Interview with Jon MacNair

I recently did a post about Jon MacNair’s mystically imaginative art.  Here’s an interview the Mongrel did with him via the e-mail.  Check out more Jon MacNair at


1. Hey Jon, okay. . . ready, how old are you? where were you born? and how long have you been doing art?   

I’ll be turning 26 in a few weeks and I was born in Seoul, South Korea. I guess you could say I’ve been doing art as early as I was able to actually hold a drawing implement in my hand. I’m not sure if the things I was drawing at that young could be considered “art” as they were pretty much just scribbles and deformed looking people. I always loved art class in school and also took classes in my free time at our local art center. It wasn’t until middle school that I started to do more of my own art at home (bad watercolors of fish and fruit still lifes), and by high school my class schedule was full of art courses. I remember being in a full-fledged panic the first few weeks of chemistry class, knowing it was going to be a long, hard road if I stayed there. I of course dropped that class and replaced it with an art class. By the time I was a senior, I knew I wanted to go to an art college and pursue a career in the arts. 

Pile of Narcoleptic Cats, Micron pen, india ink on found paper

Pile of Narcoleptic Cats, Micron pen, india ink on found paper


2. According to your bio, it says you were born in Seoul, Korea. Interviewers always like to ask me if being Asian or Asian American influences my work? Like I just draw Anime or something. What about you?

I’ve been asked that question in the past before too, and the only truthful answer I can give is “not really.” While I was born in Korea and am of Asian descent, I was also adopted, so my family background may be different from that of other Asian artists. Since my family is not Korean (with the exception of my brother who is also adopted from Korea, but of no blood relation to me) I didn’t grow up surrounded by Asian culture and things typically associated with that, such as anime. I’ve actually never really read or watched any anime. If there was a book called “Anime for Dummies” I would probably need to read it because I’m clueless about it. Being an illustration major in college, I was surrounded by lots of people who were fanatical about anime and comics and video games, none of which I was ever really into. I never read comics and wasn’t allowed to play video games as a young kid. It wasn’t until high school that we were allowed to have a console (that being N64) and I got semi-decent at playing it. However, to this day I still can’t for the life of me beat Super Mario Bros. It’s sad and embarrassing. I’m better at Duck Hunt.

 3. Could you describe an average day in the life for you? Wake up, get out bed, roll a comb across your head?

Yeah, that could be a pretty accurate description. I usually wake up sometime between 9am and 11am (the latter if it’s been a late night). As much as I love sleep, I don’t like waking up when half the day is over. I sit at my work table a lot. It has a TV set up next to it so I can watch food network and animal planet while I draw during the day. My work schedule is inconsistent because of the freelance jobs and my day job, which I go to on occasion when they need me. I do exhibitions installation at the Baltimore Contemporary Museum and also work special events now and then. So far the highlight of that job has been serving John Waters some wine at an opening reception. When I’m not doing freelance assignments I’m working on my own stuff. I also currently help take care of my roommates’ dog. It’s kind of like babysitting.

No Bad Deed Goes Unpunished

No Bad Deed Goes Unpunished

4. Could you tell me more about the themes in your work? I see a bit of a medieval wood cut / Grim’s Fairy Tales aesthetic that I’m drawn too in your stuff. I don’t mean to generalize your stuff, but it’s because I’m not an art critic. Words that come to mind – Cantebury’s Tales, Illuminated manuscripts, old medieval moralistic stuff, Satan, and D&D. (P.S. these are all my interests)

For me, themes are something that just sort of create themselves over time. I’ve always been interested in certain things (two or three of which you mentioned) and those things eventually lend themselves to themes I find myself revisiting. I guess some general themes would be a juxtaposition of words such as danger/protection, creation/death, and friend/foe. Magic, strange rituals, and the grotesque all play a part in many of these themes. Over time I hope to gain more insight into why I’m attracted to depicting these particular ideas. That’s the beauty of making art; you learn things about yourself.

As far as the eye can see

As far as the eye can see

5. I noticed in your early stuff there’s more collage style drawing, could you talk about that a bit? How has it changed?

Well, back in 2007 I got into making art books. Not like bookbinding or anything (though I would like to learn how to do that), but more like taking old, used books from thrift stores and cutting them up, and painting and collaging them into art journals. It was an experimental phase where I was playing with bright colors I wouldn’t normally use and wasn’t concerned about things making too much sense. I was also maintaining my drawing-a-day art blog at the time and collage was a nice thing to do because it gave me a creative starting point if I was in a slump. As you know, I’ve been doing mostly ink drawings lately, but I would like to play with collage again at some point; maybe make another art book/journal. 

6. What materials do you use? I think after seeing one of your works-in-progress I got inspired to you use some Higgins inks?

Right now it’s mainly ink and paper. I’m still learning about different kinds of ink and materials. I just bought a huge bottle of Speedball brand super black India ink that I’m eager to use. I also use Sumi ink, graphite, gesso, acrylic, watercolor and gouache. I just started using watercolor again for the first time in years and gouache for the first time ever. I like micron pens and nib pens. One thing I would really like to do is start using mounted wood panels. It’d be great to get into acrylic painting again (oils are my enemy).

Some Sort of Mystical Explanation (framed)

Some Sort of Mystical Explanation (framed)


7. In one of our e-mails, you mention that you are sort of trying to go from the illustration freelance field to showing more in art galleries. Could you tell me more about this transition? Has it been easy? Challenging? 

