Bad Bridget: A Q&A with illustrator Fiona McDonnell

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I’m a freelance Irish illustrator from Belfast. I studied illustration at Norwich University of the Arts before returning to my hometown of Belfast, where I’ve now been working in the creative sector for over six years.

My illustration practice mainly involves creating work in a distinct and colourful style. Often accompanied by commentary and self-reflection on social issues, music, film, or whatever else I may be interested in at the time. I’ve worked for a range of commercial clients, as well as collaborations with arts, heritage, and charity organisations. All alongside my own personal illustration projects.

How did you become involved in the Bad Bridget exhibition and what made you want to be a part of it?

I wanted to be a part of the exhibition because its themes and messages really resonated with me. By telling the stories of these women and the hardships they faced, they can be used as not only an educational tool for what life was like back then, but also help highlight and tackle the similar issues many women and migrants face today. While I was working on the project, I thought how these issues Irish migrant women faced - sexism, lack of welfare, poverty, and exploitation - are sadly still experienced by many women today. By highlighting the voices of women from the past it’ll hopefully amplify modern voices too.

What were your initial thoughts when you were briefed about the exhibition?

I loved the creative approach National Museums NI wanted to take with the illustrations, they discussed how they wanted the visual approach for this to be something that emulated how it must have felt as a young Irish woman stepping off the boat into America. It would have been a complete culture shock with the new people, sights, technology etc. So they wanted a more contemporary style of illustration, such as mine with the bold colour pallets, to reflect this. I was really excited about this approach as I think it’s very original for a museum context.

Image: The Bad Bridget exhibition at the Ulster American Folk Park.
The Bad Bridget exhibition at the Ulster American Folk Park.

What inspired you to create the illustrations, and can you tell us a bit about the process?

Honestly so much of what you see in terms of the illustrations content was directly contributed by the National Museums NI team and of course Dr Elaine Farrell and Dr Leanne McCormick. The illustrations needed lots of detail to properly portray the message behind each section, so this guidance was very valuable.

When creating the illustrations, my process is pretty nailed down at this stage of my career; visual research, rough sketches, refined sketches, inking, and finally colour! The sketch phase is the most intense and there’s a lot of adding and removing, messy lines and shapes. You need to get a few ideas down before choosing one to refine, and when you look at the scale of this project you can imagine how many sketches there were.

How do you think people will interpret your illustrations?

Hopefully in a positive or thought provoking way! Art is very subjective, but I'm confident that the illustrations will grab attention and encourage people to look and learn more about the story being told throughout Bad Bridget. To me that’s a success!

What are you looking forward to most about the exhibition opening?

I’m really excited to see the illustrations at their full size! Working on a screen never gives you a true sense of what the illustrations will look like when printed, there’s one particularly massive illustration in the exhibition that I’m really excited to see in person. Also really looking forward to meeting Dr Farrell and Dr McCormick in person too!