Creative Careers : Quinn McDonald Interview
Creative Careers in the Arts Interviews
Paper Artist & Creativity Coach Quinn McDonald
By Molly Anderson-Childers
Quinn McDonald is a paper artist, life and creativity coach, and workshop leader. After years in the corporate world, she broke away from the security of a day job and made a leap of faith. Discover how she found the courage to jump, and where she landed, below.
Q: How did you know this is what you wanted to do?"
A: In grade school I wanted to be a science-fiction writer. In college, I wrote non-fiction and poetry. I wanted to combine art and writing. I created several collages. They did not meet with a lot of approval, but the creation felt powerful.
A long string of jobs followed in advertising agencies, newspapers, PR and marketing departments of corporations. But always, there was collage. At one job, the office building was condemned and I created a mural-size collage on one wall of my office.
I took papermaking classes and fell in love with the wonders of growing, beating and floating fibers into paper. Daffodils, eucalyptus, onions, iris stems. Cards, collages, translucent paper bowls. In my spare time, I taught card making.
By the mid-80s, I had to seriously consider my son's college payments. As a single mother, selling my artwork sounded like a source of extra cash. I did a few art festivals with handmade cards and stationery, and did quite well. My son went to college.
Then, imported hand-made paper flooded the market. Papermakers turned to "women's cooperatives" papers made by women in poor countries as a source of cheap handmade paper. They could mark it up and resell it or use it in their own projects and make a bigger profit than if they made it themselves. The price of handmade paper dropped.
Within a year, I went broke. Luckily, there was still the day job. I was desperately unhappy. I realized we don't FIND meaning in life, we MAKE meaning in life. I hadn't been driven out of the art field, I simply had not wanted to follow the crowd into the wholesale business. I needed to find a way to create that would allow me to make a fair income.
One day I sat in my studio, playing with fibers, and made a necklace. It was interesting, but it was light. And I knew that clients placed a value on substantial pieces. I added glass beads for weight, and within weeks, had created necklaces, bracelets, and pins with fiber and glass beads. For the next three years I took every jewelry making class I could. My jewelry had a clear purpose to help others make meaning in their lives. I used old non-jewelry pieces, like a Tuareg veil weight, and made it into a necklace. I loved it because its story reached both forward and back.
The next company was my last "real" job. I was hired as the writing director, and during a lay-off, I was re-invented working with people who created training programs. In time, I developed five classes on writing and giving presentations.
That reinvention made me aware of how often I had reinvented myself, and how many other artists and writers must have gone through some soul-snuffing event and quit their art. I wanted to help artists find the spark that made meaning in their life and fan it into a flame. I went to life-coaching school, became a life coach, and specialized in working with writers and artists of all kinds. That led to creativity coaching classes, and I became a certified creativity coach.
Two years ago, when I still designed and made jewelry, I became aware that I missed papermaking. I still made cards and small collages as gifts, but I kept telling myself I had moved on. The jewelry did not satisfy me in that deep meditative way, although it was financially good.
I heard and heeded a deep cry of my own authentic creativity wanting some air and a chance. Over the next year I explored ideas. They all led back to collage, cards, journals, and handmade paper. The work is like nothing else. When I am in the studio, time vanishes. Call it prayer, meaning-making, meditation. It's a celebration of the private joy of standing in a long line of artists who heal the world.
It is what I love more than anything. I've owned my own business since 2003. I write a column for Somerset Studio magazine; I am a life- and creativity coach; I train writers and those who give presentations. I give creativity workshops; I'm a speaker on creativity as a practical skill. I love doing different things because it feeds my art habit and allows me to experience the world in many different ways and make meaning in my life.
Q: What was your first job as a young woman?
A: In high school, I had a summer job picking cotton. It was hot, hard, heavy work, and I stood in awe of the migrant workers who uncomplainingly picked cotton for 10 hours a day in the Texas sun.
Q: When did you decide to create your first collage?
A: After the cotton-picking experience, I wanted to express my confusion, anger, and hope for the people whose lives depended on the weather and a small, thorny plant. I tore words and pictures from a magazine to create a collage. I didn't even know the word collage then.
Q: What other types of artwork do you create? Do you continue to explore new media and methods, or have you decided to focus all of your creative energy on collage?
A: Papermaking was my first art love. Before that, my mother taught me how to knit, crochet, tat, and embroider. I wasn't an accomplished student. My knitting was so tight, it was almost waterproof. I began writing stories at 8, and the importance of incorporating words and images began then. As an adult, papermaking was the first art that brought creative and financial success.
Q: How do you create "customized" pieces of artwork for your clients? Are there any special challenges, unique to creating a customized or commissioned work?
A: Communication is everything in custom work. I find out what the client wants, and ask questions. I listen to the answers and get clarity on what people mean when they say "formal," or "whimsical." I repeat what I think they mean to make sure our ideas mesh. There is a lot of trust in custom work. I have to trust the client's needs; the client has to trust my art sense. I often let them look at pictures of my work and tell me what they like or hate. I also have a stack of images from art books that I use to see their likes and dislikes.
Q: What is the biggest challenge you face as a creative soul?
A: Fear. It will eat holes in your heart and leave you shivering naked in a corner of your mind.
Q: What is the most rewarding aspect of your work?