Well, one thing about freelance illustration is you end up waiting around for work a lot. I guess if you have more success with it than I do, you don’t wait around so much and may even have a steady stream of clients who keep you busy. That’s the dream anyway. In my case there is a lot of what you might call “down time.” I started doing more of my own personal work to fill those periods of time and realized how much I enjoyed it and what I was producing. When I started to consciously build a fine art portfolio, I realized I wanted people to see the work and that just naturally led to the gallery thing. I just started out by submitting work to call for entries locally. It was definitely intimidating (and still is to some degree) approaching galleries and just putting your work out there to be judged, but that’s all part of the art world. I think the fact that many galleries want you to submit stuff to them through their websites takes some of the intimidation out of the process for me. The only bad thing about that is you don’t know if they ever actually look at it. Ideally, one day I would like to be one of those artists who get freelance work because of my fine art, and fine art commissions because of my freelance work. I like the idea of crossover and the fusion of industries supporting each other.

8. What would you tell a guy like me, who is trying to get more freelance illustration work? Would you say, Mike you’re better off working at Red Robin again? Is it difficult?

I guess I would say be prepared to be patient when it comes to getting work. If you’re lucky you won’t have to wait so long, especially if you promote yourself like crazy (sending out postcards and emails every 2 months and cold-calling art directors). It’s totally rewarding when you do get the work, and it’s always nice seeing your illustration and name printed in something. What I’ve learned is it can take a LONG time for an art director to actually use you, even if they really like your work. By a long time, I mean possibly years. I’ve had that happen to me before. You can never be sure why it takes people so long to contact you, but you shouldn’t assume it’s because they don’t like your work. I think there are a lot of other factors that we as artists aren’t informed about that cause those delays. If you’re tenacious about getting the work, it will come eventually. But in the meantime, keep busy with other projects so you’re not just waiting around for this one thing to pan out. It makes the waiting more tolerable. 


9. Jon what I really like about your work too is the skill involved mixed with imagination. I love that most of your work is like a negative, things are filled in black and then your characters and scenes are popping out in white. Tell us about how a piece evolves? 

Usually when I get an idea for something, I’ll quickly jot down a little thumbnail sketch, or if there’s not enough time for that, just a description or future title for the piece (something to help me remember my thought). Then I’ll lightly but roughly draw out the composition on paper and then start inking/outlining it. Sometimes the sketching stage can take forever, placing things just right. Building up the gray tones in washes can be time consuming too, but I actually don’t mind that so much. I like trying to balance all the tones, making sure there are enough black areas in the drawing. I also put stuff on the wall and stand back at look at it every now and then during the whole process. This is good especially when you’re tired and your eyes need a break. Again, it also helps you get an idea of your balance of tones.


10. I think I’ve favorited every piece on flickr, but tell me about the piece entitled, “Some Sort of Mystical Explanation?” In the center we have this huge eye with clouds of creatures floating around. Are those little sperm guys shooting out of the bottom? Oh yes, I think they are. 

When I made that piece I was directly thinking about creation mythology and the beginning of life. I wanted to make a drawing to sort of show how I envisioned this world I created coming into existence; think big bang. All the creatures are on clouds surrounding the planet waiting to inhabit it, and the large eye in the middle just shows that the world is newly created (waking up so to speak). The eye is a witness to all that is about to take place. The figure in the eye is the first being of the planet, and the “little sperm guys” are exiting after waking up the eye. Let me explain them a little more. Back in high school I started drawing a lot of fish with human faces (pastel drawings) and those eventually lost their tails over time. Then in college when I revisited them while doing personal work in a printmaking class, I started to associate them with life and the creation of life, which is why I used them in this piece. 

Cat Head (with worms), India ink, gesso, gouache, graphite on found paper

Cat Head (with worms), India ink, gesso, gouache, graphite on found paper

11. What and who might you say is an influence in your art? 

Medieval art (particularly tapestries and illuminated manuscripts), surrealism, German expressionist and Japanese new wave films, fairy tales (particularly Russian ones), mythology, classical composers, Ernst Haeckel, animators like Jan Svankmajer and the Brothers Quay, illustrators like Edward Gorey, Lane Smith, Arthur Rackham, Gustaf Tenggren Charley Harper, Kay Nielsen, Wanda Gag and Eyvind Earle

12. What projects and shows do you have lined up? My next project is cleaning the apartment and taking out the trash.

I’m currently trying to do a few more drawings before hanging my work in a local café at the end of February. I’ve also been invited to be part of a show in San Francisco at Double Punch in May. I would definitely like to participate in some more shows in the future and also at some point maybe make my own zine.



13. What are some of the magazines and places you’ve done illustrations for?

Baltimore magazine, Baltimore City Paper, Pittsburgh City Paper, Hyphen magazine, Rockpile magazine, The Riverfront Times, Urbanite magazine.

14. If someone is interested in buying some of your art, (ahem) where could we go to get one?

Well, right now I really don’t have any sort of shop set up, although it’s definitely on the top of my to-do list. I’d like to sell stuff online; originals, giclee prints and the zines I plan to make on day. Selling my work is a relatively new thing to me. The few things I have sold have all been within the last year or so. It’ll take me a little time to get organized, but it’ll happen soon. 

15. Thanks again Jon for being such a good sport. Who would you like to thank?

I would have to thank my family (especially my parents) who have always supported and encouraged me with my art, my friends who continue to inspire me with their own art, and everyone who’s been so responsive to the work I’ve been doing lately. I would also like to thank my high school art teacher Mrs. Heath.


1 Comment

Filed under art

One response to “Interview with Jon MacNair

  1. Diane Heath

    I am Jon’s high school art teacher and I just wanted to share that his high school work was extraordinary ! My students still hear the story of Jon having all 11 of his scholastic entries accepted into the Southeastern Regional Scholastic show.
    I loved this article and a chance to see and hear what Jon is doing now.
    Diane Heath

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