Atlanta artist Megan Mosholder rises above tragedy to exhibit at the Venice Biennale
She also suffered the loss of her beloved friend and colleague Justin Rabideauthen-director of the Zuckerman Museum of Art, who died in October 2018.
“In the beginning, the news of Justin’s death depressed me deeply and I lost my drive,” she says. “It felt like a double whammy because I was dying and no one thought I was going to make it. But then I decided I had two choices: I could either stay in this bed and rot, or I could go back upstairs and go to work.”
In every way their journey has been enchanted ever since. Last year she was invited to present at the European Cultural Center’s Personal Structures exhibition, coinciding with the Venice Biennale. It came as no surprise to someone familiar with the complex webs she’s weaved — out Woodruff Park to Sydney, Australia, to Atlanta’s Atlantic Yards, where she’s been most New Order for Microsoft will be presented at the end of May.
ArtsATL met the hard-working artist by phone in Venice, where she installed her piece “Letterale” at Palazzo Bembo. She and Sirlin are exhibiting together under the umbrella title Borders of Light and Water. Reflecting on her role as a cultural ambassador, Mosholder recalled the muse that inspired her to overcome tragedy.
Q: Her parabolic string installations have a heavenly, otherworldly quality that evokes a sense of infinite possibility. Have immersive tracks like “Letterale” changed your way of thinking and/or facilitated recovery from the car accident?
A: When I started working, it wasn’t supposed to be about me at all. I felt that including myself in my work was a limitation for people – who deserved to experience art in a very personal way.
After the accident so many people said they couldn’t wait to see how it would affect my work. Initially I was upset with the suggestion, but eventually I decided to rip the band-aid off and do something.
The first piece was “Trial By Fire” at the MINT Gallery in 2019… a selfie for people to walk into. There was a charred element – ash and what appeared to be burning coals – that mimicked how my body had been charred, broken, chopped into pieces and put back together.
When Jason Petersone of my assistants in Venice, first saw “Letterale” (Italian for “literal”) in New York, he said it was poignant because it reflected my experience of rising from the ashes to keep building.
Q: can you describe the piece
A: This self portrait is so literal.
It’s a free-standing booth, almost like a phone booth, with flames on the floor, a projection onto the floor of a car crash. The hand-painted strings hang from the ceiling of the stand. It’s a literal self-portrait of who I am as a person and as an artist. It’s a nod to overcoming my struggles…especially in this city because Venice is by no means ADA (The Americans with Disabilities Act) compliant.
I have wonderful artists who help me – pull my wheelchair over all the bridges. And I literally crawled into my Airbnb. We have also incorporated a ramp into the piece so ideally people in wheelchairs can walk in.
Q: If you could make one impression in Venice as a direct result of a visitor spending time in Letterale, what would it be?
A: I think it would be endurance.
I want people to know that you can come out of a catastrophic, tragic thing in your life and still continue to live the way you did before. When I first came out of the hospital, I kept hearing what an inspiration I was to people. At first it really annoyed me. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized it wasn’t about me — it was about her. If my story and work can encourage them to persevere despite the challenges in their lives, I think that’s the best I can hope for.
Q: What traces has Venice left on you?
A: One of the reasons why I decided to take part in this exhibition, besides the prestige it gives to the artists, is that I have always wanted to see Venice. But the reality of this city exceeded my expectations and ideas. Every single corner, the food, the people, the wine… all so breathtakingly beautiful.
Q: They have budgeted $130,000 to participate in the Biennial. Who bears the costs?
A: One reason for the exorbitant cost is that physically I can’t do the work myself, so I have five assistants to help me in Venice. Most of the money paid to the European Culture Commission ($50,000) came from the corporate jobs I completed in 2021 and 2022. And I raised $10,000 through private donors. I’m back to zero financially now and I’m really trying not to be nervous. Hopefully this work that I did in Venice will help bring about more large scale work.
With all the people suffering in Ukraine, a part of me thought, “Who the hell am I asking to ask people to help me raise this money?” But when I saw pictures of what Ukrainians were like protection of cultural assets To keep them from getting blown up, it reinforced my belief that art matters.
I’m a cultural worker representing Atlanta in Venice. I think people are finally starting to see Atlanta as culturally important to the United States. Artists back home no longer feel they need to relocate to cities like Brooklyn to have a viable career. Here in the palazzo Shanequa Gay is in the hallway next to us, so I feel like this is a solid little slice of Atlanta. The city flexes its muscles in all sorts of ways… and one of the main ways is through art.
Q: You named Frida Kahlo as a source of inspiration. What did you take away from their example?
A: In July 2020 my left leg was amputated below the knee. It was a decision I made because my left foot was still badly burned and the scar tissue had twisted it so incredibly that walking wasn’t a big option because of the pain and awkwardness of pulling that foot. When I learned that I had to spend at least three months in bed recovering, it felt like a prison sentence.
I had an exhibition in South Carolina and was wondering how I could build work for the exhibition if I was stuck in bed. So I emulated Frida Kahlo – who was also trapped in bed after a tragic accident – knowing that part of 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 to take the leap in my life again.
I also felt like my parents – who deserved to enjoy their retirement – didn’t have to worry about a 46-year-old baby. [Mosholder laughs]