Thickly painted in bright colours, McGregor’s papier-mâché sculptures of animals are wild but not in the sense of being true to nature, suggesting instead toys or cartoon characters. A pastel pink cat with dark pink and orange spots is adorned with yellow and lavender ribbons around its neck. A koala sits pensively by a tree whose foliage is a tight green lump reaching barely higher than the animal itself. A rabbit or bilby wears a red ribbon around its neck in the manner of certain Easter chocolates, the Easter suspicions confirmed in a pink egg adorned with a bow resting in nest of shredded paper. Meanwhile a wolf’s head with glowing red eyes rests in a disembodied state, taking a more sinister tone. Birds and insects suspended by thread spin aerodynamically despite their bulky bodies. As well as a pelican, parrots, and a butterfly, McGregor has depicted a flamingo soaring with gangly legs outstretched, rather than balancing on one as is convention. While her sculptures primarily feature animals, humans also appear, sometimes in a nod to traditional bust sculptures and at other times in surreal situations. In one piece, a woman’s face appears between two yellow banana-like extrusions, a red heart sitting atop an antenna emanating from the top of her head like a thought bubble, or perhaps emoji, made real.
Sandra McGregor is an artist based in Blackheath, west of Sydney, in the heart of the Blue Mountains. Over the past few years she has developed a prolific art practice, creating drawings, paintings and papier-mâché sculptural works. Initially McGregor worked at the Big Blue supported studio at Campbelltown Arts Centre, where her skills and talent in image-making were first recognised. However McGregor was not comfortable working in the group studio setting, and she subsequently shifted to making work in her home environment where she continues to do so. McGregor has an intellectual disability and is supported by Sylvanvale disability support services. A few months ago I was invited to visit the artist at her group home, where between cheeky jokes and observations she discussed and showcased her practice. The visit, and my development of this profile, were facilitated by curator and artist David Capra who has been working with Sylvanvale to bring McGregor’s work to a wider audience.
McGregor’s works on paper depict imagery gleaned from her surroundings, from flowers she observes on regular walks to decorative objects she notices in op shops. These and other motifs—patterns and collaged elements—are often contained within, or overflowing from a grid format the artist constructs. Like a butterfly’s wing, McGregor’s compositions are underpinned by clearly delineated line work, a segmentation of colour and form. The angles of these segments dart dynamically across the page in waves of colour created with pencil, markers, acrylic or watercolour applied with a brush or fingers. The colours radiate, creating sunbeams or rays reminiscent of 1960s-70s psychedelic visual culture.
These waves of colour are an important aspect of McGregor’s practice, combining observations from her environment with imaginings of immersive, chromatic saturations. “After all, I like seeing pretty colours. I like seeing waves of colour,” she said. “All different colours, soft colours. It’s something I think in my thoughts.” McGregor’s discussion of her practice did not delve deeply into the conceptual underpinnings of her work – a fact which challenges the conventional workings of the mainstream art world that tends to consider contemporary art practice within a conceptual as much as a visual framework. In speaking with McGregor it became clear that her work comes about intuitively in response to her outer and inner worlds. It also brought home the expectation that artists frame their work in a particular way for a mainstream art audience, and how much we rely on language to mediate our experience and understanding of visual art (as a writer I acknowledge my complicity in this).
The flowers in McGregor’s work are quite specific, featuring particular petal shapes and foliage. These are inspired by gardening (McGregor tends to two plots at home ) and particularly by the daily walks that the artist takes. “On walks, I see flowers, and I see conifer trees. [T]hey’re very lovely,” she said. “I like walking along every day.” The natural world McGregor observes finds its way into her works in both direct and subtle ways. Perspective is often skewed, with a motif or object placed centrally within a composition which then becomes increasingly abstract from the centre outwards. Different planes are drawn, creating horizon lines, mountains and waves within these semi-abstract scenes.
Motifs of adornment and decoration, such as bows, hearts, flowers, candles and stars abound in these drawings and collages, often repeated within the same composition. Gourds are another favoured motif, used as surfaces upon which flowers, landscapes and abstract patterns are applied, or as part of still life compositions. These still lives are informed by the objects McGregor sources and recalls from op shops around Blackheath – “I think about what they used to have in ornament shops years ago,” she said, explaining that she has visited “a lot of op shops in my time” and collected objects on these visits. Her collaged compositions extend this decorative approach, featuring animals, flowers and lavish candelabra in combination with images of real estate and home décor, dogs and household appliances.
Disembodied faces also regularly appear in McGregor’s drawings, face-on and in profile. The eyes of these faces often become the focal point as the profile is reduced or narrowed. Elements of these profiles are sometimes deconstructed and layered, recalling Picasso’s cubist portraits or a hall of mirrors, to disconcerting psychological effect. In a contrasting figurative series, fairy tale princess-like figures in puffy sleeves and bows in their hair sit wearing inscrutable expressions, surrounded by flowers.
Text appears rarely in McGregor’s works, but when it does it is intriguing. The words EAT ME appear next to a vortex-like shape and what is perhaps a holey wheel of cheese, while MUM… happy Big Mack Birthday is ascribed next to an ice-cream cone with a face. While McGregor prefers not to title her works, instead she invites the viewer in via waves of line or colour, to seek out motifs and clues within her intense compositions.
While McGregor is engaged in artmaking, happy to discuss her work and for it to be the subject of this profile, Capra and I have come to a gradual realisation, since undertaking to produce this profile, of the challenge of engaging mainstream arts publications in showcasing Sandra’s work. Texts which cannot be timed to coincide with a particular exhibition or event are difficult to pitch, which begs the question: whose work is seen, and why? What are artists without access to mainstream arts institutions obliged to do (beyond a strong commitment to studio practice) in order to develop a profile? While Sandra is not in a position to weave an art world-friendly conceptual narrative around her bodies of work, she continues to walk, observe, garden, and create, exploring new avenues in her practice with characteristic aplomb. Intriguingly, her focus has recently turned to computer-based artmaking. When I visited Sandra she did not yet feel comfortable sharing those works, however perhaps, like her drawings and sculptures, they will reach a wider audience in due course.
Chloé Wolifson was a member of the Management & Editorial Boards of The Invisible Inc. from 2013-2016, and held the position of Deputy Chair of...