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Around the Factory: John McKaig

July 22, 2012
By MATTHEW PARRISH ( , Williamsport Sun-Gazette

Artist John McKaig was very clear about his reason for coming to the Pajama Factory this summer: to work.

"I want to be able to look at myself in the mirror and know that I did as much work as I could," he said. "I've got the space, I've got the materials. I've got no excuses. Just work."

McKaig originally was invited to the city as a part of the Public Art Academy's Artist-in-Residence program, but he decided to rent a studio for a year instead of just staying for the summer.

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"I'm on sabbatical for a year from my teaching job at Interlochen [in Interlochen, Michigan]. And the whole point was to do residencies and workshops and do work and travel and all that stuff," McKaig said.

He picked the Pajama Factory as his getaway because his former colleague at Interlochen Center for the Arts, Chad Andrews, is a factory tenant.

"[Andrews] hired me to teach at Interlochen," McKaig said. "I'd been in touch with him recently. I did a thing [an installation] at the Grey Art Gallery last year. He told me about the residency program and this studio became available. It was an opportunity to work with little distraction and to work with Chad and do some printmaking stuff."

McKaig's studio is right across the hall from Andrews' Paper+, the factory's printmaking studio.

Interlochen, where they met, is a boarding high school for serious art students.

"We're at a college level," McKaig said. "My students there are often better than my college students at Syracuse ... I don't talk down to them - they're serious students."

The artist said he likes teaching because it gives him exposure to new ideas and keeps him "integrated" with young artists. He also had a few words for those who think art teachers aren't good artists themselves.

"That old adage, 'If you can't do, teach,' is bullshit," McKaig said. "Any good teacher I know is a strong artist."

McKaig keeps a blog about his teaching experiences (, hoping to help people understand the process of teaching and learning how to make art more.

"It's demystifying what people think is a mystical experience," he said. "It's nuts-and-bolts work ethic and study and research and drawing and drawing ... I draw out my teaching philosophy and I think that's important. That's what art school is. It's about your relationship with your teacher and what they push and encourage."

The blog is one of the few places where McKaig makes himself visible online.

"I'm not on social network sites," he said. "I want it to be about my work. I don't want to put up trivial stuff ... Twitter is the bane of my existence. People are on Twitter posting like 50 times a day. It's like, 'How do you live and why are you telling us about every burp and fart you had a day?' It doesn't make sense. I would prefer to not even do what I'm doing ... I want it to be a controlled situation online. I want it to be more substantial than that. I'm trying to think of it as a literary or scholarly thing."

About his own art, McKaig said that he's fascinated by personal symbolism and philosophies.

"I make sure things mean something," he said. "I'm not just doing it because it looks good. Ships and boats are a really strong personal symbol. They symbolize adventure and escapism and even the end of life: a lot of people - Scandinavian people, Mediterranean people - cremate their people in boats ... I was in the Navy; I have boats tattooed on me. The first drawing I did was a boat."

McKaig said that when he draws boats these days, he doesn't usually think about the Navy but his experience as a firefighter on a ship when he was a teenager helped make him who he is today.

"I was 17 years old on an aircraft carrier fighting fires," he said. "I was in the same ship the whole four years. When a fire happened or a drill, everyone had to get out of our way. Alarms would go off and magazines were where the weapons were ... you'd be so wound up that afterwards, you'd just pass out."

McKaig said that the alarms were very sensitive and one was never sure what the issue was exactly.

"You'd have to go down there not knowing if it was a fire," he said. "Your adrenaline would go up. You'd go down a long slender tube with nails. I was the No. 2 nozzleman. There were two hoses and I was at the head of one of them. Fire could be anywhere. It could be that some guy fell asleep while smoking a cigarette or sometimes fuel would catch fire on an air deck."

McKaig said they had to treat every situation as life-or-death since they were on a ship because "there was no where to run if things started exploding."

"There were nuclear weapons on that ship," he added.

McKaig received his bachelor's degree in printmaking from Miami University and his master's degree in printmaking from Syracuse University.

He is originally from Toledo, Ohio, but considers himself a "man of the road."



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