When she was in her twenties the artist Jacqueline Donachie devised a performance work called Advice Bar. At openings and art events, she would set up a handmade bar, a pair of bar stools, and offer drinks and one-to-one advice. Advice Bar was a combination of the two part-time jobs the Glasgow School of art graduate had once undertaken whilst on a prestigious Fulbright scholarship to New York in 1996. She worked part time as a bartender and also as an administrator for an analyst whose home overlooked Central Park. These two roles were, she recalls, different approaches to the same issue: “But I could see how much the analyst charged, and knew how much I was making in tips.”
While it emerged that problems of the heart were fairly universal, Donachie says that other other aspects of advice were geographically specific. “One guy in Sweden told me really loved carpets.” In the land of timber flooring, it was a cultural no-no. “I told him to get them and to get a Dyson. He had never heard of one.”
So what advice would the now 47-year-old artist give to her 25-year-old self? Donachie, who is married to the artist Roderick Buchanan and has three sons aged between 12 and 17, is thoughful. “Think hard about how you are going to earn a regular living.” And her advice to artists who are 25 today? “Keep your pride.”
Donachie should begin 2017 feeling proud. In the last six months she has achieved a number of landmarks. She has just gained her doctorate, winning a prize from The Arts and Humanities Research Council for best film by an AHRC/AHRB-funded doctoral student for her her film Hazel, “Original, simple, human and evocative,” said the judges; “A deceptively simple film of real eloquence.” And she held her first conventional museum exhibition for a decade, at GoMA in her home town of Glasgow.
Donachie’s recent career had been spent on sculptural commissions, research projects and public art projects, as well as working as an artist consultant with architects and experts on projects like like the Centre for Health Science at Raigmore Hospital in Inverness. On reflection, she says now, 2016 felt like a “a make or break year.” In September it was announced that Edinburgh’s Fruitmarket Gallery, had won the inaugural Freelands Foundation Award for women artists, to support a solo show by Donachie which will open in November 2017.
I meet Donachie at her studio in Glasgow’s Whisky Bond. It is recently tidied, she explains, for a visit from the Freelands judges. There are photos of lamp posts and railings, urban objects that have inspired recent sculptures. A handmade card on the wall from her 12 year-old reads, “this year 47 last year 46 next year 48”.
Perhaps the most important distinction between Donachie in her twenties and at 47 is the question of disability. When Donachie was 30 her older sister, Susan, found out she had an inherited neuro-muscular disorder called Myotonic Dystrophy. Susan’s two children were born with the condition and, as the family underwent testing, it emerged that myotonic travels through the generations with increasing impact. When the family were genetically tested it turned out the artist had not acquired the condition. Her father had it, and her brother too.
Her instinct was neither to crumble nor turn away. Instead she made a book DM, which explored the condition: “I started out seeking knowledge,” she says, “I think I am a bit of a knowledge junkie.”
The film Hazel is a series of interviews with sisters that reflects the artist’s own experience of the genetic lottery. One sister has the condition; the other is unaffected. It reflects on the women’s attitudes to the ongoing effects of myotonic dystrophy on their physical and emotional wellbeing, whilst also looking at the wider effects of ageing.
Disability is just one thread that runs through a complex body of work that Donachie describes as “somewhere to stand, somewhere to sing.” How does she describe what she does? “I describe myself an an artist which is increasingly weak term,” she explains. “If pushed, in a taxi, I will say that I make sculpture. I make objects, I organise public events, I write, take photographs and I draw, and I have made three films now. Whatever medium is necessary for what I want to say.”
What Donachie wants to say is largely about making visible that which has been ignored or inconvenient. In 2014, for example, I was one of hundreds of Glaswegians who cycled through the city streets, spreading colourful chalk trails to make the presence of cyclists felt. Her first film Tomorrow Belongs to Me, made with geneticist Darren Monckton, made visible an international network of scientists from across the world who worked on hereditary conditions, and through showings at conferences and meetings made the families who lived with conditions visible to those scientists.
Hazel presents inherited disability as an issue of visibility and difference, as well as one of relationships and networks. Donachie has always worked in, and with, groups: “Highland dancers, ballroom dancers, blind judo-players, runners, scientists,” she recalls. “I get them all to do what I want them to do. It’s not accidental if things go well.”
Educated in the Environmental Art Department at GSA she recalls that group thinking was vital. “The way we were educated is crucial, this collective thing that our teacher David Harding forced upon us. You had to think collectively at parts of your education, to understand that it’s not all about you. Group activity was part of the course. When we had to undertake a mural project, it was to make us talk to each other, not about the mural you painted.”
Donachie is currently working on a book for the Fruitmarket show which will revisit some of her earlier works. And already, Advice Bar is up for discussion. If she does resurrect it she may ask others to dispense the wisdom. “I really like the idea of youthful advice, something about the Kamikaze way you think you really know it all.” Reflecting on her own youthful self she says: “We went to art school to change the world, I really wanted to change the world. I still think that’s the job. You don’t need to address it by solving everything, but by drawing attention to things or creating a situation where people momentarily feel good, or even feel bad.”
Often her sculptural work, she says consists of: “A thing you lean or stand against,” I think she means it both literally and metaphorically. ■
Jacqueline Donachie is at the Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh, 1 November 2017 until 11 February 2018, www.jacquelinedonachie.co.uk / www.fruitmarket.co.uk