As promised, here’s Part 2 of our Q & A with Pasadena artist Jacquelyn McBain; here’s a link to Part 1.
Jacquelyn McBain doesn’t produce a lot of work, but she works very, very hard, which is evident when you see her paintings — they are astonishingly detailed, richly colorful and as meticulously crafted as any of the Old Masters. Her work doesn’t get to be seen often enough locally; she is represented by a New York gallery, Littlejohn Contemporary, and her paintings have been shown in such venues as the Laguna Art Museum, Delaware Center for the Arts, Tweed Museum of Art at the University of Minnesota, Alexandria Museum of Art and, most recently, the National Museum of Art in Gdansk. Locally, you may have been fortunate enough to see her work at the Armory‘s Bugology show in 2006, and at the Art Alliance‘s biannual auctions, for which she always donates a piece.
McBain had so much to say that was so engaging that I couldn’t bear to cut it, so I broke it into two parts. Here’s Part 2.
— Colleen Dunn Bates
You are an artist, not a scientist, but much of your work displays a fascination with botany and animal life. Did you have training in the natural sciences? Or are you just an observer?
Simply put, I’m curious. Science is how we understand nature. And nature teaches us science. It’s reciprocal, like painting. And as we’re a part of the natural world, it helps me understand myself and the sometimes mystifying behavior of others. My paintings go hand in hand with the natural world and cultural evolution.
I discovered that when I paint in detail, information I’d hear or think about became attached to whatever part of the painting I was working on. At first it was the Gulf War pilots who were taken prisoner by the Iraqis. And that had no intended bearing upon the painting — but each time I see that part of the painting, I see the pilots’ faces. It operates a little like other mnemonic devices. Emotion increases the attachment. So it’s important to feel the enthusiasm. Singing a song is powerful as it connects both sides of the brain: the melody and mood on the right side, the words and rhythm on the left. Do that over and over again with others in a beautiful and inspiring place, and it’s disarming and mnemonically powerful.
After that first experience of mnemonic discovery I was eager for more. I let the enthusiasm of whatever I was studying suggest the flower and its subject. But it had to come at me in a surprise. And it had to be at least a three-part connection, a mental coalescing. It would be an illumination or communication or illustration coming from something in my garden or in the natural world.
It also had to include something fascinating in science I’d just learned that was revving up my enthusiasm, together with the story of a saint whose story connected. Oftentimes, as I worked, listening to science books on tape or the history of religions, the image would expand, or more stories would add to the painting’s information. So, in my saint and science series, each painting has a saint whose story, attribute or specialty fits with the science.
I’m not trained as a scientist, formally. But I study all the time and I’ve learned a great deal by teaching myself. I think it’s always been a part of my basic nature.
Take it from Richard Feynman, who observed that most students in a class learn by rote rather than comprehension. When he died the words on his blackboard were, “What I cannot create, I do not understand.”
My print series takes a title from Francis Bacon,”Experiments Useful for the Cure of Mens’ Minds.” In the time of Francis Bacon, the word “experiments” was mostly synonymous with experience. So the act of doing a thing, working it out for yourself, is so much more powerful than having it explained to you. The natural world, if you are observant enough and have learned some basic principles of logic, testing and comprehension, will explain itself. If you paint from the painting of another painter, you are getting into their mindset, to some extent as musicians do when they play someone else’s composition.
Too much emphasis is put upon formal education. Self-education, done well, can often accomplish much more than passive education. I don’t mean solipsism — I mean taking in information you didn’t start with in the first place. It bears remembering that Shakespeare, da Vinci, James Murray and many other “greats” never got far in their formal education — but Murray, for instance, went on to speak more than twelve languages and was the primary editor of the Oxford English Dictionary — all through teaching himself.
I wouldn’t like to suggest that I’m in the same lofty atmosphere as Shakespeare or da Vinci or Murray, and I do have a college degree, but you can learn an enormous amount by studying on your own, with greater rewards. Painting is a conversation, a reappraisal, an improvement, a hesitancy, an erasure and a modifier. If you aren’t learning from the painting you’re working on, then you have fallen into a kind of manufacturing mode. Listening to essays of natural science while painting keeps the left side of my brain busy so the right side can get on with painting… but the two sides are connected, obviously, and so the ideas connect to the painting.
Where do you like to go around here to get into the natural world?
My garden. It’s the ideal counterbalance to hours of painting, and I can realign in a very short span of time. Working in the garden teaches me more than walking through someone else’s garden. My second choice, I’d say, is a walk through the neighborhood. Learning while walking has a power all its own. You don’t have to go far to witness the natural world. We have raccoons, skunks, parrots, coyotes, cougars, and there was even a bear prowling through this neighborhood the other day. And I saw a peacock, once.
And I love the Huntington Gardens.
I think almost nothing matches the joy of Highway One. Big Sur! The whole of the coastline is enthralling, exhilarating. But if I can’t be driving Highway One, or hiking the Alps with my cousins, or snorkeling in Hawaii or helicoptering over an erupting volcano, the Huntington Gardens and my garden are still quite wonderful. That’s in part why my paintings, my small paintings, show the daily dramas of events in the garden. It’s all around us: virgin births and battles, cloning, cuckolding, transmutation.
And where do you go to escape the natural world?
As a friend once said, “Sometimes nature is a little too natural.”
I like prowling the canyons of Vroman’s, walking the grounds of Caltech or hearing a lecture there. Camille’s in South Pasadena is a favorite for clothes shopping, and for coffee, Euro Pane, Buster’s or Jones. Playing games is better than going to a movie because I like good conversation. I love going out to eat. I suppose the Athenaeum is at the top of my list of favorite places to eat if we’re not at one of our homes. But I like Vertical, Mijares, Madeleine’s and the bar at the Huntington — excuse me, Langham — Hotel.
Of course, it’s not possible to escape the natural world, really. We’re part of it, always.