Interview: Mackenzie McAlpin

By Kaitlin Pomerantz

Artist Mackenzie McAlpin welcomed me into her home-studio in South Philadelphia for a casual discussion about her upcoming solo show, “Dumb Love,” at the University City Arts League, opening September 8th. She worked furiously as we spoke, painting miniature animals on a large paper tableau: a series of Brady Bunch squares in a composition of non-human faces. As she would finish one, she would contemplate carefully out loud, “What animal should I do next? There are so many!” and rifle through lists of names of animals she had known and loved. The room teemed with her other creations, as well as trinkets, knickknacks, the art of friends, and collected objects from her partner –  artist Billy Dufala –  from the recycling center where he works and runs an artist residency (RAIR Philly), as well as some of his works. A fluffy cat loafed in a corner the whole time we spoke. Occasionally the second cat, also named Billy, would jump up onto her painting table, and she would whisk him away before he got his paws in her painting…

Kaitlin Pomerantz: Tell me about the title of your show.

Mackenzie McAlpin: Dumb Love is the culmination of a lifetime of object crushes. Revisiting the things I’ve loved is a practice that makes me happy. Some of them are lifelong obsessions; some are crushes that lasted one day, one hour.

KP: What are some of the things you love, that will be featured in this show?

MM:  I love so many things. Some include animals, boobs, colors, snacks, packaging, plants, and memories. I love the memories I have of my youth, some of those are featured in the show.

KP: Some of the work in the show will be miniatures, which is kind of your signature. Have miniatures always been the mainstay of your art practice?

MM: Nope, I didn’t start making minis until four years ago, and it was kind of by accident. I went to school for Photography, which I still love and still do daily, but switching things up has been fun. I put a mini in a group show and had a great response to it personally and publicly, plus bonus, my Mom used to make clay miniatures. It runs in the family, haha.

The first miniature I made was an orange tabby cat and when I was working with the clay for the first time, it made me feel like my mom was there with me. She passed away in 2009 and I still seek out any way of connecting with her, but it kind of made me be like, “Oh, fuck you. Of course I’m doing this, and enjoying it, and you’re like, laughing out there somewhere.” Like I could have a conversation with her through making, and using the same materials I saw her work with growing up.

KP: Ah, amazing, so making miniatures is something your mom used to do…

MM: Yes, she made miniatures out of Sculpey.

KP: For fun? For sale?

MM: She tried to make everything fun, but mostly, it was a form of currency for her, she did a lot of trades. My family didn’t have the “big bucks,” and she was a single mother raising five kids, so it was like, “Can you fix my car? I’ll make a wreath for your door.” My mom did a lot of stuff, to make ends meet. She was a Teaching Assistant at our school during the school year and did the decorating and floral arranging for weddings during the summer, amongst so many other things. But yeah, she made miniatures too. Miniatures of all of the animals of Noah’s Ark, lots of Santas, snowmen, snowwomen, heart necklaces, rabbits, cats, pumpkins… I can’t imagine what she would have made if she had the luxury to make for fun. She was cool and smart and loved art, so I bet it would have been rad.

KP: Does the work in this show fall in line with the commissions and online work that you’ve become known for?

MM: Eh, I’ll let everyone else decide that, haha. With a commission, I will work for hours and hours on the same thing, trying to “perfect it,” but when I’m making for myself it’s more like a snapshot. I’m very familiar with distraction, so… moving quick is a good thing for me.  I try my best to not overthink things, because when I do I get lost in my head. If I think too hard about WHY I’m making something, it often means I don’t make anything at all. I try to stay productive by choosing to make things that I love or crush on, and luckily I do have the luxury to make for fun.

KP: What materials can we expect from you in this show?

MM: Most of the minis are made from polymer clay. I like it because of its flexibility- I can work at home, and finish pieces more immediately. I do struggle with the stigma around it [as hobbyist material] and the fact that it’s PVC and plasticizers mixed (yikes, I’m touching that all the time!), but anyway, for now, it is accessible and it suits my current needs.

KP: It looks like you are also including paintings on paper, or illustration? Is this new for you?

MM: Painting/illustrating is definitely new for me, I’ve been playing in that field for the last year or so, and it’s great. I know very little, but I think that’s the fun in it. I am surrounded by really supportive people, and Philly is full of support in the art world, so it’s really nice to just feel like I can try something out. I’m really hoping the paintings bring smiles.

KP: Your work is so colorful and zany and fun, but there are other, maybe more serious, elements to it. Like a kind of politics, and maybe critique of consumer culture?

MM: I think that more than a critique of consumer culture, it’s my observation of it and also my fascination with the politics of distraction. My friend, just brought the term “bread and circuses” to my attention. It was a way for politicians to keep votes of poorer citizens, by giving out cheap food and entertainment. This is so relevant in our current political climate, and it is also a big part of what my work does for me, it distracts, but sometimes the things that distract us also sustain us.  Growing up with little money, the things that took my mind off of that and other forgettable things were colorful, name-brand objects: name brand cereal, name brand toothpaste, name brand soda, name brand in general made me feel like we were doing ok. The bread and circuses of my life.

KP: And there seems to be a funerary element that cannot be overlooked. What do you think about that?

MM: There’s definitely a memorial element to the work– memorializing my memories. I love where I come from, and I miss it. A lot of what I make is directly connecting me to the things and people and spaces of those memories.

KP: Has creating work for this show cracked open new ideas for you? Where do you see your work heading after this?

MM: Oh man, yeah. I’m sure you know how it is…once you start working and you get your brain going, it’s hard to shut it off. I’ve got ideas for days! Ha! I’ve been daydreaming about photography a lot lately, but I’m not sure where my work is headed after this and I’m not really concerned with that. I’m excited to breathe and reboot.



Mackenzie McAlpin was born in Ohio and lives and works in Philadelphia. She has her Bachelors of Specialized Studies in Fine Art Photography and Retail Merchandising from Ohio University. Her solo exhibition, Dumb Love, opens at the University City Arts League on September 8th and runs through October 6th.

Kaitlin Pomerantz is an artist and educator in Philadelphia, and an editor at Title Magazine.