3 Questions with John McNeil
Artist John McNeil on joy, ego, and being your own best supporter.
3 QUESTIONS is series of brief, three-question interviews with PNCA’s visiting artists and lecturers. Each year, PNCA attracts innovative, thoughtful, and creative makers and thinkers who share our belief in the transformative power of creativity. In three short answers to three short questions, these artists offer perspectives on career, motivation, and transformation. When available, we include links to audio recordings, transcripts, slideshows, or video.
“When people ask you who your favorite artist is, say your own name.”
What advice would you offer current students about to embark on a career in the arts?
It is surprising how challenging a widely asked question like this can be, and I think that is because a life in the arts, and life in general, is full of challenges. People who want a career in the arts need a high energy level and should be prepared to operate at their peak level most of the time. Build up the resources you need around you, anything that can help you to cultivate your passion. Learn to enjoy all the hard work you put in. Joy is the important part of that; it is what will help you burn through the negativity that is out there. When people ask you who your favorite artist is say your own name, say it until it is true and you believe it. For me it’s not about ego, it is about accepting the responsibility of being your own greatest supporter.
How do you maintain your creative practice? What keeps you motivated and engaged?
I try to keep curious, and by that I am talking in regards to trying to hold on to a sense of wonder about the world. It can be easy to loose that as we get older but I refuse to let that happen. In fact, I try to grow that part of myself. I don’t know how successful I am, but trying is the important part. I see myself as some sort of explorer/archaeologist – this is the wondrous child’s mind talking – and I try to go out and get lost. I want to have an experience of discovery and work with those perceptions. I may take photographs, video footage, or just take my field recorder and think about sound. I may or may not get something worthwhile, but most of the time it at least leads me to something more. Sometimes you just have to make, get your mind and hands busy, and not worry about labeling it. Of course, there are lots of other things, some of which would probably sound more scholarly, but this simple practice of just going and doing something helps keep me alive.
Could you describe a moment or experience that profoundly changed the nature of your work?
To be honest, I don’t think I have ever had a dramatic singular experience that has transformed my work. When I look back I see a string of small but crucial events that created a gradual evolution.
At the heart of it some of the things that have inspired or concerned me have not changed at all, but I like to think the language (visual and otherwise) that I have developed to talk about them has become more articulate and effective. I remember very early on in school an instructor asked me about the visual material I was approaching and working with and I had no response. He informed me that until I was able ask myself some hard questions and begin to try to understand my own motivations that my work would not progress. I took offense at first, but those words began to echo and ring true, which really made me mad. That was a little kick in the ass that I really needed at the time. I still can’t stand that guy, but I guess that doesn’t matter.
Inspired by philosophical traditions such as Phenomenology, JOHN MCNEIL investigates the decay of spaces and objects, revealing an intuitive archeology of his discoveries through film and photography. McNeil’s work has been published in the Hopkins Review and exhibited in such venues as the New Insight exhibition at Art Chicago and the Baltimore Museum of Art. A recipient of the Sondheim Prize, John received his MFA from MICA where he now teaches in the photography department.