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Pat McKenny, Tim Middleditch in background.
What Lies Ahead:
- The Best Years of Pat McKenney's Life -
By Kaizaad Kotwal
Patrick J. McKenney, Sr., will turn 62 on May 7, 2002, and he can't wait. His impatience is due to the fact that he will be able to devote all the time in the world to his art after he retires from his "real" job on that day. McKenney is certain that the rest of his life, his future, awaits him with all the joys and splendor that art brings to him - art that he will devote himself to on a full-time basis.
McKenney lives and works out of the Milo Arts Complex on 617 East 3rd Avenue where he has been situated for the past three years. The Milo Arts Complex is housed in the old Milo School built in 1894, with a fifties-style addition on the south side of the old building. The structure, gothic in its architecture, looms over the mostly modern, ranch-style homes on the east side of Columbus like some sort of anachronistic ghost,
an abandoned glory from another time. The evening of my visit with McKenney at Milo, the sharp orange sky with gray clouds gather-ing over the setting sun made this building reminiscent of the Bates Motel in Hitchcock's Psycho.
But the Gothic leanings of the building's architecture, or any resemblance to the Bates Motel, is in complete contrast to the purpose that the building currently serves. While the outside of the structure reflects 107 years of stone-cold history, the interior is brimming with life and creativity. For the past 18 years, the Milo Arts Complex has been a sort of Bohemian enclave for some Columbus-based artists. Currently about 35 artists reside in the building, some of them live and create art there while others merely have studio setups.
McKenney credits Donna and Rick Mann, who own the building, with having created this amazing space for artists to grow and nurture their work in. The artists vary in age and artistic backgrounds. There are painters, sculptors, photo-graphers, dancers, a carpet designer, stained glass artist, and fine furniture maker, constituting a diverse, creative environment.
"It's a great place for an artist," says McKenney, "and we owe a huge debt to the Manns who really support the arts." According to McKenney, "there is no other place like this in Columbus." And while the artists there are lucky to have such a haven to work out of, McKenney also notes that the artists in the building are extremely supportive of the community outside the Milo complex, reaching as far west as the Short North.
One of the ways in which McKenney and the other artists support the community directly is by holding classes for local and neighborhood children. These classes are free to the youth, who vary in age from 9 to 15, and all the supplies are free as well. McKenney says that the children who come there are "those who are interested in art and in the projects that the artists present to them."
The evening of my visit, Patrick is in the studio with his chocolate Labrador named Hershey and his calico cat named Trouble, the animal reincarnations of the Odd Couple. That evening it seems that Hershey is more bent on giving "trouble" than the furry feline who is taking a catnap on the bathroom rug, making her name seem like a misnomer. Or revealing a sort of Jekyll and Hyde dichotomy dwelling in this particular furry feline. The labrador Hershey's resplendently lush brown fur is capped off with an American flag scarf around his neck (cinematically inspired by "Easy Rider"), and he is energized by my visit and all the scents I may have dragged into the studio.
McKenney's studio is a large open space, painted white, with an extremely high ceiling. One entire wall of the ground-level space is lined with large tall windows giving the studio a very spacious feel. Considering that this glass wall faces east, the morning and afternoon light must be perfect for painting and sketching. In the north corner of the studio is a spiral, wrought-iron staircase, painted a shiny black, which leads to the loft-style living quarters for McKenney.
The room is filled with his art - paintings, sketches, sculptures and even birdhouses, something he has taken to building in order to "relieve the stresses of making real art." In one corner of the room are stacks of old frames and other raw materials which McKenney uses for his work. The white room is colored with plants, in every imaginable shade of green, all over the place, lining the window sills, hanging from the ceiling, and placed in sundry locations on the floor. In fact, the cat acquired her name, Trouble, because one of the ways in which she gets into trouble is by jumping into the pots and digging away at the botanical life!
McKenney, dressed in a denim shirt and faded jeans, shows me around the space and we eventually settle into the living room area of the studio to chat about his life and art. He cradles a Budweiser in his hands as he eagerly begins to talk to me, periodically making sure that I note something down that he wantsemphasized about his work or himself.