A: The realization that I am not FINDING meaning in life, but MAKING meaning in life is the gift of all of my work mistakes, missteps, triumphs.
Q: When the Muse has left your studio, how do you entice her to return?
A: Chocolate. I offer to share. Ahhh, if only that worked. Generally, I wait to make sure she is gone. Then I tidy up, and turn to some other task. She'll come back on her own time. If I force work, it is never right. If she isn't back in a day or so, I return to some sort of technique work preparing paste-paper, playing with images. She usually sneaks back in when I'm not focused on her.
Q: Describe a typical work-day in your studio.
A: Ummmm, really? I'd love to have a typical day. I'm a life hack. I do more than one thing to make a living. My studio is also the place from which I coach, write, create training seminars and prepare speeches on creativity. When one part of my life exasperates me, I have other things to turn to. In the morning, I go for a walk to meditate, then enter the studio. I start some sort of technique work something to get me engaged mentally.
I stop for pre-coaching focus work. That means putting my work out of my mind and focusing on the client. Afterwards, I handle post-client administrative work: paying bills, sending invoices, placing orders, applying for shows, reserving hotel rooms, etc. I hate that part! I also use this time to make phone calls, research, write or work on a training project. Then, I break for lunch sometimes. Afterwards, I usually run errands drop orders in the mail, go to the bank.
Back to the studio. Generally, 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. is reserved for non-art related work. I simply don't do good art at that time of day, but I can write, or create seminars. I leave the studio to attend to household chores, returning for evening coaching calls. 9 p.m. – midnight: Ahhhh, the evening is mine. It's quiet, no calls, and I can use the technique from this morning to create work. Time flies. I force myself to quit at midnight.
Q: Please explain your creative process, from the seminal idea to a completed collage.
A: I get fleeting shreds of ideas. They flash through my mind in the shower or on my morning walk. If I don't grab them, they vanish. I carry index cards with me to jot down ideas. Sometimes it's a phrase, sometimes an image, but I need words. I can't create a collage without words. Next comes the technique stage. I make lots of mistakes that's how I learn.
This stage can be discouraging. I can work on something for several hours, only to realize the project isn't working. Staying in action is important to me. I am a recovering perfectionist, which means I have a tendency to procrastinate. Big mistake. Maybe the work takes several days interrupted by art shows or seminars. I like to work on a collage, put it away, look at it with fresh eyes. It's a type of visual editing I ask myself several questions: Do I still like it? Is something missing? Am I done?
When I'm done, I have a ritual of completion. It includes naming the piece and often, photographing it or putting it on the website. It gives me distance from the heart-work of creation. Then, when the completion ritual is complete, I bring it to the next show. At that instant it is no longer a piece of deep personal connection. It has been transformed to inventory, which I can hear criticism about and sell.
Q: How did you make the leap from day job to dream job? What inspired you, helped or hindered this process?
A: Like so many other artists, I let fear block me. I thought I could not live without a regular paycheck and company-provided health insurance. One day my boss said to me, "You are different and seem to enjoy it." It was not a compliment.
I asked, "If I were different and miserable about it, would that be better?"
She said, "Yes." I knew I didn't belong, but I was scared. Within a short time, she fired me. It was sink or swim time. I swam. I have never regretted it one single minute of my life. There were many, many people I met at shows who inspired me to make my life in art.
Q: Are there any recurring themes within your body of work, or is each piece inspired by a different emotion or event?
A: I grew up rurally; we had a garden that I helped tend. I spent much of my free time outside climbing trees, picking berries, playing in creeks. There is much to be learned from Mother Nature. My parents were immigrants they turned to me to interpret Life in America to them. From that childhood, nature and words created the light and shadow of my life. They may be deeply submerged in my artwork, but they always surface.
Q: What stops you from being creative, and how do you get back on track? Any advice for blocked creative souls?
A: Everyone gets derailed, overworked, or frozen. The Muse takes a vacation. I teach whole classes on tempting the Muse back. Look at some yummy books or magazines for inspiration. Take a walk. Go to the movies. Write in your journal. Make a journal. Invent a different kind of journal. Dream. Write down your dreams. Wonder what they mean. Do nothing. Get out of yourself. Do something nice for someone else. Cook. Garden. Share yourself with others.
Play with some materials that aren't in your art realm I once was so hopelessly creatively stuck that I took a silver-smith class, and became a jewelry designer for ten years. If all else fails, clean house.
Q: What's next for you? Where do you hope your creative dreams will take you in the future?
I love my life. I am open to whatever comes to me in my creative work. I don't put a limit around what may happen. Maybe there will be a book. Maybe there will be a series of cards that move. As long as I am making meaning, I will be on the right track. Theodore Roethke, the American poet, described it well in The Waking when he wrote, "I learn by going where I have to go." •
You can view Quinn McDonald's amazing artwork, an inspiring blog, and subscribe to her free newsletter online at her website, www.QuinnCreative.com. This site also offers information about her life and creativity coaching services, and gives frequent updates on upcoming workshops and seminars. You may contact Quinn McDonald at email@example.com.
© 2006 Molly J. Anderson-Childers. All rights reserved.
Molly Anderson-Childers is a a highly creative writer and artist from Durango, Colorado. More »