VCA alumni stories: Janno McLaughlin, artist

Janno McLaughlin, Instagram.
Janno McLaughlin, Instagram.

After many years living between New York and Argentina, artist Janno McLaughlin completed a Master of Contemporary Art at the VCA in 2018. She paints and writes stories about hope, optimism, resilience and loss, and uses her art practice to highlight the plight of the most fragile in our community.

By Stephanie Juleff

Prior to completing the Master of Contemporary Art at the Victorian College of the Arts, you spent a lot of time living between New York and Buenos Aires. What impact did your time overseas have on your practice? What was it like returning to Australia?

I finished a fine art degree at RMIT in 1994 and went straight overseas to live in the New York precinct with my new husband, so I never really connected with the art community in Australia back then.

Instead, I had to throw myself into art and looking at galleries and art in New York because I didn’t know a soul there. I was lucky I made a close friend who worked in education at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), as she would let me tag along to closed-door curator talks and lectures at MOMA each week.

I made another close friend who worked in the film industry. That was pretty amazing – having a window into other worlds. I found a painting studio and enrolled myself in a multitude of art classes offered at Silvermine in New Canaan and Parsons School of Design in New York.

I also did some art residencies and camps to places such as Ghost Ranch in New Mexico. I guess my eyes were opening very wide and I just said “yes” to opportunities that came up.

After four years, and giving birth to twins, we moved to Argentina for an adventure and my husband’s work. We spent the next 14 years pretty well on horseback, moving back and forth between New York and Argentina. It was a massive undertaking learning Spanish and having one more baby in Argentina.

I became the artist in residence for the Australian Embassy in Buenos Aires for an art-environmental(slum) art project which culminated in me working in a slum for nearly seven years and running the project. It was an enormous learning curve trying to raise funding by ourselves, and meeting United Nations, World Bank and ambassador delegations.

Mainly it was gruelling work in the dust and poverty and we didn’t really know what we were doing. It evolved by itself and kept accidentally growing. I loved it all, mostly, except for the terrible bits, and was able to bring in Australian artists for short bursts, such as Peter Daverington and later Geoffrey Ricardo and many willing expats.

My time in Argentina really showed me another side of humanity and life, and opened me and my practice up enormously. I collaborated on lots of projects over my years there, did a lot of art/ dance projects with kids, and introduced sewing into my practice.

I think I went into a little bit of culture shock leaving the Spanish-speaking world. Everyone in Australia (and especially in the bush) seemed to be wearing stripy work and safety shirts, all looking like bumble bees. I was a bit taken aback at all of the new rules. I’ve settled right back in now after a couple of years but I am getting itchy feet again, thinking it may be time for another adventure.

Artist Janno McLaughlin talks about her art and life in Buenos Aires. Video: ABC 730

Can you tell us what you’re doing currently in your career?

At this very moment, I’m most excited to be making an installation and table for the NGV’s Art of Dining masked gala fundraiser ball on behalf of VCA Access. I started working on this project the day after I finished my Master of Contemporary Art in December 2018.

I have a long way to go yet. My interpretation of a design brief involves Cleopatra, Mark Antony, love, lust, Egyptian gods, mythology, jewels, feathers, water lilies, peacocks, scarab beetles, quirkiness, Elizabeth Taylor, haute couture, and lots of painting, sewing, silks, vintage fabrics and beads, sequins and water.

I have an exhibition planned for New York, and will also be doing a few workshops with school kids after the gala ball.

Why did you choose to study at the VCA?

The VCA was my only choice and I had to wait to come back to Australia to apply. I have always loved everything about the VCA from afar and heard many great things about it. Peter Daverington and Rose Lang wrote me lovely references and I was allowed in. It seemed to have incredible alumni, amazing teachers. It’s also in a beautiful setting and right in the thick of art, music and theatre.

How did your time at the VCA match and/ or differ from your expectations?

It was much bigger, better and more demanding than I had imagined. We gave everything we had, and every day was a learning day up until the very last pull-down of the graduate show. I am still learning.

Dr Kate Just was our boss, really – a pretty impressive leader and incredibly kind and demanding at the same time. She expected a lot from us, and I think all of our tiny cohort, 19 or so, gave it everything. I feel that we somehow managed to become a family. We are all so different and our art is so varied and distinct.

All the staff were truly impressive and generous. I feel very grateful and know our cohort will stay bonded and supportive of each other. I feel really proud of all of us and honoured to be part of how we grew and what we made together.

Cocoon soft sculpture series and Paperwork series, by Janno McLaughlin, 2018, at the VCA Masters Exhibition 2018.

What advice would you give someone at the start of their journey studying at the VCA?

I would say to follow your heart and also open it up to advice without losing your gut instinct. Listen to the teachers carefully because they usually have pretty solid advice, but I would also say to be brave.

Work harder than you think you can and try to get to school as much as you can as there is always incidental learning that happens by osmosis and by being present.

My biggest advice is to look after each other, be kind and help each other get through. You will all be stronger together. Artists need to help each other, and we all have different skill sets and needs at different times. Be generous and be open. Don’t be scared to ask for help.

I was lucky to have artist Sally Smart as my mentor through the VCA Access program and, although she was always away overseas – being a super and successful artist – she showed me by example what an artist has to do and advised me that it is all about momentum.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

My greatest achievement is tricky … I have three beautiful boys, am still alive and married to the man I love, and working as an artist. The great thing about going through life is there are a ton of experiences and adventures and some are great, and some are not so great.

When things get tough, I remind myself of running across the Andes in a 150-kilometre ultra run race six years ago with a girlfriend between Chile and Argentina. I still can’t believe we made it! I’m proud of running those mountains, volcanoes and snow blizzards over three days. Nothing I have done before or after has been as liberating or life affirming.

Art-wise, I am most proud of our work in the slum of the Riachuelo Villa. You can see a story about it that ABC 730 Report made.

Janno McLaughlin’s work features in the NGV’s Art of Dining: Best of the Best 2019, on 2 and 3 May 2019.