McCal Joy - Artist Study

McCal Joy - Artist Study

This is part of an ongoing series on the how, where, and why behind some people making amazing things in the Midwest.
I first met McCal Joy at her studio last fall. She has an infectiously joyful personality and I was immediately struck by her work. As somebody who loves a good story in any form, I was blown away by the beauty and depth of her paintings, many of them inspired by folktales.


Zach: Tell me who you are and what you do.

McCal: My name is McCal Joy and I am an independent artist and illustrator. I create fine art but I also am currently creating illustrations for education games and children’s books.

Zach: How did this all get started?

McCal: Well, it started out, I think when I drew some little rabbit sketches with color crayons while I was like three and my mom was all like, “oh my gosh, that's so cool!” I actually don’t remember that part but she's told me about it.

“And I got to a point where I couldn’t not do it...I always ended up needing to.

I think art has always been encouraged in my family, just kind of like old traditional crafts in general. Woodworking, building, being able to kind of create in general. So creation has always been important in my family. And so, as I grew up I created things a lot and I started painting at like 12 or 13 probably, and I grew to really love it. And I got to a point where I couldn’t not do it. I couldn’t just pick up something else and not paint. I always ended up needing to. And so I knew I wanted to do it for a career and so I went to school at MSUM, got by BFA in art education, and kind of got in cahoots with a couple friends who wanted to create educational games and wanted a fine art aspect to it. I was all for it and that’s kind of where that all started. And just always wanting to do something where I’m creating has always kind of encouraged me to do what I’m doing now. So just working hard I guess, always working.

Zach: You said you grew up in a creative home, what was that like?

McCal: Well, my mom was a painter when she was younger. When she started having kids she stopped painting but she still creates a lot and she’s very crafty, you know? If there’s a problem, she can fix it. And my dad can pretty much build anything under the sun. He built two of our homes. And my brother is a computer technician and from as far as I can remember he’s always been building and creating things. My sister was an artist in high school so that really inspired me. I wanted to be just like her. So really, just my whole family are creators of some sort.

Zach: How do you begin a new piece? How does that usually go down?

McCal: It starts out with an idea or I’ll be inspired by a story and look into it and eventually I’ll want to depict it somehow. Then I’ll start coming up with ways in which I want to compose an image. It usually starts out with me finding a model and asking them if they would pose for me. I’ll usually take photos so they don’t have to sit for me. I modeled a few times and sitting for four hours isn’t the best way you want to spend your time. So photos work better for that case. That way I can do more too and I can actually plan how I’m gonna compose my image after I get the shot I want. Because sometimes the shot I end up using is not the one I planned out. So research, planning, taking photos of models. And then I’ll start with an under layer. That usually is just a sporadic burst of water and acrylic colors to make the cool textures underneath. Usually I work with acrylic first for the base layers and then move onto oil painting.

Zach: What are you working on now?

McCal: Right now I am working on one called The Caliph Stork, which is the name of the middle eastern story that I read. A caliph is kind of a nobleman in the middle east, similar to a sultan, and a stork is a…stork, yeah.

Zach: A lot of your pieces have stories behind them. What or who are you influenced by?

“Being able to depict a narrative on a painting is important to me.”

McCal: You know, I guess what it comes down to is that when I was a kid I loved adventures. I know every kid says that they love adventures but I was lucky enough to be raised near a lake and we owned several acres of woods so I was able to create my own adventures with my siblings. Being able to depict a narrative on a painting is important for me. And also I just think that when it comes to stories I like to be able to look at a painting and get something out of it. I know a lot of paintings you can get emotions out of or you can just enjoy the beautiful colors but whatever the case I like to be able to have a painting that has a distinct story behind it and it doesn’t have to be up to the viewer to figure out what it is. They can, and sometimes that’s really fun but I think it’s more meaningful to me if there’s something behind it that’s not just BS. And so I choose folktales because I’ve always really loved reading stories. I think as a kid that’s how I learned about other places cause we didn’t really travel a whole lot outside of the state. I learned a lot of things through stories and that’s what stories are for, it’s all about learning. So it’s like my way of educating without having to write.

