Although most teenagers are worried about getting their driver’s license and talking to the opposite sex, John McDonald was becoming a professional artist.
© Herald photo by Jodi Schellenberg
John McDonald stands by one of the pieces in his Pantheon exhibit, which will be on display all of May at the John M. Cuelenaere Library in Prince Albert.
McDonald, who is now 33, sold his first painting when he was only 15-years old.
“It was a small, little six by six piece of acrylic on canvas and I sold it,” McDonald said. “It kind of grew from there.”
He now has art in galleries in Europe, Japan, Australia and the United States.
“One of my pieces is part of the collection of the National War Museum in Ottawa and I was one of the artists who was selected for the Aboriginal Artists Inventory for the Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver,” McDonald said. “It started off with one little piece that just snowballed and I’ve had opportunities. My art has taken me around the world and I have been able to share it with as many people as I can.”
It is odd being as well known as he is in the art world, McDonald said.
“There is an old saying that is, ‘What is an art historian’s favourite artists? The dead ones,’” McDonald laughed. “Having a little bit of fame is good. It is kind of strange. The art world is kind of odd in that to be a professional artist and a commercial artist are two totally different things.
“A professional artist, that is someone that it is your passion, it is your life, your duty, but the minute you start making money at it, you are a sell-out,” he added. “It is a fickle business. Treading that fine line of yes, I want you to like my stuff, yes I want you to buy it, but no I don’t want you to buy all of it. It is a weird dichotomy.”
Although his art is in galleries around the world, McDonald said he wouldn’t consider himself famous.
“I would like to call myself not inspirational but thought-provoking,” he said.
McDonald said created art is cathartic and enjoys a variety of mediums, although his favourite is acrylic.
“It is my way of describing the world around me, my way of what I’ve done to heal and express my joy, my pain and my sorrow,” McDonald said. “Being visually minded, being a person who takes in everything visually first and foremost, it is something that I will notice things a lot quicker sight wise, before I smell something, before I hear something.
“For me, art is the quickest way of getting a person’s attention,” he added. “It is a visual loud bang, it is the best way of communicating, I find.”
He explained art is a great way to connect people, as they can all enjoy it regardless of what language they speak or their background.
All of McDonald’s art is considered low-brow art.
“High-brow art is kind of the flowers, the landscapes and the stuff that is considered academic art,” he said. “Low-brow art is stuff that is comic-book based, tattoo-based, graffiti-based.
“For me, in general, my inspiration has always been the world I grew up in which was a world of tattoos, graffiti, comic books, cartoons -- so it is something that has always been a part of my life and it is my biggest influence,” he added.
Since McDonald is an aboriginal artist, he said his background also influenced his art, making it striking, visual and bright coloured.
McDonald was busy setting up a show at the John M. Cuelenaere Library in Prince Albert on Wednesday morning, which will be up until the end of May.
“This show is called the Pantheon,” McDonald said. “They are 10 figures from Aboriginal mythology and folklore, Inuit folklore and also, since Metis don’t traditionally have a folklore figure because they are an amalgamation of two different peoples, there (are) French and Celtic folklore figures in here.”
The show depicts the folklore in the way McDonald saw them when the stories were told to him.
“I wanted to depict them in a way that I see them in myself, that when I was told the stories, the visions in my mind that were created,” McDonald said. “They are based kind of loosely on a series of trading cards that I used to collect as a kid. They are a series of Marvel trading cards that were out back in the 1990s.
“I wanted to depict them as my mind saw -- as a series a heroes and a series of villains,” he added. “In their purest form, mythology is a collect of heroes and villains. I wanted to depict them in a way that showcased that.”
The pieces were created as part of a Saskatchewan Arts Board grant.
“I received an Indigenous Pathways grant in 2013, so these were created over the summer of 2013,” he said.
He would like people to think of his pieces as thought provoking.
“Some of them are thought provoking because they are dealing with a subject matter that in the way they are presented can be considered taboo for a lot of very conservative-minded people,” McDonald said. “These are characters from not only aboriginal traditions, but European traditions -- from many different aspects that for a lot of people, these are sacred people, they are sacred stories.
“To have they depicted in a way that is not sacred, would be considered taboo. At the same time, I like that because it is thought provoking, it makes a person think.”
The pieces are also very colourful and eye-catching.
“Being a guy who spends most of his time painting skulls and flames and stuff, a lot of dark colour, a lot of black paint, this was, for me, taking myself out of my comfort zone because there is, with the exception of one of two pieces, there is almost no heavy black paint,” McDonald said.
He said normally he uses a black outline as “training wheels,” which is a tattoo aspect, creating an outline and filling in the blanks.
“For me, this was out of my comfort zone and expanding my horizons, using things like live models,” McDonald said. “My wife stood in as a model for almost all of these pieces and using myself as a model … which is completely out of my comfort zone.”
He designed the artwork to pop off the wall and catching people’s attention.
“That is one thing about acrylic paint is that they pop,” McDonald said. “They are something you can see -- a person walking down the hall is going to walk past this gallery and they are going to do a double take and see that.
“They are going to see this bright (art). They are going to walk in and hopefully take a gasp of breath at the colour first and then take the chance to read the descriptions underneath.”
Although McDonald is an artist, he doesn’t come from an artistic family.
“My sister and I are kind of the oddballs -- we come from a political family,” McDonald said.
McDonald’s maternal grandfather was Métis leader Jim Brady and he is a direct descendant of both Chief Mistawasis and Joseph Dreaver.
His family supports his work, even though he comes from a political background.
“My wife has given me the freedom -- I often refer to her as the artist widow because all these paintings were created between the hours of 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. because there was the opportunity for me to (paint),” McDonald smiled.
Since his studio was turned into a playroom for his children, he used the kitchen as a studio at night.
“All these paintings were created during the midnight hour, during the wee hours of the morning so she put up with a lot of noise in the kitchen, paint and mess and paintings drying all of the house,” he added.
After the exhibit is taken down, McDonald will be gifting one of the smaller pieces to the Lieutenant-Governor’s office as a thank-you, since she is a strong supporter of the arts.
McDonald also received support through the Indigenous People’s Artist Collective of Prince Albert.
“It is an organization here in Prince Albert of which I am vice president,” McDonald said. “They provided support, guidance and a real community atmosphere -- they were strong supporters of this. We are a small collective of artists here in Prince Albert that step outside the boundaries of ‘Aboriginal’ art.”
He would like to eventually see this collection go to an educational institution at some point. Anyone interested in buying and displaying his exhibit can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“I’d like to see them go to an institution … that will appreciate what they are, just so they will pass on this story because these are telling these stories in a way that it is tricky thing to tell because these come from an oral story telling tradition,” McDonald said. “To try to take an oral story telling tradition and put it into a visual perspective is a tricky slope because there is always going to be something lost in translation.
“I’d like to see these, at some point, go to somebody who will appreciate them and allow that story to continue to be told.”