Friday Art Crush is an interview series highlighting the work of Photography students in their thesis year at OCAD U. We grab a coffee and chat about what they have been exploring, and they share great advice for working on a year-long project. The series was created and led by Morgan Sears-Williams; this year, it has been taken over by Ana Luisa Bernárdez.

This week, Ana chatted with Margaret Cornell, a Photo major in her fifth year.

Tell me a little bit about the themes have explored in your years at OCAD?

Funny enough, all throughout my four years before thesis, I hadn’t created any sort of work about the relationship between my mother and I, which is what I’m working on now. Previously, I had created work about body image, the representation of women and men, and I also would explore ideas of gender and race. Then, in my third year, I started playing more with abstraction, focusing on colour, space and time. I found it really cool and interesting, and I thought I was going to carry that into my fourth year. But that year was mostly about exploring different ideas, because I definitely didn’t know what I wanted to do for my thesis.

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What are have you been working on for the past thesis months and how did you come to choose your topic?

It really didn’t hit me until this past summer when I went to Nova Scotia, which is where my mom is from. Being around family was what made me realize that was something I wanted to explore. My work is centered around my relationship with my mother, who was born with a physical condition called Arthogryposis, which causes the locking and curving of the joints. When we were going through some old things in my grandparents’ attic, we came across this book of photos of my mom and I, and there was a cutout of an article that talked about my her being one of the very few people with her condition to successfully have a child. I had never seen this posting before, and that was the exact moment when I realized this is what I wanted to focus on for my final work.

Growing up, I found it really hard to connect with her; I, being of abled body, fell under the pressures of society: I wanted to look and act a certain way, mostly put on me from media, television… no one was really representing people with physical disabilities, and if they were, it wasn’t done properly. I only learned the exact terminology for her condition about two years ago… it was never something that came up in conversation, or something I was curious about. It was probably that part of me that was blocking things out, and I didn’t want to ask because I wasn’t sure what I should or shouldn’t ask, even though she is my mom. I think it all comes back to the way society made me feel about her disability, as if I couldn’t ask those questions because it wasn’t right. I have vivid memories of parents telling their kids not to ask questions when we were in public – obviously, kids were very curious, and the response of some parents most often than not was something like “Shh, you can’t ask that”. It’s hard for people to see her and see someone who lives the exact same life as people with abled bodies do: she goes to work everyday, comes home, pays the bills, has a family – she just has a different way of doing it. I wanted to use my thesis to speak on this, it  has always been on my mind and something I have wrestled with my entire life.

How was the process of opening up with your mom and presenting your idea to her?

At first she was open to it, but she was really nervous at the same time. She is never asked to get her picture taken in this sense… people have taken pictures of her while we’re in public, and it has made her feel as if she is an attraction for people, as if the spotlight is on her for the wrong reasons. For my thesis, it was different for her, because it was probably the first time someone wanted to photograph her as a way of showing appreciation for her body, and celebrating her for who she is. Obviously she’s really happy for me, what I’m trying to say and how far I have come, but she was really timid and nervous about her image being taken.

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It must have been hard. How have you been able to make her feel more comfortable in this process?

We’ve had a lot of conversations about the reasons behind her not liking her image being taken. I didn’t want her to feel as if she was just my “subject”, but this is something that I have come to understand as I worked through my thesis. In the beginning, my work was only based on photoshoots of her. After getting critiques from my peers and doing my own research, I started doing collaborative studio shots in which I would photograph her, and then she would photograph me, which is not something that she gets to do very often. This is what eventually led me into the next stage, where we are both in the photographs. In a lot of these photos, her and I are both topless in her bedroom, and that was to show our similarities as mother and daughter, our equalness, and the intimacy of touch.

Do you think this work was a turning point in your relationship with her?

Definitely. Peter Sramek and I had a lot of conversations about the route I wanted to take with this, and sometimes I didn’t think I was going to be able to do it. Some of these things are really hard to hear and understand coming from a parent. I kind of had to put on a tough exterior and take in what she was saying, knowing that I was using this information towards my practice, to try to make people aware. Overall, it was hard for me to hear but I did it because I think other people need to hear it as well.

Do you think the images need to be contextualized in some way to be able to carry your message across?

Besides the three prints that I am showing, there will be a written piece by her. I asked her to write whatever she wanted, knowing the focus of my work. She started off with her name and her condition, and then spoke a little bit about her early life— being a part of a family of five children, and then gradually getting into being a mother with a physical disability, and the pushback and doubts she got from both society and health professionals. I felt this was a good way to sum up everything I had to say, and everything I wanted to express, but through her words and writing. I asked her to hand write everything, which is an important aha moment for people: looking at her hands and the lack of movement, someone could assume she can’t write, but her handwriting is actually beautiful.

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How is your vision for your final critique and GradEX?

I’m actually having my images framed right now, so I’m not going to do much more shooting for school, although I think I’m going to continue working with her in the future. For GradEX, I have three images— with these I intend to tell a story of our relationship, where it started and where it is now. Then there is the written print as well.

What is something that you would’ve liked to know before you started thesis year? And a piece of advice you would give to someone going into their final year.

I think not to freak out if you don’t have a concept or theme right away, because sometimes it’ll hit you in the funniest ways. I think that is kind of what art is about, letting inspiration come to you rather than looking for it. Thesis is just a time for you to express you as an artist, and an opportunity to explore something that maybe you’ve been interested in doing for a while but haven’t had the chance to do so. It’s important to not freak out all the time about “What if this isn’t right? Or if that isn’t right?”, but just going with it and doing the work.

For me, I found that talking to people helped a lot. Guest speakers, or anyone coming in and talking to us. To have another person’s opinion is really important… sometimes for my topic I found that my classmates didn’t really know how to critique me on it, and I totally get that. So getting a second, third, fourth opinion was really key for my progress.

What are some professors that had a positive impact in your time at OCAD U?

Nicholas Pye, April Hickox, Peter Sramek.

Margaret’s work will be on display during GradEX 2019:  May 1st – 5th!

To learn more about her work, you can visit her website.