Marion McCally’s soulful portraits
On the street, in the studio
An afternoon chat with artist Marion McCally
by Bondo Wyszpolski
Less than three months ago, two things occurred, fairly insignificant at the time, but without them you wouldn’t be reading about Marion McCally and looking at her artwork in this magazine.
Early in June, one of McCally’s neighbors invited her along to the Palos Verdes Art Center where the “Collected Treasures Estate Sale” event was taking place. Sure, I’ll go, why not? The two of them liked what they saw and returned the next day. And the next. But on the third day McCally’s friend noticed artist Jody Wiggins. The three of them spoke, McCally showed some of her paintings on her phone, and Wiggins suggested that McCally submit some work for consideration to “The Summer Show,” curated by Scott Canty, and subsequently opening on July 23 (and closing on August 27).
I don’t think I need to say what happened. McCally’s three large portraits, “Ester,” “Jim,” and “José at Work” were given pride of place in the exhibition — and “José at Work” was awarded Best of Show.”Out of the gate, and painting
Marion McCally lives in San Pedro, in a rundown, cluttered apartment but with a million dollar view of the harbor, the ocean, and distant mountains. It is, however, the enviable clutter of a working artist, an extension of McCally’s personality and sensibility as a creative human being. In short, it’s a down-to-earth and honest living space.
Born in Los Angeles, McCally’s early schooling took place in L.A. and then Long Beach, and there were art programs along the way in which she enrolled. For this, I think, she was well suited if not exactly preordained: Her mother was an artist and had attended Chouinard. “She was always drawing and painting, and so as a kid I had all the paint and pastels and everything, and I was always doing pieces,” often on old paper bags. McCally’s father was a carpenter and built homes, including custom homes in his later years.
If that doesn’t point a would-be artist in the right direction, what does?
After living in Pasadena for a while, McCally moved back to the coast. By day she was working for one of the shipping companies near the Queen Mary, and by night she was attending ArtCenter in Pasadena.
Many artists, when interviewed, give short shrift to their teachers and mentors, but McCally makes sure to mention nearly every one of hers. She began her night classes at ArtCenter in 1991 with Vern Wilson as her instructor, and continued studying with him until 1997. In addition, McCally went to Wilson’s private studio in Eagle Rock each Saturday, drawing from the figure in the morning and painting from the figure in the afternoon.
Steve Huston took over Wilson’s studio in Eagle Rock after Wilson retired and moved to New Mexico. McCally studied under Huston for several years as well, and her other art teachers included the painters Richard Bunkell, Alex Schaefer, and Harry Carmean. “The art instructors at ArtCenter were incredible,” McCally says. “I studied classical drawing and painting with all of them.”
She graduated from ArtCenter with a BFA in Illustration.
A glance at her work suggests that the people McCally paints are mostly ordinary folks, the kind you’d meet on the street.
“I did meet them on the street,” she replies. We’re looking at two full-length portraits, one of them of a man who appears to be of Middle Eastern descent, in front of his shop, and the other an African-American woman named Cookie waiting for a bus, both of them on the sidewalk along Gaffey Street in San Pedro. (judging from the nearby landmarks, he’s near 10th St. and she’s near 5th)
As one might guess from all those years of intense study, McCally often paints from life, but clearly that’s not an option when it’s a person in a public setting. And so she quickly introduces herself, says she’s an artist, and takes their picture if they permit it (they usually do). Then she’ll work from her photographs. After all, she says, “It’s not that I can ask them into my apartment. I don’t know them.” But why these people, strangers who are out and about?
“For some reason,” McCally answers, “I feel more drawn to painting people that I [serendipitously encounter] because there’s something about them. They have some quality; I see them and I have to get to know them through the painting. As art, it’s visually exciting to me, and it is also part of the landscape.” That is to say, the person spotted in his or her milieu or environment, people in context. “I like seeing the architecture, the cityscape with the people.” It is, after all, as McCally had earlier mentioned to me, “a snapshot in time.”By way of contrast, a commissioned portrait, the setting artificial, the posing perhaps artificial as well, seems to have much less of an appeal for her, unless she’s made a connection with the person. Overriding the physical attributes of her subject, and McCally takes pains to point this out, “would be the ‘spiritual’ quality I related to or responded to upon meeting these people.”
For example, there’s Cookie, the woman waiting for the bus:
“I was going down the street and I saw the red coat and her face, and literally like a race car driver I made this quick turn, hoping that she’d still be there.”
It’s like the “decisive moment,” that inner voice telling the photographer when to press the shutter. In this case it’s the painter’s eye, that flash of insight or intuition that says Now! This is it! At the same time it’s often a subtle recognition that most of us would probably miss.
“It’s when ordinary people are not trying to pose,” McCally says, “or they’re thinking of faraway things for instance. And when they do, sometimes as an artist you see something in their eyes, a hopefulness or possibility.
“I love it when I see people just like myself (because) we’re all in this together, with all the stresses and everyday struggles of life — like, I got to get gas, I got to get groceries. All those things sometimes weigh us down. They limit us.” And yet “it’s like their thoughts are bigger than what’s going on in their lives.” She sees, often in very ordinary people, that part of us that transcends the mundane world we’re all forced to endure.What catches her attention
I’ve pointed out that McCally is attracted to people in their environment, people simply being themselves, and part of that equation usually includes what they’re wearing and their immediate surroundings. But there’s a certain frame of reference that may partially account for how she sees these people and how she positions them in the modern world.
