The phantasmagoric imaginings of Jon MacNair make their mysterious way from within, onto his page via the monochromatic medium of black Indian ink. Inside the black lines and subtle inky washes, lie tales of supernatural intrigue occurring in what could very well be a universe aligned with ours, but on its own unique trajectory through time and space. And, much akin to the world in which we dwell, MacNair’s too, has its dark, dangerous and downright evil sides; aspects which we are often forewarned about by the presence of many an unsettling creature and sinister overtone. Cleverly interwoven mythological undercurrents assist in advancing MacNair’s absorbing narratives, and along with his intricate symbolic visual cues, we are lead headlong into the interpreting of the human condition through an array of everyday moral and philosophical conundrums, with the added excitement of otherworldly mysticism and magic.
Jon MacNair was born in Seoul, South Korea and grew up in the suburbs of southeast Michigan where he developed a love of drawing. He is a graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art, where he earned a BFA in Illustration. Since graduating, his commercial work has appeared in various editorial publications as well been used for package design and apparel. Jon has also exhibited his personal work at galleries worldwide, having shown in cities such as New York, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, D.C., London and Glasgow.
WOW x WOW is incredibly excited to have a new piece by Jon, entitled, ‘Coddled’ in our current ‘Lightning Bolts & Little Sparks’ exhibit. In order to celebrate this wonderful occasion and to allow you get an insight into the thoughts and inspirations behind his artwork, we are honoured to have had Jon participate in the following exclusive interview. Read on!
To get us started, can you give us some background on what has lead you to this point in your professional life, be it your formal training, hard work, serendipity, etc.?
Well, I initially went to art school not really knowing exactly what I wanted to do. I ended up graduating with a degree in illustration. I thought I’d have a go at being a full time illustrator and really tried to do so for a number of years. But like a lot of things in life, it didn’t exactly go according to plan. I found it very difficult to get commercial work, and it seemed nearly impossible for me to make a living from it. However, during these years when I was struggling to break into the illustration world, I was always experimenting and making my own work. Eventually people seemed to take more notice of my personal work, and that became my main focus. It seemed to grab people in a way that my commercial work did not, and I found I was having more fun making personal work anyway. As far as becoming a fine artist, I basically tried to make a lot of work I enjoyed, then tried to get that work seen (whether it being featured in magazines, participating in an open call art show, displaying it online, etc). Once it was discovered by other people via these routes, they helped others discover my work and the rest just kind of snowballed from there…
In what ways did your childhood and upbringing affect your relationship with the arts?
My parents were always very supportive of me being interested in art. They were both originally classical musicians and eventually teachers, so they were good at nurturing that creativity in me. They enrolled me in a lot of arts classes at the community art center when I was a kid. There wasn’t a huge focus on the arts at the schools I attended growing up, so it seemed like a good idea to get an extra dose of it outside the classroom. Also, I was kind of a shy middle child growing up. My siblings were more outgoing than I was. Like many people, I didn’t enjoy middle school and high school all that much and didn’t have an enormous amount of friends, but as a result I spent a lot of time drawing. Somehow doing that made me forget I was spending so much time on my own. I was so focused on whatever I was making at the time.
You’ve created a fantastically imaginative world filled with intriguing characters and narratives. Please tell us about the world you’ve created. Do you consider it to be akin to a parallel to our own or is it entirely its own entity?
It’s kind of funny to think back on now, but really it all just started as a couple drawings I did in my spare time. I didn’t have any grand plans or big picture goal in my head back then. I was just trying something out and it went from there. It was just a couple characters and some very minimal background and foliage. I definitely got a sense of my ‘created world’ expanding over the years, which was and still is exciting to me. It was a really gradual evolution. I guess in some ways my ‘created world’ is parallel to the real world. I definitely think the emotions of the characters are real life and relate-able. They’re just basic human emotions really. And one could say the scenes and stories depicted are symbolic of everyday life situations. I would say however that there is an element of magic and the supernatural that can be found in a lot of my work, and I have yet to find a direct parallel to that in real life unfortunately.
Talk about some of the recurring characters in your work and what they mean to you?
I haven’t counted, but I probably have a few dozen reoccurring characters in my work. None of them really have names. Maybe that’s partly due to the fact that I feel like they’re slightly different each time I draw them, so they’re actually all one of a kind. Some of the main characters you might see often are cats, birds (harpy-like), rabbits and tadpole/slug-like creatures. All these characters are really just the players in the stories I create. They help to move the narrative along. Some might seem more evil or menacing than others, but really I don’t place them within too strict of roles. Much of the time they help to set whatever mood I am going for in a drawing and the viewer can look to them for hints of what mood/tone I intended for the scene. Over the last few years I have drawn many of what I can my ‘harbingers’. They’re masked figures and usually wear long robes. Often they signify nefariousness or impending trouble. Many of the pieces I have done that feature these characters illustrate a specific mood or state of being (fear, mischief, dread, chaos, misfortune, deceit, death, etc).
