Intro by Shanon Weltman / Interview by Ray Jones
This week’s Artist John MacConnell is living and loving life in NYC. He’s working full-time while also finding time to create a constant stream of beautifully mastered, no matter the medium, portraits of lean athletic men. His love of classical styles of working, mixed with his eye for design makes his work fresh. In its context his artwork is both just as much a nicely rendered figure study, as well as personally and socially relevant to John. It was great having him over at CLAW CLAW headquarters to catch up – read on to enjoy our interview.
RAY JONES: First question: was there a major turning point in the development of your artistic style?
JOHN MacCONNELL: There’s definitely a few different moments that I can think of. There’s a couple points where I can see that my work has changed. I think, at MICA, I was introduced to illustration and editorial illustration. I’d seen it before but I didn’t know what it was. So, I think I was working very much like cookie-cutter, editorially, or what I saw as editorially, what I was seeing from professors. Grad school, I felt was a little bit more fine art themed maybe, and opened my eyes to ‘I can do whatever I want’. I brought in the materials I thought I was supposed to use and I felt more free leaving grad school. It might not have completely changed the way I worked, but I think it changed the way I thought about work. I chose the medium, more on what I thought was right, than saying ‘I work in this medium.’ Recently I was working with a freelance client on a photography book and it just introduced me to this wide range of photography and all these photographers. Lighting and the intention of the lighting, and the way the scenes are set up… I’m actually in a sort of transition right now with my work as a result of that, and where I’m working right now, the clients I have right now. Those are three moments for me that stand out.
RJ: That’s interesting, how has photography helped? What can you say is one of those things that carries over?
JM: I am working less editorially these days, I’m thinking more on a fine art gallery aspect. I think of the way that the figure is in space. The subtlety in the storytelling in photography is different than editorial work. I think that’s maybe the most influential aspect for me.
RJ: How has being a teacher informed your work?
JM: Well. [laughs] I’m not a teacher anymore. [laughs]
RJ: Why’d you stop?
JM: I liked teaching, I didn’t love the school that I was in. I was teaching an ‘Introduction to Illustration and Graphic Design’, some of these kids had never taken an art class before in their lives, because there’s no prerequisites for the class!
JM: And I’m trying to teach these complex programs, AND I’m trying to teach storytelling. It was just too much. I could’ve had more opportunities to teach in that program, but I decided not to pursue them and other opportunities came up which wouldn’t have worked with my schedule anyway. [Laughs] So it kind of worked out.
RJ: You did it for a year?
JM: I was in the school course book for two years, but I only actually taught for a semester. Again, it wasn’t really an art school, you had to promote your class and recruit students. So, I did the first semester I was teaching there and got a full class, but then after that I hung up posters and I was like… ‘If a class forms, I’ll teach. If it doesn’t form, I won’t.’ It didn’t form for three semesters. At that point I worked with a new client and couldn’t get to the class on time. I taught in the evenings, it wasn’t a continuing studies course, but I ended up getting students, adults that were working and doing this and… kids who are in undergrad, kind of sophomore/junior age.
RJ: So random…
JM: Just the range of problems I had to deal with… [laughs] was so grand. I was like, ‘Oh my god, every student has a different problem. Why is nobody happy and just doing their work?’ [laughs]
JM: It was funny, for me, I think I was in a good place to deal with it because I was just out of school, so I could relate to the younger kids, but then I worked a full-time job and I was coming to teach in the evenings, so I could relate to the people who’d come in and be like ‘Oh I had a really hard day at work.’ I was like, ‘Well so did I. And I spent 10 hours preparing this lesson plan and you spent half an hour on your homework. So, I have no sympathy.’ I was kind of prepared, I was in a good place to deal with it during the time. But I was just like, ‘I’m not ready to do this. I don’t have the time or energy to do this.’ If I would’ve been at an art school or maybe just dealt with undergrad or I don’t know. I think it would have been different for me. I wouldn’t mind teaching, I like the educational environment, I like all these ideas. Some of the good students are really cool and bring in stuff to show me, which I think is great. I’m constantly getting new information and inspiration, but it wasn’t a good situation for me at the time. To answer your question though, while I was teaching, they brought in new influences into my work and they asked questions that made me question the way I did things. In the way any dialogue with peers or other artists will do. The faculty too, having their resources around me, though I never took advantage of it. The printing presses, stuff like that.
