Interview with Jeff McCracken
Born in Chicago, the son of an architect and a painter, Jeff was introduced to the world of art through drawing workshops at the Art Institute of Chicago and the South Side Community Center where he was inspired by the lectures of founding member Margaret Burroughs that examined the motifs of social injustice in paintings by Charles White and Mitchell Siporin. This early exposure to the power of art, had a definitive impact that continues to influence his work across all visual mediums. Jeff most recently studied with leading figurative artists Jon deMartin and Dan Thompson at The Art Students League of New York.
In addition to his painting, Jeff is a director, actor, writer, and producer of feature films, television and the theater. He co-produced Academy Award nominee Quiz Show about the first lie perpetrated on the American public by television; and he executive produced the Sundance Award winner Pastime about baseball’s racial inequality during the 1950’s. Jeff has also produced many successful television shows as well as directing over seventy episodes. As an actor, he’s starred in films, television, Broadway, and off-Broadway. He’s also written several screenplays and plays. He’s taught filmmaking at Chapman University, USC, New York University, and New York Writer’s Workshop.
Jeff’s recent series of paintings focus on individuals being private in a public place, capturing that fleeting moment when their inner humanity is revealed regardless of who they are or where they’re from.
1. Is it important that your art feels alive in some way?
Roy Batty says in his final moments in the film Blade Runner, “All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.” It’s my opinion that most figurative artists are trying to capture that existential moment that transcends time. Painting for me is about that authentic emotional moment that resonates within each of us before they disappear forever.
In our complicated and fast paced lives, we often miss the simple moments that speak volumes of another’s emotional life and humanity. How wonderful it is that art allows us the ability to stop and experience one another through the lens of another so that we might gain a greater understanding and perspective of our collective humanity. And what better landscape than the beauty of the face and human form, with all its complexities and expressions, to gain access to another’s soul.
Irish writer John O’Donohue wrote, “When we endeavor to view something through the lens of beauty, it is often surprising how much more we can see.” My love for painting emanates from this very conceit, no matter the individual’s societal or cultural identity. By providing the viewer a momentary window into the mystery of another, I hope to truthfully honor each person’s unique individuality.
2. When did you start showing an interest in painting?
My father was an architect and my mother a painter, so the visual arts became my first real language. My earliest memories of painting go back to when I was six years old and the painting parties my mother would host in our Northbrook backyard for all the neighborhood kids. Not only was it great fun, but it instilled the magic and joy of painting – to freely express without any expectations or judgement. It reminds me of that Picasso quote, “It took me four years to paint like Rembrandt, but a lifetime to paint like a child.”
When I was ten, I remember doing an oil portrait of a circus clown with a large multi-colored beach ball directly behind him. People would comment how wonderful they thought it was, but more importantly, they always asked me why the clown was so sad. Since I’d painted the clown from my own imagination, I really had no answer about his interior emotional life. Never occurred to me. However, looking back, I realize the clown’s emotional state was in fact a truthful projection of my own inner turmoil due to my parent’s violent fighting and impending divorce.
After my father left us, my mother moved us to the South Side of Chicago where she enrolled me in drawing workshops at the Art Institute of Chicago. She also took me to lectures at the South Side Community Center where I would listen to founding member Margaret Burroughs passionately discuss the power of art to change societal injustice, citing such luminaries as figurative artists, Charles White, who chronicled the African American experience, and Mitchell Siporin, a social realist painter. Their evocative and powerful paintings had such a profound impact that they continue to influence all my visual endeavors to this day.
3. Tell us about your journey as an artist, how did it all begin?
Despite my father’s estrangement, I still had thoughts of becoming an architect. I loved drafting and designing buildings, immersing myself in the beautiful designs of Frank Lloyd Wright, Phillip Johnson, Mies van der Rohe, and Eero Saarinen. However, at twenty, while in the Air Force and taking an engineering course at a local university to fulfill my electives for an architectural degree, I soon realized I had no aptitude for the engineering required to construct a building. A most definite fatal flaw.
But as it happened, I was also taking an acting class (to meet girls), so when the professor encouraged me to go to New York City to study acting with Sanford Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse, I was immediately intrigued. I liked the notion of tapping into my inner turbulent emotional life and expressing it through characters created by the greatest playwrights of the world. So, I went to NYC and never looked back.
