Born in 1941 in Sydney, Nova Scotia, Mike MacDonald is of Mi’kmaq ancestry. He is based in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he has resided for more than two decades, working as a video and installation artist, in addition to pursuing photography and more recently new media projects. MacDonald is a self-taught artist who focuses mainly on the environment, incorporating plants and animals into a great many of his artworks. He has found inspiration in both his aboriginal ancestry and more Western sources, drawing from science as well as traditional Aboriginal medicine and biology. His works have been featured in many exhibitions worldwide at such venues as the Canadian Museum of Civilization (Hull, Quebec, Canada), the Heard Museum (Phoenix, Arizona, U.S.), and the Canadian Cultural Centre in Paris, France. In 1994, he was awarded the prestigious Jack and Doris Shadbolt Prize from the Vancouver Institute for Visual Arts.
Some of MacDonald’s most renowned projects are the butterfly gardens he has planted in numerous locations around Canada since the early 1990s. The gardens are very tactile, living examples of his devotion to and admiration of the environment. He plants host plants for the caterpillars to eat and flowers that attract flocks of butterflies, which dine on the nectar and lay their eggs. MacDonald does not set up these gardens in quiet countryside locations; instead he chooses to beautify downtown spaces and concrete architectures. Winnipeg-based curator Catherine Mattes notes that "the butterfly gardens are an intimate and holistic learning tool. They prompt us to consider human relationships, the precarious environments in which we live, and the inconspicuous beauty that surrounds us in our daily meanderings." (1) Butterfly Garden
was also transformed into a subtle Web site that references MacDonald’s physical gardens. The Web site offers a visual and textual tour of the different plants and flowers in the garden and explains the butterflies’ relationships to each specimen. The site is housed on the St. Norbert Arts Centre’s Web site.
The inspiration to create these gardens can be seen in several of MacDonald’s previous video and installation works, most notably in Touched by the Tears of a Butterfly
(1994). This installation features a silent videotape in a loop played on a monitor in front of a set of rocking chairs that are placed in the actual gallery space. The video follows the life of a butterfly, from its existence as a caterpillar until the moment it bursts out of its cocoon as a colourful winged insect. Sylvie Fortin remarks that "the apparent simplicity of the video-a deceptively unobtrusive succession of shots whose duration is dictated by their subject-emphasizes the encroachment of technology, the utter inextricability of nature and technology in contemporary life." (2)
Besides his interest in butterfly gardens, MacDonald has also been recognized for presenting some of the most touching installations on Aboriginal heritage and community. For example, Electronic Totem
(1987) showcased a stack of five video monitors, one on top of the other, depicting the daily, contemporary life of an Aboriginal community in British Columbia, Canada. Marie Morgan writes:
"Mountains, an old woman drumming and sing-speaking stories, totem poles, longhouses, the living animals depicted on the totems, and lots of clean, clear water; a simple memorable piece which omits the painful side-the material poverty, scarred forests, and inferior land on which most Natives live. The political goal is to build a sense of self-worth which people do not get if the places in which they live are continually reflected to them in the negativity of mass media." (3)
His other video works, including Seven Sisters
(1989), Rat Art
(1990) and Secret Flowers
(1993), have all been shown across Canada, the United States and internationally in venues such as the Presentation House Gallery (North Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada) and the Audio Visueel Experimenteel Festival
in Arnhem, the Netherlands.
MacDonald’s careful and positive storytelling, as well as his tender regard for nature and the quiet goings-on of the butterfly, has built him a reputation as one of the most important artists in Canada. The respect for him by his fellow artists will also be felt in the project Ten Little Indians,
a residency program he is curating at the St. Norbert Arts Centre in St. Norbert, Manitoba, Canada. Here, along with nine other artists ranging from senior to emerging, MacDonald will investigate digital technologies in a special context of sharing and mentorship based on traditional Aboriginal familial roles.