The first thing I remember about meeting Margaret Kilgallen and Barry McGee was that they shared the same wardrobe – knitted thrift store pullovers, pegged trousers and paint-splattered adidas.
Their personalities complemented one another’s, both in their similarities and their differences. It felt a bit like hanging out with John and Yoko. Margaret spoke in hushed tones. She seemed shy, perhaps wanting to observe more than be observed. Her quiet way of speaking was an effective way of voicing her often-strong opinions. I was often surprised at how conservative she was and I listened more intently to what she had to offer because she was never one to blare out beliefs. The amount of times she delivered sound advice to me with loving tact were innumerable, telling me the things I most needed to hear but least wanted to know.
Above all, Margaret was intensely determined to become better at the things she loved doing. She became absorbed in the practice of surfing, boxcar scribing and banjo playing, to name but a few. It was her love of the practice that carried her interests in life over into her work, uniting the two. In fact, there was very little separation from Margaret and her art. It all went hand in hand. She honoured her passions in paint, and dedicated her time to their pursuit. I suppose that for her, there really was no other way.
Text and compilation of the following words by Michele Lockwood
I had the honour and pleasure of working with Margaret Kilgallen on the last major installation she created before her death—at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia back in May 2001. Margaret stayed with my wife Martha and I for three weeks as she labored on an extraordinary installation. Margaret was very pregnant yet she still insisted on riding my beater Schwinn bicycle (the same one Barry McGee used the year before when he worked with me) to and from my home to the ICA—even in the wee hours of the morning. I remember the first day of installation so very well: It was a weekend, and the installers were all off work, but Margaret wanted to get things started. We rode bikes over to ICA together and I showed her the space, the paint she would use, the art works we had shipped from San Francisco, and the big lift that could reach to the top of the near ten-meter tall walls. I insisted that I help her—at least I could push the lift around for her while she painted—but Margaret adamantly insisted, even demanded, that she was fine to work alone. So I left. I came back hours later and the outlines of her mural “Main Drag” were already sketched out. Barry had since arrived from the airport and was helping to fill in the letters. I asked him if he had helped paint the outlines and he said no—Margaret had done this alone before he arrived! And freehand with a paint roller! It’s hard to believe that she managed, seven months pregnant, to push the huge lift into position, but she did. I also have fond memories of our time together when I took Margaret and Chris Johanson (who was one of five other artists in the exhibition with Margaret) to our very raw urban and forlorn skate park. It is near train tracks and there was an entire line of freight train cars sitting there motionless. Margaret was ecstatic and ran to the train cars to make her mark on them with oil stick, hobo-graffiti style. Chris was content to do some grinds in the gnarly corner bowl and draw a few of his oppressed characters beneath the coping of the bowl. Margaret was an incredibly strong and determined woman but also magical and otherworldly. All of us in Philadelphia who met her adored her. She just emanated something very special. It’s hard to believe she has been gone for a decade. I look back on this time with love and sadness and it’s hard not to both smile and cry. – Alex Baker
When I try to sift through the qualities of my relationship to Margaret, now that the pain of her death has nestled deep enough within me and no longer shades my ability to think of her; one of the aspects that frequently rises is the memory of her hands. Graceful and elastic with impossibly long fingers, the joints were prominent; the tips were ‘spatulate’ and perfectly suited for the making of things. I could go on about her dedication to art, her work ethic, idealism, influences, the arc of her career or her glittering magnetic energy; but Margaret had very beautiful hands. – Dan Flanagan is a Book Conservator at the California History Room, California State Library in Sacramento, CA. Margaret and Dan worked together at the Public Library in San Francisco where Dan taught her how to repair old books amongst other things.
I try to say words about Margaret as much as possible. I try to remember with people that knew her and tell people that were never brushed by her beautiful fleeting spirit, or stood in a room of her painted walls – 30 foot high. When I met Margaret, I was shooting a bunch for music, fashion and culture magazines. I talked a few in to doing stories about her. I always thought, “Why don’t these magazines write about amazing artists as well as musicians and actors?” It wasn’t really a thing then. I documented her painting in S.F, Tokyo, N.Y.C and Philly, quietly sitting on the gallery floor, chatting and watching her. I am not a painter, but I have painters talking to my camera in awe of her skills. She was an old soul and had a mastery of traditions. She channeled stuff from past generations, cultures far away. She loved history and craft, she was elegant and strong. The last time I saw her was in Philly, seven months pregnant with a little simple short brown dress, her two hanging down curls, glowing and beautiful and proud. I knew she would be an amazing mother, like her mother Dina. After the opening we all went to the curators house for a party BBQ. The last vision I have of her, as I stood in the hallway, is Margaret sitting on a low seat below me, knees up staring at me with the biggest smile like an excited little girl on her birthday. I’ll see her again. I feel her energy in the paintings I have of hers in my home. That is the thing when you create, you put yourself in all that you make and that lives forever. Margaret is here with us in all that she touched, in her art, in her friends and family, in the ocean, in our hearts. – Cheryl Dunn
I heard about Margaret’s death while in the middle of a multi day dramatic reaction to altitude sickness. In bed with a massive brain ache I was told of the phone message that Margaret had died. It was days before I could even get my thoughts to accept it. I went between two phases, over and over, “Margaret is dead” and “Margaret is not dead.” I cried and felt a strange guilt of reacting so strongly to what was tragic for everyone. The next year I needed to find a studio. Barry said he wasn’t using his York St space anymore and I should go there. When I did I found a space massed with debris. I set to clearing what was to be my space and realized that it was Margaret’s painting area. I spent days sorting and cleaning and meditating on her spirit and the physical echoes it left behind. The last time I saw Margaret was when she was five months pregnant and the most radiant and beautiful I’d ever seen anyone. She rode to my studio and we exchanged art and spoke of babies and politics. When she rode away I distinctly remember thinking, “she deserves it all, she is beautiful.” And her beauty is what keeps the second part of my initial reaction so true…Margaret is not dead. – James Seibold aka J.Otto Seibold is most famous for his Mr.Lunch children’s books but obviously there is much more to the man than just his wacky computer graphics.