RJ: What is your strategy for dealing with difficult clients?
JM: My strategy for dealing with difficult clients, is over preparation. Overzealousness in general. Through my dotting every i and crossing every t, making them realize how ridiculous they are being. Make them realize how silly their problems are. I don’t have a strategy per se. I’ve definitely had to fight to get paid, and I’ve definitely made compromises on my work that I maybe should have fought harder, maybe could have won? You never know, if you just push that one more time. If you can get them to choose the right color for the background, or just take out that one stupid element that they must have but doesn’t really make sense. I’ve been lucky for the most part with clients, clients art directing my work. My biggest problems with clients comes from clients who don’t pay, having to hunt them down and fight for it to get money. Taking like, six to nine months… I’ve given up on it. Even ten months. A totally different calendar year. I’ve done work in the spring and then fought for the money for the next nine months, then finally got paid and given up when tax season came… the following year. That was actually really difficult to handle because it wasn’t the art director, he had done everything he could. I think he was embarrassed by the situation, that the billing side just wasn’t doing their job. He submitted everything he was supposed to do and the billing just didn’t write the checks. I think I might have burned a bridge because I just asked him so many times, ‘where’s my money?’ Even though I wasn’t hard to work with or anything, they’re probably embarrassed to ask me to work with them again. And I don’t know if I would because it took me ten months to get paid! [laughs] or longer! And it wasn’t that much… I don’t know if that’s a good strategy.
RJ: Sounds pretty good.
JM: I don’t know if it always works [laughs], but that’s a strategy.
RJ: How many models do you draw a month?
JM: It varies, I draw a lot of models. That’s sort of what I’m doing right now. I’m trying to think of more gallery work. I started as trying to get more practice, but it’s really excited me and it’s opened opportunities. I started going [to figure drawing] like once a month, and now I’m drawing anywhere from 2-8 models. Some weeks I’ll draw like 3 people, and some I’ll just skip, either from burnout or just busyness. I’ll just take time off, but it’s a lot of practice which is great. Every time I go I can tell I’m better and it’s also producing work that I can sell. It’s also introducing me to new people. I’ll draw models independently, but I also go to 2 to 4 different drawing groups, so I’m meeting lots of people with a lot of different connections to galleries and models and ideas. I just use these opportunities to meet people and get better, as much as I can.
SW: Where do you meet the models? You go to some groups, but then do people come over?
JM: Yeah, actually. I started in the summer, I go to the beach on Fire Island, and someone had hung up posters for the Pines New Drawing group. My friend was like ‘You should go to this!’ So I went one morning, grabbed my sketchbook and I drew, and ended up going the next time I was at the beach. Then people there introduced me to a drawing group at the Leslie Lohman Museum. Someone there introduced me to other drawing groups, etc… So I meet some of the models from the groups I go to, though the majority of the models I get now, that I’m bringing in myself, come from Instagram. People just volunteer… and it’s amazing. I’m getting some really great models, for free. Great as in beautiful, their modeling skills could use a little work sometimes [laughs], it takes a little coaching to get them to do the right thing and hold poses. There’s a lot of like… ‘oh, I can’t do this, I can’t sit there for twenty minutes like I thought I could.’ But still, I’ve been meeting really cool people through it. It’s crazy, I started posting stuff on Instagram and all these people just want to get naked for me [laughs] and I’m all about it. [laughs]
JM: If some of them come off a little creepy, I’ll tell them I’m busy. [laughs] But a lot of them are just normal people, who like to go to the gym and want to show it off a little bit. I think you get a little bit of my personality from Instagram. They feel like they’re going to be safe. Plus I can see their Instagram feed also… and see that they have friends. So I can kind of get the same kind of thing from them to find out…
SW: That’s a really smart way to do that…
JM: It’s been a good resource. I’ll get volunteers, but I’ve actually started paying people to model because I want to take pictures to do larger pieces. A lot of stuff I’ll do are watercolors, really quick, but I want to start doing longer poses so I need photo reference for those. I kind of feel like if I take pictures of you naked I should be paying you? I don’t know. [Laughs] I don’t know if I’ll stick to that, but it feels right so, we’ll see. Case by case basis, I guess. As long as they have modeling experience, so I don’t have to direct them. They do three for me, I pick one. As opposed to an amateur, I’m not really sure what I’m going to get. I guess that’s one of the lines that dictates whether I’m paying or not.