Zach: How do you think your work has changed since you started?

McCal: Well, starting out in my hometown, my idea of art was different, being a kid and being in a smaller social circle. And so going through school I learned more about what art is to me. I think my art has been less about realistic detail and it’s changed to be more about the influence of the style that I’m putting forth. More colorful.

Zach: Tell me about your studio.

“my darkest paintings were done in that little, tiny, dark room”

McCal: I was really lucky to get this spot. It has lots of sunlight and for awhile it was getting a little too small for me and I had to learn how to rearrange. That’s when I took out the ceiling tiles and put the lofted storage up so that way all of the clutter was above me instead of in my workspace. That made a huge difference. I really love being able to work in a space that gives me natural lighting. I think that’s really important if you’re trying to get decent colors. What I’ve noticed is that when I look at my previous paintings, my darkest paintings were done in that little, tiny, dark room (her previous studio). And that’s because there was no natural light and so everything was dark. The paintings were very dark and I’ve noticed since I’ve moved into this space my paintings have been a lot brighter. I really do think that lighting has a played a big part in that.

Zach: Are you a clean or messy worker?

McCal: I’m clean and messy. I’m messy for the sake of experimentation and then I clean it up. I always feel like a messy studio means you’re working. If it’s too clean you’re not a good artist! It’s like you go to someone’s house and their kitchen is sparkling clean I’m like, “you must not cook at all!”

Zach: What do you want people to take away from your work?

“I just want people to experience the stories the way I see them.”

McCal: I kind of want people to enjoy the story of my paintings. I want them to look at it and actually play the story in their minds. I don’t want them to just look at it and walk away a second later, but for them to actually look for the certain things that I added into the painting for the people that look a second longer than the others. I guess I just want people to experience the stories the way I see them.

Zach: Why do you feel compelled to create?

McCal: Because you’re creating something! Because there now exists a thing that didn’t use to exist! For the sake of creating. For the same reason, you know, some people have babies, because they want to create something that is a part of themselves. They want to look at it and see it and be like, “oh my gosh, I made you and you reflect who I am!” That’s how I feel about my paintings, it’s like I created it. Nobody else has created this and it reflects a little bit of me.

Zach: What’s on your playlist right now?

McCal: Disney music! In fact, before you walked in, I think I was listening to Cinderella!

Zach: Does that influence your paintings?

McCal: It does. While I don’t try to paint like Disney, I just think Disney is very happy and all their music is really exciting and happy. Also when I’m listening to their music I’m seeing the movie in my head because I’ve watched them so much that it’s almost like watching TV and working at the same time. And that’s everyone’s dream, right? Haha! So it’s like why not? Sometimes a different song will pop up and it’ll be like my dog died and my wife died and all this stuff and I don’t want that reflected in my painting because all of a sudden I become sorrowful. So if I’m listening to happy music, or just instrumental music and not vocals, I don’t have to worry about it influencing my painting in a bad way.

Zach: What’s the last good book you’ve read.

McCal: It’s called Outlander. The book is about a woman, and this makes sense with the things I like, who is visiting a place in Scotland and touches a rock and is transported to the 1300’s. And she ends up with this Scottish clan who is trying to figure out who she is. She had to play it off like she belongs in that time otherwise she was worried that would think she was crazy and condemn her to witchery of something. So she ends up in this period of time and kind of winging it.

Zach: What advice would you have for someone wanting to pursue a career as an artist?

“If you’re gonna be an artist, make sure you create and don’t just talk about creating”

McCal: When you’re looking for your art style, don’t try to be someone else because you’re always gonna end up doing the style you like to do. You can combine different styles you like but ultimately you need your own style. It’s good to be inspired by other artists but be your own artist. Not that I really had problems with that but I spent so much time trying different things, which is a good thing.

If you’re gonna be an artist, make sure you create and don’t just talk about creating. That’s a big problem that I see with artists. They talk a lot and then they don’t do anything.