The first time I saw Margaret’s work it was a total game changer for me. I had been doing artwork at the time that included carnival fonts and the like, and after seeing this installation of hers in San Francisco I basically quit art. I thought, “There is no way I could ever be as good as her!” Not long after that we became friends and worked and hung together quite a bit. As a friend she was incredibly tough, but also had a huge heart and was always willing to share. I recently found a photo of us hanging out of the roof of hers and Barry’s studio in San Francisco. We both look so young! For a brief spark of time a group of us traveled around the world making stuff. I look back on those times very fondly now. Even though Margaret’s not with us anymore, I believe her creativity still affects not only our scene, but also a whole visual world. I see her influence everywhere. – Aaron Rose
Margaret and I were walking through the mission one day and we were noticing all the sneakers hanging from the telephone lines. We hatched a plan to throw our old tired sneakers up on the lines together to mark our friendship and all of the miles we had walked together… so that evening we met down the street from my house and we began trying to throw our shoes up over the telephone lines and we quickly discovered that it was surprisingly a much more difficult endeavor than it seemed like it should be. We began laughing hysterically after each failed attempt to string them up, causing the neighbors to look out their windows to see what all the ruckus was about. Finally, after many attempts and with great satisfaction, we both got our shoes up on the wires, right next to each others… swinging in the evening breeze… good times. – Jennifer Hall was one of Margaret’s best mates and prime surf buddy. She is also a drummer, singer/songwriter for bands such as Ovarian Trolley, Knife and Fork and Ruby Howl.
On a recent Sunday I went up to the tree we planted on the hill where Barry and Mar were married, left some flowers, and had a chat. It was nice, but it felt like there should have been something grander for 10 years. Such complicated feelings, it’s weird loving somebody who has become an increasingly fuzzy memory. I wonder if there will be a day where my relationship to her is what I can see in her art and what has been written about her as an artist. Sometimes my memories start to feel like a biography, did I really know her? I have feelings for her but I increasingly have to reconstruct the memories. Makes me feel hollow when that happens. – Jeff den Broeder is based in the SF Bay area and the owner of SiloMedia, a digital media production company. The thing about Jeff is that you’d never know he was a tech head just by looking at him. Jeff and Mar shared many a paddle out at their local SF break, Linda Mar.
I flew up to San Francisco to interview and photograph Margaret about two months before she passed. She was five months pregnant and submerged in a thesis for her MFA at Stanford University. When she picked me up at the airport I was shocked to see her so pregnant. Her willowy figure was now punctuated with a brimming belly. How could I have let so much time pass between visits? Her belly was a slap in the face.
In the middle of her campus studio was a large island of paint cans, mostly stuff she reclaimed from the recycling canter. She’d fill paper coffee cups with paint mixed from the large tins and worked from these directly. Off to one side were a group of works in progress. On the floor painted strips of canvas were laid out. They had been ripped apart then machine-sewn back together, resulting in a stunning patchwork collage. There was a half-completed shack created from painted board that had been cut into pieces and put together in a house-of-cards fashion. Butted up against the walls were huge paintings of various street scenes, her self-created world made from plywood panels. Thesepieces would be assembled to create “Main Drag”, what would be Margaret’s final exhibition for the “East Meets West” show at the ICA in Philadelphia.
Margaret pulled out some of the panels to show me how they’d look when assembled. There was Cookie’s Surf Shop and a liquor store, a lumberyard with a factory in the distance that bellowed smoke. She painted a hotel called, “Sleep by the Sea.” Around the corner were two wet-suited surfers sitting on their boards, one had a speech bubble saying: www.imakook.com while the other replied: www.crappysurf.com. Mar had a faint disdain for the cashed up web-wearing blow-ins crowding the breaks with their schmick boards, designer wetsuits and kooky danger tactics. Who could blame her?
Her work had really strengthened so much in the last year. It was obvious how much she’d been painting not only for the Philly exhibit but also in an effort to complete her thesis. Her subject matter was coming from a more personal place now. Her paintings revealed stories about her family and possible causes for her cancer. Her studio was vibrating from every corner. A real evolution was taking place. I can remember commenting, “Pregnancy is good for you Mar, you haven’t been slacking off to surf. Your work really shows it!” “Yeah, but I’ve been missing it,” she said. Truth is she never got to surf again.