RJ: You could just give them some artwork though, right? Or does that not really work?
JM: I’ve thought about it, I think I could just give people art work, I think they’d be happy with it. A couple things go into this. If I give them something, it means I can’t sell it, one. Two, I try to document, by scanning everything I make, so I have a record of it. So when I’m like 80, they can do a book of me and they’ll have everything. [Laughs] It’s hard for me to say, ‘let me give this to you’ bring it back to my office and scan it. The other thing is I send everybody a digital file from my scanning. I think of it like a photographer. If a photographer was taking pictures, the models are just getting digital files. It’s just the same thing. I doubt anyone is getting prints of themselves from photographers…
SW: Probably not…
JM: …And most photographers shoot digitally, so they already have a digital file. That’s all they’re gonna get. So, I think looking at photographers and the photography world and how it works and finding inspiration business-wise and, I guess, visually for my art.
SW: I think you just introduced a really smart thing for other artists. You mentioned where you were meeting your models, because I was wondering. I’ve been on the other end, modeling when I just really needed work and been sketched out… like, I don’t know about this person.
JM: I also have friends that want to model for me to, which is cool. That’s actually what’s been cool, Instagram has been amazing. I have like 2,700 followers now.
SW: [Laughs] Amazing!
JM: Yeah, a lot of the people who want to pose are artists, are in arts and design. I’m meeting art directors who want to pose, or style editors who know art directors and things like that. It’s been really cool to meet these people. Someone who is a style editor posed for me a portrait of himself to give to his partner. He was like ‘Oh, I can give your information to my art director…’ Yeah, please do. It’s like a bonus. That’s the other thing, getting my models, I get commission. People pay me and then they’re buying the session and then they’re buying the work from the session. So, I’m having to come up with pricing plans for all this stuff.
SW: That sounds like a good problem.
JM: That’s a great problem!
RJ: You are drawing your money. [laughs]
JM: It’s really cool, it’s really exciting, really eye opening. It’s a good problem to have, for sure. Right now I feel like I’m under pricing myself, because I’ve figured out ‘Is this going to work? Can I perform under pressure like this?’ [laughs] If they’re buying one painting, I’ll do two and then they can choose which one they want, they can choose the better one. What they think is the better one, and bonus if they want to buy both! One is included in the session, the other one discounted.
RJ: That’s a really cool setup.
SW: I’m so happy for you [laughs].
JM: If it sounds like I’m taking advantage of anyone…
RJ: I feel like what you’re saying is just good information. Not taking advantage of people, but just being a business person. I think a lot of artists are so modest about selling their craft, like a ‘I don’t know if there is really value in this?’, but if you’re trained, you went to art school…
JM: Right, you’re paying off my graduate loans.
JM: So it takes me 30 minutes to do a drawing, but it’s taken me 29 years to be able to draw this fast. I go to these drawing groups, with a 30 minute pose I have a full figure with a sketch of a background, and there are people still drawing a hand. I am banging. that. shit. out. I draw with a ballpoint pen and I use watercolor, because there ain’t no going back. You’ve gotta nail it and move on. When I drew with a pencil, I was right with them. I would painstakingly focus on one area and not get anything done. I’ve trained myself to work fast and I’ve gotten so much better. I’ve been doing figure drawing monthly for 3 years now.
RJ: Why have you chosen to depict male beauty in such a classical style?