And while I managed to carve out a career as an actor, director, writer, and producer, I always found the time to continue painting. All that time spent learning to craft character and story for film, television, and the theater, became a creative vein for my painting. It all interrelated seamlessly. All those experiences of mining the human condition not only provided a source of inspiration for my painting, but continued to guide my artistry as an aesthetic north star.
4. Jeff, what makes you choose a personality for your work: admiration or fascination?
I definitely have a fascination for painting those of everyday life. Most often capturing them in that intimate moment of unawareness, when their true self might be exposed, of them being private in a public place. Like Chauncey Gardiner in the film, “Being There,” I like to watch and observe people. I’m fascinated by behavior. There’s no other creature as complicated or interesting. Sanford Meisner, the founder of the Neighborhood Playhouse, would say, “An ounce of behavior is worth a pound of words.” That behavior is what I’m after – that specific interior moment which is both relatable and yet mysterious.
Social realist photographer, Walker Evans, once said, “I lean toward the enchantment, the visual power, of the esthetically rejected subject.” I love and identify with that conceit because of the familial and social trauma of my childhood, of feeling like a loser and an outsider. I definitely have issues with authority and empathize with anyone who’s been oppressed or been dealt injustice of any kind. I’m immediately drawn to those sociocultural dynamics when I see it.
However, I also hold a great admiration for those living their everyday lives, being present in the here and now, not interested in being an influencer or celebrity, but simply doing their best to survive amidst societal demands. Life is so hard and challenging. I have such empathy and respect for those that are survivors who continue to fight upstream even when the powers at be are against them. Like what my Irish Catholic great-grandparents experienced in coming to America and having to overcome discrimination, unemployment, and squalid living conditions.
5. What captures your interest?
I’m a storyteller at heart – it’s what I’ve been doing my whole life in a variety of disciplines. I particularly respect the photojournalist whose job it is to tell a story with pictures that are both honest and impartial. No judgement – no biased political intention. That’s what intrigues me.
There’s no question when one looks at a subject there is the politics of seeing – of making that choice as to what’s important or socially relevant. Stella Adler, the great acting teacher, would say, “Your talent is your choice.” I feel the choice to document an individual truthfully and objectively is not only my goal but also an inherent responsibility. And if my paintings do reflect a political tone, it’s because of my empathy and innate desire for equanimity of justice in the world. In that, I have a true kinship with social realism.
I’m greatly inspired by the photographers Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans. Their indelible images are known for showing an indigenous American aesthetic during the great depression. Their ability to capture their subjects in what Evans describes as “unconscious arrangements” is nothing short of brilliant. The people in the photographs are totally unselfconscious and present, allowing the viewer to feel an authentic rawness and intimacy. Such powerful images. The humanity they captured is relatable no matter what year you’re viewing them.
6. Tell me how you feel when you paint those images of strangers on the subway.
I chose the subway as the milieu for this series of paintings because it provided a neutral environment whereby everyone was on equal footing. This commuting landscape afforded me the opportunity to capture those being private in a public place. And because they were totally unaware of being observed or photographed, it eliminated any kind of performance or self-conscious presentation which in turn provided a certain transparency and vulnerability of the individual. No affectations to pollute the moment.
James Agee wrote of Walker Evans’ photographs, “The artist’s task is not to alter the world as the eye sees it into a world of aesthetic reality, but to perceive the aesthetic reality within the actual world, and to make an undisturbed and faithful record of the instant.” That is my goal. Painting those with no sense of self-awareness, affectation, self-pity, or sentimentality.
If I were to break down my creative process of painting it would be much akin to the same critical thinking I use in my directing. When I stage work from a script, I’m always figuring out the best approach for realizing the scene. I find the truth of the moment through behavior as it applies to the spine of the story. I select the shots within the mise en scene to its greatest potential while being very conscious of all the elements so that everything works in tandem to ensure my interpretation of the story. My painting follows much the same process. I’m deconstructing behavior at the same time I’m selecting and framing the moment. And then after, when I’m painting from that photo, I will again deconstruct the image before incrementally painting my interpretation, editing all along the way till I’m satisfied I’ve captured their story as best I can.
