My Process – Holly de Moissac
Challenging Fragility and Channeling Grief
Article by Wendy McGrath
Being a fan of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and having just read Jeanette Winterson’s Frankissstein, questions around what is natural and what is unnatural were at the top of my mind when I encountered Holly de Moissac’s work in her University of Alberta studio. An IV bag floats in mid-air, images of human body parts merge and emerge from trees in several displayed prints and, on a table, woodcut body parts rest in quiet unease.
She reveals a ‘first-aid kit’ with its components printed with images of weeds on the back—weeds as metaphor for trauma and resilience. de Moissac has much experience with the fragility of life, of grief and psychological and physical trauma, having attended 15 funerals in 10 years. She lost grandparents, aunts, uncles during this time and describes it as, “A train of personal loss.” de Moissac has also battled a series of health crises including Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS), hypothyroidism, bronchitis, and whooping cough. She has supported loved ones with complex mental health challenges and been involved with strong, vulnerable artists at Edmonton’s Nina Haggerty Centre.
For de Moissac, her experiences with physical fragility are essential to the person she is, having an undercurrent of strength and growth. “Medicine is the door we’ve gone through,” she says. Yet, de Moissac’s work also opens the door for the viewer to enter a world that is challenging, fragile, and hopeful.
Born: Leduc, Alberta
Education: University of Alberta, Printmaking (MFA candidate)
Recent awards include: SSHRC Canada Graduate Scholarship-Master’s Level
(national), Walter H. Johns Graduate Fellowship, Arts Graduate Scholarship (provincial), Alberta Society of Arts Graduate Scholarship (provincial)
Favourite artists: David Altmejd, Sally Mann, Marigold Santos, William Kentridge
Favourite book: The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan
Favourite album: Billie Eilish’s latest album [When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?]
What do you consider to be the greatest influence on your work?
I have had a lot of personal experience with grief, loss, and illness that unravelled the way I experienced my body and the bodies of others. I had felt the void in language surrounding death, trauma, and the body and I was hungry to fill that space with art. The environmental considerations in my work soon followed and stemmed from reimagining that vulnerable body and its connection to the world—as that lens focused wider, it naturally expanded outside the body.
When did you begin printmaking and what attracted you to it?
Doing my BFA back in 2010, my fundamentals instructor told me I had “the soul of a printmaker.” I fell in love with the process. It has an alchemic magic I’m still addicted to. I love the labour, the focus it requires, and the ritual of printing the plate. Pulling a good print is incredibly satisfying.
Can you describe your printmaking aesthetic and how you apply it when creating artist’s books?
I consider what materials and line of visual inquiry best fits my subject. Most of my work exists in an in-between space: objects that aren’t truly functional, hybrid bodies struggling to survive, and text that describes multiple forms of experience and existence. I am always desperate to follow my curiosity and see where it takes me.
When I make an artist’s book, like with anything else, I usually have a sense of the emotional experience I want the book to generate and a rough plan for visual components. From there, I try and choose materials that fit the subject matter and follow where they lead.
In your work, what is the relationship between word and image?
I enjoy the vibration that happens between text and image when they are employed well. I think of text like a harmony to visual experience, adding another layer of nuance that can either focus a lens on one particular read or make the looking more complex and open. Text becomes a bit like the dial on a microscope.
How does the concept of ‘fragility’ influence your current work and, certainly, your previous canon?
Fragility is the most important element of my work. Fragility is often paired with power—a tension I find fascinating. Humanity and nature have power to reshape one another with a magnitude and force that is terrifying and awe- inspiring. Yet, ecosystems can be so individually precarious and the human body so vulnerable to harm from the surrounding world.
I am also addicted to making objects that are physically fragile. There is so much risk in that kind of work: to sink resources into objects that will be destroyed or could easily fail. Fragile things can be so resilient and complex, begging further exploration. Fragility is so much more than weakness.
How does feminism and the female body impact your work?
In the west, our concept of land is often feminized, measured by its barrenness or fertility and attached to shapeless mothering metaphors long divorced from the intricate belief systems of first peoples. Likewise, the female body is often presented as passive and delicate, compared with flowers, fruit, and soft organic forms. In my work, I often combine female anatomy and natural forms in ways that are less clean and comfortable, deconstructing the falsely flat representations of both.
Is there a need, now, to confront the significance of ‘fragility’ on both a macro and micro scale?
I don’t think on an individual level that settler-colonial based western culture provides the tools to cope with mortality and vulnerability. I think people truly want to have genuine, authentic encounters with this kind of subject matter but are buffeted by images of idealized bodies and lives that make it feel unsafe to embrace imperfection. On a personal level, this is something we all have to navigate and it certainly isn’t simple.
We are in the process of reckoning with fragility on a macro scale. High-stakes discussion surrounding environmental and human rights issues relates to a former lack of acknowledgment regarding fragility in ourselves, our ecosystems, and the structures we create. We are collectively waking up to how interdependent and fragile these components are. We are letting go of some comfortable dreams that no longer serve us and this process is not painless.
Do you think about the concept of impermanence in the context of your practice?
I think of impermanence as a material as much as a concept. I am currently producing a series of handmade, printed balloons that will slowly deflate throughout the course of exhibition. I like the poetry of putting an incredible amount of effort and precision into objects that will ultimately fail. The balloons take the form of large IV bags that bear images of water along with text that narrates the experience of receiving an IV-bag and anxiety regarding the uncertain future of freshwater. In this case, the ephemeral nature of the object is both a conceptual and material choice.
Can you describe your creative process?
It usually begins with something I am deeply curious about. I generally start with writing: taking notes that relate to my subject, things I have read, and processing through stream of consciousness journaling. I find my most creative moments are right when I fall asleep—the visual “thing” starts to take shape. Once I get a few small sketches out, I dive into material exploration and select what I hope to be the most effective material language for the project. Eventually all this coalesces into the final form.
I think of my practice as a visual alchemy, creating bodies and objects that explore the in-between spaces of these binaries. I love stepping into spaces that aren’t tidy: loss, anxiety, ecological trauma, and human/non-human interconnection are all difficult to discuss on a personal level. We don’t always have the words in English to step into these spaces coherently; this is where visual art shines. I love unzipping a dichotomous issue and creating objects or images that imagine the space in the middle, obsessing about what would populate these new worlds. Impossible bodies and objects are fascinating because the narrative that results is so open ended and able to speak to broad experience.
What are you currently working on?
I’m working on several parallel streams of thought. I’m fascinated by the way that medical language and history has influenced how we understand our bodies and environments. The IV bags are a good example of this kind of exploration. I’m also deeply fascinated with hybrid bodies and representing the metaphorical space between land and body. In this place, I create anatomical hybrids that are struggling to survive and adapt in a future world. These are currently being produced as drawings that are then scanned and pushed through a digital framework, laser engraved onto paper, and transformed with layers of screen printing.