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Exclusive | Margaret Kilgallen: Heroines

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Margaret Kilgallen (right) and her heroines (left column) from top to bottom: Matokie Slaughter (center), Algia Mae Hinton (left), and Fanny Durack (left). Production stills from the series Exclusive. © Art21, Inc. 2013. Cinematography by Bob Elfstrom. Photography by Mary Ann McDonald. Images courtesy the Alice Gerrard Collection at the Wilson Library, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, North Carolina Folklife Program, NC Arts Council, and The National Museum of Australia.

“I especially hope to inspire young women because I often feel like so much emphasis is put on how beautiful you are and how thin you are, and not a lot of emphasis is put on what you can do and how smart you are. I’d like to change the emphasis of what’s important when looking at a woman.”

In a previously unseen Art21 interview that was recorded in 2000, the late Margaret Kilgallen (1967-2001) discusses the female figures or “heroines” incorporated into many of her paintings and graffiti tags. Loosely based on women she discovered while listening to folk records, watching buck dance videos, or reading about the history of swimming, Kilgallen’s heroines are meant to inspire others and hopefully change how society looks at women. Today’s Exclusive features three of Kilgallen’s heroines—Matokie Slaughter, Algia Mae Hinton, and Fanny Durack—who are shown and heard through archival video, images, and audio recordings.

Since its premiere last week on Hyperallergic (one of our 100 Artists media partners), Margaret Kilgallen: “Heroines” has already reached thousands of online viewers. The immediate popularity of this video can only, in my opinion, be attributed to the lasting power of Kilgallen’s ideas and images. As the video was shared across social media platforms, it was clear how much Kilgallen’s artwork has stayed in the minds and hearts of her longtime fans and old friends, and even touched those newly discovering her artwork.

As footage of Kilgallen at work continues to circulate and motivate young artists, this video also provides the opportunity to learn about the three women that Kilgallen herself found inspiring. “[They] just do small things and yet somehow hit me in my heart,” she said. Though these women are accomplished musicians or athletes, their names are not widely known. In searching for photographs, footage, and audio recordings of them for our episode, I came to learn a tremendous amount about their lives, largely through friends, recording partners, and fans. For the remainder of this post I will share some of what I learned so that, perhaps, you will appreciate their lives and achievements as much as Kilgallen did.

Matokie Slaughter with her fiddle. Production still from the series Exclusive. © Art21, Inc. 2013. Image courtesy the Alice Gerrard Collection at the Wilson Library, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Matokie Slaughter

Musician Alice Gerard—whose archive provided images and music for our Exclusive—recently released a new album of Matokie Slaughter recordings. In the album liner notes, she sheds light on her friend and collaborator’s upbringing and musical training:

“Raised in the Back Creek section near the small industrial town of Pulaski in southwestern Virginia, Matokie was self-taught. She recalled learning the reading basics from her mother, using as a textbook the newspapers which lined the inside walls of their home. She learned her music in the same way—from neighbors in the community and from the radio, but primarily from her father and mother.”

Andy Cahan, another musician and fan of Slaughter, also contributed to the liner notes. He wrote this of Slaughter’s banjo and fiddle playing:

“The precision, the hauntingly beautiful notes, and the power in her playing had a special allure. It was raw, but elegant. It had an austere, isolated quality; a voice from the distant past, yet it was alive, and in the moment.”

Algia Mae Hnton with her guitar. Production still from the series Exclusive. © Art21, Inc. 2013. Image provided by Lightnin’ Wells.

Algia Mae Hinton

In researching Algia Mae Hinton, I was put in touch with Lightnin’ Wells through the North Carolina Folklife Program. Wells is a folk and blues musician who frequently collaborated with Hinton, who now lives near her children in North Carolina. Lightnin’ Wells shared this with me via email:

“Though she is a soft spoken ‘country gal,’ Algia Mae was always a striking physical presence with her shades, fancy outfits, braided hair, and cool air. I always called her the ‘Rockin’ Grandma.’ Those who were lucky enough to get to know Algia Mae, I think, were most impressed by her strength and ability to triumph in the face of adversity. Here was a woman who had single-handedly raised a family by performing hard farm labor yet still had time to play the music, which she learned orally from her parents, friends, and family and perform this music with style and finesse. They also undoubtedly noticed her warmth, mischievous humor, and her ability to see through the BS. She’d been around, and not much got by her.”

Mina Wylie (left) and Fanny Durack (center). Production still from the series Exclusive. © Art21, Inc. 2013. Image courtesy the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, Australia.

Fanny Durack

My research into the life of Australian swimming legend Fanny Durack brought me to the website of the National Museum of Australia. (They too graciously supplied images for the Exclusive.) The museum wrote:

“In an era when many sports were deemed too physically demanding for women, swimming was seen as acceptable. But rules forbidding women from appearing in competitions when men were present still had to be changed to enable Sarah ‘Fanny’ Durack and Wilhelmina ‘Mina’ Wylie to compete at the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm. Durack and Wylie raised their own money to attend the games, but were claimed as national heroines when they won gold and silver, respectively.”

In addition to discussing her heroines, Kilgallen is shown tagging train cars with her husband, artist Barry McGee, in a Bay Area rail yard, and painting in her studio at the University of California, Berkeley.

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