I feel immensely privileged to be a witness to those I’ve painted. I paint relatively slow, so the time I spend with each painting affords me a meaningful intimacy and kinship with the subject(s). My paintings, therefore, truly become like family. I have a very deep emotional connection to them.
7. How do you feel as an artist?
That’s a lot to unpack. I would say first and foremost I feel extraordinarily blessed to have been able to pursue a life in the visual arts. I can’t imagine doing anything else despite the uncertainty and unpredictability of such a pursuit. I’ve never really had a moment’s doubt about following that passion and dream. It’s been a burning desire as far back as I can remember.
Early in my career my brother said to me, “I don’t know how you do it, every time a job ends you have to find another one all over again.” I told him it was because I had no choice, that expressing myself through the visual arts was basically life or death – that it’s the very breath I need to live. And if that meant driving cabs or painting houses between artistic jobs in order to survive and support my family, so be it.
When I taught filmmaking, I would ask the students on the first day of class, “Raise your hand if you get out of bed in the morning and absolutely have to do this kind of work?” For those who didn’t raise their hands I would advise, “You should probably find another vocation as this work demands everything from you. It’s way too hard and difficult if you don’t have a burning passion, perseverance, and obsession to do it – as well as there being no formula for success let alone facing a lifetime of rejection.”
Over the years I’ve definitely had my successful highs and despairing lows. And I’ve found the only thing that remedies those moments of fear, anxiety, and self-doubt, is getting back to doing the work. Staying in process. That’s the only salvation I’ve found that leads to greater growth and wisdom. I believe all art emanates from the love of doing the work and in turn pleasing yourself. What the world thinks makes little difference.
It’s no secret Monet was at first rejected from the Paris Salon exhibitions, Courbet’s paintings rejected as scandalous and ugly, Manet’s paintings labeled vulgar, Whistler’s work being misunderstood and rejected, or Van Gogh who was unable to sell a single painting in his lifetime, etc. I even heard the Beatles were even rejected by Decca Records.
For me, the most important value of being an artist lies in the expression it provides regardless of the outcomes. Stella Adler said, “Life beats down and crushes the soul and art reminds you that you have one.” I’ll never forget the first time I saw Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” in person, I literally wept at its beauty as though I was seeing the face of God; or rounding the corner at the Galleria dell’Accademia and seeing Michelangelo’s “David” standing there in all his magnificent splendor, or being incredibly moved and awestruck at Picasso’s “Guernica.” Absolutely awe inspiring and transcendent.
Being an artist provides the opportunity to explore the fundamental question of what it is to be a human being. This curiosity fuels my life, artistry, and the means by which I’m able to continue growing and learning, staying in process, and of course breathing.
8. So many of your works depict moments of everyday human existence. How do you conceive of these scenes?
I could not have done this current subway series of paintings had I not used photography. It would have just been impossible. Because I take my time with a painting, I need to work from a photo. I tried doing quick sketches of people on the subway, but they invariably see you and then immediately adjust their behavior in self-awareness, or they quickly disappear at the next stop. Therefore, what I capture in a photo is indelibly specific and informative to which I can refer. I also find there is a continuing process of discovery the more time I spend with each photo because I’m always discovering new things I hadn’t seen before.
I recently heard Eric Fischl on a podcast talk about his figurative work and how he likes to tell stories through his painting. He states that rather than being labeled a voyeur, which has negative connotations, his subjects are being seen rather than watched – making the viewer an actual participating witness. That is inherently my goal as well. I’m the primary viewer that is capturing something without defining the meaning, and thereby opening the door to the audience to determine what the people are thinking or what is happening.
In addition, capturing a spontaneous image in a photo allows for a sense of movement and inherent tension. I like that these passengers are in transit and that their bodies and gestures are already being activated by default. It’s why I always make a point to include their hands which are independently expressive. They have a life of their own. I love hands.
The process of painting for me begins with a pencil drawing on Belgian linen that I stretch myself; then I do a rough underpainting; and then begin painting the face and hands. Every painting varies, but that’s the general flow. I generally work on one painting at a time. However, sometimes I do work on multiple paintings depending on the similarity of the palette, drying time, and inspiration.
