Madeline McNeill has an approach to the body and performance that deeply inspires me. In a culture that still believes in divisions between body, mind and soul, she erases those distinctions with the conviction of her personal philosophy, that she IS body.
Her observation that artists self-generate sensory experience, with particular attention to feeling makes my heart, with it’s focus on embodied creativity, sing.
Kindred spirits are so exciting to find. I hope you find her thoughts and observations in this interview just as refreshing and inspiring as I have.
What does it mean to be an artist? And when did you know you were an artist (aka intensely creative person)?
It’s been within the last couple years that I’ve thought of myself as an artist. Even though I have studied operatic technique for thirteen years and have always exercised artistic talent throughout my life, it’s fairly recently that I’ve felt I have something to say that is profound and deeply authentic to who I am.
I’m a body philosopher and I focus on the sensory core muscles–muscles of the torso, neck, head–as the landscape for philosophical exploration.
To me, an artist self-generates sensory experience, with particular attention to feeling. From her imagination, she creates work outside the body to feed others’ senses and move people to feel what she feels.
When you consider the words luscious and soulful, what comes to mind? Is there anyone you know who embodies these traits? When do you feel luscious and soulful?
Luscious is a wet and round word to me. I like it. It’s like biting into a juicy peach. As far as the luscious body, I definitely couple the word to the feminine. I do feel luscious sometimes, though I don’t often use “luscious” to describe me. When I think of myself, I use words like slow-sensual, strong, passionate. I grew up in a dry and dusty town, Spokane, Wa, and feel a deep affection for the grittier nature of this place.
I like the word soulful because it suggests beautiful, and sometimes lush, inner movement, though for me, I imagine “soulful” as a body movement, not a spirit form.
As a body philosopher, there is not a soul or spirit, though I do have a word, sensata, to describe the deep inner core muscle movement of ‘ah’ and ecstasy. Core muscles are breath muscles…voice muscles…feeling muscles. I have developed theories as to how we think with the body and how the core muscles are integral to consciousness.
Therefore, for me, everything I am is body. This is a bit of a radical point of view I think even in the embodiment community, but for me, it blossoms into potential for understanding ourselves and from that, creating new culture.
What do you love most about your body? And why?
I like that I am body. I like the processes of thought I move through to understand how this is.
What brings you pleasure? What senses are involved?
Many things: I enjoy touch, creating intimacy, taking reflective walks, creating art, being outside.
Nature. Sex. Sex in nature (Why not)
I’ve developed a theory of how the core muscles move into the “ah” experience as the other senses (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, skin…) take in the world. It’s a theory that would apply to the experience of walking in a beautiful forest for example, an experience that feeds the senses and the core muscles move into an ‘ah’ pose. I seek out pleasurable experiences like that.
I also enjoy thinking and take great pleasure in intellectual epiphany.
If you had to throw a dinner and dance party how would you do it?
I perform music in venues that more often than not, offer great food and atmosphere. That’s how I enjoy throwing a party, as part of a performance event.
Recently I’ve been privileged to be a part of vaudeville/burlesque shows, which are variety shows of bellydancing, hoop and fire dancing, aerial arts, burlesque, comedy and music. Those are my favorite events to invite my friends to.
Where/how do you find your inspiration?
I actually find a lot of inspiration trying to understand what the fuck is wrong with the world.
I become angry at bullshit that hurts people and needlessly and stupidly is wasteful and destructive.
I ask “Why?” a lot. Then I think about why things are that way. Then I imagine something better. Then I create art to communicate what I imagine to others.
What does your ideal day look like?
I spend a lot of time thinking so my day is often spent cultivating space for my mind to imagine freely. Sometimes I go on long walks. Sometimes I write. It just depends on what I need.
What advice would you give to your younger self? How old is she when she needs this advice?
“Keep going darling. You’ll figure it out.” That or I would make her an apprentice and teach her everything I know.
What is your most treasured possession? Tell a little story about it.
I live minimalistically, so nothing really comes to mind as a treasured possession. More than anything, I value a rhythm of life that allows me to think, theorize, cultivate intimacy, create art, meet interesting people, and take in the world.
Having less allows me to cultivate that rhythm more.
There are things that I have and need in order to do what I love to do: guitar to play and perform music, massage table for giving massage, computer for writing, but I also barter services and share equipment with people, which again, helps to create that rhythm.
Inspired resources: please share any heart-moving soul-shaking artistry or experiences that have moved you. What made it so powerful?
That question is interesting to me because the heart-moving soul-shaking experiences that immediately come to mind are the ones that came with self-work and contemplation.
I did two ten day Vipassana meditation retreats when I was 19 and 20 years old where I learned to focus awareness on subtle sensations of the body while calming the chatter of the emotional mind.
This was extremely helpful to my practice of learning to sing, which required me to move core muscles that I couldn’t see, only feel. Learning to sing was a long-term project of over a decade where I was practicing continuously by myself, but I loved it. I loved learning about myself through the practice of singing.
I also put myself through an intensive five month self-massage retreat, where I lived on savings and massaged out muscle tension with the aid of tennis balls and massage tools.
This experience transformed me. It freed me from muscle pain, it freed my voice and gave me the flexibility and sensitivity to do the subtle body analysis work that I do now as a body philosopher.
Who are your favourite artists? And why?
I’m very interested in finding artist-philosophers/body philosophers who create art with a perspective similar to mine.
I’ve been inspired by many people, but right now I feel like I am searching for like minds, and looking to share and collaborate.
Is there anything else you’d like us to know about you and your art?
Thanks for reading. Feel free to contact me and/or check out my website www.madelinemcneill.com (UPDATE: this website is no longer available online.)
I wrote a book “Is There a Soul” which is structured as a dialogue between two women, a teacher and student, moving through several ideas in conversation.
I’m also developing a one-woman show called “Being Human” which I would love to travel with and perform.
I’m interested in meeting artistic, often radical or revolutionary-minded people with a passion for philosophically understanding what we are.
Finally, thank you Janelle for the opportunity to share some of what I do with the people in your life.
ps – to see more great interviews, check out the Lusciously and Soulfully interview series.
pps – if you know of any amazing artists I can profile in this series, send me an e-mail with their info – I’m always excited to connect with interesting amazing creatives.