Imagine, all of a sudden, you find yourself residing within the painted world you have created. What would your character look like and what would you be engaged in?
I’d probably be one of the plants made up of eyes or those hills with a face, kind of lurking in the background somewhere. In my mind they are quiet observers and I’d be more likely to be of that persona than a guy holding a sword, front and center, doing something action related.
You’ve previously stated that mythology and folktales have been of huge influence and inspiration to your work. Would you like to share one of your favourite tales and why it made such a big impression on you?
There was this one fairy tale called ‘The Juniper Tree’ that I remember being captivated by as a kid. The shocking violence of the story and the images it conjured up (decapitated heads, children transforming into birds and then back into children, cannibalism, etc…) really drew me in. It was quite a strange tale, but I think that’s why children are attracted to fairy tales much of the time. They often conjure up bizarre, terrifying and magical scenarios that resonate in our subconscious.
Where does your focus lie when you’re painting?
I guess it depends on what stage of the drawing I am in at the time. If I’m in the beginning pencil stage, I’m super focused on composition, proportions of elements in the drawing and the overall narrative. If I’m working on the ink line-work, I’m very focused on tiny details and getting the quality and thickness of lines that I desire. This part can be tedious. If I’m working on the ink wash stage, I’m thinking a lot about the balance of tones and values and trying to successfully achieve soft ink washes as well hard edged ones.
As we move through life we continue to grow and change. In what ways have you seen your work evolve since you started down the path of being a professional artist?
I think I can confidently say that everything in my work is getting more refined and intricate. The detail is getting more intense, the compositions are often more and more involved, and the line work and brushwork feel more meticulous. I feel like I don’t have any control over this evolution, and sometimes it can verge on feeling tedious. However, when I look at work I made ten years ago and compare it to work I’m making now, I think it is much more developed conceptually and technically superior. So taking that into consideration, some tedious hours at the work table feel worth it.
What is your relationship with art history? Do you feel that it’s important for an artist to have an understanding of what has gone before them?
I think it’s helpful to know about art history, but I don’t want to say it’s a requirement. I learned a lot of art history in college, but like many things you learn a long time ago, eventually a lot of it passes out of your memory. Many of the things I know regarding art history or a particular artist comes from my own investigation into those subjects. For example, I know a pretty good amount about the artists of the Northern Renaissance but less about the history of Abstract expressionism, simply because I’m more interested in one than the other. It’s easier to retain knowledge about a subject you are interested/engaged in.
In order to get a better understanding of the personality of an artist, it can help to get a peek behind the curtain. Would you be willing to share a story from your own life, possibly one whose memory you find yourself returning to for inspiration, or maybe just a tale about a hardship you’ve overcome which has helped define the person and therefore artist that you are now?
I remember the first time (after graduating college) that I displayed my work in a public place. It was a neighborhood cafe in Baltimore (the city I was living in at the time). I had been working on a body of work in my spare time and somehow via the internet, the art show coordinator of the space saw my art and decided to ask me to be their artist of the month. I was excited to have work hanging somewhere public for the first time and thought it would be nice to leave a comment book at the coffee shop for people to record their thoughts in. Bad idea. By the end of the month it was filled with negative comments by people who were obviously not fans. Nothing sold either. So I felt a bit dejected by that, but eventually much of the work found homes over the years and I still get people who will write me comments about how much they like a particular piece from that show. If anything, I learned about showing work at the appropriate venue and also that one person’s opinion is just that, their opinion. My skin got tougher after that and I think I benefited from it.
What do you regard as the biggest motivator for you to get up every day and make art and has this changed in any way over the years?
I guess the excitement of thinking of all the pieces I have yet to make is a pretty big motivator. Some of these works I have mental images of floating around in my brain, some I have messily scrawled on scraps of paper and put away until the right time, and some I haven’t even conceived yet. I think the unknown aspect of that is exciting! I suppose because I am busier now with scheduled shows and commitments than I was a decade ago, perhaps things can feel more like ‘just business as usual’ sometimes. My wish would be for things to never get to the point where they only feel like ‘business’ because I think the joy of art making is a huge motivator. I wouldn’t want to make art anymore if there was no joy in it.
If you could own one piece of art from any of the world’s collections what would it be and why?
I think it would be the 1781 painting ‘The Nightmare’ by Swiss artist Henry Fuseli. I think it is strikingly frightening and just very strange. I like pieces that have an air of mystery about them. It also makes me think of my own experiences with sleep paralysis which gives it an added layer of personal meaning for me.
What’s next for Jon MacNair?
I have some annual group shows to start working on, a few commissions, and ideally I’d like to set aside some time to work on some new pieces involving different mediums I’m less familiar with. It’s always good to be experimenting!