9. What would you be doing if you weren’t creating art?
Learning to build a house from the ground up – or on a horse cow punching.
10. In your opinion, when does a work of art become important?
I believe there are many variables that quantify a piece of art as important. For me, it’s when a work of art stirs me emotionally, spiritually, culturally, or socially. However, that same piece might affect someone else entirely different. Ultimately, I think a work of art is deemed universally “important” when there’s enough individuals who are overwhelmingly drawn to its aesthetic beauty, context, and cultural meaning, no matter the era.
As an example, I recently went to the Art Institute of Chicago to view the astounding Bisa Butler exhibit (not to be missed) – when I happened upon an amazing painting of a shackled slave draped in a red robe looking to the heavens with pleading eyes. The painting just blew me away. The artist, John Philip Simpson, a gifted painter in the late 19th century who endured critical neglect and eventual obscurity. However, this painting, “The Captive Slave,” which has not been publicly displayed for 180 years, is now regarded today as a masterpiece and an iconic representation of the Abolition Movement. “The Captive Slave” hasn’t changed since first painted in the 19th century – the world changed. So just as every artist finds their own path of expression – so does the audience’s appreciation of what’s meaningful and important.
11. When compared to a photograph, what effect would you say your paintings to have over the viewer?
I love photography and its immediacy in capturing images and light with a camera. It’s an art form all its own. Where the camera reproduces reality, my painting is a subjective application of paint to the surface of a canvas after interpreting and deconstructing what I see. I’m rendering my own emotional response through the choice of palette, brushwork, value, and tone. All I can hope for is that all the components and choices I make for the painting come together to emotionally engage the viewer – for them to be able to experience the people in the painting, their humanity, and that specific moment in time.
I’m presently influenced by the styles of painters like: Lhermitte, White, Whistler, Homer, Wyeth, and Sargent. But I’m also interested in exploring other approaches and techniques. I have no idea where it will take me, but then, that’s what’s exciting, isn’t it? Stella said, “You’ll begin to act when you can forget your technique – when it is so securely inside you that you need not call upon it consciously.”
12. What is your next big challenge to tackle?
I have a few more paintings I want to complete for this subway series. That said, I want to continue painting figures, but in different venues and landscapes. Aside from the urban landscape of NYC, my wife and I have a house in the country where we’re surrounded by farms, orchards, ranches, and the people who have been working them for generations. I’m also becoming an Irish citizen in order to return to my familial roots in Ireland, so that will be of inspiration as well. However, I do feel the ticking of the clock and the pressure to produce paintings faster, but rather than listen to that negative interject, I’m choosing to simply stay in process, be in the now, and just do the work. In fact, I’m about to attend another workshop with the extraordinary figurative artist, Jon deMartin, at the Art Students League in NYC.
13. The world around you has changed a lot over the years. Today painters and art stand for a different thing than they did 30 years ago.
Maybe the commerce of art? The last 30 years has seen an increasing infrastructure of galleries, museums, foundations, and collectors worldwide that is based on power and money. The wealthy became wealthier in a privileged society and consumerism exploded that has in turn spawned a plethora of more venues, publications, galleries, and artists. Also, artists are following emerging trends with the galleries and museums for what is popular and in turn making art for what will sell as opposed to creating art if money was not in the equation. And now with the internet, the whole metric of success and quality seems to depend on auction and art fair prices. The art collector, educated or not, seems to be controlling the market more than ever.
However, the internet has also increased the speed at which art can be exhibited and viewed. Art has been globalized in a way that the audience has exploded in size, bringing with it a much-needed growing emphasis on diversity and education. There is also a greater ability to revisit history and communicate a greater understanding not only of the past, but also of the present. And there is greater direct access to other artists, workshops, and shared ideas at the click of a button.
With all these rapidly changing dynamics in today’s world, I think it more important than ever for the artist to stay fearless in their process and connected to their inner creative voice as they honor their personal truth. W. H. Murray sums it up, “Whatever you can do, or dream you can…begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic to it.” Amen.