Collaboration and Interpretation: Margo McNulty, artist – Shauna Gilligan, writer

Shauna Gilligan

Collaboration is neither predictable nor guaranteed between artists. It is, perhaps, something as intangible as taste, or instinct. How does one artist know that the process of collaboration with another will work, or produce something concrete at the end of this collaboration? Indeed, how is the duration of collaboration defined and adhered to? Are definitions formed based on the art or the artist? Or are they even needed? And yet, artists of all types collaborate, and produce interesting, thought-provoking, and beautiful work. We can, it seems, only talk about collaboration on a case-by-case basis, and within that, each part of that collaboration of itself. Is it, perhaps, a bit like judging stories within a collection as a whole?

Margo McNulty and I first met at The Tyrone Guthrie Centre at Annaghmakerrig (Co. Monaghan, Ireland), a residential workplace for artists of all disciplines. Over the course of the stay, a sense of knowing can emerge between the artists – most have spent about a week in that intense atmosphere that forms when creativity is (literally) in the air – and this is balanced by the every day chit-chat over the communal dinner at 7pm every evening, and walks around the beautiful grounds and lakes. Still, a place like Annaghmakerrig tends to give you new eyes with which to view your work – and others’ work. As sometimes happens on a Friday after the communal dinner, the writers read extracts from their works in progress, the musicians perform, and then the group embarks on a tour of the artists’ studios where they view, and comment on, work in progress.

Margo and I had talked about our work – in the abstract, that is, without seeing it – but there was that moment when you see someone’s work as it is and measure this against the picture you had in your head. This is precisely where the instinctual notion of collaboration hit me – I saw Margo’s etchings, photographs, and simultaneously, ‘saw’ stories. Not the stories she was telling, but other stories.

We talked some more and that – almost fearful word collaboration – was mentioned, and, both of us acting on some sort of instinct, agreed to give it a go. I would write a story based on Margo’s visual art. Perhaps all that I had seen, perhaps one piece in particular. Margo – in time, maybe – would create a piece of visual art in response to my fiction. Perhaps a section from my first novel Happiness Comes from Nowhere. Or a short story. Neither of us could tell, or know, or guess, at this stage, if this collaboration would work. The only concrete ‘thing’ we had – which wasn’t at all concrete – was that it felt right. Our work seemed to communicate something.

Like the reader to a book, the voyeur to a piece of visual art brings his or her own vision. And I know that I imposed something – again unconsciously – into or onto Margo’s work. But there was one piece that haunted me.


The amusing part – and it is here in our story that the ping-pong sounds of collaboration start to become louder – was that I had ‘read’ Jump as being an image of a spider. For me, there was a sinister, supernatural element to the etching. The building became monster-like and overpowering as it simultaneously tried to disappear, pushing that spider to the fore.

I wrote a first draft of the story Miraculous. Margo read it. Commented that perhaps I had picked up something from the land – the land that is unseen in Jump – and I told her about my feelings of the spider. To laughter – or was it incredulity? She told me it was a cat. A black cat. Jumping. My heart – or perhaps more accurately my head – lurched. And yet. But still. I had written about a cat. My main character had a cat. A cat that protected. A cat that told stories. A cat that was, in essence, the narrator, the Nelly Dean of the story.

And so because I had misinterpreted the essence of Margo’s work, was this first collaboration a failure?

At the time it felt like I’d stepped out of that luminal space of creativity into one of objective rationality. I thought I had to start again. I felt I had to start again. I put the story away for months, abandoned it. Margo and I talked of starting new collaborations based on land. And buildings. Both creating new pieces of art simultaneously. Forgetting the exchange, forgetting the newness in interpretation. We believed that the collaboration had not worked; I had not interpreted the art correctly.

And then I found myself returning to it. A year – or more, perhaps – later. Something in the story, combined with something in Jump seemed to work. The pieces had almost formed themselves. They did not speak of correctness, or definitions or rules or framing, or collaboration or interpretation. They just were.

Artistic collaboration is, perhaps, something as intangible as taste, or instinct. What Margo and I have learned throughout his process is to trust the work, or indeed, surrender to the work. Collaboration, while neither predictable nor guaranteed between artists, involves at some level, a type of magic where the work of one artist communes with the other and produces something new. Not, perhaps, what the artists had intended, but what the work intended. Like one of those surprise moments novelists encounter when their character – in becoming complex, suddenly – does something unexpected, and then, takes off.

And now, seeing Miraculous in print in The Lonely Crowd alongside Jump  it is clear that not only had Margo and I collaborated as artists, but we also produced something new. A product which unfolded from us or revealed itself to us. Why? Because, as artists, we willed it, we intuited it, but most of all, we allowed it to become. And our next collaboration – into which Margo and I have already dived – is just as arduous and just as curious a journey as the one evident in The Lonely Crowd. It is the process of collaboration – and that believing in the unknown – that, for me, holds me to it, keeps me returning to and discovering how pictures speak words to me, and how words paint pictures.

Shauna Gilligan, from Dublin, has had short fiction and reviews published in (among others) The Stinging Fly (print), New Welsh Review (online), and The Lonely Crowd (online). She holds a PhD (Writing) from the University of South Wales and teaches writing as part of the Arts Council of Ireland Writers in Prisons Panel. Her first novel Happiness Comes from Nowhere (London, Ward Wood: 2012) was described by the Sunday Independent in Ireland as a ‘thoroughly enjoyable and refreshingly challenging debut novel.’

Margo McNulty’s practice comprises of many different media including: painting, etching, lithography, video and photography. McNulty’s work is influenced by traditions inherent in Irish culture and deals with hidden history, memory and place. The work concerns itself with episodes of chance, the intersection of personal and public histories and how these histories and meanings can be embedded in material objects. McNulty is a graduate of National College of Art and Design Dublin, and has exhibited widely over the last few years with solo exhibitions and group shows in Ireland, Sweden, Poland and the UK. She has taken part in a number of Irish and international residencies, and her work resides in major collections nationwide.

You can read ‘Miraculous’ in our Winter issue, which may be purchased here.

Words © Shauna Gilligan. Image: ‘Jump’ © Margo McNulty.