On walking in to Sketch, a new artist’s studio tucked behind Kenny’s Wok downtown, the first thing you’re likely to notice is the three large vibrant oil paintings on the left-side wall. They are landscapes — in all three a road vanishes into the trees — but the shapes are blurred, as if everything is in motion, the sky, the grass, the trees, the road. The feeling of motion brings energy to the work while also making the landscapes feel more imaginary; even the destination hinted at by the road is open to endless possibility.
Both the subject and the approach to these paintings seem particularly apt choices for the artist, MK MacNaughton, who has recently begun a journey into unknown territory. After more than two decades working for various social service organizations in Juneau, most recently as artistic coordinator of the Canvas Community Art Studio and Gallery, MacNaughton has decided to take a year to pursue her own creative interests.
It’s a big move, fraught with unknowns, but one MacNaughton has embraced as an adventure.
“It has been a difficult decision, but I feel so excited about what I’m leaping into,” she said.
Over the past six years, MacNaughton has been instrumental in building the Canvas into a powerful and unprecedented force in the city’s art scene. Last year she was honored with a Mayor’s Award for the Arts in recognition of her “seismic impact on the community” through this position, as well as for her collaborative work with other arts groups. MacNaughton, who describes her position at the Canvas as “her dream job,” initially planned to take a three-month sabbatical from the REACH facility, but, after falling in love with her studio space on Main Street, formerly a break room for Capital Transit bus drivers, started to think about more long-term options.
Other forces were also at work: She had been wanting more time with her sons, Ruben, a seventh grader and Jasper, a freshman in high school. And she had been reminded of the unpredictable nature of life more than once this past year — two close friends her age died unexpectedly, as did three more people she knew. Their losses pushed her to seize the opportunity while she could.
When the Rasmuson grant she applied for to make the sabbatical happen didn’t come through, she forged ahead anyway
“I’ve worked for nonprofits for 25 years in Juneau and I have no retirement — I’m going to be working the rest of my life — so I decided to take a year of early retirement right now,” she said, adding that she’s very grateful to the adult members of her family, Susan Haymes and Rorie Watt, for making it possible.
Last month, she took the plunge and resigned from her job at the Canvas, and since then has been devoting herself six hours a day to studio work. The change from the busy environment of the Canvas to her own space was a shock — at first.
“I love working with people and I really miss the vibrancy and the energy of (the Canvas). It was deafeningly quiet here on my first day — but I got used to it really quickly,” she said with a laugh.
Landscapes in motion
MacNaughton opened her doors to friends during Gallery Walk last week, but is not currently operating Sketch as a public space. She is shooting for next October for an opening, at which point she hopes to have completed a substantial body of work.
Since moving into the space, she has been thrilled to find the time to carry creative ideas through to their fruition – something she found nearly impossible while working full time.
“We all have the same amount of hours in the day, and I marvel at people who manage to create a lot of art while they’re working and raising a family,” she said.
Though MacNaughton has “dabbled” in many arts throughout her life — painting, drawing, sculpture, theater, dance — the landscapes are the first paintings she’s ever seriously attempted. Previously she shared a studio with some other women, but many of the paintings she attempted back then ended up chopped into pieces and repurposed as wallets.
“I’ve been a harsh critic of my own work,” she said, adding that she often gave up on projects when they stalled out. “Maybe it’s a sign of maturity — and being in this space and having this opportunity — you have to stick with it.”
The landscapes in Sketch, done in oil, were inspired by a book of photography by Lynn Butler, who shot the images while on the back of a horse. MacNaughton said the energy of the landscapes captivated her years ago when she first saw them — and she’s been carrying the book around ever since, waiting for a chance to do something with it.
“I’m really drawn to mark-making, gesture and movement,” she said.
The idea of movement was continued even in the act of painting itself; the tops of the large paintings were done while she was balanced on a stool, and involved her whole body.
MacNaughton said she intends to continue the idea from this series in the future, perhaps focusing on images of Juneau from the ridges above town, where she walks her dog every morning.
In the meantime, though, she’s got two shows planned, one in February with Tasha Walen and one in May with Sarah Newsham, Phoebe Rohrbacher and Christy Namee Eriksen. She’s currently hard at work on the first, and already gearing up for the second.
Boundaries and nests
In preparation for the first show, MacNaughton has been working on a series of sketches of nests, which are arranged on the back wall of her studio. She’s used all different mediums — charcoal, pastel, ink, oil paint, watercolor — and may move into sculpture and even theatrical pieces before she’s done. The theme of the show is boundaries.
“Tasha and I both really like to push boundaries, we have a great friendship that way, and we thought we would explore how boundaries can protect you and how they can also constrain you,” MacNaughton said.
The idea of nests occurred to her as a way to express that idea. After finding a book at the Anchorage airport, “Nests: Fifty Nests and the Birds That Built Them,” by Sharon Beals, and borrowing some real nests from Kristen Romanoff at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, she got to work.
Walen, her partner for the show, was instrumental in kicking off the series of events that brought MacNaughton to this point. On Walen’s recommendation she applied for a grant to attend the Penland School of Crafts a couple years ago. She didn’t get that grant either — but went to Penland anyway, and said going through the application process and reading the feedback from the grant committee were big motivators in themselves. The committee told her they’d like to see more of a body of work; in response she created the show “Elicit,” which opened at the Canvas last spring. That show, which centered on the idea of tension, specifically the tension held or released in knots, fed her desire to create more art.
MacNaughton doesn’t like to limit herself to one project at a time; as she prepares for the boundaries show she’s also working on more paintings and some smaller sculptural works.
“I usually have a painting project and a drawing project and a sculpture project going at any given time,” she said.
