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Forever Young: Interview with John MacCallum conducted by Ashley Hemmings

AH: Can you talk a little bit about your art background? What got you interested in making art, did you go to art school, etc? 

JM: I went to art school. I knew what I wanted to do, but I was nervous about doing it and I remember bringing a drawing to show the literature teacher and she said “go to art school” and I said “okay”. First I went to Concordia and I went wacky and had to come home. After that I called an artist friend of our family, who said “go to Guelph,” and that was a really nice place. During that time, I had my first experience in the looney bin and they didn’t have a clue what was wrong with me. Then I did my Masters at The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and went really wacky there too. I entered the MFA program mostly painting, and then I got totally poisoned with it all and started to focus on installation. It was a good school, it was like the ultra traditional school where you learn how to draw and they even have animal drawing classes where they bring in horses and stuff. 


AH: Really!? They would bring live horses in to your class for you to draw??

JM: Yup. They didn’t bring in dead bodies like some schools do, because they look like beef jerky smeared with butter. As soon as you touch the cadavers the fat melts and it’s just like you get covered in this vaseline. That happens with human fat. It’s disgusting. I ended up writing my MFA thesis in a psychiatric hospital.


AH: What was your thesis about?

JM: Oh fuck if I remember now, that was so long ago, some left wing radical bullshit I’m sure. Next question.


AH: Can you explain the title of your exhibition “Forever Young” and how it relates to the work? 

JM: Yes okay. Having been through all this fun and games with bipolar, you know it’s not a fun disease, but every challenge in life can have its upside. I learned, in order to survive, that I have to just let everyday end, and then start fresh the next time. When you’re really sick for a long time, you don’t see that you’re going to get better at all. At a certain point I didn’t think that I was going to be able to have a job, or children, or a partner, or anything. But I got all of those things now. So you know, you can’t limit your expectations. If you have the outlook of a child it just makes life a lot easier, a lot more optimistic. 


AH: What is the relationship between the two sculptures/installations, and why you decided to display them in different spaces instead of both in the rOGUE?

JM: Originally, I was going to have the wings on the bed, like a broken down birdie that can’t fly. I set it up like that outdoors where I built the thing, but it was overkill times fifty. It was way too much. When you’re bed ridden, one thing that keeps you going is the idea of the “other”, your imagined way out, which is somewhere else. So I thought I would put my way out in a different place, literally a different room. With the blankets and the pills so that when you come across it you can see that there’s some relation to the other pile of pills. 

AH: We had a group of camp children into the gallery earlier this week and the kids asked a lot of really good questions, but the one that I couldn’t answer was: “Why is there no mattress on the bed?” 

JM: Oh, that’s a good question. The bed is ultra short, there’s just enough there to say “bed” without having to take up a huge amount of space because space is limited. And also, in terms of painting, I’m really interested in how with a single brush stroke you can indicate, like, that’s a bird, without in detail painting a bird. So that’s a bed, with just enough to be a bed, and not too much. 


AH: I know this work was made specifically for the rOGUE Gallery, do you have any intentions of showing this work again elsewhere, or if you did want to show this work again would you want to rebuild it to perfectly fit that exhibition space? 

JM: I’m planning now to make one that can move around. The only parts that are hard to move are the bed parts, the rest is very much just a shell. If the art fairy came down and invited me to show this work somewhere else it wouldn’t be a big deal at all, especially now that I’ve built it once. It’s all rigged to be assembled by one person. But depending on the space I might rebuild the shell to fit the room perfectly for a new show, whatever was required. 


AH: Would you like to speak about the content of the work? 

JM: Well I didn’t bring my straight jacket and my propeller beanie, but I could have… 

What I will say is, someone was saying that the bed looks like it’s trying to get out… but the fence is actually holding the bed up, and if you took the fence away the bed would fall. So what is the fence? It could be something keeping things together – the bed can’t support itself, it’s falling, it’s not straight, and it’s on these spindly tiny legs. The fence can be part of the prison, or it can be a necessary support of the whole structure, to keep things in place so the whole thing doesn’t collapse.

One way to look at it is, I guess, I can’t really be me in society, because society can’t tolerate that, because no one wants to be shit on. Everybody has their own life and they don’t want to listen to me. The thing about being mentally ill is it’s like you’re walking around naked, if I have a bad day, everybody knows about it. There’s nothing private about it. It’s like my inside is on the outside. As soon as I walk into a room, a lot of people can tell that something is amiss.  

There’s one other thing. You can read the bed as being about depression. And my particular depression is, I get really agitated and angry, so I’m like trying to get through the fence. The wings, besides the things we talked about, could be like mania. I just become like Darth Vader, very extroverted – I have a very unusual illness where I have symptoms of both depression and mania. Sometimes I think I know how to solve all the problems, the wings are extra big and showy, but they’re made out of junk, they’re not going to fly, I don’t have all the answers. 


AH: Have you made work about your mental illness before?

JM: Yea, but not as successfully. I kind of gave it up for a while because I wanted to concentrate on other more positive stuff. I didn’t have a way of expressing it that wasn’t just black and abysmal. Eventually I grew up enough to be able to communicate it in a way that wasn’t entirely negative. A way that gave a majority of people a way in, and didn’t leave them feeling drained, which a lot of work does.


AH: I think this is very accessible work. Even people that don’t relate to mental illness, they can still see the bed and the medication, and everyone’s been sick. Even when the kids camp was here earlier this week, one of the camp leaders said “you’ve all been sick, you know how bad it feels to be stuck in bed and have to take medication” and all the kids were like “oh my gosh yea” and then you could tell they understood. 

JM: I want to deal with serious things in a way that the average person can grasp. I don’t want to exclude people, I want a way in that references experiences everyone has, but does it in a way that artists will respect. 

AH: Do you want to talk about anything else before we finish?

JM: I guess the only other thing I want to say, is that I have many interests. It’s taken me a long time to really organize it all, in any sort of half successful attempts… to begin to interlock things in an orderly way. I have a lot of questions about a lot of things, and it has taken a lot of thinking and doing, to make the pieces go together in a way that’s coherent. 


AH: Okay well thanks for chatting with me John.

JM: Yea this was fun. 

John MacCallum has a Masters degree from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Inspired by a life-long fascination with materials and a strong interest in representational art, he reflects through his work on family, nature and social justice. Out of a mix of traditional media, construction material and eclectic, recycled items, he creates meaningful and cutting-edge works of art.

You can see more of John’s work on his website:

Ashley Hemmings is a visual artist and gallery worker currently based in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador. She received her BFA in Visual Arts from Grenfell Campus, Memorial University of Newfoundland in 2018. Her research-based art practice has led her to partner with environmental scientists, cognitive psychologists, and horticulturalists, to consider the intersection of many different ways of looking at and interacting with the natural world.  Most recently, Ashley has shown her solo projects Plant Matter and Who Names the Ferns? at the Memorial University of Newfoundland Botanical Garden, and her project Souvenir Documents in the rOGUE Gallery. Ashley currently works at Eastern Edge Gallery in St. John’s as a gallery assistant.