Love Letter to Margaret Kilgallen

Full-body painting on found material of a woman standing upright, her hair short and lips painted the same bold red as the rest of the outline of her body. She wears little clothing and balances a large, round object on her head.
Margaret Kilgallen, Untitled, 1999. Acrylic on wood, 17.3 x 7.5 inches.

Margaret Kilgallen died of breast cancer at 33, the same year I started college. It was 2001, and her death didn’t register with me at the time. Years later, I realized how much her work meant to me. Kilgallen was part of the Mission School, a fairly disparate collection of California artists grouped together in the 90s because they were based in the Mission District in San Francisco.

Although I’m from Reno, Nevada, I spent a lot of time growing up in San Francisco. In the early aughts, I was swaddled in skateboards, spray paint cans, cheap beer, and a cheap, subconscious misogyny. Women who skateboarded were “betties.” The word “bitch” was used an obnoxious amount, directed at people young and old, of all races and genders.

Cruising through San Francisco, I was regularly in contact with Kilgallen’s immediately recognizable faces and full-bodied subjects. Although it didn’t encompass the entirety of her output, street art was a major focus of Kilgallen’s work. Her pieces were all over the city without calling attention to themselves. They seemed like part of the patina of the city: not something to think too deeply about.

Cultivating a depiction of womanhood that refused stereotypes, Kilgallen spent long hours developing her craft. This is something that, skating past, I never cared to consider. A typical Kilgallen figure has the same wrinkles and divots that every human body has. Rather than playing down one’s bodily flaws, Kilgallen accentuates them, to great effect. Twenty years later, I now realize how Kilgallen’s art has impacted my own conceptions of feminism and femininity.

Passing by it on the street, often without realizing, her work forced me to confront my own sexist biases and prejudices. In a documentary filmed the year before her death, Kilgallen states, “I’d like to change the emphasis of what’s important when looking at a woman.” She succeeded in this, for me and countless others.