Home-grown original: Scott McDonald balances life, work and art

Don Decker

Anchorage-born Scott McDonald has been painting for 24 years. His whole life and much of his training have been homegrown. He studied art at the University of Alaska Anchorage and Alaska Pacific University as well as at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.

"I've always made art," he said. "In some ways it's a monkey on my back. It's like a compulsion. It's natural and necessary, but it takes immense energy and time."

It takes even more energy because art is his day job as well as an avocation. He began teaching at Mountain View Elementary in 2006 and started teaching art last year at Abbott Loop and Russian Jack.

He married Ashley Van Hemert in 2010 and they have two children. Cormac is two and Story is only a few weeks old, just a little bit older than his current show, "Now and Then," at the International Gallery of Contemporary Art, which opened on April 4.

Teaching and having children of his own have forced McDonald to keep a tighter schedule and timeline.

"I can't wait for inspiration; I just have to keep working, tired or not," he said.

He finds teaching as exciting as making art. "Teachers are extremely creative people who solve the ever-diverse problem of getting kids to think effectively. It's as dynamic and perplexing as it gets."

McDonald's own work exudes playfulness. The works are childlike but far from childish. There are elements of pop art, minimalism and expressionism. The extemporaneous appearance of his drawn and painted lines brings to mind the style of street artists like Banksy or Jean-Michel Basquiat.

He senses the elegant essence of objects through the eyes of a contemporary artist. The basic forms he chooses for his work -- boxers, guns, boats, profiles or power lines -- are carefully deconstructed, then reconstituted into bold, modernist abstractions.

He applies his awareness of composition and design with an uncommon big-city sophistication. His craftsmanship, derived from study and practice, employs techniques of washes, impasto, collage, drip painting and layering in methods intended to camouflage traditional painting skills by emphasizing process.

It's not about making things look photographic. The aim, rather, is to represent the subject matter in a way that reveals experimentation and innovation.

The floating boats and sinking boats are metaphorical and ambiguous. We are made more aware of the shape of the boats in their surroundings, the color, textures and depth. We come to appreciate the boats less as boats and more as forms in design.

Power poles and the lines between them form grids between which negative spaces become textured and painterly representations of space, reminiscent of the manner in which Piet Mondrian filled in spaces between tree limbs with white paint. The spaces then become less background and move forward in the picture plane. It messes with our notions of depth as we become more conscious of the white brush stroke between the black lines.

In one series, 24 guns cover a wall. They are at once alike and different. Some guns are on black and some on red. We first see them as a unified series in which the simplicity, regularity and order draw us in. Individually, they are cleverly dismantled and assembled in non-utilitarian/impractical ways. The hardware becomes more evident in shape. They become not so much guns as assembled and reassembled parts of a collage.

His series of portraits is highly stylized, cartoonish in approach and derived from the historical imagery of masks, Picasso paintings and African motifs. All are profiles, demonstrations of painting techniques involving a repetition of line.

The demands of fatherhood, teaching and artistic practice can be overwhelming for anyone, but McDonald finds inspiration. "Teaching art seems to make some artists tired of making art themselves," he said. "But I've found it to be the opposite. I've found kids have great ideas and I've learned a lot about being fearless when creating art. In order to teach something, you have to not only know how to do it, but be able to communicate it."

When thinking about ways to create art, McDonald said his experience has shown him that "alternative avenues are sure to arrive: new techniques, new combinations, new processes."

It may take a thousand words to describe a picture, but trying to evaluate art or music often leads to the inevitable and often inexplicable conclusion that it either sounds good or not, looks good or not.

In the context of contemporary design and modern painting -- and in a few words -- McDonald's work is looking good indeed.

Don Decker is an Anchorage artist, teacher and writer.


Daily News correspondent