Atlanta artist Megan Mosholder soars above tragedy to exhibit at Venice Biennale

Atlanta artist Megan Mosholder in Venice.

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Atlanta artist Megan Mosholder in Venice.

Three Atlanta-based artists, Shanequa Gay, Megan Mosholder and Deanna Sirlin, were invited to exhibit this year at the prestigious 59th Venice Biennale, the largest art fair in the world, April 23 through Nov. 27. ArtsATL talked with each of them about their participation and how it’s impacting their life and art.

Megan Mosholder’s goal as an artist is to engulf the viewer’s visual senses and reawaken the simple intrigue of looking. Trying to figure out how she uses string, rope and cables to render three-dimensional drawings that are enhanced by ambient light can be a mind-bending pursuit. But visitors instinctively stumble onto the same word when describing how it feels to dwell within any of her larger-than-life, site-specific installations: magical.

There is nothing magical, however, about the miracle of being Mosholder. It’s a story about resilience and life itself.

A Savannah College of Art and Design alumna and an adjunct professor at Kennesaw State University, Mosholder has received numerous awards from institutions such as the Foundation for Contemporary Arts and the Hambidge Center for Creative Arts and Sciences, and her work has been exhibited internationally.

But in 2018, she had a catastrophic car crash. When she woke up from a month-long coma, she learned that over 60 percent of her body had been burned. Since then, she has endured 32 surgeries and an amputation and has years of healing ahead.

She also suffered the loss of her beloved friend and colleague Justin Rabideau, then-director of the Zuckerman Museum of Art, who died in October 2018.

“Initially, learning about Justin’s death depressed the hell out of me and I lost my drive,” she says. “It felt like a double whammy because I was dying and nobody thought I was going to make it. But then, I decided I had two choices: I could either stay in that bed and rot, or I could get back up top and go to work.”

By any measure, her journey since then has been charmed. Last year she was invited to present at the European Cultural Centre’s Personal Structures exhibit coinciding with the Venice Biennale. It came as no surprise to anyone familiar with the complex webs she has woven — from Woodruff Park to Sydney, Australia, to Atlanta’s Atlantic Yards, where her most recent commission for Microsoft will be unveiled at the end of May.

ArtsATL caught up by phone with the hard-working artist in Venice, where she was installing her piece “Letterale” at Palazzo Bembo. She and Sirlin are exhibiting together, under the umbrella title Borders of Light and Water. Mosholder reflected on her role as a cultural ambassador and remembered the muse who inspired her transcendence over tragedy.

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Megan Mosholder's Leteralle in Venice.

Credit: Auston Robinson

Megan Mosholder's Leteralle in Venice.

Credit: Auston Robinson

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Megan Mosholder's Leteralle in Venice.

Credit: Auston Robinson

Credit: Auston Robinson

Q: Your parabolic string installations have a celestial, otherworldly quality that evokes a feeling of infinite possibilities. Have immersive pieces like “Letterale” changed your mindset and/or facilitated healing in the wake of the car accident?

A: When I first started making work, it was not supposed to be about me at all. I felt that incorporating myself into my work created a limitation for people — who deserved to experience the art in a very personal way.

After the accident, so many people said they couldn’t wait to see how it would influence my work. Initially, I was annoyed by the suggestion, but eventually decided to rip that Band-Aid off and do something.

The first piece was “Trial By Fire” at MINT Gallery in 2019...a self-portrait that people could walk into. There was a charred element — ash and what looked like burning coal — which emulated how my body had been charred, broken, chopped to bits and put back together.

When Jason Peters, one of my assistants in Venice, first saw “Letterale” (Italian for “literal”) realized in New York, he said it was poignant because it mirrored my experience of rising out of the ashes to keep building work.

Q: Can you describe the piece?

A: This self-portrait is so very literal.

It’s a free-standing booth, almost like a phone booth with flames at the bottom, a projection onto the floor of a car crash. On the ceiling of the booth are the hand-painted strings. It’s a literal self-portrait of who I am as a person and an artist. It’s a nod to overcoming my struggles...especially in this city because Venice is not ADA (The Americans with Disabilities Act) compliant by any means.

I have wonderful artists assisting me -— dragging my wheelchair over all of the bridges. And I have been literally crawling in my Airbnb. We’ve also built a ramp into the piece so people, ideally, can go into it if they’re in a wheelchair.

Q: If you could leave one imprint in Venice, as a direct result of a visitor spending time in “Letterale,” what would it be?

A: I guess it would be perseverance.

I want people to know that you can come back from a catastrophic, tragic thing in your life and still continue to live as you were before. When I first got out of the hospital, I kept hearing what a source of inspiration I was for people. At first, I was really annoyed by that. But the more I thought about it, I realized it wasn’t about me — it was about them. If my story and my work can encourage them to persevere in spite of the challenges in their lives, I think that’s the most I could hope for.

Q: What imprint has Venice left on you?

A: One of the reasons I decided to participate in this exhibition, apart from the prestige it confers on artists, was because I’ve always wanted to see Venice. But the reality of this city has exceeded my expectations and imagination. Every single corner, the food, the people, the wine...are all so breathtakingly beautiful.

Q: You budgeted $130,000 to participate in the Biennale. Who underwrites the cost?

A: Part of the reason for the exorbitant cost is because I cannot physically do the work on my own, so I have five assistants helping me in Venice. The majority of the money paid to the European Cultural Commission ($50,000) came from the corporate jobs I completed in 2021 and 2022. And I’ve raised $10,000 through private donors. I am now back to zero financially and trying really hard not to be nervous about it. Hopefully, this work I have made in Venice will help to generate more large-scale work.

With all the people suffering in Ukraine, part of me was like, “Who the hell do I think I am asking people to help me raise this money?” But when I saw pictures of how Ukrainians have been protecting cultural artifacts to keep them from being blown up, it reinforced my conviction that art is important.

I’m a cultural worker representing Atlanta in Venice. I think people are finally starting to look at Atlanta as being culturally important to the United States. Artists back home no longer feel they have to relocate to cities like Brooklyn in order to have viable careers. Here at the Palazzo, Shanequa Gay is in the hallway next to us so I feel like there’s a solid little chunk of Atlanta right here. The city is flexing her muscles in all types of ways...and one of the most significant ways is via art.

Q: You’ve cited Frida Kahlo as a source of inspiration. What did you gain from her example?

A: In July 2020 I had my left leg amputated below the knee. It was a decision I made because my left foot was still badly burned and the scar tissue had left it so incredibly twisted that walking was not going to be much of an option because of pain and the awkwardness of dragging that foot. When I learned that I had to spend at least three months in bed to recover, it felt like a prison sentence.

I had a show coming up in South Carolina, and wondered how I could build work for the exhibit if I was stuck in bed. So, I emulated Frida Kahlo — who was also trapped in bed following a tragic accident — knowing that part of what helped her recovery was painting. I followed her example and started making CAD (computer-aided design) drawings, talking to clients, ordering supplies and directing my assistants from my hospital bed — which really helped me make the leap into living my life again.

I also felt my parents — who deserve to enjoy their retirement — did not need to be taking care of a 46-year-old baby. [Mosholder laughs]


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