JM: I’ve always admired the renaissance and baroque art and I take a lot of pride and am awed by technical efficiency and someone who obviously really has talent… I really appreciate well made, well painted things. Well rendered figurative. Figurative like… it could be a bench or something, but figurative. Representational work. So I have a hard time branching out of that, because I have such an appreciation. Not that I don’t appreciate abstract work and looser work, but for me the ultimate is well rendered stuff. Being a gay man, I’m drawn to the male form, but also male beauty. I’m a gay man, I love beautiful men. [Laughs] But also, I’m an athlete, I’ve always been athletic, I’ve been a long distance runner, I’ve played soccer, I’ve swam, I’ve wrestled, I’ve run marathons. I’ve always been surrounded by athletic figures. Being an athlete is sort of an art of its own. For me, I just really appreciate the athletic build and the figure and I’m really interested in motion and strength and those themes really show up in my work. Also, if I wasn’t going to be an artist, I probably would have been a doctor, which my mom really would have liked. [Laughs] I was always into biology and chemistry and then anatomy, so, well toned figures where you can see sinuous bodies and the muscles, kind of plays into that interest of that, the understanding of the science and anatomy. I love DaVinci because he did all of those science drawings. In contemporary culture right now gender is a big issue, and equal rights, equality and masculinity and femininity and gender roles and gender identity, these are all sort of hot topics right now. In part I have these interests in male beauty, but it’s culturally a topic, so I’m allowing myself to pursue it and delve into it. I have other interests, I’ll probably make some work on that stuff too, but if a big interest is on point with cultural times, I might as well just go with it.
Looking a different way at it, I’m on Instagram, it’s a big part of my work. Social media is a big thing right now. “The Selfie”. The Selfie seems like it should be the word of 2013.
SW: It might have been.
JM: Was it #selfie? Or just selfie?
JM: Vanity is such a big thing in our culture right now, over sharing, people taking pictures of themselves. An athletic body is like a work of art, people are proud of themselves for doing that stuff. When they lose weight or put on muscle, they want to share it. All that stuff sort of interests me. If you look at like, a bodybuilder on Instagram, they always tag “aesthetics”. Like, I’m trying to have an aesthetically pleasing body, not just I’m a gym rat. They justify it in an interesting way. They put a spin on it to justify their obsession, passion or whatever. I think about that stuff as I make my work. Right now I’ve been posting a lot of stuff that is quick sketches. It’s kind of an interesting time to be doing this interview because I feel like in two months I’m going to have a broader body of work, more rendered things and I’ve been bringing in these models and I’ve been taking pictures but I haven’t made much with it yet. I have some stuff to share, I feel like in a couple months something is going to come from all of the thoughts that I have right now. Right now I have the build up and I have the practice, the planning, some of it visual, some of it written, some just in my head, but I feel like in a couple of months I’m going to have something tangible to show for it.
SW: I’m excited to see oil, acrylic and other mediums, but, you had a shirt printed?
JM: Yeah, I thought about bringing that today. I just got the shirt today, I have two designs and one of them comes in multiple colors. Fashion photography has been really interesting me, and trying to find new outlets for my work. Broadening my idea of what mediums to do. Fashion has been really interesting and has been a big interest of mine recently. I’m trying to figure out new places to put my work and with the technology happening in the world, I can print one shirt at a time and to spend a million dollars on a gigantic stock load that I’ve no place to put anywhere.
SW: Where’d you get it from?
JM: Print all over me [Printallover.me]. It’s a really cool service. I’m testing the quality. I don’t know if you want to put this in, but timing is a big problem. The website says 2-4 weeks and I haven’t gotten anything in shorter time than 5 weeks. …I’m not trying to be a fashion person, but if it takes off!
SW: We always end on a light question. You’re an avid runner. What would be your dream location for a long run? Even if the place doesn’t exist anymore.
JM: [Laughs] You know, I really love running while on vacation. You get see all these different neighborhoods in a way that if you’re checking out the tourist spots, you don’t see. I love running along water, somewhere sunny where I can take my shirt off. [Laughs] That’s the perfect run, a long run with my shirt off, just the sun.
Photo by Samuel Getty