For anyone with a fondness and eye for the Hudson south of Beacon – be it from a train, local roadways, the Mid-Hudson Bridge or even a boat – something new started this past Sunday. The artist Melissa McGill, who has built a career moving steadily away from standard two- and three-dimensional works towards something more conceptual and in situ, launched a new piece titled Constellation on what some know as Bannerman’s Island, and others as Pollepel, where the ruins of what appears to be a castle rise up out of the river like Lorelei. The piece will be up through the summer of 2017. Each evening small lights come on, one by one, in an outline of the ruined “castle,” built by a 19th-century munitions millionaire.
Almanac Weekly’s Paul Smart touched base with McGill after Constellation’s opening. “This island with its strange ruin sparked my curiosity as I traveled on the train along the river’s edge between New York City and Beacon. It was not so much the castle itself, but what was missing from it: its ephemeral parallel, the intangible unknowns, the questions it inspired,” McGill said, when asked about the new piece’s genesis. “In creating Constellation, it was not my interest to solve the island’s mysteries or reveal its secrets, but to provide a new connection to this site with its storied and adventurous history and to invoke the long evolution that has led to the ruin we see today.”
Where did you start as an artist?
My interest in art started very young, and my parents were very supportive. I had an incredible community of classmates at RISD [Rhode Island School of Design], many of whom I am still very close with now, and many of whom lent their support and expertise to Constellation in a variety of ways.
As you delve deeper into site-specific installation, do you maintain work in other media? Do you see media coming together?
My work involves an interdisciplinary process, primarily incorporating drawing, sculpture and sound. Through my process, I have become increasingly passionate about art in public spaces and its ability to contribute to communities in a larger sense. I live in Beacon, along the Hudson River that inspired the project.
What role do ruins play in the changing American sense of itself, and our history? Luc Santé writes about his engagement with rural ruins, and how cities often barrel through and over them. Is this at play in Constellation and your process?
Yes, I am interested in the questions raised…particularly the question “What is missing?” I wonder about how we preserve, build and remember. I am addressing this ruin as it is now.
How have you engaged in a local and larger art community? Is the role of the artist different now from what it was when you first started working seriously nearly a quarter-century ago?
A wonderful team of experts and supporters came together to help bring Constellation about; they are the stars in this constellation. Practically everyone involved in Constellation lives in this area. I am humbled and grateful. Both art organizations and environmental organizations support Constellation.
How do you sustain yourself financially? How are the projects funded?
I am a photo editor/creative consultant for professional photographers. That’s my “day job.” This project is fiscally sponsored by Fractured Atlas. Funding came from crowdfunding, grants and support from individuals and foundations. I received an Artworks grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. And it’s not over yet! I still have a substantial funding gap to close.
You’ve done two projects now in the southern portion of the Valley; do you see working further north?
This is my local landscape, so it has been a natural place to develop work…But there are many spaces and landscapes that inspire me, so who knows where the next project will be?
For more on Constellation, including ways to see (and support) it, visit https://www.melissamcgillconstellation.com.