And what it is, McCally says, is her love of classical art, the Greeks, the Romans, the Egyptians. That’s “one of the things that really motivates me.” Throughout history young artists would learn balance and proportion and harmony by carefully copying the ancient masters, their works on paper, parchment, or carved in stone.To an extent, it’s through this lens that McCally sees “situations,” that is, individuals or groupings of people. She mentions a photograph of people standing on a wall and likens it to a frieze on the Parthenon in Greece. “Nothing changes,” she says. “These things are just universal,” referring to form and movement as depicted then and now.
Greek architecture, too, with its mathematical precision, has impressed itself upon McCally, and the notion of grids and golden rules in classical art, “where one form relates to another form,” is also part and parcel of her aesthetic toolkit. Of course, she makes it clear that there are other artists and art movement that she admires, naming, among others, Rembrandt, van Gogh, Monet, the Impressionists and, when I inquire as to other artistic mediums, ballet, opera, jazz, and in film the incomparable Buster Keaton: “He’s like an Old Master painting coming to life, the visual way he moves in the scenes and how he handles the space.”
Three of McCally’s paintings were accepted into the P.V. Art Center’s “Summer Show,” and each of them has a backstory. “Ester,” the black woman standing in the kitchen, was the daughter of Charles Oboth Ofumbi, the Interior Minister under Idi Amin, the warlord president of Uganda. Ofumbi died, or more likely was killed, in 1977, and Ester, plus three siblings, made it to the United States. “Ester lived in Los Angeles,” McCally points out, “where she attended L.A. Trade Tech — eventually pursuing her love and interest in making handcrafted goods. She passed away from cancer a few years back.”“José at Work” is the portrait of a parking lot attendant McCally encountered by chance in downtown L.A. She was drawn to the color and shape of his uniform and hat. “There was a bright green wooden workstation on the parking lot for the attendants. José stood in front of the station to say goodbye as I was ready to leave; the color, light, and his quiet demeanor were wonderful visually to me.” The following week McCally returned to the parking lot to speak with José, but he was gone, and the attendants onsite had no idea of where he went.
“Jim” is Jim Engelhardt, a screenwriter and playwright who taught at ArtCenter and Long Beach City College. “Jim passed away in 2021 from complications due to the motor neuron disease ALS.”
Engelhardt, however, was more than a passing acquaintance. He spent nearly four years in a nursing home before his death and McCally visited him often. He’d grown up in Washington state with a view of Mt. Rainier. After doing some research and digging into her art world skills, McCally constructed a scale model of the mountain out of plaster, with rocks, trees, animals, and Native Americans.
“It was so much fun,” McCally recalls. “I would say that was one of the most rewarding experiences as an artist I’ve ever had, doing these models, designing the scenes, but really elaborate, with lights.”
So what happened to the junior Mt. Rainier? McCally sighs and says that she had to take it apart. “I just don’t have any storage. It broke my heart.”
If you haven’t noticed, we’ve taken a sudden detour away from painting on canvas.
“Since I learned so much about doing it,” she says of her modelmaking, which included other pieces as well, “I thought about continuing.” If she hasn’t, it’s because she has no room, and the powder from the plaster would interfere with her painting. “My motivation for all of these (sculpted models) was an art experience for somebody who was paralyzed. I responded not only as a friend to help a sick friend with coping with the illness but as an artist responding to create something beautiful in the midst of suffering.” She was always dodging the administration, she says. The nurses liked the little Rainier, but cautioned her, “Please don’t make something that big again.”
“So it’s not just painting that I’m interested in. I’d love to make things if I had a yard.” She then describes modelmaking classes that she took while at ArtCenter, which included doing research in the catacombs of the Natural History Museum so she could construct a large, imaginary bird-like creature.
It seems that your secret life would be as a theatrical scenic designer.
“I think so sometimes,” McCally replies.Other endeavors, large and small
More recently, she’s been painting still lifes, some on a tiny scale, palm-sized in fact, and some quite larger. As for her art, “It keeps changing, hopefully growing, you’re never there, just trying to keep improving.” It also doesn’t seem likely that McCally’s going to run out of ideas. She doesn’t even have to look very far to find them:
“I just open my front door and there’s a story, that’s how I feel. There’s always something visually compelling — people or situations or scenes. And I have so many projects. These drawers” — and she indicates the large ones near where we’re sitting — “are filled with projects that I’m trying to finish.”
One of these projects is directly related to the painting of “Ester,” prominently featured in “The Summer Show” at the P.V. Art Center. Apparently it’s a major endeavor, and years in the making. “I have a lot of reference and a lot of other things to work with,” McCally says of the woman whose family suffered under the rule of Uganda’s Idi Amin. Ester, McCally adds, “had a fascinating life. She always had photos of her father, when they had a home which was considered wealthy.”
And so that large painting of Ester is kind of a prologue, an opening act.
“Hopefully, when I talk to you again someday,” McCally says, “I’ll have more work here for that project because I really can’t wait to show it. I’ve done a tremendous amount of studies on it so far, and I want to get it out there.”
Marion McCally can be reached at (562) 519-4431 or by email at email@example.com. PEN