He has been creating art for the past 50 years. When I ask how he got started in the world of art, he drolly replies, "with crayons," and then bursts into a slightly delayed chuckle. I press him further to reveal what made him pursue the arts past that childhood phase with crayons. He answers simply with, "I love to create."
McKenney, who works primar-ily in two-dimensional art these days, honed his skills as a sculptor at Columbus College of Art and Design "centuries ago," as he puts it. His day job at General Theming Contractors also involves creati-vity, but McKenney would rather be making his own art all day long. General Theming Contractors, according to McKenney, does "high-end framing and custom murals for national restaurants and retailers" and he feels "blessed to be working with really great people in a very creative atmosphere."
But before long, on his 62nd birthday, McKenney plans to retire and devote all of his time to his art. He actually retracts the term "retire," preferring to say that he is "quitting a day job to change careers and become a full-time artist." He hopes to be busier than ever before in this new phase of his life. "I will be doing a lot of shows locally and elsewhere," he says, "and hopefully this will take up most of my time. But I also want to teach kids and work with kids."
McKenney acknowledges that having a day job, no matter how creative it is, and trying to make art at the same time, is both challenging and frustrating. It is a dilemma many artists have to contend with &endash; that ever-precarious balancing act of making a living and making art at the same time. The very chosen few, the extremely lucky ones, are able to make a living making art. But for most, after a tired day at the office, one has to conjure up creative energy, one has to pacify and cajole one's muse to be able to make art despite an already full and tiring schedule. While juggling his job and his art, McKenney says that he has tried to create as much as he possibly can but that "it takes a lot of discipline to work and to create at the same time."
Born on May 7, 1940, McKenney moved from Dayton to Columbus when he was barely two years old. "Mom and dad moved here," he says, "and we lived on the east side of the city." His mother was a housewife and his father a food broker. McKenney has an older brother Jack and a younger sister named Jane. Neither Jack (older by four years) nor Jane (younger by ten years) are involved in the arts. The former is a retired army officer in Louisville, Kentucky, and the latter is getting her doctorate in theology from the University of Dayton at the age of fifty-one.
I had to ask him, given the non-artistic leaning of his parents and siblings, where he got his artistic proclivities from. "From my great-grandfather McKenney," he answers, "who was an architect and con-tractor." One of great-grandpa McKenney's projects was the design and construction of the Cleveland Cathedral.
Pat is divorced today. His marriage resulted in three children, two girls and a boy, who in turn have made him the proud grandfather of five: Leanna, Haley, Sean, Ashton, and Kevin. His oldest offspring, Patrick, Jr., works for Contract Lumber in Pataskala, Ohio, the middle daughter Lisa has her own mortgage business in north-west Ohio, and the youngest one, Molly, is a nurse in Charleston, South Carolina. McKenney speaks of his kids and grandchildren with great pride.
Also present during our interview is Rita Stattmiller, a friend of the artist for the past six months. McKenney and Statt-miller met at the Doo-Dah Parade this past July and have been friends ever since. Stattmiller took Hershey for a walk to try and calm the dog down while McKenney and I spoke. Upon her return I asked her to talk about how they met. "I was in the Short North Tavern during the start of the Doo-Dah parade," she says with a laugh, "We just kinda met and hit it off!"
Stattmiller, who is a school librarian with the Columbus Public Schools, acknowledges that it was McKenney's art that, at least in part, drew her to him. "I love his art," she says. Stattmiller's son Andy is an art student at Columbus College of Art and Design and her oldest daughter Eva also studied there. Marta, her middle child, is also very talented, but chose not to pursue the field of art. "We had art in common," she says, scanning McKenney's art hanging around the room. The two also collaborate on the bird-houses, with McKenney building them and Stattmiller adorning them with decoupage or other found materials.