On the wall across from the nests, a collection of necklaces are displayed, created from recycled paper and venetian glass beads. On a stand in the center of the room, a series of brightly colored baskets are arrayed, another repurposed paper project inspired by gum chains she made out of fruit stripe wrappers when she was little. While at the Canvas, MacNaughton often facilitated junk day events that encouraged community members to create art out of discarded objects — in her studio she has one of the products of this event, a bowling pin lamp — and her creative work at Sketch will likely include some of this type of work as well.
Up until this point, much of MacNaughton’s own energies, both creative and professional, have been directed outward, toward the community. MacNaughton, who majored in psychology in college, has always been drawn to social justice work, integrating art whenever she could. For example, while working at the AWARE shelter she facilitated art classes for incest survivors.
Though her professional work has often coincided with her artistic goals, in some cases she sought outside stimulation for expressing her own creative voice. For example, she’s been in six mainstage and two Second Stage productions at Perseverance Theatre, beginning with “Genesis” with Molly Smith in 1992.
“I was working at the AWARE shelter at the time and at the shelter you learn not to react to stories, to be a good listener,” she said. “Maybe I was drawn to theater because I need something to balance that out.”
When she first heard about Annie Geselle’s idea for the Canvas, she was working as a legal advocacy project coordinator for the Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, teaching art at Harborview Elementary School, and teaching a distance course on early childhood education through the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Her friend Cindy Johnson suggested she contact Geselle.
“I said ‘CJ, I just really don’t need another job!” she said. “And then I met Annie and I thought, you know, maybe I should just do this one job and quit all the others.”
Soon she was teaching a class to REACH artists and working on the advisory committee to help create the Canvas, a dream that was eventually realized in 2006. A renovation in 2007 further expanded the facility’s capabilities as an integrated program for artists of all levels of ability. The Canvas offers day habilitation art classes to artists who experience disabilities, and evening art classes open to the whole community; the combination of services is unusual and has attracted attention around the country for its success.
MacNaughton said teaching at the Canvas was an entirely new experience.
“It was such a good learning experience for me,” she said. “All my experience (teaching) in elementary school — most of it didn’t apply. The Canvas pushed me as a teacher creatively — hugely. And I learned a lot from the REACH artists, just the joy and the willingness to leap into their project.”
MacNaughton said she bungled her first class, arriving with a carefully composed bowl of fruit as inspiration for still-life paintings.
“It was a complete flop,” she said. “No one did representational work. And there was one man who was blind — I didn’t realize that the project wasn’t very appropriate for him.”
She quickly dismantled the still life arrangement and passed out individual pieces of fruit so that other senses could also play a role.
“The next week I came back with hand-warmer packets and ice,” she said.
MacNaughton said she also learned a lot from the community artists who teach evening classes at the facility. One of her roles as artistic director was to create and set up the classes, which range from jewelry making to painting to stained glass to dance.
One of those teachers, Jackie Manning, said working with MacNaughton was always exciting.
“No idea was too intangible, and she kept the energy buzzing with opportunity at the Canvas,” she said.
MacNaughton said since opening her studio, she’s enjoyed reconnecting with some of these artists in a new way. For example, Manning and artist Chris Taylor came by recently to give her some advice on how to make the nose in a self portrait she is working on look normal.
“It’s an exciting new side of the arts community for me, that I get to experience,” MacNaughton said.
The self portrait, done in charcoal, is taped to the right-side wall of her studio. In it MacNaughton regards the viewer with an open yet slightly wary expression — perhaps reflective of her mood at the time, as she prepared to leave a job that she loved.
MacNaughton said one of the reasons she felt OK about leaving the Canvas was that she was able to leave when the program was solid.
“Things were in excellent shape,” she said. “We were operating above what was expected and we were poised for statewide recognition. I’m really proud of what a high quality program it is.”
MacNaughton’s responsibilities at the Canvas intensified in 2010 when director Annie Geselle suffered a traumatic brain injury and was unable to return to work. Though Geselle was a crucial force at the facility, MacNaughton absorbed many of her tasks and kept going full force, seemingly undaunted.
Geselle said she has “tremendous, deep gratitude” for all MacNaughton has done.
“Not only did MK put in 150 percent to rocket-launch the Canvas in the community, she gave an extra 200 percent to keep things going when I had my accident,” Geselle said. “Her infectious positive outlook must have allowed her to give so much more of herself than she could spare to get through that difficult time.”
While working two jobs at the Canvas, MacNaughton was also still busy in the community, acting in “Circle Mirror Transformation” and participating in Wearable Art, and fostering collaborations with other arts agencies in town.
Nancy DeCherney, director of the Juneau Arts & Humanities Council, said MacNaughton’s collaborative work contributed significantly to the success of the Juneau Arts and Culture Center, and noted that MacNaughton has a gift for bringing people together to create art, in many cases encouraging them to come up with things that are completely different from what they might have had in mind.
“She is an amazing person, talented, creative, funny, encouraging, and so open to new ideas,” DeCherney said. “I’ll miss working with her at the Canvas, but I am fully expecting amazing things from her as she dives in as a full-time artist."
MacNaughton has already begun to embrace her new role in the Juneau arts community, and is intent on making the most of her time. She’s not sure what the future holds for her, but for now she’s happy to be exploring new paths and opening herself up to new possibilities.
“I enjoy the risk of trying something new,” she said. “I know I’m attracted to oil painting, I want to keep painting. I love drawing and rediscovering that. And I love the way drawing and painting make you focus on the world. As I was painting these past few months, we went through fall, and we had a lot of color and leaves falling, and I would work on these paintings and then I’d go outside, and the color was extra vibrant. I’d see the dumping rain and the road was beautiful — the Juneau wet pavement. The variation I saw in the road was almost hypnotizing, the amount of color and shade, after painting these roads. I love the way art opens you up to looking at the world in that way.”
MacNaughton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.