including Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. I like Layar and could not live without Google Earth—I use it to every day to fly around in random locations. I’m listening to an audio book called Southern Reach Trilogy, which was recommended by a friend who saw a video I am working on.

What was your favorite class as a student? Least favorite?
In drawing, my professor was a performance artist and encouraged us to think about drawing in the widest possible way. We all ended up performing, making videos and ceramics, eating, staging our own deaths, and doing almost anything but traditional drawing. I hadn't drawn for over 25 years until recently when I started drawing on paper again. Sometimes you have to reject something in order to come back to it later with greater love. I also loved French. My least favorite classes were thesis seminars in grad school, which dragged on with only a few people speaking loudly and endlessly. I often tuned out, and went into my own world. But I liked that too.

If you were a Pace student, what class would you like to take with another Pace professor?
I'd take a language, French probably. My French has lapsed since leaving Canada 20 years ago. I like to think I might take an accounting class so I could finally get a grip on my financial life but I'd probably opt for science fiction and film. Or I'd take Remix Culture which is a new class I am teaching with a colleague in spring 2017 and we're super excited about it.

What would you do if you had an extra hour every day?
I just watched The Revenant, which I decided I could watch every single day of my life, if I had time. It was filmed primarily in Western Canada and it’s so astonishingly beautiful, relentless, and terrifying in equal measure. I'd also spend more time outdoors hiking, running, and swimming.

What is your favorite professional or personal journey/experience?
I am very lucky that I travel a lot for my research. In 2009 I went to Sweden and collaborated with an amazing team to produce a live horror film performance in the woods with 100 actors, animals, a boat, and a dog. It was terrifying in the cold woods rehearsing and performing, I can’t imagine how the audience felt. In Buffalo I worked with teenagers to make a haunted themed video. We dripped blood down the walls and windows of old Victorian houses, dragged each other around to suggest supernatural happenings. Since then I have made video artworks in the Yukon, Arizona deserts, California Marin Headlands, Newfoundland coasts, Canada's Georgian Bay, and the rural prairies. I will head to the Arctic Circle on a boat next year. Each time I work with strangers as actors and have incredible experiences and make lifetime friends. In 2012 I went to Scotland on scholarly leave from Pace and stayed nine months to make five videos. That work has been showing in screenings and solo shows across North America and the United Kingdom ever since.

What is your favorite saying/words to live by?
Life is short. Look for opportunities and don't wait for them to come. I became a mother in 2011. I am suddenly much more conscious of my words in general. I tell my daughter to feel at home wherever we are at the moment; to take a deep breath when something is worrying herI try to do the same.

If you could have any five people living or dead, imagined or real, as guests at a dinner party, who would you choose?
Filmmakers, artists, and environmentalists George Romero, Terrance Mallick, Stanley Kubrick, David Bowie, Thich Nhat Han, Nicola Tesla, Billy Bob Thornton, Kent Monkman, Francis Alÿs, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Prince, Tilda Swinton, Nina Simone, Maggie Smith, David Suzuki, Madame Blavatsky, Magrittethey'd all be invited. Donald Sutherland would be the host, the narrator. I’d give them all masks and film them, although I’m sure it would be chaos.

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