Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Artist Interview: Elisabeth McNair

Elisabeth McNair
Elisabeth and her dog Rufus

Our current exhibit, SMART, features a wide array of goofy, clever, and intelligent art. To showcase some of the artists we're particularly excited about, we conducted a series of interviews. Our first is with illustrator and zine author Elisabeth McNair.  She kindly took time out from her schedule to tell us about herself, her creative process, and her inspirations.

Where are you from, and where do you currently live?
 I was born in Atlanta, Georgia, and that's where I'm currently living.

Where/how would you ultimately like to live?
I'm not really sure where I would ultimately like to live. My goal is to freelance full-time, and I think I'd actually be happy living anywhere if I could just work for myself and set my own hours.

The Optimist
The Optimist

How would you describe yourself? (or how might someone else describe you?)
I'm not very good at describing myself, but I love personality tests, especially the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. The profile of the INFP personality type describes me really well.

How would you describe yourself as an artist?
I try to make art that is intelligent but not pretentious, funny but not stupid, and nostalgic but not kitschy.

Elisabeth mcnair_good_taste_2 copy
Good Taste

As one of the artists in our upcoming SMART show, how are you interpreting this title? 
I gave it a lot of thought, and ended up deciding to interpret the title literally, and so I created an illustration about the desire to be "smart." A lot of people, myself included, are plagued by the anxiety that we will never know enough. Information is so accessible and easily-attained through the internet that we consume it faster than we can really absorb it. The piece I made for the show is an observation of the way that we constantly devour culture and knowledge, and how that information becomes wrapped up in our identities, a process that can either bring us closer together or make us feel more isolated.

What materials/processes do you use?
I always begin with lots of sketches. Once I've roughly figured out how I want the illustration to look, I make a detailed pencil drawing. Sometimes I create just one composition, and sometimes I draw all of the elements separately and compile them in the computer. Once the drawing is complete, I either paint it with watercolor and gouache or scan it and color it in Photoshop. As much as I love the idea of something being completely hand-made and original, painting in Photoshop is actually very freeing to me because there's no stress involved--I can change the colors as many times as I want! However, it's important for me to at least begin with a real drawing. I would really love to start printmaking again.

On your website, you site the writer Flannery O’Connor as a major influence. Can you tell us about a favorite story or passage?
In "Mystery and Manners," Flannery O'Connor wrote: “There are two qualities that make fiction. One is a sense of mystery and the other is a sense of manners. You get the manners from the texture of existence that surrounds you. The great advantage of being a Southern writer is that we don't have to go anywhere to look for manners; bad or good, we've got them in abundance. ” I think this idea pertains to any kind of art, not just fiction. There is truth in mystery and humor in manners, and since truth is often painful, it's best to express it with humor.

Happy Spring

How much of a story do you create behind your illustration images?
There's usually an elaborate story that no one will ever really hear. Coming up with the story is more fun to me than actually making the illustration.

Are the people in your illustrations based on people you know, imagine, or see out and about?
I never intend for my illustrations to be based on real people, but it's possible that people I know sometimes sneak in!

There are quite a few animals in your illustration work. Can you talk about your relationship with animals? 
I've always loved animals, which is why I'm a vegetarian. Gandhi said that the "greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way in which its animals are treated." I think that animals understand more than we know, and I wish that our society did a better job of protecting them.

Do you have a day job? What jobs have you held? What was the best? The worst?
Right now, I don't have a day job because I'm attending school full-time; however, I'm doing freelance work and I also sell portraits on my Etsy shop. I have been a substitute teacher, an art teacher, a barista, and I've worked at a pet supply store. The pet supply store was fun because it was nice having dogs as customers. The worst job was substitute teaching.

from the zine 'Fancy Pants'
from the zine 'Fancy Pants'

 You received your B.F.A. in Drawing, Painting, and Printmaking, and now, you’ve returned to school for Illustration and Design. Why did you decide to go back to school?
I've never been good at figuring out how to make a living with my art; in fact, just thinking about it has always made me a little squeamish. I have always had a "day job" and made art in my spare time. I went back to school in order to figure out how to support myself doing what I love.

Where do you turn for inspiration?
The past.

What artists are most inspiring to you? 
Edward Gorey, Maira Kalman, and Yuriy Norshteyn are constant sources of inspiration.

How long does it take you to make an illustration?
It depends on when my deadline is! I can tweak things forever, so if I have the time I could spend weeks on a single illustration. However, if I am pressed for time I can complete an illustration a day.

Can you describe a typical work day?
Every morning while I drink my coffee, I get caught up on my reading. (I'm using Feedly now that Google Reader is being phased out.) If I come across something interesting, I might write about it on my blog. Then I walk my dog, and after that I spend the rest of the day at my desk, until late afternoon, when it's time to walk my dog again. After dinner, I work for several more hours.
from the zine 'A Year of Not Reading'
'A Year of Not Reading'

I love to read. I also enjoy spending time with my dog, Rufus--I hate to think of how much time I would spend inside if he didn't beg me go on walks! Before I became too busy with school, I played keyboard in my husband's band, Noel Stephen & the Darlings.  (http://nsatd.bandcamp.com)

You have a blog called “A Fine Day For…” Are there any particular blogs you’re fan of? Some blogs I've been reading for a long time are Brain Pickings, Design*Sponge, Pugly Pixel, Swiss Miss, and of course Pikaland.

What’s the most interesting feedback you’ve ever gotten about your work?
Some people have described my work as depressing, which makes me laugh, because I try so hard to make it funny!

What’s the best advice on being an artist you’ve ever been given?
I can't think of a good answer for this, which probably means that I need some advice.

You say on your website that you are open to collaborations and commissions. What would be your ideal collaboration/commission?
My ideal collaboration would be to work with other creative people I admire to create and self-publish a quarterly zine. My ideal commission would be to do a cover for The New Yorker.

We have another upcoming show about inspirational quotes. Is there a particular quote that inspires you?
"Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away."
 --Antoine de Saint-Exupery
Check out Elisabeth's work at:  www.elisabethmcnair.com


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