Ellen McMahon is a Professor in the School of Art at The University of Arizona. She has an MS in Scientific Illustration from The University of Arizona and an MFA in Visual Art from Vermont College of Fine Art.
In 2005, after more than a decade of creating work about domestic life, McMahon expanded the focus of her visual art, design, and writing from her experience of motherhood to the wider issues of the natural world. In 2007, she received a Fulbright Scholar’s Grant for a six-month stay in Puerto Peñasco, Mexico, where she worked on several conservation and environmental education projects with the Center for the Study of Deserts and Oceans. In 2010, she initiated and served as project director and co-editor of an interdisciplinary collaborative faculty/student research project addressing the fragile aqueous ecology of the Southwestern U.S. This project culminated in the book Ground|Water: The Art, Design and Science of a Dry River (Confluencenter for Creative Inquiry, 2012). McMahon’s 2011 video, “Naming is Seeing|Seeing is Forgetting,” is a response to Lawrence Weschler’s book on Robert Irwin and the ways that naming things both sharpens and limits our perception. McMahon’s related photographic series “Phenotypes: Observable Traits, Strange Strangers” is inspired by the history of taxonomy as it reflects the instability of scientific “truth” over time.
McMahon’s motherhood work has been exhibited in solo exhibitions: “Redressing the Mother” at A.I.R. Gallery in New York; “Maternal Matter” at Cal State San Marcos; and “Ellen McMahon: Artists Books and Printed Works” at the Centre for Fine Print Research at the University of the West of England in Bristol, U.K. Her work has been included in numerous group exhibitions including “One Minute Film Festival 2003—2012” at MASS MoCA in 2013. Her artist books are held in collections at UCLA, Scripps College, Occidental College, Texas Tech University, the Center for Creative Photography, and the New York and Boston Public Libraries.
Publications containing her visual work include Clean New World: Culture, Politics, and Graphic Design (MIT Press, 2002), Feminist Art and the Maternal (University of Minnesota Press, 2008), and The M Word: Real Mothers in Contemporary Art (Demeter Press, 2010). Autobiographical essays are published in Mother Reader: Essential Writings on Motherhood (Seven Stories Press, 2002), The Oldest We’ve Ever Been: Seven True Stories of Midlife Transitions (University of Arizona Press, 2008), and The M Word: Real Mothers in Contemporary Art.
The conceptual underpinnings of McMahon’s work—the paradoxical and complicated relationship between lived experience and cultural constructions and expectations—have remained constant throughout her career regardless of subject matter or medium.
I teach undergraduate illustration and graphic design courses and interdisciplinary graduate seminars and critiques. Interested in how differing modes of inquiry and methods of communication used by artists, designers, and social and natural scientists can work in concert to address complex problems, I create opportunities for students to work in collaborative teams with natural and social scientists. My goal is to provide rich, dynamic, experiential learning opportunities to prepare students to adapt and emerge as leaders in the rapidly changing world. My interest in the power of all forms of representation to construct meaning and create culture fuels my sense of purpose and my commitment to participate my self and encourage my students to engage in meaningful work critically and imaginatively.
I have been speaking and publishing about design education since 1990. As a delegate to the 2007 World Design Congress (ICOGRADA) in Havana, Cuba, I presented a paper about NaturArte, a bi-national conservation project in Mexico. In 2008, I spoke about raising awareness of environmental issues through design curriculum at the “New Views 2: The Future of Design” conference in London. Other lectures include “Experiencing Agency as a Designer Through Service to the Community,” AIGA Education Conference, Art Center College of Art and Design, Pasadena California (2005); “Art and Design in Arizona,” Annual Conference of the National Association of Schools of Art and Design (2004); and “Text, Image and Activism,” in a series funded by the Arizona Humanities Council (2001).
Published essays on design education include “What Drives Us: Teaching Critical Issues in Design,” Journal of the Dallas Society of Visual Communicators (2004); “Outside the Cookie Cutter: Approaches to Teaching Design,” AIGA Journal of Graphic Design (1999); “Exchanges: A Collaborative Teaching Project,” Representations: Journal of Design Communication (1999); “Have Sign Will Travel,” The Education of a Graphic Designer (1998) and “From Hand to Mouse: What is Lost Along the Way” (1996) in Representations: Journal of Design Communication. An overview of my activist design practice is featured in Clean New World: Culture, Politics, and Graphic Design (2002) by Maud Lavin. An overview of my interdisciplinary environmental work with students is featured in the forthcoming book, Graphic Design: Sustainable Principles and Practices by Peter Fine.