McKenney hangs out a lot at cafes like the Short North Tavern where he and Stattmiller met. He visits pubs and coffee-houses all over the city, where he sits and sketches and draws. "Partly I do this to keep in practice," he says, "and partly to sell some of my work." Oftentimes, according to McKenney, someone in the pub will see him sketching another patron and ask him to do one of themselves. I ask him how long he takes to do each portrait. "About twenty minutes," he answers. "That's if they hold still," Stattmiller chimes in, "and depending on how many drinks they've had."
I ask him what such a sketch might set the subject back. "Twenty bucks and a beer," he says with a deep-throated laugh. When scouring out potential subjects, McKenney looks for "someone with an interesting anatomy of the human face." Sometimes it may be someone "with an oversized hat" or simply "someone who is a little bit off-beat, somewhat of a character." Taverns in particular provide him with a rich assortment of subjects given the smoky milieu and the ambient lighting conditions.
In addition to doing portraits and figurative drawings, McKenney also works on still lifes, light houses, wildlife, and quite a bit of abstract art as well. Currently he is working on a series of covered bridge pieces for someone in Monroe county. The day I visit him he has been sketching in pencil to study the values and tones of the future watercolors.
McKenney likes watercolors because he considers it a very demanding medium. "Between you and me," he says, trying to apologize in advance for potentially upsetting any oil paint artists, "with oils you can cover up mistakes but in watercolors there is no room to cover up blunders." He calls his preferred medium a "thought-out process that still is all about spontaneity." McKenney revels in this paradoxical nature of watercolors, claiming that he has a painting painted in his head before committing it to paper. "But I love that sense of spontaneity even after all that planning."
McKenney considers Delacroix, Henri Matisse, Jackson Pollock (whom he calls "a brute") and Willem de Kooning to be amongst his primary and formative aesthetic influences. He looks up to Dela-croix for his discipline, Matisse for his form, Pollock for his emotion and de Kooning for his power.
I ask McKenney what the creative process gives him in return. "You know the old saying," he asks rhetorically, "The agony and the ecstasy!" "Art fulfills the need in me to be challenged, one-on-one with myself. A good painting makes me feel good and in that it is very fulfilling, but it can also be extremely frustrating if it doesn't turn out the way I had planned it and hoped for." Referring back to the neighborhood kids who come to the Milo Arts Complex for art classes, McKenney says that he always tells them that "art, whatever medium you choose, is always a personal journey."
That begs the question as to what McKenney has learned about himself and his art from his personal journey. "I have learned," he says, "that I love to be quiet and to work and to create." By his own admission, he loves to stay very busy. His art appears to be all-consuming, because when I ask him what other passions he has, he pithily replies, "that's it." "Oh, and Budweiser," he adds with a grin and a chuckle. I ask this sexagenarian to reminisce about the best period in his life so far. "The one coming up," he answers without even giving it a thought.
When asked if he has any regrets, his face becomes a bit wistful and for the first time that evening he pauses. "Tons," he says, with a seeming sadness, and then, more practical again, he adds, "but what use are those? Regrets are like salt. After a while they lose their sting." There is a noticeable lull in the conversation as my question about regrets seems to have struck a chord. "I do have one deep regret," he says, "and that is that I should have painted all my life."
We end our conversation with a chat about the role of art and the artist in society. "If you have a talent," he says, "you're obligated to share that talent because we as human beings need to pass on the creative process, whether you're an artist, doctor, lawyer, or Indian chief."
"This is only my personal philosophy" he says leaning in, "but I believe that the more we enter a technological age, which is non-emotional, the more a creative process is valued and necessary." McKenney also believes that art, while valuable and necessary, doesn't always have to be political, issue-oriented, or serious. For McKenney, reveling in the sheer joy and exuberance of art is sometimes sufficient.
"Plato," according to McKenney, "argued that art for arts sake has no value. I hate to challenge him," he continues, "but he was dead wrong. Art for arts sake is an absolute necessity. Otherwise, we wouldn't have the Taj Mahal, now would we?" 1
Kaizaad Kotwal is a Columbus writer, photographer and teacher.